TIFF ’06 Diary #2

Continuing with the Toronto International Film Festival ’06 coverage…


Offside

Jafar Panahi–known for his controversial and hard-hitting dramas The Circle and Crimson Gold–has crafted his most vibrantly energetic and entertaining film to date, without compromising his social vision one iota. Various young Iranian women individually attempt to sneak into the 2005 World Cup qualification tournament between Iran and Bahrain but are arrested and detained because of an Islamic convention that only allows men to attend sporting events. (Ostensibly, the fear is that women might be exposed to harsh language.) What proceeds is a film shot with great immediacy with a handheld camera that largely documents the hilarious and heated repartee between the women and their guards; the fact that it’s a highly patriotic film is part of its subversive brilliance–its characters are not dissenters, but rabid fans as equally committed to the sporting cause as the next person. Their only “fault”–as suggested by one prisoner–was to be born female.

Panahi’s camera captures the chaotic energy of a crowded bus in the early scenes and follows the course of events that befalls one woman in particular in something approaching real time. Arrested and pulled to the side of the game, the women (and the viewers) are prevented from watching the game, but can glean portions of it through occasional commentary and opportunistic glimpses. Much of the film takes place in an isolated, cordoned-off back alley of the arena, yet it never feels visually monotonous, and the cheering masses repeatedly enter the plot in inopportune (or is it opportune?) moments to enact unintended but small scale political revolution.

The film will be released on DVD in the UK on September 18, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

Coeurs

I’ve yet to catch up with Alain Resnais’ former picture, Not On the Lips (2003), a surprise, CÈsar-winning, mainstream hit for the octogenarian auteur, but his latest film suggests he’s having fun with his newfound popularity. Playing earnestly within the conventions of a staid, modern melodrama in ways comparable (perhaps) to Cronenberg’s poker-faced evisceration of the action thriller in A History of Violence, the film’s drabness will likely shock those expecting a boldly experimental work. On its surface, it’s a mawkish ensemble film about photogenic bourgeoisie searching for happiness in modern day Paris, but rumbling beneath the surface–largely in the form of stiflingly chic interiors and an idealized and anonymous Paris of closed spaces and immaculate disconnection–is a cutting commentary on petty fantasies and distracting passions. The film’s banality of beauty is oppressive–Resnais reuses his “snowing” transitional motif from L’Amour ‡ mort (1984) so often it becomes dirgeful. Still, self-aware subversion of dumb cinematic convention is not exactly my favorite genre, and though I appreciated Resnais’ subtlety and apparent intentions, this wasn’t a particularly fun film to sit through.


Hamaca Paraguaya

This minimalist film from Paraguay–its first in three decades–was pathetically dismissed by The Hollywood Reporter as “tedious” and “aesthetically primitive” (the paper suggests only relatives of the filmmakers would be willing to pay to see it) but it’s easily among the most intensely beautiful and moving films I’ve seen all week. With perhaps a dozen or so stationary camera setups and (by my count) 31 cuts, the film constructs a meditation on time, memory, and loss worthy of the Left Bank filmmakers.

Last summer, I visited the midwest (where I was raised), and arriving at my hotel in the evening, the first thing I did was sit in the grass on the edge of the parking lot at the edge of a dense forest and watched the fireflies (nonexistent in the states I’ve lived in the past 15 years) and listened to the myriad crickets, cicadas, and other insects chirping away in the humid night. A wealth of childhood memories flashed before me in that moment, and it’s one I will cherish for years to come.

Filmmaker Paz Encina understands that moment, and her film recreates it with stunning sensitivity. An elderly couple walk into the jungle, set up a hammock, and proceed to “converse” about the dog barking in the distance, the impending rain, and most of all, their absent son, who has gone off to war and never returned. The scene is shot in true Bazinian depth of focus and duration–his recipe for cinematically grappling with the ambiguities of reality–and Encina adds another bold formal device: although the couple’s dialogue corresponds with their actions, their lips never move (thus the conversation occurs both in and out of time, overflowing its confines). They share a life of hardship, hope, and survival, and this is a moment of rest and idle connection in a land they know in equally intimate measures. At once quotidian as well as sacred, the moment’s quiet depth of feeling is shattering; the cinematic beauty, unstinting. This film doesn’t have much of a chance at distribution, but it wholly deserves it.


Still Life

Fresh out of the Venice Film Festival with a Golden Lion, Jia Zhang-ke’s feature companion piece to his documentary Dong (which I’ll be screening on Saturday) was a last-minute surprise addition to TIFF that had cinephiles buzzing. And it actually delivered: the film is a profound, multi-layered dramatic examination of the irretrievability of the past.

The film is set in the ancient Yangtze river town of Fengjie that has been perpetually obliterated and relocated to make way for extensive flooding brought about by the world’s largest hydroelectric project, the Three Gorges Dam (featured extensively in the documentary Manufactured Landscapes). Authorities have been destroying and moving the town to higher ground for years; the move continues by stages with tremendous, if chaotic and imperfect, public relations efforts, demolishing buildings, scattering families, and importing hundreds of low-wage laborers.

Jia’s characters wander this desolate landscape every bit as destitute and crumbling as Berlin in Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero while attempting to reconnect with family members–or at least contact and reorient themselves, but it’s a formidable task. As the waters rise and buildings vaporize, history and identity are equally obliterated (workers offhandedly mention finding Han dynasty artifacts in the rubble), leaving a foreboding and alien landscape (humorously suggested with unexpected motifs throughout the film). Jia never loses site of the emotional posture of his protagonists, yet consistently works in a series of marvelous and subtle touches, such as the woman searching the city who perpetually refills her water bottle–but only a few inches at a time, as if frightened of the destructive implications of too much water. It’s a rich, inventive film that will reward repeat viewings.

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