2007 TIFF Days 1 and 2

My favorite scene in Persepolis takes place at a small kitchen table in the childhood home of writer/illustrator/co-director Marjane Satrapi. An anxious neighbor has dropped in to tell them that her 14-year-old son has been recruited to join the fight against Iraq. Satrapi’s mother — fearless, kind, intractable — comforts her friend, promising, “We’ll talk to him.” The scene ends with a simple voice-over: “Because of my parents, the boy did not go to war.” It’s the kind of moment that could very easily have been cut from the film for the sake of pacing. (And Persepolis does, I think, have some minor pacing problems.) But it’s the level of specificity in the scene, and in the film at large, that makes it so compelling. That moment at the kitchen table so radically transformed Satrapi’s understanding of her parents that now, more than two decades later, she’s still meditating on its significance from the vantage of adulthood. I should also add that the film’s animation is a real pleasure to watch — witty, surprising, and beautiful.

All of Fengming, A Chinese Memoir is summed up in the opening minutes of the first interview. He Fengming takes her seat in front of the camera, where she will remain for nearly all of the next 180 minutes, and begins to tell the story of how her life was forever changed in 1949, when at the age of 17 she left the university to join the staff of a newspaper. “And that,” she laughs, “was the start of my revolutionary career.” Her laugh is sarcastic and a little bitter. “We were so naive back then,” she later tells director Wang Bing. “Back then,” she and her husband were branded as “Rightists” by the Party and were separated from each other and from their two young sons in order to undergo rehabilitation at labor camps. Her husband died in his; she returned briefly to her family before being detained again during the Cultural Revolution. We learn relatively late in the film that Fengming wrote a book-length account of her life in the late-1980s, which proves to be an important detail in understanding the form of Wang’s remarkable film. Shot entirely in long static takes, with only a handful of cuts and quick dissolves, it seems to present an unedited account of Fengming’s story. But her story has been edited — over the course of nearly sixty years, changing slightly with each of the tellings and each of the hours spent hunched over a typewriter and notepad. So, for example, when she describes the night when she discovered her husband had died, her language takes on an uncharacteristic literariness, with extended metaphors and hand-picked symbols. Recounting this most “rehearsed” of her memories, she remains composed and calm, despite the horror and sorrow. When she describes a more recent event, however — one that occurred after she’d written her book and that she’s yet to fully integrate into her life’s narrative — she chokes and sobs. I have two pages of hand-written notes on Fengming, one of my favorite films of the fest, and hope to return to it later.

Hou Hsiao-hsien might be my favorite living director, so I had assumed that the lukewarm reviews of Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge coming out of Cannes weren’t to be trusted. I was right. At this point, midway through the festival, Voyage is among my two or three favorites. I’m hopeless when it comes to writing about Hou, whose films are visceral and emotional experiences for me. A friend asked after the screening if I thought the red balloon was integral to the film — if it was necessary at all — and I realized in answering that, for me, the balloon had acted as a kind of emotional locus: a splash of color and beauty, less symbol than catalyst or accelerant.

Last year at the festival, I assumed I had missed something when I came away ambivalent from Manufactured Landscapes. I discovered Friday night that what I had wanted from Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary was, in fact, something closer in spirit to Peter Hutton’s At Sea, a 60-minute, silent triptych about the birth, life, and death of a modern ship. Hutton’s film begins at a massive boatyard in Korea — one of several aspects of At Sea that reminded me of Claire Denis’s L’Intrus — where we watch, in a series of strange and awesome compositions, the workings of modern technology at its most forceful and elegant. In the middle act, Hutton turns his camera to the sea itself. He booked passage on a trans-Atlantic freighter and filmed the water as it churned beneath him and as it turned the moon’s reflection into abstraction. And the final twenty minutes take place on the shores of Bangladesh, where poor men and boys participate in a growing and dangerous trade: breaking ships with their bare hands and the simplest of tools. The structure of the film makes a compelling (if obvious) argument: “The developing world is our dumping ground,” as Hutton said during the Q&A. But that was less interesting to me than the form of his shot selection and cutting. When a member of the audience challenged Hutton, suggesting that his film would be as effective as a series of still photos, Hutton, non-plussed, responded with a phrase I’ll be regurgitating for years. (I’m paraphrasing.) “It’s very difficult for us to watch a silent film today. Cell phones ring. We’re easily distracted. I’m interested in countering the emotional velocity and the visual velocity of contemporary films.” The film’s form, then, which deliberately challenges our “emotional velocity,” offers a more radical political position than its content, I think.

At the very end of Mutum, a middle-class, urban doctor rides into the isolated Brazilian village where the film takes place and offers a young boy a pair of glasses, opening his eyes to the world around him. I was relieved during the post-screening Q&A to hear director Sandra Kogut acknowledge the similarities between herself and that doctor. I’m deeply ambivalent about films like Mutum. They’re a kind of genre, really — stories of the poor in the developing world, shot by well-educated, middle- to upper-class filmmakers, that are then taken to film festivals, where they’re easily digested by well-educated, middle- to upper-class audiences. A surefire cure for those annoying bouts of liberal guilt that plague folks like me. When children are the focus of the story, it’s even easier. Kogut seems to be aware of all of this and has crafted a solid film from the source material, a classic Brazilian novel by Joao Guimaraes Rosa. The key to the film’s success, I think, is Kogut’s camera, which never escapes the subjective perspective of her protagonist, a ten-year-old boy who struggles to make sense of the adult world around him. Because of that p.o.v., the film is full of ambiguities and, occasionally, oversized emotion. This is Kogut’s first feature, and I look forward to seeing whatever comes next from her.