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Seeing Stars: 2015 Toronto International Film Festival

Close your eyes and imagine a megaplex—say, the AMC Regal E-Walk 42nd Street—converted into a massive, orgiastic, and yet somehowprofitable bonanza of world cinema for ten consecutive days. Apparently, this is what happens every September at the Scotiabank Theatre (alongside ten other, also ridiculously huge venues), all nestled between skyscraper-condo construction sites in the main drag of downtown Toronto for said city’s International Film Festival. #TIFF15 is no ordinary municipal arts event, then, but rather a city-sanctioned invasion, with a standing army of volunteers estimated at over 3,000—and at public screenings, the crowd made a point of going wild with applause after every single pre-movie, salute-your-orange T-shirt-clad-volunteer bumper. (I briefly attempted angling my way into an interview with one of these volunteers about their experience, only to be rebuffed, third hand, that this task would require “too many levels of clearance.”)

A certain fear of missing out begins to haunt the assembly of that elusive “perfect” TIFF schedule: smarter heads would later tell me they just woke up early each morning clutching their press badges and winged it. Lines got cut. Industry big shots got shut out of screenings. Writers saw six movies in one day on three hours of sleep. Transmedia companies waged their fortunes on free IPAs and miniature Kobe beef burgers for swarms of freeloaders at posh waterfront restaurants. At the checkpoint outside a Netflix party off King street, blotchy slow-mo ribbons from Beasts of No Nation and Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom looped on a wall-panel LCD unit, behind the red-tie-wearing bouncers and concierges as they double-checked their VIP lists. Critics pounded on their laptops, shaking the tables in the TIFF Press Lounge, sending other film critics and their laptops scrambling to other ends of the room like there was free lunch buffet left, long past the point when there most definitely was not.

On the first night of the festival, I squeezed into a cavernous IMAX-size amphitheater to see Patricio Guzmán introduce his new documentary, The Pearl Button. The picture occupies an uncomfortable paradox: it’s Guzmán’s gentlest-yet work about the Pinochet dictatorship in his native Chile—which most of his films end up addressing—while being, on the other hand, laced with outer-worldly voiceover ruminations, the likes of which put at least a few of my colleagues off. Directly following 2011’s Nostalgia for the Light, Button begins with the seventy-three-year-old filmmaker stargazing, again, from the Atacama Desert, speculating on the possibility of newly discovered planets carrying water; his attention settles (in the cosmic meantime) on the Patagonian fjords outside Chile and Argentina’s shared Tierra del Fuego. Blending testimonials from surviving descendants with rare archival photography, Button charts the story of the fjords’ nomadic tribes through the first waves of Spanish colonialism, cycling through the early 20th century settler state and, inevitably, up through the US-backed regime—wherein the same coastline was used to “disappear” hundreds (if not thousands) of accused political dissidents. Neither a retread nor a smoking-gun exposé, it’s hard not to imagine Button as one of the films of the year. Its dialectic is incisive and poetic: a survey of Chile’s deeper recesses of history, the human chapter of which the filmmaker eventually finds cause to call “impunity accumulated over centuries.”

In the coming ten days, I would see an approximate tenth of the nearly 400 titles in the festival’s dozen subdivisions of features, some of which sport interchangeable monikers like “Platform,” “Vanguard,” “Discovery,” “Next Wave,” etc. I steadied myself against the glitzy premieres and panels with smug reassurance that, by spending my man-hours on titles less likely to play in New York or Los Angeles anytime soon, I’d emerge with a curatorial upper hand. For the most part, I was wrong. From Venezuela, Desde allá, a psych-noir about a transactional (then passionate, then transactional) relationship between a middle-aged denturist and a young street tough, doesn’t exactly smolder; Lorenzo Viga’s film feels lodged somewhere between good television and mediocre arthouse cinema. Hany Abu-Assad’s The Idol, a biopic of real-life Palestinian Arab Idol crooner Mohammad Assaf (played here by Tawfeek Barhom), wisely plays like a kid’s film for its first half, only to rupture its audience-friendly narrative with a stark look at the difficulties faced by the grown-up Assaf in escaping Gaza to his first audition (and inevitable whirlwind success). The archival-footage finale doubles as a rushed epilogue, the narrative defaulting precisely when the audience should be furthest under its spell. Arturo Ripstein’s Bleak Street was like a Threepenny Opera photographed by Bruce Gilden, as much fun for its inventive scenography of Mexico City’s lower depths as it was a dolorous and misanthropic experience. 

The Turkish-French preteen bildungsroman Mustang, the only film I ducked into on the recommendation of the Torontonians waiting in line outside the theater (and/or Twitter), felt forced and—a word typically made redundant by dint of the art form—manipulative. Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s film is told from the perspective of a young girl, one of a handful of cousins held prisoner by their arch-conservative grandmother and uncle. The tween prisoners’ decisions descend into high absurdity, and the cruel facts of life under this particular strand of patriarchal repression are played—and not for lack of success—as much for easy laughs as painful catharsis. (The film was an unmistakable crowdpleaser; this exporting of national trauma for festival-land sizzle is not new.) More entrancing was Jayro Bustamente’s Ixcanul, about a taciturn Mayan teenager who’s impregnated by her coffee-grower boyfriend on the eve of being married off to another man by her parents. Taking place in a village at the base of its titular Guatemalan volcano, Ixcanul abounds in potentially overwrought symbolism, only to shrug away the fantastical at every turn with its meretriciousness of blocking and performance, and invaluable semi-improvised contributions from its nonprofessional cast.

Voiceover narrating his own Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov asks: “Why is art unwilling to teach us presence?” The filmmaker discerns art from other commodities because “the price of the product is always set by the buyer:” using the Louvre as a kind of glass-pyramidal sieve, Francofonia concerns itself with the question of culture as an entitlement, diverting your gaze from one classic painting to the next in blatant face-first subjunctive. The lens drifts gently across canvases, warping the images into sepia-toned warps of their attendant originals—lazy A&E Biography-style, sub-realist affectation, or a blistering comment on format specificity, strangled by the 21st century attention span? One potential clue comes in the form of an under-buffered Skype conversation between Sokurov and “Dirk,” captain of a boat hauling shipping containers through a storm—stuffed, we're told, with invaluable artworks. (His voyage is never resolved one way or the other.) What’s clearest in Francofonia—which also features a throwaway glimpse of a Luftwaffe biplane, cruising within the museum’s present-day perimeter—is Sokurov’s bitterness, his narration noting comparable landmarks of Leningrad culture which weren’t so lucky. Much of Francofonia consists of a crudely restaged melodrama about Occupation-era Nazi attaché Franz Wolff-Metternich and his working relationship with the Museum’s head honcho, Jacques Jaujard. When Sokurov sits the the two men down to tell them, from the perch of the war’s end, what will become their subsequent life histories, Wolff-Metternich can only cluck his tongue and offer what should become the comeback of the year: “Such ravings.”

Easy ideological bywords are equally dwarfed in the sprawl of history that makes up Marcel Ophuls’s The Memory of Justice, a new Film Foundation restoration of which made its North American premiere at TIFF. Even if the 87-year-old documentarian —making another stop in a tour that has included the festivals in Berlin and, by the time of this publishing, New York—wasted little time introducing Memory as his favorite of his own works, the original 276-minute cut was first completed, and promptly withheld for broadcast by its financiers, in 1976. Memory begins with an exhaustive hashing-out of the “grand inquest” of the Nuremberg trials (scrutinizing both individual tracts of footage, and the overall legal implications of the rulings). Prosecuting interviewees include American counsel Telford Taylor, French politician Edgar Faure, and U.S. Army psychologist Milton Mayer (who recollects that the Nazis respected his military rank over his Jewishness). The film as much addresses the idea of victor’s justice as it does defendant’s privilege—it cannot be called a right, exactly—to self-victimization. Other interviewees include war criminals like Karl Dönitz and Albert Speer, who casually offers: “Long before the Jews were murdered, it had all been expressed in my buildings.”

The Memory of Justice

If the scope of Justice’s inquiry is godlike, Ophuls’s skill as a conversationalist is what makes the picture so enveloping, all-too-human in its discursiveness. The filmmaker’s wife recounts growing up as a child during the Third Reich, yearning to join the Hitler Youth for the dapperness of the uniforms. Ophuls is after more than mere contrition; his discussions with the supposed architects of multilateral justice get proactively gnarlier in the second half, “Nuremberg and Other Places.” Taylor admits to being disturbed at the thought that his legal breakthrough in 1946 would go on to enable American atrocities in Vietnam, while Faure doggedly refuses to see the merit in aligning the idea of postwar reparations with acts of torture employed by the French in Algeria. (“Why,” Ophüls asks, “must people be exceptions?”) The inevitable awkward lull in conversation is yet another symbol of the complicity this towering, labyrinthine masterwork finds etched into nearly every last rampart of the Western world’s postwar peace.

The opacity of the present moment; the blatant transparency of history. A similar strain undergirds Sergei Loznitsa’s immediately essential The Event, drawn entirely from a wealth of 16mm footage of Leningrad demonstrations against the Kremlin’s aborted putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev in August of 1991. The encampments’ makeshift soapboxes allow for an invaluable miscellany of jeers and slogans from the assembled pro-perestroika demonstrators: “Shoot the enemies, but without hatred”; “We are concerned not in the collapse of the empire, but in a possibility that the people may try to bring the empire back”; “Mother Russia, half decomposed, wants to make a quick buck at last!” Loznitsa’s narrative fits snugly beside Guzmán’s The Battle of Chile or Jan Němec’s Oratorio for Prague (to say nothing of the filmmaker’s earlier reconstitutive works, particularly Blockade), as thrilling to witness as it is depressing to consider in hindsight. It’s not national destiny that’s been thrown to chance, but the people’s perceptions of it on the ground, leavening the protests with an unbearable tension. But this doesn’t mean Loznitsa is anything short of acutely aware of the security state’s slow victory lap in the interceding quarter-century (watch for the Putin cameo!).

The Event was featured in TIFF’s annual Wavelengths series, skillfully assembled by überprogrammer Andréa Picard to commingle repertory excavations with premieres and feature pertinent to—and perhaps nudging the tensile boundaries of—the avant-garde. This being my first major festival outside New York, my queuing skills meant getting shut out of the first three Wavelengths shorts programs in a cinch. But I made it to the fourth, which was bookended by two utterly jaw-dropping selections: the program began with Philippe Garrel’s long-thought-lost 1968 six-minute short Actua 1, and concluded with the world premiere of Daïchi Saïto’s experimental film Engram of Returning, in 35mm CinemaScope.

The irony of Actua 1—its audio track essentially a series of repeated manifestos for action, rendered utterly out of junct with its roiling vintage-vérité 16mm imagery from the eye of May ’68 in Paris—receiving a posh public screening after years of mistaken obsolescence was not lost on me, as the film encourages its viewers/listeners to “espouse the revolution through continual availability.” Like any number of Garrel’s subsequent features—including his new romantic comedy In the Shadow of Women, which, hilariously, also played TIFF in IMAX size—Actua 1 diagrams a moment of human weakness, but this time from the inside out: its visual crosscurrents begin to stabilize around the visage of a policeman overlooking a bridge. “One day,” the voiceover continues, “we will want to be free, and we will know it.” Actua 1’s images work at a crosscurrent, explicating that its frenzied voiceover salvos can barely sustain themselves alone, exposing the facility of the film’s instantly-dated verbiage, finding it outstripped by fear, by inaction, by the tall shadow of the state. An old story that bears repeating.

Engram of Returning

Trying to recall Actua 1 is tough; to attempt to recall Saïto’s film is essentially playing a dumb word game with yourself. Is it an upside-the-head exercise in durational physics? No. Is it what you see when you shut your eyelids after looking into the sun? No. Is it a phenomenological slideshow of swamps and shores, smeared with dark bevels and flipped radially across the screen? Technically, the answer is yes, but... nah. It’s all those things, and yet something utterly erstwhile: every frame is a pulsating misremembrance of the one that came before it, with charcoal-black apertural drops—so reassuring as scene-breakers in the bland feature films I’d been watching—scrambling the field of vision ever further. The film throbs with movement, but I couldn’t tell you its direction —up or down, to the left or the right. Perhaps it’s more a single 19-minute bend or curve, with jazz saxophonist Jason Sharp’s deep-gutted assist guiding the outer peripherals of its shape. Reexamining the notes I scribbled in my insane dash to keep up with Saïto while knowing it would end all too soon, I read this: “Shrinking and swelling in sync, forever // the only growth visible is in layered abstraction.” It’s sensational.

The Wavelengths programs had a funny way of bringing together people (at least critics, programmers, and academics) who knew with crystalline clarity that these were the movies they wanted to see—which, at a festival of this size, is nothing to sneeze at, once your Danish Girls and Lobsters and High-Rises and Black Masses (and their attendant throngs) have come and gone. The sentiment was palpable after Saïto’s film, and even more so at the North American premiere of Canadian filmmaker Isiah Medina’s 88:88. Originally from Winnipeg, the 24-year-old filmmaker has taken to shooting quotidian moments from his day-to-day life with an array of cameras—smartphones, 16mm, the RED—and splicing them together in broken sine waves of concurrent connotation, simultaneously abrasive and entrancing. 88:88 is as much a diary film as an essay film, as much about class as it is about its internalization—and, littered with fleeting vantages on everyday escape, glimmering distractions and paths acknowledged but untaken by Medina’s camera, a work of startling romanticism.

For better and for worse, I couldn’t help remembering what Camus said about the sky: “For rich people, it is just an extra, a gift of nature. The poor, on other hand, can see it as it really is: an infinite grace.” Here’s a motion picture for anyone who has craved to be challenged again by cinema as a language of montage, beyond auteurism (or Godard, whose later works already reflexively anneal any mention of Medina’s technique) and its own narrow, Hollywood-beholden heuristics; beyond that One Perfect Shot, that bravura elongated single take, that fervid checklisting of scannable and samplable homages and riffs. I’m going to enjoy watching Medina proceed in establishing himself as an artist of seemingly contradictory philosophical, socioeconomic, and formalist presences, having apparently spent more money on festival submissions already than 88:88’s entire shooting budget.

After the screening, Medina and Picard’s talkback culminated in a final question that perfectly illustrated both the festival’s populism and its bewildering variety. Someone raised her hand, only to ask: “I have an honest question, and that is: how did you make it into TIFF?” Medina replied sweetly that he saw the website, burned the movie onto a DVD, and dropped it off at the TIFF Lightbox offices. Picard enjoined, “And I saw it, and I liked it, and it’s here!” to effusive applause.

Contributor

Steve Macfarlane

STEVE MACFARLANE is a filmmaker, writer, and programmer based in Ridgewood, New York.

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