TIFF update

Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow

One of the pleasures of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival for me personally has been the opportunity to spend time with friends I rarely get the chance to see (J. Robert and Robert Davis as well as folks from Alberta), finally meeting friends I’ve known online for some time (Darren Hughes and Girish Shambu), and generally enjoying the city’s unique ambience, sights and sounds. This morning, I even ran into Jonathan Rosenbaum in a crosswalk, an encouraging Masters of Cinema supporter and a favorite critic, and I expressed my admiration in the middle of Bay Street. (Darren later told me it would’ve made a great Onion headline: “Internationally-renowned film critic and rabid cinephile killed by oncoming traffic while discussing festival picks.”) Now in my fifth or sixth day of attending TIFF, I thought I’d go ahead and spend some time this afternoon posting a brief summary of my screenings so far.

Childstar (dir: Don McKellar)

Canadian friends clued me into McKellar’s work a few years ago, and his latest is pretty much what I expected: a witty and well-told story about a spoiled child actor and the adults who take advantage of his career. It’s a solid Canadian entry, a film with a clear narrative development, charming performances, clever dialogue, and a disarmingly modest feel which manages to cloak subversive commentary about Hollywood film production and the general cultural mix of naivete and bravado of Canada’s southern neighbor.

Earth and Ashes (dir: Atiq Rahimi)

Afghan director Rahimi was born in Kabul, but studied film in France. This movie, his first feature, was adapted from his novel about the life of an elderly man and his rambunctious young grandson, both of whom are resting at a crumbled wall in the Afghan desert before their rendezvous with a family member in order to discuss the recent bombing of their native village. Rahimi displays a strong visual style (golden light filtered through dusty hillsides), an effective attention to place and the perceptions of his protagonists (unexpected flashbacks and ambiguous behaviors only gradually acquire meaning), and a strong feeling for the passage of time. One extended shot midway through the film depicts a drinking glass in a balancing act, rattling away in quickening motion that eventually attains stasis. Similarly, the final sequence of the film is comprised of a gradual focus: a man leaves a conversation, walks through the desert, becomes isolated, begins to sing. The image fades but his singing continues in darkness, a tribute to human dignity and its perservance through time.

Midwinter Night’s Dream (dir: Goran Paskaljevic)

I’m not familiar with Serbian director Paskaljevic’s oeuvre, so I was excited to see his latest film as part of the Masters series; after all, the world can never have enough masters. Unfortunately, the film didn’t convince me to rush out and familiarize myself with his work. It has several undeniably strong elements: cold, striking cinematography and ruminating, Bergmanesque performances, and its interest in telling a human narrative addressing Serbia’s recent war-torn history is admirable. But the story, about a man returning home after having spent years in prison and attempting to resurrect his life through his relationship with a lonely woman and her autistic daughter, turns dishearteningly pessimistic without any real dramatic necessity other than tragic manipulation, an approach that seems at once easy and self-important, as if the more the characters suffer, the more crucially their plight is revealed–von Trierism at its most heavy-handed. I thought it was telling that the post screening Q&A centered more on the production’s use of a real autistic person in the role of the daughter rather than any of the social or emotional issues the film purports to raise. It ultimately seems more intent on acting on the viewer rather enticing him or her to share its concerns.

Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow (Dir: Theo Angelopoulos)

So far, the highlight of the festival for me was Angelopoulos’ gorgeous period drama about a family of Greek refugees fleeing to Thessaloniki, and the way their personal lives play out within the political climate of early-to-mid century Mediterranean culture. I had previously read some negative press regarding the film so I had diminished expectations, but throughout the picture, I marvelled at Angelopoulos’ ability to provide powerful and unique images to describe the human condition. Young lovers eloping through sodden fields; refugees living in a honeycomb of tents within a candlelit theatre; grandiose but delapidated towns on the brink of historical transformation; the flooding of an entire village; the slaughter of sheep hung from a towering tree; a musical performance of political resisters hidden within blowing sheets drying on a clothesline. A lot of the striking imagery relates people in groups–immigrants, revelers, soldiers, rescuers, sufferers, and mourners–an entire mass of people moving through history together. And set against this sweeping canvas is the intimate drama of a family holding on to their unique identity, hopes, and aspirations. It’s a film full of tremendous pain, yet brimming with undeniable hope and astonishing beauty.

Un Pays sans bon sens! (Dir: Pierre Perrault)

I’ve always loved documentary filmmaking, and figured TIFF’s choice for its Canadian retrospective series, the films of Pierre Perrault, would provide a solid introduction to this poet-writer-anthropologist, On the basis of this 1970 documentary, I’ve now purchased a book of essays on the filmmaker published by the Cinematheque Ontario and look forward to delving more into his work. The film is a compilation of Quebecois talking heads describing their culture and history at a time when the region’s desire for seccession and nationhood was gaining substantial ground. Engagingly ordered through questions and thoughts written in longhand by Perrault featured as title cards, the film is a colorful and fascinating portrait of a time and place.

It’s not My Memory of It–Three Recollected Documents (Dir: Julia Meltzer, David Thorne)

I was so moved by the two features in the Wavelengths experimental series at this year’s TIFF that I wish I could’ve attended more . This film was a 25-minute meditation on government surveillance and its flow of information, wonderfully and provocatively depicted by constantly rearranging vertical ribbons of words assembled from shredded documents, juxtaposed with an audio commentary comprised of interviews with CIA operatives describing their investigative procedures in general terms. It’s a visually arresting and thought-provoking assembly.

Anaconda Targets (Dir: Dominic Angerame)

Ten minutes of horror, this film is simply a US infrared video of the military bombing of an Afghan encampment that features the reconaissance of various individuals, vehicles, and buildings within an area that are subsequently targeted and incinerated by missiles. The radio exchange of the bombers’ voices and their superiors giving orders provide the technical and emotional audio commentary. CNN this is not.

* * * *

This brings me up to Tuesday evening, but now I need to dash off to Agnes Varda’s Cinevardaphoto, so I’ll have to later add my comments on, among other films, Claire Denis’ confounding L’Intrus, Ousmane Sembene’s stimulating La Noire de…, Lucrecia Martel’s intoxicating The Holy Girl, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s tribute to Ozu, Cafe Lumiere, and Wim Wenders’ Land of Plenty.

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