With so many films being made – many of which will never receive wide distribution – how do you navigate the glut of movies at a whopper like Toronto?
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Two hundred and ninety-six features, 101 shorts, 83 countries represented, and 32,320 minutes of film: These are the statistics hyped by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for its 2016 edition. For the festival, these numbers are a testament to its rich abundance. For the insatiable cinephile, they’re a treasure trove. For the selective moviegoer, movie overload. These figures also speak to the state of cinema: With so many films being made – many of which will never receive wide distribution – how do you navigate the glut of movies at a whopper like Toronto?
One way to get your bearings is to stick to the festival’s smaller curated programs. Led by TIFF programmer Andréa Picard, the Wavelengths program featured by turns daring, visionary, and frustrating work. But throughout the sidebar showcase, the thoughtful curation served as an antidote to the overwhelming nature of the festival. What follows are some of the highlights from Wavelengths’ feature films. Sitting somewhere between the more experimental work of the sidebar’s shorts program and the more conventional work of TIFF’s other sections, the feature films stressed an innovative treatment of fiction and documentary storytelling. Contrasted with all the award-campaign launches that promoted commercialism at the festival, the play with form in Wavelengths felt like an artistic and political stance.
For Filipino director Lav Diaz that unconventional approach has come through his handling of time. A master of long-form narrative films (2004’s Evolution of a Filipino Family ran for 593 minutes), Diaz presents a slow-burning revenge tale in The Woman Who Left, which had recently won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. Set in 1997 against a backdrop of widespread kidnappings, the film follows Horacia, who is released from a female labor camp after spending 30 years imprisoned for a crime she never committed. She returns home to find that her husband has died, her son is missing, and her daughter is estranged. With few familial ties, she sets off to track down Rodrigo Trinidad, an ex-boyfriend who set her up for murder. Diaz doesn’t opt for building suspense in this revenge story. Instead, he builds a plot of patient waiting, rendered in mostly static long takes. Both a shooting strategy and a narrative tactic, the long takes give the film its temporal duration and help to form a sensitive portrait of a woman trying to return to civilian life. By day, Horacia supports a roadside food stand owner, who provides her with a place to stay. By night, she stalks the perimeter of Rodrigo’s gated estate in disguise as she befriends the town’s denizens: a balut egg seller, a trans sex worker, and a schizophrenic homeless woman. What emerges is an exploration of the fringes of a seaside community linked by a woman who plays both guardian angel and avenging angel.
While Diaz brings a sense of realism through duration, Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra achieves a brand of realism through his focus on the mundane details of an extraordinary situation in The Death of Louis XIV, an observational look at the last days of the French king. Largely set in the confines of a bedchamber, the film is an epic drama of small gestures in which the king’s team of doctors treats every minor action as a barometer of his health. Jean-Pierre Léaud imbues the Sun King with a mixture of dignity and vulnerability as he succumbs to gangrene despite his doctors’ attempts at various remedies, which amount to ineffectual quackery. Serra conjures up a strange magic spell on screen through elegant compositions, chiaroscuro lighting, and a languid pace. At a time when so much art cinema is concerned with the harsh realism of contemporary life, Serra’s interest in historical figures feels wonderfully eccentric.
If the slow unfolding of time is the strategy of Diaz and Serra, then Gastón Solnicki aims for maximum fragmentation in Kékszakállú. Winner of the critics’ FIPRESCI Award at the Venice Film Festival, the film is loosely inspired by Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle opera. The connection to Bluebeard, though, is tenuous since Solnicki relies on the power of abstraction. Some semblance of a story emerges as images casually begin to form motifs: pools, water, young bodies, couples, and leisure time. Soon a rough sketch of characters also comes to the surface: A group of girlfriends live a life of privilege in Argentina while trying to figure out how to live on their own. These sequences are balanced by images of laborers and factories that are owned by these women’s families. The result is an oblique sketch of Argentina’s owning class that asks for the audience to piece together the narrative’s fragments.
German filmmaker Angela Schanelec also explores the power of ellipses in The Dreamed Path. Here, the film’s overall structure is dialectical. Part one: It’s 1989 and a pair of bohemian vagabonds, a German woman and British man, drift through Greece. The couple breaks up when the young man returns home to visit his dying mother in England. At his father’s wishes, he secures morphine from some dope connections to euthanize his mother. Such a trauma seems to catapult us to part two: contemporary Berlin, where we watch a new couple, whose marriage is disintegrating. The wife wants to split because she no longer loves her husband. Finally, in the last section, the film synthesizes parts one and two when shots of the first couple appear in the story of the second couple. It’s a tangled plot in which past and present seem to fuse to produce a pervading sense of displacement and love lost. Schanelec appears to offer a meditation on mourning, but she overlays the film’s deep emotions with a hard-to-grasp ambiguity.
In The Human Surge, Eduardo Williams chooses to slice up time and space into discrete chunks to form a portrait of youth in our current moment of precarious labor and digital technology. Hopscotching across the world, the film is broken up into three parts, each captured in different shooting formats (super 16mm, 16mm shot off of a computer screen, and the Red digital camera). In the first section, a camera stalks a young man in Argentina. In single long takes, each scene doggedly keeps up with this young man as he goes to work and hangs out with friends. In one segment, some of these friends strip for money for an online video site. A parallel scene captures the young man we’ve been following watching on a computer another group of guys in Mozambique stripping for money online. As if entering a portal, we now follow this new group during the working day and wanderings through nature. An interlude takes us inside an anthill – now the workers are industrious ants – before emerging in the Philippines. Here, a young woman spends her time in a forest before going to work the next day at a computer tablet factory. Nature vs. technology, leisure vs. work, and connectivity vs. alienation: Such are the themes that Williams puts forward as challenges to the human spirit.
Some of the best work in Wavelengths included documentaries that, like their fictional counterparts, played with the expressive possibilities of narrative structure. In I Had Nowhere to Go, artist Douglas Gordon creates an unusual audiovisual rendering of experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas’s memoir. Recalling Derek Jarman’s great cinematic experiment Blue, Gordon’s film presents long passages of imageless screen as rich soundscapes accompany Mekas reading from his memoir. The narrative scrambles Mekas’s account by jumping back and forth from his time in a German labor camp in the 1940s to the early 1950s in New York where he worked in a factory and took in avant-garde film. Gordon intersperses these imageless stretches with shots of potatoes and onions being cut, a gorilla sitting in a zoo, and Mekas playing the accordion. It’s a strategy of juxtaposition that asks us to make sense of the seemingly free association of sounds and images while imagining Mekas’s past.
If Gordon denies the audience a clear view of Mekas’s experience as a displaced person, Wang Bing brings us face to face with the dislocation of the Ta’ang, an ethnic group living along the Myanmar-China border. A strong example of embedded documentary filmmaking, Bing’s film Ta’ang investigates the effects of the ongoing Myanmar civil war on the Ta’ang, who have been forced to take refuge in China. The filmmaker follows the various fates of the refugees. Some labor away in sugarcane fields, while others attempt to start a new life in China. More wait in camps, hoping to return to their home. Without recourse to interviews or expository information, the filmmaker monitors the realities of displacement. We see the refugees build camps, prepare meals, and, mostly, swap stories. These tales are often told at night, with campfires lighting the faces of the displaced as they make sense of their hardships. In lesser hands, these scenes might feel like voyeurism. Captured from Wang’s embedded perspective, they feel like testaments to human courage.
A different kind of trauma is explored in Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz, which examines concentration camp tourism. Shot in the Dachau camp outside of Munich and the Sachsenhausen camp outside of Berlin, the director works in an observational mode, filming crowds of visitors in black-and-white static long takes, largely at a distance. The interest here is not so much on the camps themselves but on the psychology of crowds in the face of such horror. Loznitsa’s point of view doesn’t seem to judge, but the film begs the question of what is appropriate behavior in these spaces. Are we to weigh in when people perfunctorily snap selfies or look so disconnected? From the camera’s seemingly dispassionate range, it’s hard to know just what people are feeling or how they’re processing their surroundings. Ultimately, this is a study of contrasts between past and present, a place and its visitors, the solemnity of the setting and the banality of mass tourism. Like many of the films in Wavelengths, Austerlitz demonstrates that the aesthetics of what we’re seeing and the ethics of how it’s captured are paramount to good cinema.
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Note: All images courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.