Saturday, October 05, 2013

The Ghosts in Our Machine

Photographer Jo-Anne McArthur and a rescued beagle.
Image taken from
Some time ago while trolling around on facebook, I came across an image that shocked and upset me. It showed a wire cage being loaded onto a ship, in which were piled a dozen live dogs like laundry in a tub, legs sticking out of the cage and clearly in a state of terrible physical agony and fear. The caption explained that these dogs were on their way from one part of South Asia to another where they would become meat for humans. The picture was intended to have immediate impact and it worked: as someone who shares her life with a dog (after whom this blog is named), my consciousness was raised to this horrendous practice.

"A lone male mink" is the caption to this image
found on, an advocacy website of
Toronto 'war photographer' Jo-Anne McArthur
There is an important difference, however, between this random photograph I found and the soulful, compassionate photographs of Toronto photographer Jo-Anne McArthur, whose work as an animal rights witness and advocate is the subject of Liz Marshall's carefully considered, deeply felt film
The Ghosts in Our Machine. McArthur's work does not just observe and document injustice done to animals, it inhabits that injustice, it dwells inside its pain and suffering and compels us into its space. McArthur's photography is an unorthodox form of protest because its witness is one of accompaniment as much as activism. The photographer is not there to free the animals, but to be present to them, to stand alongside them and to show them love, while also documenting their suffering. Her extraordinary archive of photographs, representing more than a decade of work, are portraits of the living, not records of those long gone. She does it to "change the world" in her own words, to help motivate people to make change. But in the moment of the work itself, she is offering companionship to creatures in deepest suffering.

Filmmaker Liz Marshall seems to both intuitively and emotionally understand this. She pushes at the boundaries of documentary form by never letting us rest comfortably in ways to watch the film. Though there are story sequences, the film is largely non-narrative. Though we hear McArthur's voice, there is a clearly chosen absence of 'talking heads' on the issues. These are the movie's strengths, not its weaknesses. It is important that the photographer is the only voice we hear because the film occupies the space of her experience and documentation. This is not a film that debates animal rights. It is a film about one woman's passionate commitment to documenting the abuses of those rights. The view of the filmmaker and the photographer are not up for debate: this is a war they are involved in.

Marshall's choices are so right for her subject, and also deeply respectful and loving. I appreciated that the camera walks with McArthur as she journeys to these places of suffering and abuse. Marshall seems to intuitively understand that watching her subject prepare to go out will be as emotionally affecting to the audience as what she sees. This kind of filmmaking bravely defies the expectations of cinema convention, especially in North America, where viewers might be waiting for a vigilanteism, or reality-tv style rescue. Marshall and McArthur are not making entertainment. They want us to live this. They want us to occupy the quiet moments of animals living within their abusive environments. The film is not the story of animal rights activism or a profile of its intellectual rationale. It is about what it means to abide in the courage of commitment. It is not just raising our awareness to the implicit cruelty of how animals live in in fur farms, factory farms, zoos and aquariums, it is asking us to see the sentient creatures involved. 

One of the "beautiful faces" at Farm Sanctuary,
in New York state. Image by Jo-Anne McArthur 
And yet there is rescue, there is redemption, hope and even forgiveness. These words populate the conversation of the artists in a post-screening Q and A that I attended. McArthur tells anecdotes of how she has personally experienced forgiveness from animals through her interactions with them. My own way of hearing her stories is to believe that the animal recognizes in McArthur a compassionate presence and in so doing is able to locate within their scarred souls and bodies a similar sentiment. It is to Marshall's credit that she allows time in the film to dwell in that recovery and restoration, as much as in the hardship. The film's harder sequences are interrupted by several visits to a farm sanctuary in New York state, where McArthur goes to retreat and renew herself. The stories of individual animals who were saved and taken to such a place are also given to us, as well as the relentless grace-filled energy of the people who staff such places. We feel a relief as McArthur is greeted with open-armed hugs and as she lies down in grassy fields with some of the animals she has helped see delivered out of misery. Her joy is transfixing: we feel that sense of creation righting itself just a bit, the ship not totally sunk yet. 

But be clear, the eye of both cameras, McArthur's and Marshall's, stays unwaveringly on suffering. In doing so, it is a tremendous credit to Marshall's maturity of style that she knows how to observe and keep the audience deeply engaged, while also slowly increasing our investment in the plight of these creatures. The camera avoids the intense close-up because Marshall knows that McArthur's work will do that for us. Instead, the camera stays at a respectful distance, but not too far. Our intimacy is with the photographer, and it is the photographer's work that gives us the intimacy with her non-human animal subjects.

"A lonely existence" is the caption given to this image
by Jo-Anne McArthur from
The film does not deal in harsh, uncompromising photographs of atrocities, but through McArthur's work, offers an emotionally "graphic" quality that is wholly appropriate, but which may be much more challenging for some than shocking images of factory farms. The brilliance of this film is that it seems to know how easily we can be desensitized to such pictures. Taking her cue from McArthur's own work, Marshall shows us enough for us to understand how horrific the larger picture is. But allowing ourselves to become desensitized is not possible within McArthur's deeply penetrating gaze at her subjects. We cannot look away. When footage is ultimately given to us of a factory farm row of cows in slim pens allowing no movement, heads sticking out of openings barely big enough for them, it is no longer just the fact of it we see, but the sentient beings, the
faces in those stalls.

Pig arriving at a slaughterhouse. Image by
Jo-Anne McArthur, as found on
There is a moment in the film where McArthur and friends are standing with placards outside a factory-farm meat processing plant in Toronto, peacefully showing their signs to drivers on a busy boulevard. At one point, a tractor-trailer filled with pigs slows down to turn into the plant. McArthur immediately drops her placard and picking up her camera, walks alongside the truck shooting into its interior, putting her fingers and hands on the protruding snouts. Although motivated by a desire to expose the horrors she sees, the seamlessness of this transition from activist to accompanying-witness companion made me cry. McArthur's ability to be present, to be in the
now with non-human animals, models for us the deep possibilities of compassion in humankind. And it is out of compassion that protest, and ultimately change, occurs. The Ghosts in Our Machine is about both cruelty and kindness.

Filmmaker Liz Marshall with Fanny, a rescued dairy cow.
In this age of the image-saturated internet, when images we don't like can be clicked away quickly, when the burger or the sausage on our table can be eaten without thinking of the suffering that produced it, when signing online petitions can be easier than standing on a street-corner with a placard (and I am guilty of all of the above), McArthur and Marshall are prophets of conscience. We see with their eyes, and our eyes and our hearts are opened.

Take some time with the photographs of Jo-Anne McArthur, and the highly engaging interactive features on the website for The Ghosts in Our Machine

Saturday, September 14, 2013

TIFF13 Review: The Railway Man

Wide shot 1: Colin Firth as Eric Lomax in The Railway Man
At the beginning of time the clock struck one
Then dropped the dew and the clock struck two
From the dew grew a tree and the clock struck three
The tree made a door and the clock struck four
Man came alive and the clock struck five
Count not, waste not the hours on the clock
Behold I stand at the door and knock.

This unusual 'biblical nursery rhyme' is heard over the opening shots of Jonathan Teplitzky's The Railway Man. Written by British army signals engineer Eric Lomax, it becomes something of a touchstone in the film adaptation of Lomax's autobiography, as several times and in varying conditions in the film we hear him recite it. The film tells the story of Lomax's ordeal at the hands of Japanese torturers after the fall of Singapore during the second world war and is made with careful craftsmanship, never indulging in the violence but not stinting on it either, instead framing this extraordinary story with the redemptive grace that marks its final resting place. Sent to work on building the notorious 'death railway' (which includes the also famous bridge over Kwai), Lomax initially seems to have it a bit easier than some of the other Allied prisoners forced to endure heavy labour. However, after a hand-drawn map he made is discovered by his captors, his life takes a nightmarish turn and he is horrifically tortured. The translator of his interrogations becomes the subject of his deepest haunted post-traumatic memory.

Wide shot 2: Teplitzky keeps the camera wider
than many would, a distancing that offers respect
without sacrificing immediacy
It is very hard to talk about what makes this film so powerful without giving away its ending. Wondering about how to handle this, I checked out the just-released international trailer. Trailers can make a film look so completely different from what it is, or take elements that are indeed true and distort how they work. The trailer for The Railway Man is not inaccurate, but it is a bit misleading in its tone. The film is not just about revisiting and confronting the past, as the trailer suggests, but about living through that past. It's not a romantic love story, but a story of gruelling commitment by a couple who love each other so deeply that they can strive to survive horrific challenges. It is about living in memory and through it, both together. A friend I watched the film with who is a family therapist explained that traumatic experience is not 'remembered' in the sense of traditional memory. The traumatized person actually lives the experience over and over. They are in it; they do not have any objective detachment from it. The film makes that utterly vivid.

Colin Firth keeps surpassing himself. These years we are seeing the great hours of his career. But nothing quite prepares you for his haunted eyes and the combination of strength and gentleness. Nicole Kidman presents a clean clear solidity laced with compassion as the uncompromising Patti. Jeremy Irvine and Hiroyuki Sanada bring depth to their roles as the younger Lomax and the older interpreter. 

The direction is so incredibly fine, keeping the frame wide in many moments when others would go in close, somehow implicitly understanding that the whole picture is more meaningful than the sum of its gruesome parts. There is a kind of railway track tunnel use of the long shot (visible even in the trailer) allowing us to feel as if we are standing at both ends of time, as Lomax did, connecting the two places he lived in with one view. Wide shot after wide shot becomes over-wide, sometimes making Lomax a small, blackish ant-like figure walking a windswept beach, seemingly overcome by the enormity of his pain. At other times, we hang with him, upside down, tormented, broken, close enough for clarity but not too close. Teplitzky's deep respect for the subject keeps him from crossing the line of pretending to truly know it. 

The film's intense non-linear structure, moving backward and forward in time, allows us moments of rest that are rare but so essential in films on this kind of subject, so that the audience can catch up to what it now knows instead of just enduring barrage after barrage of challenging images. Use of dissolves and multi-layered shots of curtains and glass and reflections, moving in and out of focus, populate the first third of the film, bringing us inside the deep paralysis that Lomax occupied after the war, and before his life offered him a chance to physically return to the place of the events that so damaged him.

Eric Lomax and Takashi Nagase in the 1990s
Ultimately, however, this is a film about forgiveness. There is only a hint of this in the trailer, which otherwise wants to focus on revenge. (Let's stop and think about why revenge sells a movie better than forgiveness...!) This turn of events is not foreseen, but neither does it surprise us. Lying on his side in excruciating agony, the words of the biblical-nursery rhyme he invents offer clues to the deeper equilibrium that helps Lomax endure. The film does not take on the deep faith that underscores his book and which he uses to provide a thread of interpretation for his own self-reckoning. While there are enough subtle signals dotting the landscape of its story breadth to offer hints, I am a bit sad about this, because it is from this deep well that Lomax is ultimately able to draw up the love, compassion and kindness that will water his soul and offer him release. 

I believe The Railway Man will have an uneasy critical reception. It defies the conventions of contemporary cinema by not giving us an intense sensationalism. It forces us to watch in a much more sober and more deeply unsettling way, reminding me a bit of Kieslowski's A Short Film about Killing. There is violence portrayed in the film but it is not intensely graphic in the way that so often feels pornographic now in movies. The restraint of this film will be misunderstood as detachment but the film doesn't entertain or enthrall, it moves us. It asks us to witness, to wait, to walk slowly. To take it one horrible re-lived memory at a time, alongside many other moments of quiet inextinguishable sadness and silence, the black hole of being lost. It invites us into brief seconds of murder and the longer quieter minutes of sitting on the dusty memory-soaked ground. It is not for the faint of spiritual heart.

Even romantic moments are on the medium close-up
side of close, offering a loving sense of restraint
essential for this tough story. 
Lomax's life-long obsession with railways is what inspired him to draw the map that got him into trouble. It provided the context for his love-at-first-sight first encounter with his wife. It is the subject of his forced labour. And it is the rhythmic intuition of his heart, beating out rhymes and verses to pass the hours of unchartable darkness.

At the beginning of time, the clock struck one....

Some seventy years after those events and only a year after his death, we can be grateful. The fourteen years it took to develop the screenplay, with the help of both Eric and Patti Lomax, means that we get to bathe in a work that is itself bathed in love. And dwell in its wise heart.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

TIFF13 Reviews: Finding Vivian Maier

Self-portrait, by Vivian Maier
Six films (and a short) on Friday, and seven films yesterday. People ask me how I keep them straight. That's not the problem. The problem is how to find time to write about them all! Some I'm still holding onto in my mind and heart and need to reflect a bit more on first (Ida, Une Jeune Fille, Closed Curtain, Dallas Buyers Club as examples). Some films can be written about easily - some need to be thought about and held close for a while first. One of these is Finding Vivian Maier

The story of John Maloof's discovery of the photographic opus of Vivian Maier has now become quite well-known. Needing some illustrative pictures for a history book on the Portage Park area of Chicago, Maloof bought the majority of the collection at an auction house across the street from where he lived. Not finding them useful for his project, he set them to one side for a while, and then came back to them later. While investigating her he discovered that Maier had just died. These are some of the details uncovered in Maloof's documentary (made with Charlie Siskel) Finding Vivian Maier.

There is much to like about this film, which seems to combine the filmmaking expertise of Charlie Siskel with the passion of John Maloof. Maloof has clearly done more than anyone to understand this elusive artist, and done so with much respect and care. The documentary is a loving tribute, even while it examines darker evidence of her life as a nanny. The photographs are given to us with juxtaposition against other great photographers, perhaps to indicate a kind of influence. I'm not sure. The documentary is compelling and gripping, and ultimately moving.

But it also left me with many questions which I felt the documentary skirted; I felt it could have been more transparent than it was. The film tells us at the end that Maier was supported in her last years by two of the children she nannied, who not only bought her an apartment but paid her bills. Why aren't they in the film? At the same time, we hear that she was dumpster diving and eating food out of a can before she died; why did the support run out? Maloof says in the film that he bought up the other Maier items purchased by others at the original auction, but doesn't tell us that one of those original buyers was actually the first to post her work online, or that he didn't quite buy up everything: a Chicago art dealer owns about ten percent of the collection. 

Through his persistent research, Maloof uncovers the French family of Maier, and the village where her relatives owned property; however, he doesn't share with us any other information about her background which he must have received some insights on. The film dwells (a bit sensationally) on the possibility of abuse in Maier's background as part of explaining that in her more than forty years as a nanny, she clearly was a damaging one at times. But it doesn't do so with much depth - perhaps because there are no answers available. Maloof also doesn't comment on the fact that Maier was alive for two years after he found the photographs in 2007. These are just the accidents of fate, but it deserved a bit of reflection on that loss - on the possibility that if he'd pursued her sooner, he might have found her while she was alive.

There are many implicit tragedies in the story and one is that the art world is taking its time recognizing Maier, but not because she doesn't merit their attention. It's complex. Maier did not print her own work (or did so unsuccessfully), so it is hard to know how to curate her as an artist. I appreciate this problem. My own brother is a landscape and portrait photographer who prints his own work with tremendous detail and care. It is part of who he is as an artist. It must be hard to know how to share the work with others without implicit instructions.  However, it is so clearly deserving of some sort of special understanding. Attention from people like Mary Ellen Mark, whose spontaneous and genuine responses to the photographs in the film should be enough to roll the ball forward, but it is stalled. Is that because Maloof has gone ahead and exhibited her himself (in cooperation with small private galleries in various cities)? Calling himself her curator? It is hard to be critical of this obviously passionate collector whose deep love and respect for Maier have brought her the attention she has. But by his own admission, he brings no skills to this enormous task, nor does he seem to be seeking out the assistance of those who do have those skills. Why? If he is wanting to serve her work, if that is his biggest goal, then why hasn't he asked for help with that? These were the questions I was left with as I walked the rainy street afterward.

In the end, despite these unsettling questions, what moved me most was the work of Maier itself (which illustrate this review). They reveal more about others than she can say about herself, perhaps, but that was her choice. Melancholic and stark, revealing and mysterious, haunted by shadows and by lives torn from what they should have been, they reveal an artist who was most at home when standing among her subjects. Looking them in the eye.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

TIFF 13 More Reviews: Three Romcoms

Fanny Ardant in Bright Days Ahead
Thirteen films since my last post! Will have to update in blocks, perhaps around genre. 

The romcom is enjoying a bit of a global renaissance if this year's selection at Tiff is any indication. Through the accidents of scheduling, I ended up with three of them in a row on Friday morning.

Fanny Ardant's radiant beauty at the age of 60 is an incandescent light in Bright Days Ahead, Marion Vernoux's portrait of a woman whose life is in need of transformation, even as she is forced into transitions she hasn't sought out. Recovering from the death of a friend and a marriage sliding uneasily into complacent routine in its golden years, Caroline unexpectedly finds herself in the arms of a man half her age, whose sexual addiction does not mean he doesn't also fall in love from time to time. Vernoux handles the complexities of their encounter with care and manages to avoid the trappings of the genre by allowing Caroline to always be the author of her own life changes. Even as she anticipates the end, she lives into it with wisdom and acceptance. The film is very much about freedom and hers is always one she has chosen. I carry with me some gorgeous shots of Ardant walking in dusk light by the sea, as stunning as the landscape.

I slid into Joel Hopkin's The Love Punch, about a half hour in. There are a few funny sequences that made me laugh out loud - and this is a perfect film for a late night can't-sleep jammies and teatime with Netflix. But make no mistake, this is a cotton candy of a movie about divorced jewel thieves who reunite to enact a revenge heist. Joined by Celia Imrie and Timothy Spall, the funny bits come in the slo-mo mock action movie sequences when they put on the next guise and head out like heroes. Hopkins is his most at home in the form here but the rest of the film's farfetched plot lacks this kind of satiric edge and sorely needs it. Emma Thompson and Pearce Brosnan have enjoyable chemistry but even they are working too hard. Thompson is just too good an actor; it is impossible for her to be truly lite. The gift of her comedy is that she brings layering and longing to an otherwise seemingly superficial character (just think of all of her scenes in Love Actually). But it has to be written for her. And please please. Can someone please give Celia Imrie a real role? Here is a strong British character actress who has played the exact same oversexed semi-silly character in the last three films I've seen her in. She does it well, but all of these actors deserve better.

Irrfan Khan in The Lunchbox
The real gem of Friday morning, however, was
The Lunchbox, Ritesh Batra's lovely lovely film about a man on the verge of retirement who starts receiving lunches by mistake from a lonely housewife, who is trying to woo her way back into her husband's heart through his stomach. Letters to the other start to appear under the naan and soon they are each telling the stories of their deepest memories and regrets, desires and dreams. The gem of this film is its screenplay, beautifully crafted and quite funny also, including a prominent secondary character who is only ever heard and not seen, like something from a Preston Sturges or Ernst Lubitsch comedy. But Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur are beautiful as the two leads. The preparation of the food adds a bonus pleasure: so sensory that you swear you can smell it and taste it. (Plan now to go for Indian food afterward.) I hope The Lunchbox gets widespread release; Variety has already declared it to have crossover potential. Maybe that means more people will see this quietly touching film.

Friday, September 06, 2013

TIFF13 First Reviews!: Manakamana, Story of Children and Film; Blue is the Warmest Color; Le Démantèlement

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color
Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velese's Manakamana
It felt spiritually luxurious (an oxymoron?) to start my TIFF 13 with Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velese's beautiful Manakamana, shot entirely on the cable cars that bring pilgrims to the Manakamana Temple in Nepal. The filmmakers were also working with the coincidence that the length of time it takes to run a full magazine of 16mm film is almost exactly the same as the time it takes to ride to the temple, in one direction. Although partly funded by the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, Stephanie Spray has spent many years making films in Nepal, which allowed her to 'cast' people in this documentary whom she knew. The result is a vivid portrait of eleven groups of people as they ride upward (and then downward) coming to and from a spiritual encounter. There also animals on the ride: the goddess Manakamana demands animal sacrifice but although the practice has now been outlawed at the temple, animals find their way on to the cars. The real time accompaniment of the camera became quickly transporting, as the lush green hills of Nepal floated beneath the subjects. I was transfixed and could have watched this film all day. Coming out and adjusting my eyes to the bustling chaos of King Street, I had the feeling of fulfilment that every year I hope for somewhere along the line of the festival -- and here it was after the first film! I almost didn't need to see another one. But of course I did! (I hope to write a much fuller, much more reflective piece on Manakamana at a later time.)

Shinji Somai's Moving, one of the many films discussed in
Mark Cousins' S
tory of Children and Film 
My next film was Mark Cousins' Story of Children and Film. From the Irishman who gave us the omnibus Story of Film two years ago, this follow-up piece which profiles the way children have appeared on the silver screen was remarkable but not quite as fully formed as the other work. Providing his own narration, Cousins' voice is affable and feels conversational, like sitting with someone at their computer console as they show you favourite clips. But this very quality can also limit the film. Cousins frames the discussion around footage of his own niece and nephew who provide links to the film's themes that at times felt forced. He seems to have understood this himself, for the movie departs half way through to a trip to Wales, from where the rest of its thematic branches are investigated - but without children - in a way that was never quite convincing. No matter. Cousins' decision to break up his discussion into various moods and child states-of-being was brilliant and provided nice links among the chosen selections themselves. Also, I think of myself as someone who has followed closely children in the cinema, but I am indebted to Cousins for introducing me to at least a dozen films I did not know and now want to see badly. Among those I did know, I was thrilled to see Shinji Somei's Moving, excerpted several times throughout the documentary. I still remember vividly first seeing the film at TIFF in the 90s.

Blue is the Warmest Colour was a high seed for me coming into this year's fest. Fresh from Cannes and its Palme d'Or win, the screening of the film happened on a day when many media were running a story quoting the actresses about how difficult it was to make. (Not sure why these articles are circulating now - and hard to tell if they are based on contemporary interviews or those made at Cannes.) It doesn't matter. Whether it is pornographic or not, excessive or not, the controversy around this film cannot obscure its central beauty: this is a very deeply felt, caring and loving profile of what it is to be in a new passionate relationship. Both Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux give remarkably nuanced performances, but the film unmistakeably belongs to Exarchopoulos; her appearance in every single scene of a three hour film holds us without any gaps - she is incredible. My story editor brain wanted to intervene as I saw the film making its narrative twists and turns but most of my notes are incidentals about continuity and motivation. Ultimately, the film is about passion: the erratic and impulsive decisions that we make when we are deep in love. The much-discussed love scenes, with their graphic sexuality, rang true for me and did not raise any concerns about exploitation. I found the film's depiction of relationship on the whole quite loving. If the director appears to be a bit infatuated with his leading lady... well, it's not the first time. I spent part of my summer watching Godard films, which star his muse Anna Karina. And so it goes...

I was very sad that I had to miss the first 40 minutes of Sébastian Pilote's Le Démantèlement, about a man who decides to dismantle his sheep farm in rural Québec in order to give financial support to a daughter who is in need. The last hour of the film that I did see was very compelling. Gabriel Arcand does a wonderful job as Gaby, a man walking the line between a resolute decision, profound losses, and bumbling and awkward relationships with everyone in his life, from his friend who desperately tries to talk him out of it, to his other daughter and his ex-wife. A conversation late in the film with his second daughter helps us to come to terms with his decision; it is a critical scene in a beautifully structured screenplay. Supported by great old favourites of Québecois cinema like Lucie Laurier, Gilles Renaud and Johanne-Marie Tremblay, along with newcomer rising star Sophie Desmarais (who is also appearing in Sarah Prefers to Run) this is a beautiful ensemble piece, even though the main character spends most of his screen time alone. Agata Smoluch del Sorbo's programme note describes the film as channeling the spirit of Michel Brault and Claude Jutra and she is right. Animals also run as quiet and powerless partners to Gaby's decision-making. Animals were also present significantly in Manakamana, and in both films offered a reflection of the harsh realities of life, while also being silent witnesses of important spiritual transitions. 

A great first day.
Gabriel Arcand in Sébastien Pilote's Le Démantèlement

Monday, August 26, 2013


Here is the continuation (M - Z) of my annual preview of the eighty most interesting films of TIFF13! Check the post before this one to see my intro and the first half of the list (A - L). The films are listed in alphabetical order and are linked to the appropriate TIFF info page. An asterisk is given to movies in my own top 20 (confession: it actually adds up to 22). Some notes repeat comments made on earlier blog posts about specific films. Take a deep breath, and dive in!

The films (continued):
Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez's Manakamana
*Manakamana. As I wrote in another post, I am quite intrigued by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez's Manakamana, the latest project of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard, shot in the transcendental style, observing pilgrims as they arrive at the famous temple in Nepal - - by cable car. The film is shot entirely on the cable cars, allowing us to join these pilgrims in a liminal suspension as they ride toward the temple. Always drawn to films that touch on spiritual and religious themes, this is a high seed for me.

Is it my imagination? or does it seem like there has been this sudden resurgence of interest in the political rivalry that existed between Elizabeth I and her cousin, Mary I of Scotland? Perhaps because I live near Stratford, Ontario, where Schiller's Mary Stuart is selling out in a run that keeps getting extended. This feels like such well-heeled territory, in both television and film, but Piers Handling tells us that Swiss helmer Thomas Imbach's Mary Queen of Scots is the one we've been waiting for. Starring Camille Rutherford, and featuring a screenplay that moves fluidly back and forth from English to French (as the queen's life itself did), the trailer is admittedly quite powerful. Though I am tired of this story, I take it on faith that this version of it will revive and renew my interest in those sparring sixteenth-century royals!

Chris Jordan and Sabine Emiliani's Midway
*MidwaySome time last winter, I clicked on a video that was circulating on facebook which showed the plight of birds on a Pacific island, who are drawn to the brightly coloured detritus that floats on the ocean these days, and gagged to death on things like plastic bottle caps. I was so impacted by what I saw that I began collecting bottle caps off the ground, wherever I saw them. It turns out that the video I saw was the work of consumer photographer Chris Jordan. Now joined by Sabine Emiliani (who made March of the Penguins), the two are bringing a joint effort to TIFF, Midway, which observes the life of the albatrosses living on the Midway Atoll in the Pacific. This is a documentary that leans toward experience more than information, an immersion into the lives of these birds who are also live amid the wreckage of World War II aircraft. The internet video still haunts me, but I want very much to see the whole story.

Just one of about half a dozen films concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mais Darzawah's My Love Awaits Me By the Sea is possibly the most poetic. Taking its inspiration from the work of the late Palestinian writer and artist Hasan Hourani, programmer Rasha Salti is careful to describe it as an 'essay film', that re-emerging genre that is neither documentary nor drama, but a meditation/reflection on a particular subject told from a very subjective view. (For more on the essay film, read this great piece from The Guardian.) Making her way from Jordan to occupied Palestine, then into the older and more historical areas of Palestine before arriving at Jaffa where Hourani died, she makes her own kind of spiritual homecoming.

Hany Abu Assad's Omar
Omar by Hany Abu Assad (Paradise Now) won the Un Certain Regard jury prize at Cannes. Once again a story of Palestine, Omar is being described as a "noir thriller" in its story of a young man who hurdles the now-famous barrier wall, in order to hang out with his old friend, and more importantly, the friend's beautiful sister. When his love becomes known, he is goaded into testing his own loyalties. 

Korea isn't the first country one thinks of when looking for a good romantic comedy, but as I wrote in the other half of this list, this is the year of the wide-ranging and globally diverse romcom. Our Sunhi is Hong Sang-soo’s playful story of a woman filmmaker ardently pursued by three men, all of whom think they've won her. Something about the trailer gave me the feeling of an Asian Eric Rohmer film, in which the heroine both eludes and bewitches us without our knowing how. 

As more and more films emerge from or about Palestine, it is moving to see some names of directors who have always been in the region, always wanting to tell the stories of this part of the world. Rashid Mashawari, who has premiered a number of films at TIFF, including most recently Laila's Birthday, returns with Palestine Stereothe story of brothers who try to raise money for a move to Canada, after losing their home in an Israeli airstrike. From a filmmaker who never disappoints.

Bérénice Bejo in Asghar Farhadi's The Past
Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her performance in Asghar Farhadi's first film since A Separation, Le Passé (The Past) which also deals with relationships that have ended but remain caught in unforseen events. When you have followed the same TIFF programmers for decades, you develop your favourites and become familiar with their taste. Dimitri Eipides' usual reserve busts a seam in his notes for this film, which he calls "exquisitely written and magnficently acted".   

Stephen Frears' Philomena, has the promise of another bravura performance from Judi Dench, as a woman seeking the son she was forced to give up decades ago. Steve Coogan plays a BBC reporter walking with her in the search; he is also the film's producer and screenwriter. Fresh from the success of The Queen, Stephen Frears will no doubt add another fine film to a list of some of the finest British films ever made. (IMDB him!)

In the midst of a bountiful crop of Palestinian films, it's good to see evidence of the vibrant vitality the Israeli film industry has demonstrated in the first decade of this century. We need all voices from this region to keep speaking to us. Yossi Madmony's Place in Heaven ambitiously takes on an epic theme: the Faustian idea of trading one's life in the hereafter for the sake of a transitory pleasure in this one. Following Orthodox tradition that allows one to barter one's place in heaven, an Israeli officer falls into a contract with a Holocaust survivor.

Rebecca Hall in Patrice Leconte's A Promise
Sometime in the early 80s when I was housesitting for my grandparents while they were in Florida, I turned on PBS and watched a four hour production of Wagner's opera Die Walküre, completely mesmerized. I made note then of the director, Patrice Leconte, and have followed him ever since. Although his work has been uneven of late, A Promise, shows much promise indeed. A classic triangular love story set in pre-World War 1 England, it marks Leconte's English language debut and stars Alan Rickman.

Ahmad Abdalla's Rags and Tatters has one of the most intriguing premises of the year. A fugitive escaped from prison in Egypt finds himself in the chaos of the Tahrir Square uprising of 2011. All he wants is a place to sleep and eat safely, while others cheer on the changes at hand. Given the tremendous upheaval in Egypt right now and its vastly altered landscape since those heady days only two years ago, this should be an especially poignant entry.

There is already a considerable anticipation for Jonathan Teplitzky's The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth as a British soldier who is captured by the Japanese during the second world war and made to work as a heavy labourer. This might be a good film to view in dialogue with Steve McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave as there is a similarity of theme. Co-starring Nicole Kidman, the early word of mouth is very strong.

I was deeply moved by Philip Gröning's elegant and liturgical Into Great Silence, a documentary of the lives of Carthusian monks in Switzerland. 
Philip Gröning's The Police Officer's Wife
He is now back with a dramatic feature, 
The Police Officer's Wife. The brief description hints at a complex family drama revolving around the safety of a child. I am so fascinated by Gröning's understanding of emotional space and time that I don't actually care what the film is about - I'll be there.

Denis Villeneuve's script for Prisoners is based on a project from The Black List, a script depot accessed by both filmmakers and screenwriters as a way of discovering projects. The story is a familiar one: a man whose daughter has disappeared takes up his own pursuit of her safety when police release the most likely suspect. It stars Jake Gyllenhall, who also appears in Villeneuve's second film at TIFF13, Enemy.

Hiam Abbass and Nadine Labaki
in Laila Marrakchi's
Rock the Casbah
*Rock the Casbah is a rare opportunity to see some of the finest actresses in the Middle East working together in ensemble. Laila Marrakchi's first film since her hit Marock in 2006 could be called the Morrocan August: Osage County -- it is almost exactly the same story. The demise of a family patriarch (in a cameo by Omar Sharif) leads to the reunion of a family of sisters with their mother, where long-held resentments and revealed secrets wreak havoc and healing. Starring Hiam Abbass (who was so beautiful in The Visitor), Lubna Azabal (whose performance in Incendies was unforgettable) and gifted Lebanase filmmaker Nadine Labaki (director and star of both Caramel and Where do we go from here?), it promises great fun and good social satire.

In 2005, I had the chance to watch Roberto Rosselini's Rome, Open City?, sitting just in front of Isabella Rossellini, who had introduced the screening. I wrote then, "the rough condition of the print projected on Monday was a testament all by itself to the great need for restoration and loving attention to the work of Roberto Rossellini, a man who not only helped to launch the Italian neorealist movement, but whose work had a profound impact on the French new wave." [See original blog post here.] That moment has arrived and Isabella will be back. A cause for celebration!

Speaking of Morocco (see Rock the Casbah above), this is a year in which a number of films are either emerging from the North African country, or set in it. (See Exit Marrakech in the other half of this list.) Abdellah Taïa's Salvation Army is a first-feature adaptation of his own novel, which is also autobiographical. Essentially, a coming of age in sexuality story, the rich programme note from Rasha Salti promises a non-polemical and somewhat poetical excursion into one North African man's identity formation, when as a teenager he arrives to a new life in Geneva. 

Natascha McElhone and Rufus Sewell
in Stephen Brown's
The Sea
Stephen Brown's The Sea looks like it may be a compelling adaptation of the Man Booker Prize-winning book by John Banville. An art historian (Ciarán Hinds) writing a book about French Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard, returns to a seacoast home and attempts to come to terms with both the death of his wife, and the raising of challenging memory associated with the house. The trailer suggests a past/present divide in strong visual style terms, and beautiful scenery. 

The City to City programme is one of the most innovative developments of TIFF in the last decade. With a focus this year on Athens, there is an impressive variety of film fare from masters and newcomers alike emerging from this other troubled part of the world. The one I am most likely to see is Penny Panayotopoulou's September, which chronicles a woman's attempt to find new life for herself after the death of her dog. The trailer makes clear that Panayotopoulou is as much interested in how we form new attachments, and how much we desire being loved, perhaps in that unconditional way that sometimes it seems only our pets can give us. The poetic emotional style has already drawn me in.

An alcoholic playboy and a tax lawyer become unlikely friends and business partners in Christoffer Boe's Sex, Drugs & Taxation: Spies & Glistrup chronicling the duo who revolutionized the Danish tourism industry. Starring an almost unrecognizable Pilou Asbaek from Danish television's Borgen and last year's festival sleeper A Hijacking, playing a "provocateur" womanizing millionaire, I can't wait. Denmark in the 60s? Count me in!

The Short Cuts Canada programme represents an important commitment on the part of TIFF to rising talent. Short Cuts Canada 5 is the particular collection that I have flagged, with four animations that look at slice of life realities (two of them in 3D), an essay film (see above), and the first directing effort from Québecois actress and Xavier Dolan favourite Monia Chokri. The films are: Impromptu (Alcock), The End of Pinky (Blanchet), The Chaperone 3D (Munden/Rathbone), Crime: Joe Latoya - The Beirut Bandit (Lambert/Chou), Numbers & Friends (Carson), Roland (Cornish), and Quelqu'un d'Extraordinaire (Chokri). The brief write-ups of these miniatures suggest a nice mix of the experimental and the animated comedy.

Richie Mehta's Siddharth
It's been six years since Richie Mehta debuted his lovely film Amal, about an Indian rickshaw driver who is unwittingly drawn into an inheritance he resists. So it is good to see that he is now back with his second feature, Siddharth a painful but likely deeply moving story of a man's search for his twelve year old son after sending him off to work. Without a photograph of him, and unable to read, the journey seems impossible. The redemptive and elegant spirit of his first feature offers strong promise for this one.

*A woman who has lost her entire home and family in the racial violence surrounding Kenya's 2007 elections, nonetheless tries to move back into the devastated house and start again in Judy Kibinge's Something Necessary. Meanwhile, a man anxious to separate himself from the violence of his own deeds searches ways to atone. The two stories overlap in ways that suggest theological underpinnings to the film, if the trailer is any indication. 

The sea figures strongly again in Fabio Mollo's South is Nothing, about a young girl devastated by the death of her brother. Set near the Strait of Messina, that small passageway that separates the tip of Italy's boot from the island of Sicily, the film might seem to suggest a division of worlds: a longing for the past and a new relationship forming in the present. No trailer here, but I'm trusting my gut and Piers Handling on this one. 

I am always happy to see new work by avant-garde legend Nathaniel Dorsky. Although his films invoke many moods and qualities, there is an irrepressible spiritual quality often, sometimes expressed through a mystical tone. This year, Dorsky is presenting Spring a 23 minute work that "conjures an abundant return of light and a retreat into nature so dense and rich that the film itself becomes a sort of wondrous garden-verdant, incandescent, with startling bursts of colour." How could I have found words better than those to evoke it? Song another Dorsky film, is an exploration of San Francisco from the autumn months to the winter solstice.

Roberto Minervini's Stop the Pounding Heart
I always feel a sense of dread when I start to read descriptions of films that attempt to look inside the fundamentalist Christian experience. It is rare to find a film that takes on this world without villainizing it (Higher Ground is a notable exception.) While it is not my own expression of Christianity, it deserves more subtle and caring portrayal, so that the complexity of that life becomes vivid. It seems like Roberto Minervini's Stop the Pounding Heart may just do exactly that. The story of a young home-schooled Christian girl who falls for the wrong man might lead us to expect the usual torchsong, but Minervini has tried to be true to the world and let us form our own conclusions. Watch the trailer.

Two years ago, Mark Cousins brought us the extraordinary Story of Film: An Odyssey in 2011, a fifteen hour solo exploration of the history of cinema. This year he is back with A Story of Children and Film, a look at how the experience of childhood has been depicted in movies throughout the ages.  Since we've learned that this charming Irish film historian knows his cinema, this doc seems likely to not only inform us, but do so in an elegant and uplifting way.

The evocative Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang follows a Taipei family living in poverty as they make their way through daily life in Stray Dogs. The images on the TIFF page for the film, and the trailer, reveal incredibly beautiful compositions that offers a loving, if haunting frame of its subjects.
*Last year, I was knocked out by Xavier Dolan's Laurence Anyways, which went on to win the Best Canadian Feature Film of that year. Dolan is back with Tom a la ferme, which he also stars in. Featuring Evelyne Brochu, one of TIFF13's four "Rising Stars", it follows a young man as he visits the parents of his dead lover. Dolan co-wrote the screenplay with Quebecois playwright Michel Marc Bouchard, adapting from his own play. Also noteworthy is an original score by Gabriel Yared, who scored The English Patient

*It has been a while since there's been a new film from Robert Lepage, so I am happy that he is bringing one to TIFF. Based on his own theatrical project Lipsynch, Triptych follows three individuals in Montreal: a a bookseller, a brain surgeon and a jazz singer. Co-directed by Robert Lepage with Pedro Pires who is also the cinematographer, the programme notes promise a "sublime narrative geometry" as the three lives all eventually overlap and intersect.

Ariane Legault in Catherine Martin's Une Jeune Fille
*I am always very excited to see a new film from Québecois director Catherine Martin (Trois temps après la mort d’Anna, L’esprit des lieux), who never fails to move me with her poetic and elegiac films which seem to merge soul and setting. The trailer for Une Jeune Fille only increases my anticipation. The story, which "follows a teenage girl who flees an unbearable home life for the rugged beauty of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula" seems likely to continue my love affair with this filmmaker's work. In my top three. 

The relationship of Simone de Beauvoir to Jean-Paul Sartre is probably the best known aspect of her personal life, despite that both of these intellectual giants maintained other long intimacies. It's hard to tell from Piers Handling's glowing programme note for Martin Provost's Violette whether De Beauvoir's connection with French novelist Violette Leduc is an intimate one or not, but Leduc's love for the great philosopher and writer is the driving force of it. Told from Leduc's point of view, the film is a study in the underside of the writer's life when it is not quite as famous: in contrast to De Beauvoir, Leduc works eloquently to live out her identity in her work from the margins of society.

Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky's Watermark
*Jennifer Baichwal's Watermark, marks a return to collaboration between the filmmaker and photographer Edward Burtynsky (this time credited as co-director), as the duo explore the global traditions and cultural relationships to water that have impacted the way in which that most essential of resources is being depleted. Like Faith Connections, also featured in this shortlist, the film observes the religious festival of Kumbh Mela, where thirty million worshippers come every three years to bathe in a sacred river. The film is shot in ultra-hi def with impactful aerial shots. (Watch the trailer here.

The recent expansion of the Wavelengths programme is one of the most exciting developments of TIFF. No longer confined to just shorts programmes, this year there are fourteen features and a host of mixed length films. Of the short shorts, the Wavelengths 4 roster showcases "a trajectory of shifting perspective and iconographic reference". There is a spiritual quality emanating from this group, which begins with Nick Collins' Trissákia 3, a meditation on the ruins of a 13th century Greek church, and continues into Chris Kennedy's Brimstone Line. Kennedy's film contemplates landscape through a stationary-camera perspective on the Credit River in Ontario. Robert Beavers' Listening to the Space in My Room explores the filmmaker's old living space and we are told "carries rare emotional weight". 

Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises
*Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki became a festival favourite in the late 90s and early 2000s, as his unique style of animation brought together folklore and tradition in stories that seemed both naive and profound. It's been a while, however, since we have had a feature length film that offers the same kind of experience as Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away. Luckily, he is back this year. The Wind Rises brings together Miyazaki's interests in aviation and ecology to tell the story of a boy who dreams of becoming an aeronautical engineer, and is aided by the spirit of an Italian inventor. Not normally a fan of animation, the beautiful trailer makes me yearn for this one.

*From veteran director Fred Schepisi (whose The Russia House I've always loved), 
Words and Pictures is about a competition between a high school English teacher (Clive Owen) and an artist on the same faculty (Juliette Binoche), as to what matters more, words or pictures. It was not supposed to appear until 2014, so it might be a bit rough. But who cares. As a teacher myself, who has often challenged students to this very debate on the first day of one of my courses, I'm curious. And who can resist the first JB film to hit TIFF since TIFF11's Elles! (And thus the asterisk.)

Well, okay. Much as I enjoy the creative talents in this entry, the only reason You Are Here makes this list is because I can't get enough of Amy Poehler. Though she is not the main character, I can already imagine her portrayal of a workaholic sister, enraged to lose out on family inheritance to a deadbeat sibling (Zach Galifianakis). With Owen Wilson along as a playboy buddy, the mix seems like fun, and it all comes to us from Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men.

Marine Vacth in Francois Ozon's Young and Beautiful
Though it happened alphabetically, it is in some ways fitting to end this list with a filmmaker who has essentially grown up at TIFF, premiering almost all of his dozen feature films at the festival since the mid-90s. Of these, I was very deeply moved by his 5 x 2, the study of a marriage in decline told backwards from the divorce to the meeting. Ozon is back this year with Young and Beautiful, a profile of a young teenaged woman as she matures and claims a sexual identity and profession, told in four seasonal movements, and four songs.