Eccentricities of an
International Film Festival:
Snapshots from NZIFF and TIFF 2010

Features, FILM, Film Festivals,
Even against Toronto’s embarrassment of cinematic riches, New Zealand’s own international film festival stacks up as a world-class event.

Spreading my wings to take in the Toronto International Film Festival this year proved to be an eye-opening experience. Crammed into its eleven day schedule: no less than 250 movies, an Olympic village-sized media contingent, and a gaggle of A-List celebrities, who, if desperate enough, you could catch a glimpse of at one of the numerous red carpet photo calls rolled out on a nightly basis. Second in size and prestige behind Cannes, TIFF maintains its own heady mix of status and stardom, however unlike the French Riviera festival, isn’t off limits to the public, making the 11-day fixture a real boon for local cinephiles already spoilt for choice. As part of its cultural cache, the city boasts an armada of staunchly alternative video stores (at a time when video stores are an endangered species), and a newly unveiled, state-of-the-art Cinémathèque—the Bell Lightbox a beacon of film worship that can only enhance Toronto’s standing as a key North American destination for press, industry, and film patrons.

Beyond first impressions though, TIFF isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Armed with an accreditation, hidden doors to free food, generous media facilities, and round-the-clock press screenings are suddenly opened, and it is from this privileged perch that Toronto’s reputation as a “people’s festival” starts to show cracks. The street kids and vagrants camped along routes to and from venues certainly aren’t enjoying the occasion; nor is the guy at the record store or the girl on the sidewalk I talk too, both movie lovers simply too stretched to afford the exorbitant admission prices. It is a world away from the New Zealand International Film Festival a few months earlier, where donning my critic’s hat didn’t mean throwing a festival tote over my shoulder and swanning around like an asshole, while heatstroked patrons, roped-off in corrals, queued for hours for tickets that could set them back as much as CAD$40 a pop.

If average Torontonians have become estranged from their international film festival, it isn’t obvious to the naked eye—the all-encompassing junket effortless in capturing the imagination of the city’s visitors and locals alike. Conspicuous in its corporatisation it may be, much of TIFF’s (not-for-profit) wealth ostensibly goes back into its programming: from the fringe “Wavelengths” and “Midnight Madness” sidebars; to the attention-seeking “Gala” and “Special Presentations” (in other words, studio premieres destined for cinemas shortly thereafter); and the localised “Canada First!” selection (at closer inspection, not a patch on the NZIFF’s commitment to its national cinema this year), there’s something for everyone. I, for one, was impressed—with reservations. For all TIFF’s embarrassment of riches (including a stockpile of sponsors and donors organisers here would kill for) it is mired in excess. The vapidity of entertainment reporters and the city’s own needless, self-congratulatory fawning over Hollywood’s circus tent in town was an eyesore, as was the appalling lack of movie etiquette shown in the previews I attended. The sight of industry reps finger-fucking their Blackberries throughout screenings made me irritable and homesick for the sensible film festival I know so well back in New Zealand, where hype is passé and cellphones are snatched from the hands of anyone stupid enough to tweet or text after the lights have gone down.

“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”

The swagger and sycophantism that TIFF appears to bring out in its attendees each September put things into perspective for this small fry journalist, with a new appreciation for the NZIFF found—but not necessarily shared—judging by the fresh set of complaints that do the rounds every winter from people quick to nitpick at the titles programmers didn’t get, or the age group they’re supposedly not catering too. If such tiresome remarks are almost always badly argued or misinformed, they expose a lack of understanding at what goes into orchestrating an international film festival (logistically, creatively, economically), as well as just how good we have it down under. Stewarded by long-time director Bill Gosden and his team, the NZIFF remains a world-class event too often underrated in this manner. The whinging, however isolated, was way off the mark this time around, with 2010’s programme distinguished as one of the most auteur-heavy line-ups in years. New films by Olivier Assayas, Jia Zhang-ke, Manoel de Oliveira, Abbas Kiarostami, Lee Chang-dong, and Apitchatpong Weerasethakul—all secured direct from Cannes, among other titles in and out of competition—have only recently unspooled in Toronto and New York. Notably, the last minute acquisition of Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives—another miraculous sleepwalk from the Thai wunderkind that drew a sizeable, though it must be said perplexed turnout—was not so much of a coup for the festival, as it was a reassertion of its integrity and clout.

Of the headline acts, Assayas’s five-hour, three-part guerrilla saga Carlos was the most daring, despite drawing unfavourable comparisons to Uli Edel’s The Baader-Meinhof Complex. Flirting with the uneasy amalgam of titillation and terrorist chic that made Edel’s take on the genre so glib, Assayas also gets carried away with outfitting his insurgents as action heroes-cum-revolutionary rockstars, even synchronising their stride to a punky, bad attitude soundtrack. And in a round about way, he gets away with it: a narcissistic, jet-setting fugitive (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka “Carlos the Jackal”) as his protagonist solid grounds for the arousal levels his film achieves. Formerly a TV miniseries, now repackaged as a triple feature, Carlos is a pressing, assertive piece of filmmaking unlike anything else in the director’s bipolar oeuvre: removed from such soft-spoken dramas as Summer Hours and Les destinées sentimentale; more accomplished than the fast-and-loose potboilers (Demonlover, Boarding Gate) it might have otherwise been lumped in with. Like those ropier efforts, it is a sprawling, intercontinental, multilingual production, only executed with purpose and staying power; its final hours a telling, appropriately downbeat endnote as compelling as its excitable first two thirds. What finally emerges is a dissertation on terrorism, where the deeds of Carlos and his soldiers are regularly undercut and given farcical outcomes—such as in the film’s recreation of the 1975 OPEC raid—giving shape to a portrait of terrorists who, in spite of their red-blooded conviction, are misguided, bloated, and incompetent. (One scene, involving the bungled use of an RPG, wouldn’t have looked out place in Chris Morris’s Four Lions.) By the end, the titular figurehead has become lethargic and bourgeois—an overweight puppet who achieved notoriety rather than actual progress.

Carlos is savvy enough to acknowledge the approximation of truth, and like all good biopics, owes a great deal to its star, Edgar Ramírez. His charisma goes a long way to selling the character’s swollen ego and inflated sexual escapades—laughable love-making scenes that the film relishes creating among other episodes in the terrorist’s luridly publicised life. Still, as equipped as Ramírez is for the role—readymade in name and appearance, a Venezuelan passport to boot—the actor’s four language juggling act would have been matched by Juliette Binoche, whose breezy delivery of English, French and Italian in Certified Copy formed part of a supremely dexterous performance, the festival’s best if it gave prizes for acting. To the cynical, Binoche’s casting was either another check off her bucket list of world auteurs, or a sure-fire marketing hook for arthouse audiences—the latter confirmed by eager crowds as contrived as they seemed two years ago when Hou Hsiao-hsien pulled the same trick in Flight of the Red Balloon. Even the most sceptical commentator would struggle to deny the actress’s feats of late though, and with Certified Copy, she is a formidable presence we, and British opera singer William Shimell—ungainly as her romantic opposite—can only stand back and admire. Kiarostami’s first narrative feature in nearly a decade retains the essence of what is enthralling about his cinema, with endlessly fascinating shifts in perspective and a quintessential car ride thrown in for good measure. Not to be overshadowed by the film’s deeper musings, through which art, culture, and authenticity are up for debate, Binoche finely adjusts her performance to every pivot in Kiarostami’s direction, eventually turning the craft of ‘acting’ inside out. Far from a frolic in Tuscany, this is one masterclass I look forward to taking again.

Lee Sun-kyun and Jung Yumi in “Oki’s Movie”

Other films dished out under the masters banner hopefully reached new audiences and piqued their interest—like Pedro Costa’s sublime Ne change rien, the first of the Portuguese director’s features to screen in New Zealand (fingers crossed for the rumoured retrospective at Film Society next season), or the two Hong Sang-soo films that made it into the programme. Oddly enough, this double dose of the Korean’s cinema was a double-edged sword. Both Like You Know it All and Hahaha (this year’s Un Certain Regard winner) serve Hong’s reputation for laugh-out-loud entanglements and bewildered, self-absorbed males well, falling so comfortably into a groove that at times, they are virtually interchangeable—the extent to which his output has become stuck in a rut of late, much like the stunted protagonists his stories tend to portray. Either that, or the signature elements of his (anti) romantic horseplay have turned unnecessarily convoluted, such as in Like You Know it All, which remains typically amusing but strangely off-key for a Hong Sang-soo film. But in defence of the director, his most recent offering, Oki’s Movie (screened at TIFF), hints that a return to the vintage of Woman on the Beach is not far off. It too is barely discernable from routine—a filmmaker and film professor vie for the affection of a film student—and yet via the film-within-a-film narrative it reprises (and multiplies) from Tale of Cinema, an assured female character surfaces and, most radically of all, assumes control of the movie (as per the title). Having plumbed the depths of male inadequacy and humiliation, the opposite sex must surely be—as unthinkable as it sounds—the next frontier for Hong.

Compatriot Im Sang-soo’s latest, The Housemaid (also at TIFF), should reignite enthusiasm for the 1960 classic it is based upon, given its inadequacy as a remake. Clad in sleek, marbled surfaces—the kind modern Korean Cinema seems perpetually fixated by—it sure looks the part, but otherwise leaves a lot to be desired. Beginning with an intriguing vérité montage of inner city hustle and bustle—an unvarnished side of Korea seldom exploited by its filmmakers—Im’s film ultimately settles for an icy, interior-set drama cold to the touch. Arriving at the palatial digs of a mega-rich couple and their cosseted daughter, housemaid Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) moves in with the family to play servant, soon succumbing to the hard-bodied egotism of her employer husband (Lee Jung-jae) in a scene of pure sexual chutzpah—one of the few sweltering moments in the movie. Im, at this point, bravely departs from Kim Ki-young’s original scenario—an oft-flogged cautionary tale of female manipulation given a workout by the likes of Fatal Attraction and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle—framing Eun-yi as a victim of the family’s arrogance and self-entitlement. However, the class war that erupts is not nearly as engrossing—or for that matter, fun—as a woman scorned, and The Housemaid peters out. Only does the film’s screwy finale and epilogue urge one to sit up and take notice.

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Highly anticipated on the back of sustained critical buzz, much-vaunted Animal Kingdom, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and A Prophet didn’t disappoint as main attractions NZIFF audiences were quick to circle in their booklets. The trio were as good as word-of-mouth suggested, in particular Animal Kingdom, an exceptional debut for its Australian director, David Michôd. For a film whose gangland habitat requires no introduction to those acquainted with TV’s Underbelly (a comparatively hyperbolic take on Melbourne’s criminal netherworld), its none-too-subtle wildlife metaphor doubles as an unlikely indicator of style—Michôd’s camera at all times watchful, fraught with danger, and on edge to the possibility of violence or death, as if the makings of an Attenborough special were afoot. From this uneasy distance, Animal Kingdom’s events unfold with a slight aloofness, yet are lingered upon so intensely that the dread of what’s coming next is never far from one’s mind. The outstanding sound design also gives rise to the squirmiest use of an Air Supply song ever in a movie.

For a first time effort, Banksy’s reconstituted ‘documentary’ wasn’t half bad either—an entertaining hijack less potent as a question of authenticity, than a moment seized and exploited in the name of brand awareness. Whereas the elusive British street artist comes out on top, the doco’s would-be maker-turned-train-wreck subject, Thierry Guetta, is the butt of the joke, leading one to believe that Exit Through the Gift Shop is, above all, an exercise in currency for its infamous prankster whose disingenuous anonymity is fooling nobody—regardless of whether his film is a ruse or not. Joaquin Phoenix, on the other hand, encountered quite the opposite with I’m Still Here: his self-evisceration as a floundering rapper so convincing and committed that, up until recently, his career had been in serious jeopardy. Phoenix has since set the record straight, and one would assume restored his prospects as an actor, declaring the documentary, shot by brother-in-law Casey Affleck, as a fake. In contrast to the Banksy film though, I’m Still Here captivates primarily as a mystery box. It is a work of impenetrable tone, where scenes of extreme mean-spiritedness and absurdity (Edward James Olmos’s ‘intervention’ one such instance) are counteracted, and therefore grounded, by scenes of agonising candour and despair. In Toronto, audiences were left no closer to the truth than before; latecomers, on the flipside, have had their uncertainty blunted by Phoenix’s subsequent tell-all. I would like to think I’m Still Here remains as startling and painfully funny with the knowledge that it’s a sham, but chances are it won’t nearly have the same impact. Mind you, it isn’t diminished as a showcase for Phoenix’s goofy, wound up sensibility as a leading man (see Two Lovers for a “dry run” of his performance), nor as a satire of celebrity ‘reality’ and all those delusional auditioners who embarrass themselves on American Idol every season.

“Marimbas From Hell”

Of all the movies vying for TIFF’s spotlight, I’m Still Here was the timeliest and most surreal—a mirror image of the photographers, chauffeured SUVs, and E-presenters perched outside on King Street. (Toronto’s quaint equivalent of Hollywood Boulevard, complete with a Walk of Fame for such Canadian stars as Bryan Adams and Dan Ackroyd.) Confronted by this ballyhoo and hot air, the only natural course of action was to escape back indoors, where there were some great finds to be had. Across the road from the Scotiabank Theatre—a colossal multiplex where press and industry congregated—the NFB Mediateque was host to some of the festival’s more intimate screenings. Chief among those: Guatemalan gem Marimbas From Hell, neatly described as a cross between Close-up and This is Spinal Tap. Mimicking the Kiarostami masterpiece, director Julio Hernández Cordón begins with documentary footage, and allows the material to evolve into a feature film, with the troubled central figure, Don Alfonso, cast as himself. The heart of the story is sobering—Alfonso is the victim of gang extortion, and lives in constant fear of reprisal—and yet what is born from these real circumstances is a joyous and hilarious deadpan farce. A marimbist by trade, when demand for Alfonso’s instrument dries up, he angles for an unlikely collaboration with a heavy metal “Satanist-worshiper turned fundamentalist Orthodox Jew-born-again Christian.” The results are riotous.

Like the Film Archive in Wellington, Toronto’s Mediateque, under the auspices of the National Film Board of Canada, houses free viewing booths and a boutique cinema with hideously designed seating. (I love the Film Archive, but something needs to be done about its ‘pews’!) Its main point of difference: high-definition video projection, an upgrade many theatres here have yet to invest in. (NZIFF programmers make do with Digibeta; TIFF has all but phased out the medium in favour of HDCAM.) At the sharp end of this yardstick were the festival’s Digital Cinema presentations: Raoul Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon and Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing two eye-popping examples of the high-end theatrical format; and Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a continuation of the German iconoclast’s preoccupation with science and exploration, taking it a step further into 3-D realms—a ploy more effective at furnishing the documentary with IMAX opportunities than bringing viewers closer to the Chauvet Cave’s hallowed paintings. Herzog delights with his usual metaphysical observations, and there are long passages—where the film quietens and slows to a heartbeat in awe of the world’s earliest known cave paintings—that rival the hypnotic underwater sequences of Encounters at the End of the World and The Wild Blue Yonder. But there are unnecessarily silly moments as well: namely, a primitive spear throwing demonstration as gimmicky as the 3-D paddleball sequence in House of Wax.

“Norwegian Wood”

Unfortunately, the likelihood of the NZIFF receiving those films as a digital package is slim, as are the chances of seeing Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood in stunning HD. Based on Haruki Murakami’s popular novel—a nostalgic navel gazer in which the protagonist reminisces about his time as a ’60s freshman during Japan’s student riots, and the two vastly different lovers he held a candle for—the film is insufferable but gorgeous to look at. Of the talents involved—There Will Be Blood composer Jonny Greenwood, and Babel’s Rinko Kikuchi in another tortured, suicidal role—only does regular Hou Hsiao-hsien cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing leave a lasting impression, with images so crisp and penetrating that I welcomed them as a distraction. As for the other Japanese features I caught in Toronto, the fortunes couldn’t have been more contrasting: Naomi Kawase’s overlooked Genpin, a tender and humbling documentary on natural childbirth (her Cannes Grand Prix-winning The Mourning Forest has gone equally unnoticed), and Sion Sono’s Cold Fish, a lousy “Vanguard” entry about shady business dealings and mass murder. The director’s inspired Love Exposure was a recent bright spot in Ant Timpson’s hit-and-miss “Incredibly Strange” programming, however I wager we won’t be seeing this unpleasant follow-up any time soon.

Two of the most striking films at TIFF may not see the light of day in New Zealand either—although I would hope otherwise. Camera d’Or winner Año Bisiesto (Leap Year), a Mexican production helmed by unknown Australian ex-pat Michael Rowe (his IMDB résumé to date lists no other previous filmmaking experience), is definitely memorable—a Spanish Jeanne Dielman, of sorts, it concerns the solitary existence of a 20-something woman, moving from a glimpse into her monotonous home life and unfulfilled domestic fantasies, to a series of ungratifying one-night stands, and finally, a full-blown sadomasochistic relationship through which she plans her ‘escape’. Shot entirely within the confines of an apartment and structured around the month of February (and the impending 29th day), the film is riveting as an exercise in tension (sexual, narrative, spatial), and yet on reflection, may be too calculated and insincere for its own good. Not particularly flattering or subtle, Deep in the Woods also rode its luck, and opinion was predominantly negative towards the film. I begged to differ: Benoît Jacquot’s unsettling examination of sexual desire in 19th century provincial France an enthralling, thought-provoking highlight. Its premise—a young savage beguiles a bourgeois beauty, rapes her, then flees into the countryside with her under his spell (or is the other way around?)—struck me as tailor-made for Catherine Breillat, even if the director is preoccupied with fairytales these days. With Sleeping Beauty, she ingeniously pries open the Charles Perrault story to focus on the young princess’s dreamscape during her 100-year-slumber. The enchanting bucolic adventure that follows is tethered to a distinct eroticism and sense of unease—an allegorical sexual awakening that Breillat attempts to bring into relief with the film’s third act (where the princess has awoken at age 16, and in the present day), only to end on a strained, unreconciled note at odds with the playfully perturbed gestures of before.

*  *  *

An auspicious year to visit Toronto, 2010 marked the christening of the Bell Lightbox: an outstanding multi-screen, multi-purpose facility that had non-residents green with envy. Apart from hosting TIFF screenings and the festival’s plush new headquarters, the flagship venue has had its hefty “Essential Cinema” programme to work through (100 “greatest” films as voted by critics and audiences; Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc taking top spot), plus a steady stream of “Exclusive Engagements”, “Special Presentations”, and exhibitions to fulfil. Of all the treats unwrapped to celebrate the opening—a wunderkammer of film artefacts and treasures, or Douglas Gordon’s redux of his Turner Prize-winning 24 Hour Psycho, to name a few—Guy Maddin and his video installation Hauntings seemed to understand what this shrine to cinema needed most. Commissioned to inaugurate the Lightbox, its configuration of projections, front and centre of the gallery space, resurrected the corpses of eleven lost or unfinished films cast in the Manitoban’s inimitable, time-warped aesthetic—the intent being to “spook up” the brand new building with ghosts of the past. For the week I was there, the spirits of Kenji Mizoguchi, Josef von Sternberg, and Fritz Lang checked in, grounding the spotless corridors and vacant modernist architecture in a history as essential as the one carved out by the Top 100 films. Meanwhile, outside, an alluring spectral curtain back-projected from a row of windows on the fifth floor summoned passers-by indoors. As with anything Maddin conjures, the effect was gloriously out of step—so much so, that the Hooters straddling the thoroughfare between the Lightbox and Scotiabank Theatre took on a significance of its own. Incongruous in the midst of TIFF’s downtown takeover, it provided one of the more pointed juxtapositions at a festival still to live down accusations of elitism in some eyes.

What of the New Zealand films then? As mentioned, NZIFF programmers supported Kiwi filmmakers to the fullest, with documentarians as usual in strong voice. (The standout: Kathy Dudding’s eloquent Asylum Pieces, a bittersweet farewell to the late Wellingtonian.) In Toronto, the country was represented by two NZ Film Commission-funded features: South Auckland-set drama Matariki; and Tracker, a UK Film Council co-production which Prime Minister John Key, with his daft ideas about movie tourism, may want to contemplate splicing a “100% Pure New Zealand” trailer into. As it stands, Tracker has little else going for it beyond the novelty of Ray Winstone and Temuera Morrison racing across an over-marketed terrain: a Maori Fugitive clumsily scripted and shot by a director whose location scouting appears to have been lifted from a Lonely Planet handbook. Brit Ian Sharp’s unadventurous film isn’t just another example of the conservative movie making NZFC financers tend to err on the side of; it is, in light of the nation’s self-esteem issues and crisis of faith around The Hobbit’s production jitters, a slavish piece of geographical propaganda akin to a cheap postcard or tacky souvenir. The amount of lip service paid to scenic splendour (as reported in the October issue of On Film) signals that this trite image of untouched, primordial Aotearoa will be persisted with as an export, an aspect Tracker can’t even get right: its treatment resembling a foreigner’s slideshow taken from the window of a tour bus, never venturing off the beaten track. Only has the unfairly maligned River Queen married the mythic, awe-inspiring spirituality of the landscape with its tarnished colonial reality successfully in recent times. But it was churlishly dismissed, and Vincent Ward has now renounced New Zealand for greener filmmaking pastures. Who can blame him?

A visitor ponders Guy Maddin’s “Hauntings”. Image courtesy of Craig White @ UrbanToronto.ca

As for the discoveries that make or break a film festival, this year’s NZIFF came up a little short on surprises—from my vantage point, at least. Home to first- and second-time filmmakers, the “New Directions” section traditionally carries the weight of this expectation, and previous editions have set the bar high: in 2009, Dogtooth and Our Beloved Month of August were two of the best films seen that year; likewise with Ballast, Hunger, Lake Tahoe, and The Sky, the Earth and the Rain in 2008. Recommendable without breaking ground, Father of My Children, Winter’s Bone, and Women Without Men held up the programme’s statement of “confidence about the future of film” adequately enough, and yet I couldn’t help but feel I was missing something. Turns out I was: Mariano Llinás’s four-hour Argentinean epic, Extraordinary Stories. Judging from what I’ve heard, extraordinary. Lebanon—former Israeli soldier Samuel Maoz’s war movie about his frontline experience—also garnered excellent word of mouth to complement its widespread critical acclaim, and has thankfully returned to cinemas to the benefit of those of us who were unable to catch it in July.

Receiving the most glowing press of all the New Directions features was French-Canadian indie I Killed My Mother: a mixed bag of precocious talent and sophomoric quirks, centred on debutant Xavier Dolan’s volatile relationship with his mom at age 16. Too painfully earnest to allow his characters’ incessant bickering and petty snipes to be mistaken for black comedy, Dolan is clearly pitching these battles between closeted gay teenager and neurotic single mother (a delightfully hideous Anne Dorval) as an honest, open-wounded account of child-parental discord. Such spiteful exchanges, often escalating into absurdity, will unquestionably ring true for anyone hormonally challenged in their adolescence, and are at the script’s unpleasant, yet extremely ripe core—a rare immediacy that could only derive from the filmmaker’s outrageous youth (all of 19 years at the time of shooting). In what comes down to personal taste though, less palatable is Dolan’s direction—affected in the way Tom Ford’s A Single Man was—or his overreaching lead performance, which seems more in keeping with the pouty teen angst of Twilight: New Moon. But what do I know? Sulky is sexy, with Dolan’s tortured emo soul set to speak to an entire generation of kids whose disdain for their tacky, suburbanite parents and right to be left alone will be documented in countless video diaries and poetry journals. I Killed My Mother has screened in Cannes, Toronto, Rotterdam, and now New Zealand, but for the ultimate meta-setting, how about showing at a Cringe Night near you?

Though not quite the vintage year anticipated, 2010’s NZIFF will be remembered as one of the strongest for some time: major directors were constantly in the spotlight; forgoing the established retrospective for a handful of restoration screenings wasn’t an issue, with glorious 35mm projections of Night of the Counting Years, Senso, Once Upon a Time in the West, and The Red Shoes bringing the house down; while the festival’s “Framing Reality” section, unusually lightweight in 2009, delivered a bumper crop of documentaries. The most unexpected of those: Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, a bold, insistent framing of Andrea Dunbar’s troubled Yorkshire upbringing by way of a cast of actors either performing the playwright’s grimly autobiographical work, or lip-syncing the audio interviews conducted with her surviving family members. If the festival lacked a real outré moment—a bolter, like 2009’s polarising Dogtooth, to generate much-needed excitement and debate—it was stocked with films not quickly forgotten. Along with The Arbor, I haven’t stopped thinking about Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes. The Austrian director’s cool precision instantly evokes the rigorous set-ups of her contemporary Michael Haneke, but somehow evades didacticism and other calculating notions. Equivocal in its approach to the subject of miracles and faith, the tone of Lourdes is beautifully unmoored, and is carried by the undeniable presence of Sylvie Testud—one of cinema’s most bewitching actresses.

Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan and Michelle Williams in “Meek’s Cutoff”

If it’s at all possible to summarise a programme as vast as TIFF’s, the defining film for me was Meek’s Cutoff, which succinctly encapsulated why festivals such as Toronto’s, or any city’s for that matter, exist. A quiet revelation shot in Kelly Reichart’s assured, economical style, the film wasn’t at TIFF to jostle for publicity or gather Oscar momentum; it was there to patiently accumulate an audience, something it continues to do as it travels the world festival circuit. Charting the progress of a wagon team during the earliest days of the Oregon Trail, Meek’s Cutoff is an ensemble piece and a period picture—broad, uncharted territory for Reichart who nonetheless sticks to her guns, miniaturising the scope of the pioneer western (even narrowing the frame to the old Academy aspect ratio, a format the blockbuster-hardened projectionists at the Scotiabank were unprepared for), while retaining the serene minimalism unique to her previous independent features, Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy, both also based in the Northwest state.

Speaking at a “Mavericks” evening (part of a series of conversations supplementing the post-screening Q&A session), Reichart was reluctant to entertain any discussion of genre, and indeed all the talk of “revisionism” has been a touch off the mark: bewildered characters, dubious authority figures, and a joyless frontier landscape make for an unsentimental anti-western adverse to archetypes or mythology. Meek’s Cutoff does include a “cowboy” (as in the titular mountain guide who leads the group astray, played by Bruce Greenwood) and an “Indian” (who may know the way across the trail, if he can be trusted), however is more invested in the struggle of its bonneted female emigrants. Through the labour of survival, the film arrives at its most poetic scenes: Shirley Henderson chasing a hat swept up in a dust storm; Michelle Williams, in a long-drawn-out take, loading and firing a musket to ward off an attack. It’s these moments that reward the viewer, rather than the touted allegory couched within the story—a parable as critique of the Bush administration. The bluntness in which Reichart smuggles politics into her films has never sat comfortably with me, and Meek’s Cutoff is no different, although there’s a hell of a lot else going on to compensate. By the time it graces our international film festival next July, it will have circumnavigated the globe, and hopefully amassed a cavalcade of admirers along the way—myself firmly among them.

The Toronto International Film Festival is held every September. The New Zealand International Film Festival commences in Auckland each July, before traveling to Wellington, Dunedin, Christchurch, and up to 11 other regions through until November.
Main image courtesy of Craig White @ UrbanToronto.ca
For more images of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, click here.

   

Filed under: Features, FILM, Film Festivals

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.