“Where OMG Meets WTF”.

This was the first tagline I spotted at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. Others included “Where Fantasy Meets Reality”, “Where Indie Meets Epic”, “Where Wow Meets Huh?” and “Where Seeing Meets Believing”. In other words, TIFF’s continuing mission to be the “all things for all people” film festival has now been written into its public relations. And the raw numbers bare it out: 337 films from 72 countries, including 146 world premieres; hundreds of visiting actors and directors, including red carpet-friendly stars like Bruce Willis, Tom Hanks, Ryan Gosling and Marion Cotillard; and 4,280 industry delegates representing 2,563 companies from 81 countries. All of these figures represent statistical increases over the previous year, which if the TIFF media office is to be believed, is necessarily a good thing. At the end of the festival, even before the prize winners had been announced, TIFF issued a press release touting the festival’s strong U.S. and international film sales. For 2013 they should perhaps add “Where More Meets MORE” and “Where Bang Meets Buck”.

Unlike other major film festivals, TIFF has never put a high premium on jury awards. The Prizes of the International Critics (FIPRESCI) went to François Ozon’s In the House and Mikael Marcimain’s debut feature, Call Girl, and the various Canadian prizes went to Deco Dawson’s Keep a Modest Head (Best Canadian Short), Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways (Best Canadian Feature) and Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral and Jason Buxton’s Blackbird (Best Canadian First Feature). The most coveted prize, the BlackBerry People’s Choice Award, went to David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook with a runner-up mention to Ben Affleck’s Argo. Other recent Peoples Choice winners The King’s Speech (2010), Precious (2009), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Hotel Rwanda (2004), and American Beauty (1999) have used the award to kick start successful year-end Oscar campaigns, and the Weinstein company appears to be charting the same path with Playbook.

Along with its many premieres, Toronto also hosted the first North American stops for a number of high profile films that had already played in Rotterdam, Berlin, Cannes and Venice. Because of the late publication date of this piece, and for the sake of brevity, I’ll be focusing primarily on fall premieres and on smaller films and retrospectives that are less likely to have received widespread critical coverage.

The End of Visions

The most significant programming change at TIFF this year was the folding of the Visions section into Wavelengths. Wavelengths has traditionally been limited to only six screenings, all held during the first four nights of the festival, with a dedicated focus on avant-garde cinema. Each year, Andrea Picard programs twenty to thirty shorts, along with at least one feature-length film such as Ruhr (James Benning, 2010), Let Each One Go Where He May (Ben Russell, 2009) and Schindler’s Houses (Heinz Emigholz, 2007). Because each Wavelengths program screened only once, and because the screenings were typically held at Jackman Hall, a few blocks removed from the primary venues, Wavelengths has always felt like a separate festival within TIFF, with its own particular, enthusiastic audience. Last year there was some question as to the future of Wavelengths, so it was a great relief to see Picard back again and to be greeted by a typically strong selection of films.

The Visions program, which was intended for features that “push the boundaries” of mainstream cinema, has been another consistently strong section at TIFF and has included such films as The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev, 2011), Promises Written in Water (Vincent Gallo, 2010), To Die Like a Man (João Pedro Rodrigues, 2009), and Birdsong (Albert Serra, 2008). I suspect Wavelengths and Visions were combined this year primarily for practical, branding purposes, but as a result of the move the new Wavelengths now has more room for oddly shaped films that fall somewhere between avant-garde shorts and “daring, visionary” features. In all, Wavelengths included 53 films this year, ranging from one minute to two-and-a-half hours. An especially welcomed development in the realignment was a new opportunity for programmers to pair featurette-length films as double bills. It was a natural extension of Picard’s excellent work as a creative and thoughtful curator and had the added benefit of bringing filmmakers like Mati Diop, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, and Matías Piñeiro out of the “experimental” ghetto and introducing them to a wider audience through multiple public screenings at more highly-trafficked TIFF venues.

Wavelengths: Features

Leviathan

Of the feature films in Wavelengths that had already played at other festivals, my favourite by a wide margin was Nicolas Rey’s Anders, Molussien, a hand-processed, 16mm study of technology and totalitarianism that is assembled randomly before each screening: its nine reels can be built into 362,880 different films. My interview with Rey and a longer discussion of Molussia can be found elsewhere in this issue. I also very much enjoyed Bestaire, Denis Côté’s quiet, suggestive portrait of wild animals and their human caretakers, and Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux, which reminded me, strangely enough, of Eraserhead in its treatment of crippling, new-parent anxiety. If I was slightly disappointed by two of the most talked-about films on this year’s festival circuit, it’s perhaps owing to too-high expectations. Miguel Gomes’ Tabu is beautifully photographed and features a brilliant sound design, but I wanted the film to be more formally daring or more politically complex or more opaque than the relatively simple film Gomes made. Memory, history, guilt, privilege, religion, symbols of captivity, dreams of hairy monkeys, a black woman improving her literacy by reading Robinson Crusoe (of all things!) — Tabu plays like a primer on post-colonial issues, all rendered in glamorous shades of grey. Tabu is something of a step back, I think, for Gomes after the hypnotic, joyous, rambling Our Beloved Month of August (2008). Leviathan, by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, is a singular cinematic experience, to be sure. Filmed at sea with a dozen consumer-grade DV cameras, it tackles one of the most documented of all human endeavours, fishing, by exploding it into abstraction. Especially when viewed on a large screen and in a loud theatre, Leviathan is by turns stomach-churning, curious, gruelling and wondrous.

Three Sisters

Two hours into Wang Bing’s Three Sisters, the best of the feature-length fall premieres in Wavelengths, there’s a shot that recalls his previous film, The Ditch (2010). Yingying, who at 10 is the oldest of the three subjects of the documentary, has been left behind to live with her grandfather in their small village after her father returns to the city in search of work, this time taking Zhenzhen (6) and Fenfen (4) with him. Their mother is gone for good, having left for another man and other opportunities. Yingying sits alone in her windowless, one-room house, lit only by the faint grey sunlight from an open doorway. She’s curled up at the small table where she eats her meals and occasionally attempts to complete her homework. (In another scene we see her pretend-mouthing the words of her lessons while her classmates recite in unison.) She stares straight ahead and, as she does throughout the two-and-a-half-hour film, sniffs and coughs like clockwork. This is Yingying’s home but it could just as well be the underground dugout where the prisoners sleep in The Ditch, Wang’s fictional recreation of China’s labour camps of the 1950s. There’s the same loneliness and hunger, the same daily struggle to fend off decay and despair.

Wang introduced Three Sisters as “a simple film” that “might be too long”. I appreciate his humility (a hallmark of his filmmaking, too), but I think he’s wrong on both counts. There’s nothing simple about this precise assemblage of footage collected during several visits to the girls’ remote farming village, and the length of the film is, in fact, essential to its success. The sisters live a life of miserable poverty, but Wang rescues their story from the now-standard tropes of miserablist cinema and poverty tourism by respecting the temporal rhythms of that life and by acknowledging his own problematic role as a visiting observer. Yingying is never pitied by the camera (although her situation is nearly always pitiable); instead, she’s made dignified by it. We watch from a distance in long, unbroken shots as she struggles to carry a basket, throws a load of pinecones on her back, and slowly, patiently chops firewood. There’s a lived-in-ness to her movements that can only be represented on screen because Wang understands that cutting any of those behaviors into a sequence of shots would rob her work of its honour. The difference between a three-minute, unbroken shot of a feather-light girl hacking at a tree branch and a 20-second shot of the same followed by an elliptical cut to a woodpile is the difference between documentary and fiction.

As a work of drama, Three Sisters rises and falls with the returns and departures of the girls’ father, a world-weary young man with a kind smile and a deep affection for his daughters. It’s a bit of a shock when he first appears, one hour into the film, because Wang withholds explanation of his absence until a later conversation. When, in an early scene, one of the younger girls threatens her sister with, “I’m gonna tell daddy”, it’s unclear whether her threat is valid or if she doesn’t yet understand the permanence of death. Soon after he arrives, though, we see him sitting at that same small table with one of the girls on his lap and the others seated close beside him, each smiling and grateful, and that one moment of tenderness puts the entire first act of the film in relief and makes his inevitable departure all the more cruel. He buys new coats and shoes for Zhenzhen and Fenfen and washes their legs and feet in hopes that they can remain clean just long enough to make the long walk to the bus stop. Wang follows them onto the bus, rides along for a few miles, and then leaves them to their journey.

The bus scene is worth noting because it’s the one moment in Three Sisters when Wang’s presence is commented on by another person in the film. The father, visibly nervous for the trip and for the commotion he is causing, explains that he already bought tickets for himself and his two daughters, but the bus driver is more concerned about “the guy with the camera”. It’s an important moment because it acknowledges explicitly what is obvious throughout Three Sisters – that there’s no such thing as “fly on the wall” observational cinema, that Wang and his occasional crew are affecting the conditions of their little social experiment simply by being there and looking. A few minutes after the shot of Yingying alone at the table, we see her again outside, high on a hillside, walking a few yards in front of the camera. Eventually she stops, sits, and looks out across the valley. The camera also pans to take in the view. It’s a remarkable scene because without being sentimental or naïve, it manages to share her experience of something beautiful as she shares it with Wang. It’s a generous act on both of their parts.

The Last Time I Saw Macao

Equal parts city symphony, essay, film noir and home movie, The Last Time I Saw Macao by João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata is fascinating conceptually but a bit of a mess. Compiled from hours and hours of video shot over many months and on multiple trips to Macao, the film began as a documentary; it was only during editing that Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata stumbled upon the ultimate form of the project. Inspired by Joseph von Sternberg’s Macao (1952) and other Western, exoticised representations of the Orient, the co-directors scripted a B-movie intrigue involving an on-the-run beauty named Candy, a violent crime syndicate, and a much-sought-after, Kiss Me Deadly-like bird cage and then superimposed the drama onto the documentary footage by means of a fiction-creating voiceover and soundtrack. It’s a wonderful idea. Suddenly a random stranger pacing the street and talking on his cell phone is transformed into a mysterious contact awaiting a clandestine meeting. With a few well-timed gunshot sound effects, a couple shutting down their storefront for the night become the latest victims in a gang war.

Guerra da Mata described The Last Time I Saw Macao as a “fiction contaminated by memory”, and, indeed, “fiction” and “memory” are almost interchangeable here. Guerra da Mata spent much of his childhood in Macao. We hear his voice. The unseen hero of the film has his name. We see him as a child in old family photos. And I wonder if that might account for the uneven tone and pacing of the film. It’s not by coincidence that Candy lives on Saudade Road. (Saudade might be imperfectly translated from Portuguese as a kind of a deep and pleasantly painful longing for something lost and never to return.) The ideas at play in this film are almost too numerous to count: the political and economic consequences of China’s takeover of Macao in 1999, the complex legacies of Portuguese colonialism, the queering of glamour and a critique of Western notions of Asian sexuality (I haven’t even mentioned the opening sequence, which turns the classic femme fatale song and dance number, like Jane Russell’s from the original Macao, into a beautiful, camp drag show). But The Last Time I Saw Macao fails, finally, to shape them into anything satisfyingly coherent. It was telling, I think, that Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata invited their editor on stage for the Q&A. The noir idea could sustain an hour. The documentary images of Macao could as well. But Guerra de Mata’s saudade — what should be at the heart of the piece — is described in this too-long film but too seldom felt.

Far from Vietnam

Wavelengths also featured the premiere of Far from Afghanistan, a new omnibus film by John Gianvito, Travis Wilkerson, Jon Jost, Minda Martin and Soon-Mi Yoo that offers multiple perspectives on the war that has now raged for more than a decade. The film was directly inspired by Far from Vietnam (1967), which screened in a beautiful 35mm print in the TIFF Cinémathèque program. A collaborative effort between Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, William Klein, Joris Ivens, Agnès Varda and Claude Lelouch, Far from Vietnam lays out its position in the opening minutes: America’s military involvement in Vietnam is another “war of the rich waged against revolutionary struggles intended to establish governments that do not benefit the rich.” The bulk of the film then supports that argument via montage, juxtaposing footage of American jets taking off from the deck of an aircraft carrier with images of Vietnamese women building make-shift air raid shelters out of concrete. Crowds of World War II vets chant “Bomb Hanoi!” while a young man holds his child and chants “Naaaaa-palm! Naa! Naa! Naaaaa-palm!” before adding with a sigh, “Kids like this are being burned alive. Kids like this.” A television broadcast of General Westmoreland discussing the “accidents and mechanical failures” that had resulted in a few unfortunate civilian casualties is cut against footage of a mangled Vietnamese child receiving CPR.

Far from Vietnam is agit-prop. It was made as agit-prop and still reads as agit-prop (still-relevant agit-prop, unfortunately). It’s also a masterpiece. If tens of thousands of YouTube activists have co-opted the techniques of films like this, none have matched Marker’s violent cutting. The final sequence is as frenzied, exhausting, and incisive as anything I’ve ever seen. The film is also smart enough and self-aware enough to acknowledge and address the most obvious counter-arguments. “It gets complicated,” Claude Ridder says during the long, scripted monologue that is Resnais’ contribution to the film. The Ridder character plays the role of the conflicted intellectual, echoing and complicating a later, more biting charge from the film — that American society enjoys “the luxury of having students who protest” while slaves and farmers fight. Godard plays the role of Godard, critiquing the problems of representation and the very form of Far from Vietnam. His segment opens with a close up of a camera lens, which in the context of the film becomes one more violent machine in a mechanised war. It’s echoed nicely by Klein’s section, a moving profile of the widow of Norman Morrison, the American Quaker whose self-immolation outside the Pentagon became a media sensation.

Far from Afghanistan

That Far from Afghanistan pales in comparison with the film that inspired it is hardly a damning critique. I can’t think of another piece of agit-prop made in the past 45 years that wouldn’t suffer the same fate. But I wish it were a better film in its own right. Gianvito opens the piece with “My Heart Swims in Blood,” in which he juxtaposes shots of bourgeois comforts (shopping malls, tanning beds, pedicures, dogshow groomers) and a middle-class American man (Andre Gregory) trying to sleep against dry, voiceover recitations of first-hand accounts of civilian deaths and news reports concerning the war. Jost‘s segment, “Empire’s Cross”, is a straight-forward collage that combines split-screen images of 9/11 and bomb-sighting footage with a soundtrack that mashes up military radio transmissions, Eisenhower’s “Cross of Iron” speech, and ominous music. Inspired by the testimony of a U.S. Army war veteran, Martin’s “The Long Distance Operator” is a narrative short about the men who “pilot” drone attacks from a base in the American southwest. Using footage attained via WikiLeaks and employing actors who are veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Martin explores the emotional trauma suffered by the pilots while also foregrounding the horrifying absurdity of drone warfare.

My two favourite segments of Far from Afghanistan are also the most simple conceptually. In “Afghanistan: The Next Generation,” Yoo cuts together archival footage from a variety of film stocks and video, and the running voiceover has the official tone of a National Geographic documentary. Only at the end of the segment does Yoo identify the source of her found footage, a U.S. Information Agency film about the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It’s a simple but devastating irony, and Yoo’s montage exposes the cruelties that are otherwise elided by the formal conventions of State-sanctioned propaganda. Like Gianvito and Martin, Wilkerson uses his segment to bring the war home but does so more directly and with unapologetic pathos. “Fragments of Dissolution” is built from interviews with women who have lost family members under tragic circumstances. We see two of the interviewees, a young widow and a middle-aged mother, whose husband and son, respectively, committed suicide after serving overseas deployments. The other interviews are heard only in voiceover. As we listen to women describe, with deep sorrow and anger, the children, brothers, and friends who died while warming themselves beside portable space heaters, Wilkinson shows long, static, black-and-white images shot within their burned out homes. Each death was the result of an “illegal hookup”, according to Detroit Edison, who had shut off the victims’ power for lack of payment. Wilkinson’s segment subtly but powerfully recalculates the costs of the West’s latest forgotten war.

Wavelengths: Featurettes

Viola

The great discovery of TIFF 2012 was Matías Piñeiro’s Viola, a fantasia on love that dances between dreams, theatrical performances and a kind of hyper-sensual reality. “When he was singing, I thought I truly loved him,” the title character says in the film’s closing line. It’s typical of Piñeiro’s fluid perspective — a wistful, past-tense comment on a joyful present. Had I not known Piñeiro is barely 30 years old, I might have guessed this was an “old man” movie. His acute attention to potential love (or infatuation) is almost nostalgic, as if that surplus of feeling is so profound because it was always so fleeting. There are three kisses in the entire film, each significant in its own way, but like the particular scenes from Shakespeare that Piñeiro cuts and pastes into his dialogue, all of Viola is charged with barely-suppressed desire. I don’t know how else to put it: this is a really horny movie.

Except for a brief interlude in which we see Viola riding her bicycle through town, delivering packages for her and her boyfriend’s music- and film-bootlegging business, Piñeiro and cinematographer Fernando Lockett adhere to a unique visual strategy throughout the film. Each scene is built from only a handful of shots. Characters are typically framed in close-up, usually from slightly above and with a very shallow, always-shifting depth of field. The camera moves often but in small and smooth gestures. And, most importantly, nearly all character movement happens along the z-axis.

That’s all worth mentioning, I think, because the form of the film — or, more precisely, the video; Viola sets a new standard by which I’ll judge other indie DV projects — is so integrated with its content. Piñeiro often builds scenes around three characters. In some cases all three participate in the conversation (my two favourites take place in a theatre dressing room and in the back of a mini-van); at other times, two characters talk while a third remains just outside of the frame, either literally or metaphorically. Viola is a talky movie, and its eroticism (for lack of a better word) is in its language and in its shifting compositions of faces. Piñeiro seems to have found a new form to express the classic love triangle. The closest formal analogy I can think of is the café and tram sequences in Jose Luis Guerin’s In the City of Sylvia (2007), in which faces fold into and out of one another at different depths of field. Viola was paired nicely with Gabriel Abrantes’s Birds, a lo-fi, 16mm mash-up of ideas, most of which flew by me (no pun intended) on a first viewing. Told in Greek and Creole, it adapts Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds, turning it into an ironic commentary on the legacies of colonialism in Haiti.

Mekong Hotel

Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s  Mekong Hotel is a small film. It feels homemade, even by Apitchatpong’s small-scale standards, which was reflected in the mixed reviews that greeted its premiere at Cannes. Shot at a hotel in northern Thailand near the border with Laos, the film is built from casual conversations, most of them held on a patio overlooking the swollen Mekong River. Placid in tone and self-consciously informal in style, Mekong Hotel is also deeply moving, especially in the final minutes, when the ghosts that have haunted so much of Apitchatpong’s recent work become embodied by a mother and daughter, who mourn for all of the mothers and daughters who have been lost in the region’s tragic past. “Daughter, I miss you,” the mother says. “I hate that my life has become this.” Apitchatpong has a kind of super-human sensitivity and attentiveness to beauty and sorrow. I’m beginning to think of him as the other side of the David Lynch coin.

Big in Vietnam

Mekong Hotel was paired with Mati Diop’s Big in Vietnam, which in some respects is the messy, opaque film I wanted Tabu to be. When an actor disappears into the woods while filming a low-budget adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons, the Vietnamese director walks off the shoot and goes wandering through Marseille until she finds a karaoke bar and meets a man, also Vietnamese, of her generation. Diop then crosscuts between the film shoot, now being directed by the woman’s son, and images of the woman and man as they talk and walk among French sunbathers. When writing about Big in Vietnam, I feel obligated to preface every statement with “presumably”. The 25-minute film is elliptical to the extreme, and the thematic connections are never made explicit. Big in Vietnam certainly confirms the promise Diop showed in Atlantiques (2009), one of my favourite films of that year. She’s a digital native with a remarkable talent for finding new and exciting images with low-grade video. Two shots in particular, one taken from aboard a seaside Ferris wheel, the other a long, overexposed tracking shot, are among the finest I saw at the festival.

Wavelengths: Shorts

21 Chitrakoot

The title of the first Wavelengths shorts program, Under a Pacific Sun, alludes to Thomas Demand’s two-minute trompe l’oeil work, Pacific Sun, which uses paper models to restage the eerie movement of furniture aboard a cruise ship rocked by stormy seas. Each of the film’s 2,400 frames was shot individually and at great effort. The result is a breezy curiosity, a viral video inspired by a viral video. The rest of the program was quite strong, however. I especially enjoyed the pairing of Shambhavi Kaul’s 21 Chitrakoot and Fern Silva’s Concrete Parlay, two smart and playful found footage pieces. Kaul’s source material is video from a popular Indian TV show of the 1980s, a fantasy series that used rudimentary chroma-key effects to create otherworldly vistas. I appreciate the catholicity of Kaul’s approach. The footage can’t escape its cheesy, of-its-moment-ness, but the pleasures of 21 Chitrakoot have little to do with kitsch. The film is nostalgic for lost visionary imaginations in a way that recalls steampunk. That Concrete Parlay is likewise concerned with images of “the Orient” is obvious from its central, organising symbol, the magic carpet. Silva includes the carpet in two forms: found footage from an anonymous, low-budget children’s film and a green-screen tourist attraction in Egypt. Images of the magic carpet serve as bridges between the 18-minute film’s sections, transporting viewers across space and time, culminating with a stop at Tehrir Square during the revolution. Concrete Parlay ends with a sequence of high-angle landscapes that were shot, I assume, from the vantage of a hot air balloon we see being inflated earlier in the film. Into this footage Silva cuts a close-up of a man staring off at an animal in the distance, making the images momentarily subjective and reminding us that as tourists we’re always only looking at.

Class Picture

The third shorts program, I Am Micro, was among the very best I’ve seen in my eight years attending Wavelengths. A collection of portraits (loosely defined), the screening featured Nicky Hamlyn’s time-lapse diptych, The Transit of Venus 1 and 2 (2005, 2012), which offers an instructive study in contrasts. The first is stark white movement across a black background; the second captures the movement of clouds across a stunning sunset. Vincent Grenier’s latest video, Waiting Room, was shot entirely at his son’s pediatrician’s office. It’s fitting, I suppose, that it was programmed alongside a film by Nathaniel Dorsky, as both filmmakers teach viewers how to observe the world immediately in front of them with greater curiosity and reverence. The highlight of Waiting Room is a sequence near the end when Grenier discovers that the pulsing bursts of light from an overhead fluorescent bulb are falling in and out of rhythm with the frame rate of his small, consumer-grade camera, revealing that what appears to the naked eye as constant white light is, in fact, waves of yellow. (Ernie Gehr’s Departure, which screened in the Under a Pacific Sun program, plays with DV frame rates and naturally-occurring visual rhythms in similar ways.) Class Picture, by the Filipino artist collective Tito & Tito, is, as the title implies, a portrait of twenty or so school children posed on a beach. The one-sentence program note claims that the process for making it involved converting “a single 16mm colour strip into washed-out 35mm.” Beyond that, I don’t have a clue what I was looking at, but Class Picture is sublime. The image seems constantly on the verge of vanishing into the ether, a fitting expression of childhood.

I Am Micro

The film that gave the program its name, Shumona Goel and Shai Heredia’s I Am Micro, opens with a slow tracking shot in a darkened room. As the camera glides from left to right, the tall, narrow windows directly in front of it take on the appearance of frames on a strip of film. It’s a remarkable and fitting image for I Am Micro, which is an ode to cinema and a lament for the Indian independent film industry. Shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm, the very material of the film registers consciously as an act of defiance. Its lush, grainy, black-and-white images of an abandoned film lab look like they were rescued from the 1950s, fragments of a lost treasure, and Goel and Heredia’s interview with Kamal Swaroop gives voice to the economic realities and requisite personal sacrifices that greet independent artists in India. (Swaroop has himself managed to complete only two films, Ghashiram Kotwai in 1976 and Om Darbadar in 1988.)

The program also included two films that can be more easily classified as portraits. Ich auch, auch, ich auch (Me too, too, me too) is the latest of Friedl vom Gröller’s studies of her aged mother, now bed-ridden and lost in dementia. Piss-tinted and shaking as if the film had jumped a sprocket, the image is reminiscent of an Expressionist horror picture. Gröller’s mother at one point rolls over and looks directly into the camera, and that stare combined with the terrifying, nonsensical ramblings of her roommate generate a gut-punch of anxiety — anxiety tied to death and human decay, generally, but also to that shameful ambivalence felt by an adult child for his or her dying parent. Ich auch, auch, ich auch is as concise and masterful an expression of dread as one is likely to encounter. As a kind of antidote to Gröller’s film, Picard also programmed selected video works by Francesca Woodman, all of them shot in her studio while still a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. Despite the spectre of Woodman’s suicide only a few years later, these self-portraits are delightfully engaging. The videos are black-and-white and warped by time, but they capture the joy of artistic experimentation and discovery. “Oh, I’m really pleased!” she says to her camera operator after standing up and admiring the pattern her naked, paint-covered body left on the studio floor. The sound of her voice, playful and proud, is revealing in ways her famous photographs can’t quite match.

August and After

I Am Micro concluded with Nathaniel Dorsky’s August and After, my favourite film at TIFF. The word I keep using to describe it is “breathe”. It breathes, and in ways that seem to mark a significant evolution in Dorsky’s recent work. His camera is moving more, and it’s moving into open spaces, even capturing portraits (of filmmaker George Kuchar and actress Carla Liss soon before each passed away) and ending on a long shot of a ship out at sea. For the second year in a row Dorsky’s film literally blew a fuse in the Jackman Hall projection booth, and I couldn’t have been more happy about it because it gave me a second chance to look at what might be the most beautiful filmed image I’ve ever seen. It’s a shot of a flag billowing against a dark sky, which Dorsky filmed as a reflection in a window. That image alone is staggering, but it becomes downright transcendent when, miraculously, a mannequin emerges from shadows on the other side of the glass. Only after the mannequin vanished again did I notice, at the top of the reflected image, clouds passing in front of the sun. It’s the essence of Dorsky’s cinema reduced to a single shot: shadows and light transforming before our eyes into something else, something revelatory, edifying, and ineffable.

Fall Premieres

Dormant Beauty

Inspired by the case of Eluana Englaro, an Italian woman who spent seventeen years in a vegetative state and ignited a national cause célèbre, Marco Bellocchio’s Dormant Beauty tackles the subject of euthanasia by weaving together four stories. In the first, a Senator (Tony Servillo) with first-hand experience of the issue prepares to cast a vote that pits his conscience against his party. His daughter (Alba Rohrwacher), while participating in pro-life demonstrations, falls for a man whose emotionally-troubled brother is arrested while protesting for the right to die. In the third story, a beautiful drug addict (Maya Sansa) with suicidal tendencies is nursed back to life — perhaps in more ways than one — by a handsome doctor (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio). And, finally, a famous actress (Isabelle Huppert) abandons her career, becomes a recluse, and dedicates her life to caring for her comatose daughter, praying to God for a miracle.

As that summary should suggest, Dormant Beauty is in many respects standard, made-for-TV fare. The script hits every predictable beat. When two characters argue, each actor waits patiently for the other to finish his or her line before responding. Huppert’s devout Catholic whispers on-the-nose lines like, “I can’t hope Rosa wakes up unless I have innocence, unless I have faith.” And yet Bellocchio makes it so much damn fun to watch, especially the story line involving the Senator, which he turns into a Juvenalian satire of politics in a media age. Nearly every shot catches a glimpse of a TV screen in the background that is tuned to coverage of the vote, including several scenes set in the bizarre underworld of the legislative baths, where naked Senators consult with a mephistophelean character known only as Lo psichiatra (The Psychiatrist), who offers political advice and anti-depressants by the handful. I especially like one shot near the end, when Senators come rushing through a door after a vote and by some trick of the camera (a really long lens that flattens depth?), the Senate chamber appears to have been replaced completely by a pixelated video monitor. Dormant Beauty is a bit of a disappointment after Bellocchio’s previous film, the excellent Vincere (2009) — it loses momentum each time Belocchio cuts away from the Senator and his daughter — but its best moments were some of the most exciting of the festival.

Something in the Air

Set three years after May ’68 and loosely inspired by Olivier Assayas’ own political and artistic coming-of-age, Something in the Air follows 17 year-old Gilles (Clement Metayer) from his first direct action in the student movement to a sojourn through Italy to his eventual return to Paris, where he studies art and apprentices under his father in the commercial movie business while attending programs of experimental films at night. Something in the Air offers an interesting point of comparison with Dormant Beauty. In both cases, the writer-directors produced fairly banal scripts, but whereas Bellocchio frequently generates new and exciting images from the material, Assayas’s direction is strangely anonymous and unremarkable. For a film about beautiful young people discovering sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, and revolution, Something in the Air is inert and humourless. Boring, even.

I did enjoy, however, some of the ironies built into Assayas’s backward glance. Something in the Air tackles a relatively un-sexy moment in the history of the Left and its heroes are refreshingly unheroic. More radicalism tourist than party soldier, Gilles is chastised in one scene by older revolutionaries for believing the reports of bodies washing up in Maoist China. And poor Christine (Lola Créton) abandons Gilles for a group of revolutionary filmmakers only to end up answering telephones and washing their dishes. Assayas’s version of the post-’68 Left is more than a bit sexist, and the concurrent rise of second-wave feminism is felt in the film — intentionally and ironically, I think — by its absence.

Gebo and the Shadow

I won’t pretend to know anything about Raul Brandão beyond what I’ve just learned from his Wikipedia page — that he became a journalist while working in Portugal’s Ministry of War, that the most productive period in his writing life came after retiring from that career, and that he’s an important figure in Portuguese Modernism. Gebo and the Shadow, the latest film from 104 year-old Manoel de Oliveira, is as far as I can tell an adaptation of one section of Brandão’s 1923 novel, Os Pescaderos, a sympathetic study of the beautiful and tragic lives of the hard-working residents of various fishing villages. Although Brandão is a generation older than Eugene O’Neill, Oliveira’s film plays out like A Long Day’s Journey into Night. Stagy even relative to Oliveira’s other recent work, Gebo and the Shadow is built from several long, late-night conversations that lead inevitably toward ruination. “It was you and her that bound me to life,” Gebo (Michael Lonsdale) tells his wife Doroteia (Claudia Cardinale), and in that one line is contained all of the film’s tragedy. The daily labours of life, the lies and deceptions, the sacrifices — Gebo’s every action is made in despairing love and generosity for Doroteia and their daughter-in-law Sofia (Leonor Silveira).

Cinematically, Gebo and the Shadow is a fairly simple film. (I heard a fellow critic at TIFF refer to it as a script table-read.) The opening moments are fantastic, though. The first shot is an unnaturally lit, not-quite-realistic image of Gebo’s son João (Ricardo Trepa), who we see in profile, his face and body casting black shadows. (I must admit this allusion to the film’s title was obvious to me only in hindsight.) After a quick, impressionistic recreation of one of João’s crimes, Oliveira cuts to the small room in which nearly all of the remainder of the film occurs. Sofia stands in front of a window, illuminated by candlelight, and as the camera dollies, we catch a glimpse of Doroteia in reflection. It’s a lovely shot that reveals the full physical space in which the characters exist, while also setting up the female leads as mirror images of one another. An especially nice touch is that the first image of Doroteia is blurred. At first it’s possible to mistake her for a literal reflection of Sofia, one of the film’s many reminders of the passage of time — although no reminder is more shocking than watching the aged faces of Cardinale and Jeanne Moreau.

Barbara

Every other contemporary director of traditional narrative films would do well to study Christian Petzold. From shot to shot, cut to cut, Barbara is smart, precise, classical filmmaking at its best. There are no radical or self-conscious gestures in his style. Most sequences boil down to some variation on establishing shot / medium shot / close up / point of view. Here, Petzold drops us into the secretive perspective of the title character, a doctor (Nina Hoss) who has been relocated by East German authorities to a provincial seaside town. Barbara conforms to all the plot conventions of the “beautiful stranger” genre, which makes the final act, and the final shot, in particular, a bit too neat for my tastes, but the pleasures are all in the filmmaking. There are no clues given about the location of the town, but in the recurring, fairy-tale-like images of Hoss bicycling through the woods, the trees are always being blown by strong gusts, and seagulls can be heard around her; there’s no actual mention of the sea until the film is almost over. Likewise, a colleague who visits Barbara’s apartment asks if she plays the piano, but, again, we don’t actually see the instrument in her room until a scene much later in the film. Petzold’s precision allows him to create a world with suggestions.

The easy response to Joss Whedon’s low-budget take on Much Ado About Nothing is that there’s nothing in the film that wasn’t already on the page. And that’s probably true, I suppose, but the film is so much fun, and it was so obviously made for fun, that I can’t really fault it for just being charming and droll. Whedon’s signature here is that he approaches the material as he would any other romantic comedy, and as usual he proves especially good at inventing excuses for his actors to behave like real people in a hyper-real scenario. The cast seldom just deliver lines; they deliver lines while cleaning up bottles after a party or strumming a guitar or dripping with pool water or walking back and forth to the pantry while fixing a pot of coffee. Every high school English teacher who has ever tried to convince his or her students that Shakespeare was the sitcom writer of his day now has proof, all the way down to a spit take and pratfall.

Sightseers

Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers is an interesting and well-made film that I might have liked even more had I not seen it with an audience that laughed loudly at every brutal killing. I don’t blame them for laughing. The film is designed for laughs. But if I’d watched it alone, it would have been a straight-up horror film. Sightseers concerns a 30-something couple, Tina (Alice Lowe) and Chris (Steve Oram), who set off on a long-planned, idyllic RV tour of Northern England. After Chris gets away with accidentally killing a man who had earlier insulted him, the two instigate an increasingly ridiculous murder spree. Wheatley has a sharp eye, and he and cinematographer Laurie Rose make exceptional use of the 2.35:1 widescreen frame, giving epic scope to this relatively small story. If I can convince myself that Sightseer’s jocular sadism is all in the service of a coherent allegory — the misguided self-sacrifice of relationships and working-class anger are the best bets — then I might also convince myself it’s a very good film.

Other Discoveries

Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica

First, a quick game of Six Degrees of Brazilian Cinema. Hermila Guedes, who plays the title character in Marcelo Gomes’ Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica, also starred in Gomes’ first feature, Cinema, Aspirins, and Vultures (2005), which was co-written by Karim Ainouz. Guedes also starred in Ainouz’s breakthrough film, Love for Sale (2006). Ainouz was at TIFF last year with The Silver Cliff, a character study of an attractive, 30-something dentist who suffers an identity crisis after her husband, without warning, leaves her. Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica is a character study of an attractive, 30-something doctor who suffers an identity crisis after her father is diagnosed with a vague critical condition. I mention all of that because Veronica is familiar in the worst ways. The Silver Cliff was one of my favourite undistributed films of 2011; Veronica, inevitably, suffers by comparison.

Veronica is book-ended by what we eventually learn is the main character’s vision of ecstasy (or something like that), a strangely prudish orgy on a sun-drenched beach. The opening image is interesting simply because it lacks any context: what’s not to like about beautiful, co-mingled naked bodies rolling in the sand and floating in shallow waters? When the vision returns at the end of the film, immediately after an unnecessarily long, faux-dramatic shot of Veronica being baptised by sea spray and a standard-issue “making a new start” montage, it’s reduced to a banality. Perhaps this is Gomes’ stab at transcendence? There’s just no magic in his mise-en-scene, and certainly nothing approaching the rapturous image of Alessandra Negrini dancing her ass off in The Silver Cliff. Even Gomes’ documentary-like footage of carnival is boring. Seeing this film 24 hours after Far from Vietnam made me wonder what Chris Marker could have made of those crowd scenes. Talk about paling in comparison.

Nights with Theodore

One pleasure of a 67-minute film like Sébastien Betbeder’s Nights with Theodore is that it necessarily breaks convention in the most fundamental way. As seasoned film watchers, we’re familiar, deep in our muscle memory, with 85- to 120-minute run times and predictable act breaks. I feel time differently, more consciously, when I watch a film like this because the shape of the narrative is rare and peculiar. In the case of Theodore, this unmoored-from-convention quality is essential to its success. A fragile nocturne of a film, it imagines the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in Paris as a fairytale wonderland pulsing with occult power. Betbeder cuts throughout the film between the main storyline — Theodore (Pio Marmaï) and Anna (Agathe Bonitzer) are young lovers who leap the park fence night after night, irresistibly — and documentary material about the park itself. The film opens with archival maps, photographs and film clips and with a brief history of the park’s founding. We see video footage of the park during the daytime when it’s teeming with joggers, tourists and picnickers. And Betbeder also includes a brief interview with an environmental psychiatrist who recounts the story (truth or fiction?) of a man whose bouts with depression corresponded directly with his proximity to the park. I’d like to see Theodore again before declaring whether all of the pieces fit together to offer anything more than an impressionistic portrait of a place transformed by history, imagination and obsessive love.

Tower

Kazik Radwanski establishes the formal rules of Tower in the opening minutes of the film and then, to his credit, follows them to the letter until the closing shot. The first image is of Derek (Derek Bogart) digging a hole in the woods. The camera is inches away from his face, where it will remain throughout the film, only occasionally panning or cutting away to the people around him. Tower takes the trademark cinematographic style of the Dardennes’ The Son to its logical extreme, executing a disarmingly intimate study of a 34 year-old man who lives in the basement of his parents’ Toronto home. The key word there is “intimate”. Derek is an awkward, unmotivated, self-defeating guy, but he’s socially competent. He dates someone throughout most of the film. He’s invited to parties. He has friendly, if superficial, relationships with his co-workers. The camera, in effect, gets closer to Derek than any of the people in his life do, and as a result the cinematographic style of Tower emphasises real physical proximity. Films often make physical isolation a metaphor for emotional detachment; Tower is about the thing itself. Intimacy is felt profoundly in the film because it is so profoundly lacking. Tower is in many respects a classic “first film”. It has the whiff of autobiography — Derek toils away in his bedroom on a short animated film that he’s reluctant to share with the world — and I quickly realised the film would stop rather than end. Also, because it’s a kind of gimmick film (the form of it, I mean), I’m not sure what to think of Radwanski or how to predict his next move, but I’m eager to see what he does next.

Toronto International Film Festival
6-16 September 2012
Festival website: http://tiff.net/thefestival