TIFF ’06 Diary #3

I’m back in Los Angeles, but I’ll be posting the rest of my TIFF impressions this week. Including The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, these are the documentaries I screened:

Manufactured Landscapes

This film introduced me to the work of Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian large-scale photographer whose primary subject is industrial wastelands. From massive technological vistas to mountains of debris to oily vistas stretching off into the horizon, Burtynsky’s photos are startling in their scope and dystopian detail.

The film also provided my first look at one of the unexpected motifs at the festival this year, the Three Gorges Dam project in China, the largest dam in the world that has destroyed a dozen cities and displaced over a million people, a technological and sociological juggernaut that would resurface in Jia Zhang-ke’s Dong and Still Life, as well as Gianni Amelio’s The Missing Star.

Much of the film depicts Burtynsky working in various locales, sometimes mirroring his compositions but zooming in or out to offer a sense of scale. While ostensibly remaining apolitical, the film’s monumental sense of anonymous mechanization and environmental ruination is at times overwhelming, in part because of the effective rhythm established with the editing and haunting electronic score. It’s more meditative than informational, but I found it absorbing and provocative.


I saw this film on a whim–I thoroughly enjoyed director Lucy Walker’s previous The Devil’s Playground (2002), an examination of Amish culture and the rumspringer tradition. But while that film probed the psychological complexities of rebellious youth questioning their religious values, this is a much more conventional celebration of blind Tibetan teens and the dedicated activists who hike them up the Himalayas. Not that the subject isn’t a worthy one, and if you want a picturesque dose of the indomitable human spirit (or cute kids, at least), this film will likely satisfy you. I even like the dominant message of the film, emphasized in several ways, that the real value of the expedition lies in the kids’ journey and teamwork rather than their destination–the imposing 23,000 foot Lhakpa Ri summit on the north side of Mount Everest. But there are no surprises in this straightforward telling, and the kids largely remain appealing icons rather than compelling personalities. The adults in the film emphasize the importance of submitting their skills and passions in the service of the kids and not vice versa, but the film often seems more interested in the dream team logistics than the little people involved.


Like Manufactured Lanscapes, Jia Zhang-ke’s 66-minute film visits the Three Gorges Dam (the town of Fengjie) through the eyes of an artist documenting life in the rubble. The lively Liu Xiao-dong has been called one of Chinaís leading figurative painters, and on the basis of the highly sensitive and detailed portraiture seen in the film, I’m willing to accept that claim. Yet this is no simple overview of an artist–there is no narration or biography, and Liu is reduced to providing a few sound bites about his work. Instead, Jia uses Liu as an inspirational starting point for his own exploration of the people and landscape, slowly panning over the Yangtze, crumbling buildings, and figures crawling over the ruins, endowing the chaotic setting with unexpected nuances of cohesion and tension. The second half of the film is set in Bangkok, where Liu and Jia continue their shared study of figures and setting. It’s a rich examination, and it’s easy to see why it was the impetus for Still Life; both films shed light on one another, offering stereoscopic depth with their two-pronged vantage points of fiction and non-fiction.

Remembering Arthur

I discovered the work of experimental filmmaker Arthur Lipsett earlier this year and have since been fascinated by his creativity and tragic life story. An auteur of the collage film, Lipsett was lost in the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the National Film Board in the ’60s and ’70s, which gave many filmmakers a chance to work but insisted they follow standard operating procedures in order to secure funding and equipment for their projects. (One interviewee in the film additionally suggests that the NFB really only had room for “one Artist,” and that spot was already filled by Norman McLaren.) Lipsett became a virtual celebrity with his Academy Award-winning short, Very Nice, Very Nice (1961), but his unorthodox production methods (such as submitting photo collages on poster board rather than traditional storyboards) helped to perpetually marginalize himself until his mental health deteriorated in the ’70s; he eventually took his own life in 1986.

Martin Lavut’s biography of Lipsett is reasonably informative, but it inevitably seems both too close to its subject and curiously superficial. It would make an excellent addition to a much-needed DVD set of Lipsett’s work. But the documentary is cut too quickly, stringing together a sentence or two from one talking head to another, creating a breathless feel that is almost tiring. (George Lucas offers five seconds at the beginning: “In terms of understanding the power of sound and picture relationships, there’s no one better than Arthur Lipsett.” Next.) Perhaps Lavut saw this fast cutting as a tribute to Lipsett’s montage artistry, but I found it frustrating. Problematic, too, is the film’s almost sole reliance on Lipsett’s inner circle of acquaintances (Tanya Tree, Christopher Nutter, Ryan Larkin), of which many–particularly Lipsett’s onetime girlfriend Judith Sandiford–recount his eccentric behavior through a haze of friendship, love and pain, making the film more confessional than critical. I would’ve appreciated more insight into Lipsett’s complex relationship with the NFB or stronger voices from the aesthetic arena rather than this compilation of personal anecdotes. Definitely engaging, but hardly the final word on this most enigmatic of filmmakers.

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