by InRO Staff Festival Coverage Film

Toronto International Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 7: Wavelengths Program

September 20, 2019

Our seventh and final dispatch from the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival (here’s our first, our second, our third, our fourth, our fifth, our sixth) is also our largest, offering takes on all of the features (and one long short) present in this year’s Wavelengths program. Here are: the latest films from arthouse mainstays Albert Serra (Liberté), Pedro Costa (Vitalina Varela), and Sergei Loznita (State Funeral); a pair of films from Galician filmmakers, Fire Will Come and Endless Night; a pair of docu-fictive hybrids, The Fever and Seven Years in May; and a quintet of varyingly experimental documentaries — Heimat is a Space in TimeUn film dramatiqueKrabi, 2562, 143 Sahara Street, and Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Another


Albert Serra’s Liberté continues the director’s penchant for placing human rot, literal and metaphorical, within the garish trappings and knowing artifice of re-creation. Presented here are the wanton sexual and violent revels of a brood of exiled French libertines, over the course of a single night, bewigged and powdered bodies splayed amidst dense forestry and within aristocratic carriages. This group is intent on exporting their freethinking philosophy of hedonism to Germany, with the help of the Duc de Walchen (Helmut Berger). But on this night, they’re also just here to party. Serra has long favored elaborate staticism, the baroque frills of late 18th century Europe dominant in his frames, and that remains much the same in Liberté,. The director’s approach is painterly; he crafts nightmare compositions of a forest blanketed by night’s dark, the branches like webs, shadows both obscuring and exposing. Silhouettes are glimpsed through bramble, and moon and stars light upon hidden figures and open-air copulations. Also made evident here is the kinship between Serra’s instincts and a certain Brechtian theatricality: Liberté, offers a refinement of the way Serra uses sound and space. Sonics mostly consist of chirruping birds and the buzzing of insects, with dry grass crunching underfoot, whispered arousals, and literal ass-whippings constituting the din of action. In an early wide shot, a gently swaying forest is patiently captured a beat too long, before figures emerge on tiptoe like ghosts from the wood, an ominousness felt in their deliberate movements and in the suggestion of the hidden depths from which they emerged. Even despite the density of color and shape in this scene, Dogville still feels like the closest touchstone: the dimensionality wrought in this sequence is reminiscent of Von Trier’s affect, while the positive space also slowly transitions to negative space, reorienting the viewer’s gaze in real time. The shots here are undeniably gorgeous, but haunted and sometimes menacing as well. And while retaining the familiar medium and long shots of Serra’s previous flms, the camera too takes on a different personality: in a mirroring of its subjects, it often plays voyeur to voyeurs (and likewise invites the viewer into another level of such behavior), spying on foliage-obscured figures and capturing incomplete images of fleshly entanglements, masochism, and erotic frustrations. That Serra marries his images with Sadeian carousels feels inevitable, his portrait of humanity’s murkiness and inscrutability fittingly set within the similarly mercurial but beautiful natural world. Ultimately, this is more presentation than study: we are treated to both broad and subtle dramatics, with extreme sexual acts captured at a similar rate as fleeting glances of boredom or anxiety, and little else is done to suggest any cogent thesis. But if the freedom implied in the title of Serra’s latest remains unsettled at credits’ roll – and it does, the themes never really parsed out – that feels largely by impish design, and in embrace of that freedom. Luke Gorham


Josef Stalin died on March 5th, 1953, at his Kuntsevo dacha, following a cerebral hemorrhage and a few days of complete immobilization. His body was embalmed and placed on display from the 6th to the 9th of that month, at which point he was taken, by procession, to be buried in Lenin’s Mausoleum. Sergei Loznitsa edits together footage found in the Russian state archive from these four days. The footage was originally taken for a film, The Great Farewell, which was banned after an initial screening for Soviet officials, but it continues to live on as a document of a landmark event, one that marks a shift in power, the ramifications of which were felt across half of the globe. State Funeral has a number of movements, from the initial dispersal of news to central Asia and Siberia to the gatherings of mourners in Eastern Bloc cities such as Berlin, Warsaw and Prague. Much of this would be considered impressive even if it were televised in our contemporary moment: the condensing of thousands of reactions into a montage of loss and apprehension; the dashes of Soviet red in an otherwise greyish palette; the 21-gun salute that brings to a halt every organ of the nation for a moment of silence, finally releasing the energy invested in Lenin’s disciple. But perhaps the highlight of the film comes with the speeches delivered by the figures standing atop Lenin’s mausoleum. To see Malenkov and Beria delivering their eulogies, flanked by Voroshilov and Khrushchev, gives us a proper glimpse of this volatile moment, one where the key players vying for power bid farewell to the old Soviet Union and the man who “managed to transform a backward country into a powerful, industrially and agriculturally developed state, […] free of economic depressions and unemployment.” These words of Malenkov ring especially true in a speech concerned with little besides lionizing its subject. But, of course, much remains hidden here and Loznitsa is sure to remind us of this fact with his closing messages. Making reference to Stalin’s crimes (with frankly exaggerated statistics) and Khrushchev’s period of ‘de-Stalinization’, Loznitsa makes clear that this ritual of extolment is simply a surface beneath which lies the bodies of so many enemies of the state: an ending that might have seemed offensively reductive had it not been preceded by the words of Malenkov. It’s obvious that Loznitsa is instructing us to feel a certain way about this event, and it may well belie Stalin’s real place in history — that of the “most inscrutable and contradictory character” who helped stop international fascism and purged a million of his own people. Sam Redfern


Oliver Laxe‘s Fire Will Come is a film built upon two contrasting modes. On one hand, there’s its ethereal, otherworldly atmosphere, seen most clearly in the film’s hypnotic, Vivaldi-backed overture of trees being felled in a fog-shrouded night. On the other, there’s its essential, ontological realism. Centered on Amador Coro (Amador Arias, a former forest warden playing a variation of himself), an arsonist recently released from prison, the film attentively depicts his modest home life with his elderly mother Benedicta (Benedicta Sanchez) in the mountains of rural Galicia. The workings of their small farm are illustrated in detail, with ample time expended on even the treatment of an injured cow — a choice that draws attention for its essential irrelevance to the main plot. For a time, Fire Will Come mainly functions as a subdued character study: tensions abound, but Laxe’s inclination is to defuse them, often by defaulting to silence and stasis. That is, until the climactic conflagration portended by the title, for which Laxe, his crew, and local firefighters underwent months of preparation — and which is no less devastating or fearsome for it. With a scale far beyond that of the ones in Roma or Too Late to Die Young, the wildfire that overtakes Laxe’s film is impossible to control. And if it in the end feels as if the director had little interest in filming anything other than the fire — and merely constructed the pretense of a story in order to capture it — Fire Will Come at least retains a kind of documentary-based fascination. As the Galician countryside goes up in flames — and any narrative interest with it — all that remains is the director’s own relationship to his homeland, which he describes as having “a beauty so intense and unpredictable that it knows no restraint.” Lawrence Garcia


Winner of this year’s Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival, Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela immediately asserts itself as an artistic and conceptual distillation, if not culmination, of a career that has folded portraiture, theater, anti-colonial politics, and class solidarity into a cinema that understands itself as a work that persists under, if not against, ‘the cinema’. While refining Costa’s artistic and conceptual sensibilities, this latest film may be most notable, at least to those familiar with the director, for its changing of the temporal rules that have up until now defined the occupants of Fontainhas. Since 2000’s In Vanda’s Room, many names and faces have recurred in Costa’s cinema as it has taken the aforementioned community as its object, with the spatial and temporal progression between that film and 2014’s Horse Money being decidedly linear; all of it a witness to an abiding sameness of material and mental degradation in the throes of poverty and the violence of history. Yet in the starkest of contrasts, Vitalina Varela asserts itself as an interruption of such linearity. While still following the director’s well-known docu-fictive strategies, the film—which suspends the temporal progression of his filmography at large and acts as a spiritual prequel or parallel temporality to the director’s 2014 work, presents events described by Vitalina in that film, chiefly her arrival in Portugal from Cape Verde not long after the burial of her runaway husband, as she comes to terms with the facts of his abandonment and the destitution of his existence in Portugal—is the most forceful expression of Costa’s desire, or fight even, in his own words, to “respect time… to be with time, on the side of time” as he and his actors excavate the memories that haunt their waking and dreaming. Horse Money and Vitalina Varela are united as films dedicated to the traumas, secrets, and selective recollections of the people and characters of Ventura and Vitalina—who take precedence in each, respectively—and the attempt to give them back history and the time taken from them. Each film contends with figures and images of the past invading the present of their protagonists, and if Horse Money conceivably ends in failure—a repossession by historical violence—Vitalina Varela, which sees visions or dreams of a young Vitalina in her then under-construction home on the hills of Cape Verde reverberate out of the past into the mind of the older Vitalina in Portugal, is its opposite. “It’s all about the work”, remarks Costa, and fittingly, for the words are not just emblematic of the production itself and the director’s wider philosophy—which is actively challenging cinema and its means of operation and the ends they are directed toward—but of the very themes of the film: the attempt to not only to stand with time but to return agency and free a person to build again. Vitalina Varela will rightly be celebrated for the beauty of its claustrophobic Vermeer-esque, Lewton-inspired compositions; methodical editing; and languorous shooting rhythms, but it is the denouement that confirms the film as a work of extraordinary conceptual and humanistic vision: a movement of character out of frame and a cut that connects a rejection of present isolation with the joy of a Cape Verdean past.  In these closing moments, the viewer witnesses a restoration of agency through an uncompromising respect for time; not only might the character have found the capacity to build again, but all the more so might the very person of Vitalina herself have—through a seizing of the tools of cinema and its collapsing of the rules of time—returned her life to herself. Matt McCracken


Endless Night falls into a recent spate of art cinema that foreground its political engagement at the expense of both aesthetics (usually patchwork, derivative) and narrative (always treated with mistrust). In an interview, Galician filmmaker Eloy Enciso highlights his suspicion of “the occupational habit in cinema of having a univocal and conclusive plot and narrative.” This, despite the fact that he’s made his film under the signs of both Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Straub-Huillet — the former a master filmmaker, whose feel for languor and duration has created a distorted impression of his talent for narrative, and the latter trained classicists, able to bend story conventions precisely because of their facility with them. From Apichatpong, Enciso has taken Tropical Malady’s plunge into tenebrous forest spaces, though he (unintentionally) leaves behind a genuine sense of the unknown, so sundry shots of moonlit Spanish jungle register mainly as perfunctory. From Straub-Huillet, he’s borrowed the recitative delivery of the duo’s performers, though here, he draws not from a single defining text, but multiple fragments. Endless Night is structured as a triptych: the first section draws from writers of the Galician diaspora that followed the Spanish Civil War; the second from memoirs of those who lived in the country during the Franco era; and the third from letters written by prisoners of the state. In theory, this is meant to buttress Enciso’s challenge against “univocal” tendencies — but the result mainly anonymizes those the director is ostensibly giving voice to. With Endless Night, Enciso wanted to “create not as much a thesis about a historical period or a political system as a humanist, anti-violence sentiment.” And in a sense he’s succeeded, making a film of well-meaning political engagement that succeeds only at conveying the intentionality of its aims. Lawrence Garcia


Jessica Sarah Rinland begins her experimental documentary/essay film Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Another with an epigraph: “When discussing the importance of the replica in relation to the original, the experts mentioned that the Latin root of the word original is orior, meaning arising or being born; they said that the artwork may be an original but it is also a reproduction of the animal depicted and that the animal depicted is only a DNA replica of her ancestor.” I’m not sure the film has anything profound, or even coherent, to say about the phenomenological aspects or hermeneutics of reproduction; it is, perhaps, best to think of the film’s prologue — footage of a monkey with her babies in captivity — as a kind of poetic framework through which to view the rest of the film, a suggestion of sorts to organize the proceedings, as we follow the creation of a fabricated elephant tusk from beginning to end. Conflating the idea of biological reproduction, i.e. giving birth, and the act (or art) of mechanical reproduction is wandering about in the murky area of Benjamin and Adorno, who both bemoaned the idea of mechanical processes robbing artworks of their ‘aura,’ or originality, while simultaneously realizing that this act of mechanized reproduction was itself a kind of democratization. This philosophical conundrum aside, Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Another is most interesting as a document of process, skill, and duration; the filmmaking is delicate, tactile, and celebrates a kind of precision. As critic and curator Becca Voelcker wrote, “Rinland is fascinated by hands-on applications of science, and how they vary between disciplines…in playing with time by reproducing a seemingly old artefact (sic), the film winks at the cinema’s own temporal legerdemain and material fabrications.” For her part, Rinland excels at a kind of leisurely, metronomic pacing, as individual scenes of production play out seemingly in real time. In careful, precise framings, we see the steps taken as a mold is made, as plaster dust is vacuumed away, and as chipped edges are repaired. Rinland is just as fascinated by the patterns of dried, cracked plaster on a human hand as she is the high tech machinery that renders the mold. She also injects herself into the film in an interesting way — her brightly painted fingernails are often visible in the frame, though the camera almost never looks away from objects to view human faces. Indeed, it’s almost a shock when, at the end of the film, Rinland starts shooting scenes from a distance, showing full human bodies. Her attention to detail is what fascinates, although the undercurrent of philosophical musings (however diffuse) offers plenty of avenues for further contemplation. Not all of Rinland’s poetic evocations work, but Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Another is both lively and playful, a worthwhile document on a specific act of creation that few of us would be privy to otherwise. Daniel Gorman


Heimat Is a Space in Time is an assemblage film in the truest sense, one constructed as an archaeological process that came together “piece by piece” over the course of many years, drawing from material as diverse as diaries, registers, letters, and a deportation list that concludes with director Thomas Heise’s own family members. Heise’s family is here defined by their writing and correspondences, a corpus stretching back more than a hundred years beginning with Heise’s grandfather’s assertion that war is “nothing more than human slaughter” – an opening that can only act as a sad irony in the face of the events we, the audience, know are about to come. As the title of the film deftly describes, Heimat is a metaphysical home. It can refer to something as small as one’s house and as large as one’s nation. There also exist historical connotations regarding the word which imbue it with a distinctly patriotic tone, especially after its usage by the Völkisch movement (the precursor to Nazism). These connotations aren’t so much mingled in with the material as they are questioned and brought to the fore by the suffering that Heise’s family experienced during these most damnable of times in 20th century Germany – a far cry from the Technicolor idylls of the post-war Heimatfilm genre. The high degree of interest with trains and railway lines displayed here can, of course, signify many things and even within the context of Heimat serves as both a reminder of the deportation of Jews and other minorities as well as German industrial prowess and historical movement. Indeed, a number of shots find themselves interrupted by the hum of passing freight trains loaded with dozens of German-made cars and one of the most striking images of the film shows row after row of train tracks in response to the devastation brought on in the wake of World War II, as a broken nation remaining resilient. Yet, there are areas where this film does suffer: I think of the more stultifying passages where long blocks of spoken word force the viewer to either rely solely on Heise’s reading of the material or the often rather opaque association conjured between word and image. This, no doubt, priorities the human experience spoken by the film over the wider historical processes which these people were subject to, but it comes at the cost of restricting its own ability to expand upon Heise’s family’s words. This is an important film yet I wonder if that’s more so the case for Heise himself than it is for us. Sam Redfern


Following a short film collaboration for the 2018 Thai Biennale — the first of its kind — Thai filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong and London-based artist Ben Rivers went on to direct Krabi, 2562, a feature-film expansion of the ideas explored in their previous collaboration. Taking its title from a popular tourist destination in Thailand, as well as the current year of the Thai Buddhist Calendar, the film lies at the crossroads of both filmmakers’ interests, exploring the potential pitfalls of both ethnography and tourist-trap gawking. Krabi, 2562 initially follows a location scout who visits the eponymous region, and includes digressions to a chintzy commercial shoot with a popular movie star. But as in Anocha’s 2016 breakout By the TIme It Gets Dark, there’s not so much a causal narrative as a collection of disparate scenes. Variations on a theme, then — at times bewildering, irritating, but mostly pleasant, with fulsome 16mm detail and at least a few striking compositions. (A static, spelean shot of an abandoned cinema screen distinguishes itself from the bunch.) At one point titled “In the Holocene,” the film freely enfolds the entirety of this geological age — so there are digressions to cave-dwellers and the first signs of amphibian life, separated from scenes of present-day tourists milling about Krabi’s sandy shores by the most casual of cuts. If the film’s structure eventually comes to feel somewhat arbitrary, this, one could say, is the film’s very point: A critique of a flattening, touristic purview achieved by means of an irresolvable puzzle comprised of compelling pieces. But intentional incoherence is always something of a dubious proposition. But even if Krabi, 2562 fails to convince by the end, the argument, at least, is worth engaging with. Lawrence Garcia


The instinct to gather ’round a fire and share stories is as ancient as human urges get. The impulse to make movies in which the primary action unfolds via long-winded speeches delivered to offscreen flamespreferably in long, unremarkable fixed takesis a more recent anthropological development. Affonso Uchôa is not the progenitor of this movement, but he is among its more visible practitioners. From what I can remember, Arabyhis previous filmspent most of its runtime gazing at a migrant worker as he himself gazes at roadside fires, narrating his life story. Though, to be fair, I might just as easily be thinking of Uchôa’s newest film, Seven Years in May. Save for the film’s final scenein which a crowd of drifters plays a modified version of Red Light, Green Lightit’s composed of the same elements. It seems entirely possible that the first two scenes of Seven Years in May at one point belonged to Araby, before Uchôa snipped them out and had a newly constituted short feature on his hands. (Or is this 42-minute film a long short? I can never remember the rules about these things, but if assessed in purely subjective terms, well, it’s a very long short indeed.) Regardless, someone’s going to praise Uchôa for his rigorous aesthetic consistencyas ever the true measure of an auteur. To be fair to him, the man has a project. I will not, however, ascribe to any party line that praises Uchôa’s films for their bold fusion of politics and form; half the people who showed up at TIFF this year brought with them a film in which a man wanders through indifferently shot nighttime environments, and it’s unclear why, exactly, the stories of Galician separatists, Brazil’s indigenous populations, and everyone else left behind by the forward march of global inequality deserve the same treatment. Except, of course, that arthouse conventions are just as apt to grow staid and stale with time as any found in popular cinema, and we’ve been staring at this fire for a few decades now. That’s hardly the whole sweep of human history, it’s true, though it feels like an eon for those of us who keep watching these movies. “There’s no night that lasts forever. We have to move on.” I couldn’t agree more. Evan Morgan


“They woke up something that was asleep inside of us. They made us see what we didn’t know.” The imprecision of this statement — spoken by Justino (Regis Myrupu), an indigenous Desana man who lives and works in the industrialized port city of Manaus, on the Amazon River in northwestern Brazil — typifies both the theme and tone of Maya Da-Rin’s The Fever, as does its slight menace. An unnerving anxiety informs even the commonplace in this film: professional opportunities prove worrisome rather than celebratory, the shifting of branches suggest unseen threat, small talk on the job bristles with microaggressions and internalized colonial legacies, — and a simple fever, inexplicable but mild, is the manifestation of all these modern agonies. Without romanticizing traditional indigenous culture, Da-Rin makes Justino both man and metaphor, his struggles felt through his stoic endurance. But Justino’s heritage also uniquely situates him as a man displaced: He’s frequently depicted alone, ‘the widower,’ “the Indian,” unique in his extended family as a city resident, and now facing the prospect of his daughter’s imminent relocation to pursue medical studies. But what Da-Rin is particularly interested in is an exploration of the twinned displacing elements of industry and indigeneity. And to that end, the dehumanization and the tedium of commerce, and its inevitable progress, are unambiguously reflected here: the cacophonous din of moving parts is presented in contrast with the cricket-and-wind near-silence of evenings spent at home, while wide shots capture the mundane geometric metals and dulled colors of shipping containers. Still, The Fever is largely a film of gestation, with insinuations of a particular terminus feeding its ominous mood. And so as the film, feeling all along deeply indebted to Apichatpong Weeresthakul, begins to more closely resemble Tropical Malady rather than the Syndromes and a Century influence of its first half, its clear influences begin to undo a bit of the dark spell it has cast, the cribbing a subversion of its very specificity. Da-Rin demonstrates a delicateness when it comes to both  form and tone, and even emboldens her film through a sober approach to content. But the filmmaker also suffers when executing according to familiar modes of opaque, elliptical narrative, and as a result, never really manages to find her own voice in the jungle. Luke Gorham


Somewhere in the Algerian portion of the Sahara desert lives Malika, the sole proprietor of a lonely café situated by the side of a road that stretches in both directions to the horizon. Hassen Ferhani‘s documentary, 143 Sahara Street, takes this space as its subject, and its objective isn’t to illuminate Malika’s past or to delve into any of the wider questions that might arise from the conversations of the travellers who stop at her café – in that sense this is a road movie, a film that occupies a present between two possible places, revealing itself only through snatches of dialogue that gesture to an expansive yet hidden history of both Malika and Algeria. The cost of tea and an omelette at Malika’s is a mere 90 dinars (about 75 cents) as we find out in one of her first encounters; indeed, much remains off-screen in this film but wealth is something simultaneously vacant and intrusive. Malika subsists on a pittance, and the image of her small café surrounded by the barren expanse of the desert hardly conjures any notions of wealth, yet she also makes reference to the people of the Sahara now being able to afford “fancy cars” and “good brands” as well as rich Qataris hunting in the area nearby. I don’t know whether it’s passivity on the part of the people (drawn from a deep religiosity) or a certain hesitation to announce their dissatisfaction with the government which is stopping them from being unequivocal in regards to issues besetting them and their country – we hear mention of lack of jobs, stagnating wages, and the new gas station encroaching on Malika’s turf – so this lack of money is hardly localised to the café, even if only a couple are happy to speak it. Beyond these financial issues exists a wealth of historical details that seem to converge on this solitary café (the infamous terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar is even mentioned as having visited Malika during the “years of terrorism”, stopping by like so many others at this oasis in Southern Algeria), so perhaps it should come as no surprise that leaving this space she’d claimed as her own for so many years is an idea unwelcome to Malika’s mind. Her rootedness is displayed not only through the stories she tells but through the faces of those who visit her – as they have so many times before – to make clear to us the indispensable function she serves to travellers, alone in the desert. Sam Redfern


In general, films about childhood, pedagogy and learning present a tricky proposition for filmmakers — they tend to invite the adult’s tendency to condescend, idealize, infantilize, or otherwise represent a child’s world as other than it is. French artist Éric Baudelaire’s Locarno premiere Un film dramatique is no exception. Made over four years with a group of students from the Dora Maar middle school in Saint-Denis, the film is a collaborative document of its own making — though there’s also the question of what, exactly, Baudelaire is actually attempting to do. The title gestures towards the question, and the film itself goes some way to answering it, observing as the students grapple with this very question and eventually take ownership of the movie, transforming from active subjects to veritable co-authors. There’s also a political throughline that emerges in the students’ lively, frank discussions of racism, immigration, and prejudice — grounded in the specificities of living in less well-to-do Parisian suburbs. Conceptually, then, there’s much to admire — but the project’s nobility notwithstanding, it makes for a rather dull, diffuse viewing experience. One the one hand, Baudelaire does indeed allow his subjects to take center stage. On the other, his editing tends to emphasize a Kids Say the Darndest Things-esque fascination. Although it differs from Un film dramatique in its setting, Approaching the Elephant — Amanda Rose Wilder’s 2014 documentary about an American free school — avoided the usual traps of films about childhood, generating interest and tension though not just through its judicious editing, but also its essentially Rorschachian form. Baudelaire, by contrast, defaults to mild-mannered approbation towards his subjects —  which, though well-intended, is paternalism of a different sort. Lawrence Garcia

 

 

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