Wednesday, August 14, 2013

TIFF13: Wistful Wavelengths

Caroline Strubbe's I'm the same, I'm an other
The TIFF Wavelengths programme is its greatest pearl, shining out from the festival seabed incandescently. Often somewhat swamped at its announcement by the glittering stones and more exotic promises of other life, it nonetheless includes some of the most precious offerings of the cinematic year.  That is proving especially true in 2013. As this year's film titles were released, surrounded by fresh galas and special presentations and the much-anticipated Contemporary World Cinema listings, they were largely lost to all but cinema-specialist media. That's a shame, since among these experimental works lies an abundance of jewels. 

Ali Cherri's The Disquiet
As veterans know, the programme is broken into collection units, like Short Cuts Canada, grouped by visual ideas and themes. In the last few years, it has been expanded into mixed lengths, allowing for the showcasing of longer short formats and this year an astonishing 14 features! Each year I pay tribute to Andréa Picard, whose glorious curatorial instincts are among the finest at TIFF (I am never let down on this, year in-year out). Her programme notes are also the most elegantly written (though not available yet for this year). Picard also programs Future Projections (with Noah Cowan), the innovative exhibition of installations by artists whose works appear throughout the city during TIFF. Future Projections, like the Masters programme and Discovery, have not yet been announced, but we assume they will be known on Tuesday the 20th, when the schedule is released.

Jean-Michel Straub's Un Conte de Michel de Montaigne
Because this programme is so exquisitely curated, it is hard to select a single scheduling unit. So where to begin?

Perhaps with a trio of medium-length short films by contemporary masters. Jean-Michel Straub, no stranger to this programme, continues his preoccupation with forming relationships to classical texts, by returning this year with Un Comte de Michel de Montaigne, a dialogical encounter with the great French writer. It is followed by Joao Pedro Rodriguez' The King's Body, a kind of body-portrait of Portugal's king Afonso Heniquez... by musclemen. Filling out the night is Miguel Gomes' Redemption, a reverie on "human fallibility" by way of meditation on found-footage. 

Nick Collins' Trissákia 3

In the short shorts programmes (there are four), the Wavelengths 4 roster showcases "a trajectory of shifting perspective and iconographic reference", but it is the individual brief descriptions that compel me. 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".   

Sarah J. Christman's Gowanus Canal
Wavelengths 1 has a dizzying collection of work by accomplished artists (including Luther Price's
Pop Takes and Kenneth Anger's Airships) which seem preoccupied with reshaping found cultural artifacts, or imagining what those artifacts might look like in a far-flung future. I am drawn even more to Wavelengths 2, which seems to investigate perceptions of space and space-time continuums. Of this crop, Basma Alsharif's Farther Than the Eye Can See poetically chronicles a mass exodus of Palestinians from Jerusalem. (In a separate proram of longer shorts, Akram Zaatari's Letter to a Refusing Pilot pays homage to an Israeli pilot who disobeyed a command to bomb a boy's school in south Lebanon.) Tomonari Nishikawa's 45 7 Broadway captures Times Square in dazzling colour and Sarah J. Christman's Gowanus Canal is an ecological study of a profoundly polluted body of water. Ever since Edward Burtynsky opened a visual lens on the beauty inherent in that which is environmentally dissipated, artists have found ways of continuing the revelation.

Nathaniel Dorsky's Spring
In the medium-length fare, I am immediately thrilled to see new work by Nathaniel Dorsky. In two courses I teach on theology and film, Dorsky's beautiful
Devotional Cinema essay is required reading. Although his work inspires many moods and qualities, there is an irrepressible spiritual quality here too, sometimes expressed through an elegiac or 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. These two films are accompanied in the same evening by  Peter Hutton's Three Landscapes, which observes human beings as they move across three distinct environments: Detroit, the Hudson River valley, and the Dallol Depression area of Ethiopia. I am not sure I see the connection to the Dorsky films, but I have no doubt that there is one! 

Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez's Manakamana
Among the features, 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. A high seed for me. I am also drawn to 
Caroline Strubbe's I'm the same, I'm an other, which follows a man and a little girl on a road trip through Western Europe to try to overcome their grief. The evocative Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang follows a Taipei family living in poverty as they make their way through daily life. 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. There has been much praise of Rithy Panh's The Missing Picture since its Un Certain Regard prize win at Cannes earlier this year. Shot entirely with animated clay puppets, it portrays the horrors perpetrated by the Pol Pot regime on the people in post-1975 communist Cambodia. Finally, several years ago 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.

I have recently been doing some reading in African cinema and become more drawn to this part of the world than before. But how rare to have a feature from Guinea-Bissau. Joao Viana's The Battle of Tabatô follows a man's journey to his daughter's wedding, where he must also confront his own violent history. The trailer is beautiful. The film is preceded by Ali Cherri's short film The Disquiet, a "poetic meditation" on Lebanon's history of earthquakes and tendency toward catastrophe. Again, the available preview images are stunning. 

Joao Viana's The Battle of Tabatô
My word for Wavelengths this year is wistful. There is a nostalgia for something foregone in these works, recaptured in body, spirit, language, and landscape. A sumptious feast, and I am ready for some experimental fine dining. 

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