A world-class city offers a world-class fest despite some troubling backstory
The 2003 Montréal World Film Festival (MWFF), which ran August 27 to September 7, was shrouded in enough controversy to nearly overshadow it. Most of the brouhaha had to do with the ongoing and very vocal disagreements between MWFF’s director Serge Losique and FIAPF (International Federation of Film Producers Association), the body that gets to assign accreditation to festivals. FIAPF refused to accredit MWFF this year because Losique set his dates without consulting them and, whether inadvertently or not, the Montréal dates overlapped with the dates of both the Venice and Toronto film festivals. But Losique had already informed FIAPF in writing, as early as 2 December 2002 and again in March and May of 2003, that they were not renewing their membership. It’s anybody’s guess why FIAPF refused to acknowledge Losique’s delisting request, but it looks suspiciously like a desperate attempt to hang onto a quickly eroding power base. The fact is that Toronto is the only North American city that still maintains a membership in the FIAPF. Losique blasts the high cost of membership and the fact that those fees pay for, among other things, travel and accommodation of FIAPF directors with no services in exchange for the fees, no input into how the organization works, and no access to information about how the money is spent. It was sounding like the Olympics all over again.
It didn’t stop there. There was also the typical noise that comes from the ongoing competition between Montréal and Toronto that has little to do with their respective festivals and lots to do with language and culture and who’s got the biggest, um, stars attending their respective festivals. No doubt Toronto wins the visiting stars part hands down. But don’t let that dissuade you from seeing Montréal as worthy of its name as a World Film Festival. The festival clocked in this year with over 400 films from 70 countries, with over half the presented features world premieres. And after all, isn’t a film festival really all about the films, not the celebrities?
The festival’s opening film, Gaz Bar Blues, from Québec’s own Louis Bélanger, doesn’t disappoint. It’s the story of a 50-something year old man (Serge Thériault) with early Parkinson’s who runs a gas station in a working class neighbourhood of Québec city. His wife has died, he’s raising four sons — at least one of whom he’s hoping will take over the business — and a daughter who drops in once in awhile to set them straight. The gas bar seconds as a drop-in centre for the down-and-out neighbouring residents, and it’s in those interactions that some of the funniest scenes take place. It’s like the front stoop of the old corner store. It’s also a perfect portrayal of the struggles of a group of people stuck in the old ways and struggling with the new. Bélanger’s writing is funny, smart, and heartfelt.
Un Filme Falado (A Talking Movie), directed by Manoel de Oliveira, is a strange little story that takes place on a cruise ship with two central storylines. One follows a history professor and her young daughter on their way to meet the husband/father in Bombay, taking a circuitous route so the professor can see all the places that she has only taught from books. The other focuses on the conversations that take place around the captain’s (John Malkovich) dinner table. A French businesswoman (Catherine Deneuve), a former Italian model and a Greek actress (Irene Papas) all converse in their own language but because they understand each other, the conversations flow as though they’re all speaking the same. A completely unexpected and abrupt ending saw my jaw drop. A rare and delightful occurrence.
At Five O’clock in the Afternoon, by Iranian filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf, should be required viewing for all Americans, particularly those who cavalierly support the bombing of countries so far removed from their consciousness that they might as well be Pluto. Five O’clock is the story of refugees returning from Iran and Pakistan to the ruins of post-Taliban Afghanistan. Nogreh, played beautifully by Agheleh Rezaie, is sent to a religious school by her strictly devout father but she sneaks away every afternoon at 5, discarding her head covering and donning high heel shoes, to go to a secular school for girls. One has to wonder at the audacity and the bravery, never mind the ability, of the filmmaker to create such a first rate work with so little.
Samira Makhmalbaf is the daughter of Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The Road to Kandahar, The Cyclist). Her 14-year-old sister, Hana Makhmalbaf, also directed a film in the festival, Joy of Madness, that chronicles the filming of At Five in the Afternoon. Shot on digital video over a two-month period when she was just 13 (!), Hana really ends up documenting the fear that remains among Afghanistan’s women — fear of being seen, of being targeted, of what it meant to participate in the film and ultimately their fear of the return of the Taliban — and the frustration on the part of her sister in trying to shoot Five O’clock under these circumstances. After seeing At Five O’clock in the Afternoon, it’s hard to believe anything of the sort was taking place behind the scenes. It is that well done and beautifully acted.
Gina Chiarelli is absolutely stunning as Grace in See Grace Fly, a Canadian film by Pete McCormack. She plays schizophrenic Grace so disturbingly realistically, so frenetically, that we almost hear the voices in her head. Grace’s words come out of her so fast, trying to keep up and desperately trying to convince everyone that the end is coming and Jesus is about to return to earth. She gives us an insight into the madness we see (and try to ignore) walking our city streets and forces us to rethink our ideas about what madness is. Where do the voices come from? What if she’s right and it is God talking to her? Well worth seeing, and hopefully we’ll be seeing more of Ms. Chiarelli as well.
I nearly didn’t attend the screening of 4th Floor, from Spain’s Antonio Mercero. Who needs one more heart-wrenching drama about kids dying of cancer, right? I’m glad I didn’t pay attention to myself. The fourth floor is the hospital’s orthopedic ward for teenage boys, all with cancer or waiting for test results to see if they have cancer. Despite the seriousness of their situation they either already are or help each other to be “…on top of their game.” They wheelchair-race through the corridors at midnight, play basketball, pull pranks, care for each other like I have never personally seen young boys care for each other yet I believed it completely. 4th Floor is moving, gives us hope for the future despite the fact the kids are dying and is inspiring to the rest of us to get up off our butts and make happen whatever it is we want to see happen, 4th Floor makes us believe we can and we must.
Finding Home could take an example from 4th Floor. I really wanted to like this film. Director Lawrence David Foldes’ background was working in action films and video games until five years ago when his wife (producer of Finding Home, Victoria Paige Meyerink) was diagnosed with a brain tumor and they dropped everything to get her well. At the same time he re-evaluated what he was doing, saw he had only so many years to make film, decided against a legacy of action films and instead chose to make films that touched people. Just hearing his story made me want to support him, he was so earnest.
On top of all that, Genevieve Bujold was acting in the film, having stepped in for an injured Ann-Margret. Bujold may be living in Malibu but she is French Canadian to the core and loved by every self-respecting Montréaler around, including myself. But Finding Home had too many problems. It is the story of a young woman (Lisa Brenner) who returns to the childhood home of her grandmother (Louise Fletcher) on a remote Maine island to confront her repressed memories. Despite the possibilities, there was no fire between the characters. It was as though everybody had a huge argument right before the camera started rolling and could hardly wait to get back to their respective trailers. That usually points to bad writing and directing, and Finding Home is no exception. Foldes is trying too hard to be deep. And as if that weren’t enough, we’re subjected to a typical Hollywood ending which I suspect had to do with the king of schmaltz, Steven Spielberg, being one of the consultants on the film.
Some have called Rolf de Heer’s Alexandra’s Project a feminist tract against marriage, and I suppose it could be read that way. More than that, it’s a devastating commentary on the state of relationships generally, male-female in particular, and perhaps all combinations where communication is lacking. Steve (Gary Sweet) returns home expecting a birthday party and instead gets a video from his wife Alexandra (Helen Busday) along with locked doors and cut phone lines. A psychosexual thriller of sorts about the sexual politics of marriage.
21 Grams was one of the best at the festival and in my opinion the best U.S. submission. Directed by Alejandro Gonzáles and starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benecio del Toro, 21 grams refers not to drugs as I had assumed, but to the amount of blood lost at the exact moment of death. Watts is fabulous as she deals with the death of her family, in fact she walks away with the film. But Penn, del Toro, and everyone else aren’t too shabby either. More of “how would you live your life if it was your last day” fare but done really well, fast-paced and with lots of surprises.
Five Sides of a Coin is Paul Kell’s first feature-length documentary, an excellent in-depth look at the history of hip-hop featuring interviews and clips of hip-hop’s pioneers, insiders, critics, and fans. Kell makes the connections that few others have among graffiti, breaking, turntabling, and rap, expanding hip-hop beyond the genre of music.
Little Brother of War is an ambitious film from writer/director Damon Vignale that switches between a present-day story of a young boy who is trying to find his parents who have just been murdered and his dreamworld based on the historical myths that his father told him. “Brother of war” refers to the name of the original game of Lacrosse as invented by North America’s First Nations people. To them, the game was more than running back and forth scoring points against each other, but was played to resolve differences (hence the name) and could take hundreds of players days to finish across a huge terrain. Vignale features lacrosse’s healing potential throughout the film, and while he sometimes falls short of his goal, his actors pull the story along. Young Jay, played remarkably by Brett Sherwood, and Frank Cassini as the jaded detective help Vignale merge fantasy and reality into healing filmmaking.
Luck is an excellent little film from Canada written and directed by Peter Wellington and executive produced by Atom Egoyan. It’s a study of addiction and obsession in 1970s hockey-obsessed Québec. Shane Bradley, played flawlessly by Luke Kirby, finds himself in trouble both with gambling debts and love. Sarah Polley plays the love interest and the reason Shane gets into gambling in the first place, until he discovers that gambling is better than anything, even sex. With a backdrop of the Canada-Russia hockey series in 1972 that galvanized all of Canada, Shane sinks lower and lower into the world of gambling, into a win-or-die situation.
Much has already been said about Elephant, Gus Van Sant’s response to the Columbine shootings (it won Best Film and Best Director at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival). His digital camera follows various high school students (none of whom had ever acted before) through a seemingly normal day — down hallways, on the grass outside, at their homes. Two of the students we’ve been tracking will return in full army fatigues and, brandishing AK-47s, proceed to calmly and systematically mow people down. Elephant is a really disturbing film, certainly because of the content and the low-key manner in which Van Sant has everything play out, but also because of the connections Van Sant does and does not make. And because he makes so few — he just shoots the kids doing their thing — those that seem obvious stand out. So while Van Sant insists that he never thought about whether the killers were gay or not, maybe they were lovers maybe they weren’t — what the viewer is left with is the image of the two boys kissing in the shower right before their killing rampage. In the homophobic world we live in, that adds fuel to an already blazing fire.
One of the best things at the Montréal World Film Festival was the Movies Under the Stars program. Part of the main drag downtown was closed to traffic, and every night all kinds of films, classics to indies, were screened outside for free. People, myself among them, filled the café tables set up in the middle of the street and lined the steps leading up to Place des Arts, kicked back and enjoyed the night.