New Directions: The 33rd Toronto International Film Festival

This essay was originally published at Senses of Cinema.

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In the weeks preceding the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), there was, among industry watchers, critics and amateur cinephiles alike, a shared curiosity – and in many corners concern – about the changes afoot. 2008 was shaping up to be something of a transition year for the fest, the last hurrah before the grand unveiling of the TIFF Group’s Bell Lightbox, a $200 million dollar downtown commercial and residential development that promises to dramatically alter Toronto’s cinematic landscape. If the Lightbox opens as scheduled in time for TIFF ‘09, the festival will complete its shift several blocks to the south, a move that began in earnest this year with the addition of the new AMC 24 multiplex at the intersection of Yonge and Dundas and the elimination of the single screen at the Royal Ontario Museum further north. However, the full extent of the changes was not felt by loyal festival-goers until it was announced that, for the first time, individual donors would receive preferential treatment in the lottery for tickets, and passholders – those in the public who, year after year, shell out hundreds of dollars to see thirty or forty films – would be required to pay full price for additional tickets if they wished to attend screenings at the Elgin Theatre (a.k.a the Visa Screening Room). The move threatened to tarnish TIFF’s reputation as the most democratic of the world’s great film festivals. Toronto Sun critic Bruce Kirkland called the changes “a farce” and demanded the TIFF Group “give the Toronto film festival back to the people.”

TIFF has been reorganising internally as well. In December 2007 Noah Cowan was named Artistic Director of the Bell Lightbox, after serving four years alongside Piers Handling as Co-Director of the festival, and longtime programmer Cameron Bailey was promoted into Cowan’s former post. In an interview with Indiewire two weeks before the festival began, Bailey dismissed the notion that the programming team had given greater priority to premieres, and he noted, instead, the tremendous variety of international cinema on display. “One of the things I’m proudest of is we have 64 countries represented this year,” he said, “which is up significantly from last year when we had 55.” By the time the final schedule was announced, the slight shifts in programming emphasis could be objectively measured. The Discovery program, which spotlights emerging filmmakers and thus features a higher percentage of premieres, had doubled in size, while Vanguard and Visions, the programs dedicated to work that pushes boundaries in terms of content and cinematic form, were each reduced by half.

Whether this rebalancing of programs represents a long-term change in creative direction for the festival or simply a new approach to marketing remains the subject of some speculation. Of the 19 films in last year’s Visions program, nearly half would likely have been reclassified as Contemporary World Cinema or Special Presentations by ‘08 standards. To cite just one example, Hana Makhmalbaf’s Buda as sharm foru rikht (Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame) screened last year in Visions, while Samira Makhmalbaf’s more challenging Asbe Du-Pa (Two-Legged Horse) was programmed in Contemporary World Cinema. Even more curious was the conspicuous absence of many well-regarded films by established auteurs, including those whose work has been actively supported by TIFF in the past. Both of Lucrecia Martel’s previous features, La Cienaga (The Swamp, 2001) and La Niña santa (The Holy Girl, 2004), played at TIFF, but La Mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman) was a no-show. Likewise, Hong Sang-soo’s Bam gua nat (Night and Day) and Philippe Garrel’s La Frontière de l’aube (Frontier of Dawn) were also missing, as were a host of films that had premiered in the Un Certain regard and Director’s Fortnight programs at Cannes, including new work by James Toback, Raymond Depardon, Joachim Lafosse, and James Gray. Again, whether these absences resulted from increased competition with other festivals (Telluride, Venice and New York, in particular) or out of a desire to rebrand TIFF for industry buyers is unclear. As a consequence, though, there was a shared feeling on opening day that TIFF had already fallen short of its goal of being North America’s premiere showcase for the best in world cinema.

Note: Because the Cannes ‘08 lineup has already received so much critical attention, I’ve focused the majority of this festival overview on films that premiered at Toronto, Venice, Berlin and Locarno. My favorites among the Cannes films not mentioned below were Arnaud Desplechin’s Un Conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale), Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, and Albert Serra’s El Cant dels Ocells (Birdsong). I also greatly admired Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Aruitemo aruitemo (Still Walking), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Le Silence de Lorna (Lorna’s Silence), Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, and Steve McQueen’s Hunger. The single best narrative film I saw at TIFF was Claire Denis’s 35 Rhums (35 Shots of Rum), which premiered out of competition at Venice. (See next issue of Senses of Cinema for my interviews with Denis, Serra and Alonso).

Wavelengths

In its third year under the direction of Andrea Picard, the Wavelengths program, which spotlights experimental film and video, got even stronger. As in 2007, all six Wavelengths screenings were sellouts, and those of us who crammed into the auditorium at Jackman Hall each night were treated to many of the very best films the festival had to offer. Among the featured filmmakers were Nathaniel Dorsky, Jean-Marie Straub, Pat O’Neill, David Gatten, Jim Jennings, James Benning and Jennifer Reeves. As has come to be expected, Wavelengths was formally rigorous – Picard is a curator with a particular and learned taste – and with only one exception, Astrid Ofner’s Sag es mir Dienstag (Tell Me on Tuesday), which would have been too long at half the length, the program presented a forceful argument on behalf of the avant-garde. In a year when the quality of narrative filmmaking experienced something of a lull, the Wavelengths films were consistently astonishing, didactic (in the best sense of the word) and knotted.

The opening shot of James Benning’s RR divides the frame precisely down the middle. A train passes to the left, beginning at a vanishing point in the exact center of the screen, and on the right is a commercial street in a small American town. The street runs parallel with the tracks, and between them is a gravel area where several cars are parked, each one facing the road. Little changes while we watch the train rush toward us until, finally, a truck comes driving up the road from the bottom-right corner of the frame and parks in the gravel. However, instead of pulling forward a few feet of the spot and then backing into it, as I would have done, the driver saves time by driving directly into the lot, swinging around in a wide arc and then pulling into his spot from behind. That’s when you notice that all of the cars are parked at the same slight angle, that they’ve all followed that same arc, that this is how things are done in this particular town. RR was, for me, the high point of the festival. Built from 43 shots like the first – long static takes of trains entering, passing through, and then exiting the frame – RR is like a variation on the Wallace Stevens poem: there are, one realises while watching this film, at least thirteen ways of looking at a railroad. These trains are documentary, Americana, music and noise, autobiography, commerce, pedagogy, elements of design, and on and on. They are also a farewell of sorts for Benning, who has announced that this will be his last project to be shot on film. RR ends with an extreme long shot of a freight train passing through a landscape dominated by towering windmills. The train cars, as they stream by, look uncannily like frames of film, and the windmills spin slowly like the reels of a projector. The train comes to a stop as the last few feet of 16mm celluloid work through the mechanism behind us. There are no end credits, just a quick cut to black, so the print in the final seconds is scratched and scarred, a physical reminder of what will be lost in our digital century.

The other long-form Wavelengths film was Jennifer Reeves’s exceptional dual-projection work, When It was Blue. Assembled from two synchronised 16mm films projected onto a single screen, Blue is a complex patchwork of cinematic material and experimental processes. Found footage bleeds into hand-painted imagery; documentary shots are blown into high-contrast, black-and-white etchings; the natural world is rendered as abstraction. Reeves’s subject, generally speaking, is human ecology. Symbolically, the film models a kind of return to Eden. But the experience of watching When It was Blue is much more difficult to describe. Part of its affect is attributable to its length. At 67 minutes it is four or five or ten times longer than most of the other films in the program and, therefore, made very different demands on the viewer. I’ll admit to being relatively new to avant-garde cinema – and even newer to writing about it – but watching Reeves’s film reminded me most of seeing Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man (1962-64) for the first time. When It was Blue is a powerfully visceral experience. As Reeves pointed out during her Q&A, with two projectors running simultaneously, her film is literally twice as bright as a typical screening. Blue is physically difficult to watch at times, but it’s clearly that added ability to layer light that makes the film so dynamic, beautiful, and anxiety-causing. The epic length also allows Reeves more room to modulate the rhythms both within individual shots and sequences and between movements. The rhythms are further punctuated by Skúli Sverrisson’s Steve Reich-like score. Seeing When It was Blue accompanied live by Sverrisson was another high point of the festival.

All told, 22 short films screened in Wavelengths – too many to discuss at length here. Pat O’Neill’s Horizontal Boundaries (2003) made a return to Toronto in a beautiful new 35mm print. O’Neill’s 23-minute portrait of Southern California is a kinetic showcase of his printing and compositing skills. His film acknowledges all of the L.A. clichés – the palm trees, beaches, freeways, and movies (by way of snippets of film noir dialogue) – but still manages to defamiliarise them. Eriko Sonoda’s Garden/ing was a really pleasant surprise. Shot entirely in her home and from only a few camera positions, Garden/ing takes an age-old subject of art, the still life, and uses it to explore what it might mean to create handmade films in a digital age. I’ve now seen three Jim Jennings films at TIFF, Close Quarters (2004), Silk Ties (2006) and Public Domain (2007), and yet I’m no closer to being able to describe their beauty. Jennings’s latest is a brief study of New York City that is constantly surprising, inventive, and sublime. I was glad to finally see two of Ben Russell’s films, Black and White Trypps Number Three and Trypps #5 (Dubai). The former is both a reinvention of the concert film and a staggering portrait of ecstasy; the latter operates on the Gertrude Stein principle: a neon sign is a neon sign is a neon sign. Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer’s A Flash in the Metropolitan takes a familiar experience, the act of walking through a museum, and makes it strange. The formal gimmick of the film is that Nashashibi and Skaer work in total darkness, only briefly illuminating artifacts with flashes from a spotlight. Doing so allows them to precisely control our exposure to each image, and so the film functions best as an experiment in rhythm – the rhythm of real time that we experience in the theatre but also a kind of biological rhythm. I could practically feel my eyes dilating and constricting. Finally, Wavelengths opened with a pairing of two landmark filmmakers, Nathanial Dorsky, who brought two new films to Toronto, and Jean-Marie Straub, whose Le Genou d’Artémide is his first film since the death of Danièle Huillet. In my post-screening conversation with Dorsky, we discussed his work and Straub’s.

Premieres

Although I saw very few narrative films that had their world premiere at TIFF, my favourite among them was Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, which is earning much-deserved praise for Christian McKay’s genuinely uncanny performance in the title role. That anyone – anyone – could so closely resemble Welles and so effortlessly reproduce his barreling voice would have been unimaginable before this film, but McKay’s greater feat is his knack for the raised brow, the glimmering eye, and the sly smile – or, in a word, the charisma – that makes the young Orson Welles of Citizen Kane, The Lady from Shanghai and The Third Man so electric. Linklater has consistently alternated between work-for-hire studio pictures like School of Rock (2003) and The Bad News Bears (2005) and smaller films developed in-house, such as Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). Me and Orson Welles falls somewhere in between. The adaptation of Robert Kaplow’s novel was shepherded for several years by Linklater’s longtime associates Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo and was financed independently. (As of this writing, the film has yet to secure American distribution). Linklater’s formal style is typically unassuming, but the central story of an idealistic teenage artist (Zac Efron) echoes his career-long concern with the creative life, particularly in the final scene, in which Efron and a young writer walk off into the future, determined to become engaged passionately with the world around them. Linklater has great fun with the material, inserting occasional allusions to Godard and Carol Reed, and his recreation of Welles’s production of Julius Caesar captures much of the transgressive excitement that made it such a sensation seventy years ago.

In Between Days, the debut feature from Korean-American filmmaker So Yong Kim, was a highlight of TIFF in 2006, and her follow-up, Treeless Mountain, continues in the same impressive, quietly observational style. Kim returned to South Korea to shoot this autobiographical story of two young sisters whose destitute mother abandons them with relatives when she sets off to find their father or work. Kim restricts the scope of the film to the older sister’s point of view, and her real achievement is eliciting such a convincing performance from six year-old Hee Yeon Kim. As in In Between Days Kim avoids the use of non-diegetic sound and shoots her fiction like a student of the Frederick Wiseman school of documentary filmmaking. She creates two utterly convincing worlds, one in and around the impoverished home of the girls’ aunt, another at their grandparents’ farm, but there’s a nagging slightness to the film. Treeless Mountain is, finally, a “child in peril” story and shares the genre’s ready-made appeals to audience sympathy, along with its fleeting pleasures.

By comparison, Pablo Augero’s remarkable debut feature, Salamandra, which premiered at Cannes, approaches a similar subject from a slightly different tack. In the film’s opening sequence, six year-old Inti (Joaquin Aguila) plays alone in the bathtub of his grandmother’s well-appointed apartment. His toys are an American tank and brightly-coloured magnetic letters with which he spells out, in an ironic moment recalling late-‘60s Godard, “U.S. Army”. His comfort and security is broken a moment later when his mother (Dolores Fonzi) returns unexpectedly from prison and whisks him away to El Bolson, an isolated hippy commune in Patagonia. Aguero, like Inti, was raised among the anarchy and recklessness of El Bolson. “When your life is endangered, you become more alive to the sensations around you,” he said after the screening, and it’s much to his credit that the dizzying cacophony he creates in Salamandra is downright overwhelming. While promoting For Ever Mozart (1996) Godard attacked Western governments for their exploitation of others’ suffering in order to promote political agendas: “We made images in the movies, when we began, in order to remember. TV is made to forget. We see Sarajevo, okay, we forget in two seconds. The same moment that we are looking, we forget.” Child in peril stories, like “Feed the Children” commercials, are typically designed to appeal to the simplest and most disposable of emotions: pity. While Inti and his mother are both deserving of our pity, Aguero precisely counterbalances that response, eliciting also our admiration, fear, disgust, respect, and curiosity. Salamandra is certainly difficult to forget.

Belgian director Fien Troch’s second feature, Unspoken, premiered in TIFF’s Visions program and was a considerable disappointment. Four years after the disappearance of their young daughter, a man (Bruno Todeschini) and his partner (Emmanuelle Devos) are slowly disintegrating. Each struggles with loss, regret, guilt, and anger, but their struggles remain … wait for it … unspoken. At the risk of being glib about a film that takes seriously the consequences of tragedy, Troch seems to have determined that, by simply shooting the faces of actors who are pretending to suffer, her camera will somehow discover, as if by intuition, an essential truth about suffering. Unspoken, however, is too anemic in its characterisations, too ham-fisted in its symbolism, and too predictably offensive in its plotting to find any such truth. (If “offensive” seems a bit strong, I’ll just add that Kornel Mundruczó’s Delta was the only feature I saw at TIFF that includes a more unnecessary and ugly sexual assault on its heroine. The less said about Delta, the better.)

Another great disappointment of the festival was Bodhan Slama’s The Country Teacher, which received its world premiere a week earlier in Venice. In his previous film, Something Like Happiness (2005), Slama had demonstrated an exceptional economy in his shot-making, using a small handful of intricately choreographed crane shots to capture the seismic shifts occurring in the lives of his characters. In The Country Teacher, that choreography has become conspicuous and awkward. Again and again, his performers hit their marks and recite their lines like well-trained recruits. The style works well enough with seasoned professionals (Pavel Liska is surely one of the great screen actors working today), but Slama’s elaborate shot setups cramp the worthy efforts of his amateurs, particularly the young actor Ladislav Sedivý, whose shaky performance undermines the affect of several scenes. The bigger problem here, though, is the script. Liska plays the title character, a young gay man who has moved to a country town in order to teach and to escape his past life. Once settled, he befriends a widow (Zuzana Bydzovská) and her teenage son (Sedivý), a troubled boy who inevitably becomes the object of his teacher’s desire. The last act of The Country Teacher is a study in slapdash writing, with several characters behaving as if they have suddenly stepped into a different movie, and with a reconciliation that is dishonest and contrived. As an aside, both The Country Teacher and Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan, which I saw back-to-back one afternoon, end with scenes in which the protagonist aids in the live birthing of an animal. It’s not an experience I would care to repeat.

Disconcerting in a completely different way was Nuit de Chien (Tonight), the latest feature from Werner Schroeter. A film that can legitimately wear the cliched descriptor “Kafkaesque”, Tonight depicts the night-long journey of returned war hero Ossorio Vignale (Pascal Greggory), who hopes to find his lover and escape with her before their city crumbles in a vague and ever-shifting revolutionary struggle. Vignale wanders into bars, faces down tyrants, rescues a beautiful child, and encounters several femmes fatales – in other words, he’s a kind of noir hero but one trapped in an absurdist wonderland. Unlike other films in this genre – say, Orson Welles’s The Trial (1962) or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) – there’s no easily-defined menace here, no corporate bureaucracy or sinister conspiracy pulling the strings. Instead, events in the film turn at random on base acts of human cruelty and irrational political ambition. It’s a senseless and violent world, and Schroeter renders it in a shocking Technicolor that harkens to the heydays of radical political cinema in the early-1970s. I’ve rarely been affected so viscerally by a film’s colour palette: in one overlit shot of two women who have been sexually assaulted, Schroeter’s use of high contrast red and white actually made me light-headed. His images are classically Surreal – arresting, confrontational, and defamiliarising.

Michael Winterbottom’s Genova also alludes to cinema of the 1970s. A direct homage to Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), Genova is about a middle-aged professor (Colin Firth) who moves with his two young daughters to Italy after their mother’s tragic death. It’s another interesting experiment from Winterbottom, who over the past decade has averaged more than a film per year. Shifting the dynamic from the loss of a child in the original film to the death of a wife and mother here allows Winterbottom to explore the very different emotional tolls taken on those involved. Genova, like its predecessor, is particularly interested in the ways sexual desire presents itself – almost against the sufferer’s will – as a manifestation of the identity confusion and desperate loneliness that accompanies such a loss. The memorable sex scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now haunts this film as well, both in Firth’s flirtations with an attractive Italian student (Margherita Romoe) and, much more interestingly, in the bittersweet coming-of-age of his teenaged daughter (Willa Holland). Of Winterbottom’s previous films, Genova most resembles, stylistically, 9 Songs, particularly in its use of documentary-like handheld photography and jumpcutting, and both films, I think, share a sympathetic fascination with the pains and mysteries of human intimacy. The ghost in Genova isn’t scary or dangerous but the world it haunts certainly is.

Aging Auteurs

The most illuminating juxtaposition at TIFF this year was two autobiographical essay films by aging auteurs, Terrence Davies’ Of Time and the City and Agnes Varda’s Les Plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès). Davies’ return to filmmaking eight years after The House of Mirth (2000) has been widely lauded since the film’s debut last spring at Cannes. Of Time and the City is an elegiac ode to his childhood home, Liverpool, assembled from found footage, still photos, and contemporary digital video. That Davies’s tone would be nostalgic and bitter is perhaps to be expected – as he documents in the film, Liverpool is enmeshed in his memories with his lapsed Catholicism and his burgeoning homosexuality – but by the final sequence, when he crosscuts images of Liverpool’s classical architecture with the ugly youth who now populate his lost home, Davies has revealed (and seems to be stewing in) his utter disdain for and disengagement from the modern world. Certainly one’s disappointment with life is a suitable subject for art, but the simple beauty of the film’s images and musical cues, in combination with the dulcet rumblings of Davies’s deep-throated recitations of poetry, artfully mask his reactionary bile – at least if the captivated, teary-eyed audience with whom I saw the film is to be trusted.

By comparison, Agnès Varda, who turned eighty last May, remains as curious, witty and creatively engaged as ever. Varda was in Toronto with two films this year, Les Plages d’Agnes and her very first feature, La Pointe courte (1954), which screened in the Dialogues program. It was a clever pairing, as her latest work is a pensive reminiscence about family, loss and art-making, ordered around her lifelong love of the sea. Some of the film’s most charming moments take place in La Pointe courte, the small Mediterranean fishing village where she spent part of her youth and where she set her first fiction. Varda tracks down two boys from the original film (now both in their sixties) and reenacts a scene in which they pull a cart through narrow streets. Varda outfits the cart with a screen and projects onto it her images of them as children – one more moving (in every sense of the word) reflection in a film filled with mirrors, portraits and discarded bits of celluloid. As in her other work of the past decade, Varda here is observant, self-deprecating and blithe, which makes the wistful sequences, particularly her remembrances of Jacques Demy, all the more affecting.

Other Films of Note

Gotz Spielmann’s Revanche was perhaps the most perfectly scripted film I saw at TIFF. What begins as a standard-issue “lovers on the run” movie blossoms in the final acts into something unexpected and genuinely satisfying. Johannes Krisch plays Alex, an ex-con who earns his keep by running errands for a brothel owner. The drudge work allows him to stay in close contact with his lover, Tamara (Irina Potapenko), a Ukrainian prostitute. When their scheme to begin a new life together goes tragically awry, Alex escapes to his grandfather’s farm in the country, where he hides away, doing chores and plotting his next move. Revanche represents a significant leap forward for Spielmann, whose previous film, Antares (2004), is handicapped by its interlocking stories and gimmicky, circular narrative. Here, Spielmann appropriates popular, B-movie conventions but applies to them the same formal rigour and sensitive humanism that we expect to find only in the art house cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, and the like. Actually, the Dardennes are an especially useful point of reference. While Revanche might lack so neat a moral dilemma as Le Fils (The Son, 2002), Spielmann matches them in terms of execution and suspense. (What the Dardennes did for the lumberyard, he’s done for the woodpile.) I’m tempted, even, to argue that Spielmann has performed a more difficult task: while the wonders of Le Fils are discovered in each silent, ambiguous gesture – in the shear physical presence of Olivier Gourmet – Revanche reveals those ambiguities both through the bodies of its actors and through the pages of dialogue they speak. Particularly in a festival environment, where the majority of the films I see are of the slow, contemplative variety, I forget how satisfying great dialogue can be.

Jerichow, the latest from German director Christian Petzold, is another smart, well-crafted genre film. One more variation on the Postman Always Rings Twice theme, it concerns a love triangle between Thomas (Benno Furmann), a veteran of the Afghan-Soviet war, Ali (Hilmi Sozer), a Turkish immigrant who owns a small chain of convenience stores, and Laura (Nina Hoss), the beautiful young woman who married Ali years earlier when he agreed to pay off her debts. Like Revanche, Jerichow wears the trappings of a pulpish noir but transforms gradually into a poignant and politically acute meta-commentary on the genre. Thanks largely to Sozer’s performance, Ali transcends the role of vengeful cuckold and, instead, comes to embody a particular immigrant experience. Jerichow teaches us how we watch film noir, reminding us how easily our sympathies and biases conform to established narratives. When Petzold dismantles that narrative in the film’s final sequence, we are forced to recontextualise Ali and to imagine new, more recognisably human, motivations for his jealousies, nostalgia, and bitterness.

Finally, Mijke de Jong’s Het Zusje van Katia (Katia’s Sister), though far from perfect, is certainly deserving of some critical attention. The film revolves around the performance of Betty Qizmolli, who plays a socially awkward and emotionally impaired teenager. She, her mother (Olga Louzgina) and her older sister Katia (Julia Seijkens) are Russian immigrants living in Amsterdam and surviving on the mother’s earnings as a prostitute. Andrés Barba, the author of the novel on which the film is based, has been commended for his ability to adopt the perspective, if not the actual voice (it’s written in the third person), of a young girl whose innocence and naivete are debilitating. She is a Holy Fool so far removed from the moral complexities of the world that she is literally nameless: when asked in the opening moments of the film what she wants to be when she grows up, the girl can only answer “Katia’s sister”. A friend complained near the end of the festival that he’d seen too many films with “their hearts in the right place”, and this was, for me, a curious exception to the rule. De Jong is working with what is, essentially, a parable, yet her solution to the problem of adaptation is to commit completely to an aesthetic we’ve come to equate, post-Dardennes, with “realism” – natural lighting, handheld photography with a shallow depth of field, and a slightly overexposed and desaturated image. De Jong’s camera rarely leaves the girl’s side or shoots her from a distance of greater than a medium shot. We don’t watch the world in this film, we watch her watching the world, and it’s that formal discipline that keeps Katia’s Sister from falling apart under the weight of its premise.