by InRO Staff Film

TIFF 2020 — Dispatch 5: Inconvenient Indian, Wolfwalkers, Still Processing

September 22, 2020
Credit: TIFF

Inconvenient Indian

Inconvenient Indian succeeds where so many other documentaries fail — namely, in justifying its existence as a visual text. At first, Michelle Latimer’s documentary exhibits the character of a thesis film, and in fact opens with a bit of introductory, hyper-literate voice-over from Thomas King, author of the nonfiction work on which it is based. “The truth about stories is that’s all we are,” King intones in the first few minutes, before continuing: “Most of us think that history is the past. It’s not. History is the story we tell about the past.” But rather than allow these joint sentiments to guide her film into any sort of tidy commentary, Latimer channels the art of King’s particular phrasing to craft something more poetry than dissertation. That’s not to say the film doesn’t follow a core idea — it does; specifically, the idea that Native identity has been diffused to the point of ephemerality by a Western culture intent on controlling the future through (fictional) historical reconstruction. (King later observes: “The problem was, and continues to be, the unexamined confidence in Western Civilization. And unwarranted certainty in Christianity. And arrogance.”) 

But these excerpts of thematic contextualization are limited, and Latimer instead builds her film around beautiful images loaded with anachronism and tragic irony. Inconvenient Indian opens with alternating POV and low-angle shots of a Native man, garbed in traditional war bonnet and in full body paint, dismounting his horse and cresting a hill of wild goldenrod on foot, as the sleek skyline of modern-day Toronto takes shape between the reedy tendrils. It’s an obvious but no less beautiful prologue for a film specifically concerned with the space granted to Native peoples within modern culture. Another early scene (one later recalled several times) captures the image of a movie theater full of First Nations spectators (including King, front and center); the camera flits between the auditorium’s many faces which are in turn watching the projected images of Native portrayal throughout film history. It’s both an indictment of and corrective to Hollywood’s transgressive stereotypes, acknowledging the power of Native representation on screen and seeking to capture, with honesty and complexity, what that presentation can and should look like in the modern world. 

But much in the way that King’s emphatic narration gives way to the film’s visual charms, these aggressive juxtapositions also cede space to more restrained representation of modern Native culture: Latimer allows Inconvenient Indian’s roving, mostly handheld camera to investigate topics such as modern movements aimed at reclaiming traditional culture, diverse and technology-driven efforts at contemporary Indigenous art, and the State-backed attempts (replete with militarized police forces) to control and undermine Native land rights. What at first feel like structural digressions reveal themselves to be gently layered thematic progressions; in Latimer’s hands, deft portraiture builds to a vision of profound collective power. There’s an extended, nearly ten-minute sequence partway through Inconvenient Indian which details an artist’s Indigicentric exhibition, and the camera snakes through the gallery space, lighting upon various depictions and presentations and styles, all tethered by their thematic concerns. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the film itself, which likewise artfully glides between disparate but united canvases, building a measured, painful argument against the cultural obliteration of First Nations peoples. The result is an expressionistic work of immense visual and emotional beauty. Luke Gorham


Wolfwalkers

The final film in Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s informal Irish folklore trilogy (following The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea), Wolfwalkers is also arguably their most gorgeous effort to date. Set during Oliver Cromwell’s barbarous colonization of Ireland (obvious subject matter for a kids’ film), Wolfwalkers establishes its primary conflict through a narrative dripping in Lycan lore and the tension that results when it comes into contact with the kind of crazed mania that captures small-minded communities across any number of fairy tales (certain images here easily recall Beauty and the Beast’s flambeau-and-pitchfork climax). A young girl, Robyn, accompanies her father from England to the small town of Kilkenny in order to eradicate the wolves that pester the village from the forest fringe, but the warring factions aren’t as easily separated as superstition would lead her to believe.

Much has previously been made of the spiritual and aesthetic similarities that Moore and Stewart’s films share with Studio Ghibli’s repertoire, and while their latest retains the familiar mythological underpinnings, deep reverence for the natural world, and goggle-eyed characters, their animation here is as singular as it’s ever been. The profile-heavy 2D animation of Wolfwalkers easily outshines the soulless, dime-a-dozen polish of typical twenty-first-century studio efforts; the linework specifically, featuring imprecise sketching and soft shading, lends the film a welcome handcrafted intimacy. The minimalist human renderings are accentuated by detail-oriented, usually static backgrounds (the knotted trees and dark, swirling navy skies of the forest prove most impressive), a juxtaposition that allows scenes to play out with deceptive compositional complexity. And in one standout sequence, a wall torch becomes a marvel of retro animation, geometric blocks of red and white shifting slightly, in almost 8-bit fashion, to create a flickering effect. Elsewhere, the film’s plentiful wolves are more reminiscent of Golden Age Disney animation than of Miyazaki, their exaggerated, angular proportions and goofy mugs infusing the film with yet another layer of comforting, yesteryear familiarity. If the film’s moral and narrative arcs remain less striking and predictably feckless, it’s largely part and parcel with children’s cinema’s inclination toward moral fable. That Wolfwalkers sometimes frustrates in its refusal to shed its limiting apologue texture is a testament to its reliable transcendence elsewhere. Luke Gorham


Still Processing

Occupying a well-deserved place on TIFF’s Short Cuts Programme 01 roster is Still Processing, one of three shorts Canadian director Sophy Romvari has released this year, each of which continues to position her as one of the most exciting talents to emerge in North American cinema in recent years. Romvari’s works have regularly taken as their focus a survey of the domestic sphere and the conflicting senses of warmth and loneliness that her city-dwelling subjects find written into the walls of their homes, as implied specters and memories of familial loss contrast with the support and solidarities of friendships (which themselves connote new forms of family). Past works have oscillated between fictive and non-fictive interests and approaches in their construction, often signaling what can be best described as a deep and personal familiarity with grief and pain — but one that has heretofore found expression in indirect fashions, from image textures to the faces of others. This is by no means a criticism, but rather to say that the director’s prior works have hinted at her evident ability to do more and go further with these potent ideas; and it is with Still Processing that Romvari does so, as she nakedly and confidently moves to occupy her own work and grasp — quite literally, with her own hands — the occasions for the affects that have shaped her cinema to this point. 

The film documents a journey undertaken by the director herself to pay tribute to brothers she lost growing up, after receiving a long-withheld box of photographs from her parents. Understandably, the film is marked by an immeasurable sense of loss, and yet what impresses most about the work is the trepidation and self-awareness with which the subject matter is approached. Indeed, Still Processing is first and foremost a realization of this thought process, as Romvari frequently and subtly shifts between voiceover and subtitles in a conscious negotiation of what it means to put her images and emotions on screen, as much for her family as for herself. The complexity of all this is foregrounded in the multivalent nature of the visual choices made; as point of view, observational, and fly-on-the-wall stylistic decisions — shifting frequently in tone from the seemingly staged to the organic — sit in contrast to one another and break with the unified aesthetic of Romvari’s previous shorts. These choices make clear that the viewer is encountering a director consciously and openly exploring new modes of expression appropriate to the material in question; and while, in the case of Still Processing, these modes suggest a work perhaps less formally astute than it is in terms of content, there is no doubt that such willingness to grapple with the possibilities of cinema — as much for one’s own healing as anything else — is indicative of yet greater things to come. It seems that a wholly cogent marriage of ambition and vision is not far off, a tantalizing prospect as Romvari works toward forms as powerful and moving as the emotions on display here. Matt McCracken


Get the Hell Out

Japanese zombie comedy Get the Hell Out, which also peppers in plenty of political commentary, wears its obvious influences like a badge of honor: some Sam Raimi (Evil Dead 2), a little early Peter Jackson (Dead Alive), a dose of Matthew Vaughn (Kingsman), a dash of Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle), a pinch of Neveldine/Taylor (Crank) and a hearty helping of Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead). Unfortunately, director I.-Fan Wang is utterly incapable of turning this derivative amalgam into anything remotely palatable: the result is (predictably) muddled, both completely saturated in mimicry and entirely undercooked. Filmmaking tricks are likewise indiscriminately employed, an ostensible effort to evoke some (really, any) response: freeze frames, slow motion, undercranking, still photography, whip pans, ironic needle drops, Dutch angles, cartoonish sound effects, third-rate CGI — it’s all here. At various points, the effect is clearly intended to resemble a comic book come to life, with its use of illustrated overlays introducing characters and words like “HIT” and “POW” popping up on-screen during fight scenes. At other times, techniques are used to evoke a video game, with graphics depicting a character’s power levels and remaining health.

Put more simply, Get the Hell Out operates according to the principle of “see what sticks,” and its only consistency is the oppressive and obnoxious way in which each subsequent scene is delivered. The performers here practically scream every line of dialogue, mistaking volume for energy and/or humor. And the political commentary — which is a generous descriptor — essentially amounts to the reductive facility of, ‘You need to be bloodthirsty to succeed, no matter how pure your intent.’ The irony here is that the film depicts a Taiwanese pandemic that has the ability to go global unless one man steps up for the greater good, and in this way, the film could not have dropped at a more opportune moment. It’s too bad, then, that Wang does nothing of interest with this particular plot detail, instead handling it in the most obvious and simple-minded possible manner — he is far more interested in seeing how many different ways he can get gallons of blood to spray on a camera lens. Get the Hell Out only distinguishes itself in proving annoying to the point of unwatchability. While viewers would do well to heed the titular advice — the jokes practically write themselves — Wang would likewise benefit from some guidance, delivered with all the subtlety of his film: Shut the fuck up. Steven Warner

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