Toronto International Film Festival – part II

ACQUA (2011)

Written & Directed by Raha Shirazi

Country: Canada / Italy

Language: No dialogue

Raha Shirazi’s ACQUA was part of the Short Cuts Programme dedicated to screening Canadian films.  Shirazi is no stranger to the Toronto International Film Festival, having brought her film Four Walls to the fest in 2007.   Beginning with a woman (Shirazi) walking, we see that she passes through what seems to be a variety of climates.  She wears simple clothes, and it’s obviously modern day, but where is she going?  Eventually she comes to a river and wades in with a large glass bottle.  It’s raining as she goes further and further into the river, finally stopping when the water is almost to her waist.  The color palette is very effective, with muted, cool tones.  Her character dunks the bottle into the water and lets it fill up, then repeats her trek to the river in reverse.  Only in the final few seconds of the film are we shown why she did it.  Her mother has died and she must return to her home with water to wash the body.  When she enters her home, the color palette changes to warm, golden tones.  Her face and her mother’s body are illuminated by the flames flickering in the fireplace as Shirazi’s character soaks her scarf in the water and rubs her mother’s arms, hands….  A poignant moment.

In the Q&A following the shorts program, Shirazi revealed that in her own cultural tradition (Iranian) this is something that is done when people die — they wash down the bodies before burial.  And, she added, it’s also something that she did when her own mother died a few years ago.  I found this incredibly touching as well as courageous of her to put herself into a character experiencing the same thing she had to face a few years prior.  It is a beautifully shot film which takes its time and allows the audience to explore its meaning.

UNION SQUARE (2011)

Directed by Nancy Savoca

Screenplay by Nancy Savoca & Mary Tobler

Country: USA

Language: English

I’ll be honest and say firstly that Nancy Savoca’s work is one reason why I’m a filmmaker.  It’s one reason why I write, it’s one reason why I love movies, it’s one reason why film is my passion.  My appreciation of Savoca all started with her 1993 film Household Saints, a perennial favorite of mine for myriad reasons.  So, I was ecstatic to be able to snag a ticket to the screening of her newest film, UNION SQUARE, which she co-wrote with Mary Tobler.    This was a very challenging film for me for a few reasons:  the characters were so well developed that they seemed like real people (complete with painful flaws & haunted pasts), it was claustrophobic (taking place almost exclusively in one place, a New York City apartment), and it was shot in various places throughout as an almost docu-style drama.

The story revolves around two estranged sisters, both of whom are trying to escape their personal pain.  One of them is played by Mira Sorvino, whose character embraces her “Bronx-ness,” has an affair with a married man (she’s married, too), which we find out through overheard phone conversations and some dialogue, and who drinks and wears loud clothing to call attention to her “assets.”  The other sister is played by Tammy Blanchard whose character is very much on the straight and narrow, but she has lied to her fiance about her past (he thinks she’s from Maine) and has hidden her personal history of drug abuse and a mentally ill mother.  When Sorvino’s character “Lucy” hits the city and drops by (after three years of the sisters not speaking or seeing each other), an emotional bomb is dropped on “Jenny” (Blanchard).

Despite the excellent performances, the naturalistic acting, the incredibly effective direction, this film put me on edge more than any I’ve seen since Jim Sheridan’s 2009 film Brothers.   I could feel my heart start to beat faster and my blood pressure rise as I watched.  It was stressful.  It was real.  It felt like some of the worst, most emotionally wrenching moments of my life.  I left feeling confused, emotionally exhausted and with the realization that as together as I think my life is, none of us is really that far away from the emotional trauma explored in UNION SQUARE.  But that’s exactly what makes this film so good.  It’s a film that you can ruminate on and endlessly explore.  This isn’t something I realized in the theatre, or the day after, or the week after, but I finally got to it.

The Q&A following the screening included director/co-writer Nancy Savoca, co-writer Mary Tobler, producers Neda Armian and Richard Guay, and supporting actor Mike Doyle.  Savoca revealed that all of her first choices for actors said “yes,” including the legendary Patti Lupone (mother to “Jenny” and “Lucy”) and Michael Rispoli (“Nick,” husband to “Lucy,” who also starred in Savoca’s Household Saints).  It was filmed in Richard Guay’s (Savoca’s life & business partner) apartment in New York City.  From what I heard, it seemed almost like a charmed production.

THE GOOD SON (2011)

(“Hyvä poika”)

Directed by Zaida Bergroth

Screenplay by Zaida Bergroth & Jan Forrsström

Country: Finland

Language: Finnish

Zaida Bergroth is a genius director.  According to imdb.com, this is her ninth directorial effort and third feature film.  While I’ve not heard of Bergroth before, I took the opportunity I had while attending TIFF to not only see women-directed films, but also to see films by non-North American directors.  Bergroth is Finnish, though that does not have much to do with the story.  THE GOOD SON is about an aging movie star who is a single mother raising two sons, one probably around 18 or 19, the other around 10.   A weekend in the country trying to get away from vile press coverage turns into “Leila” (the mother, played by Elina Knihtilä,) desperately needing attention from a man.  While her oldest son “Ilmari,” (played by newcomer Samuli Niittymäki), serves as her fierce protector, no matter the problems this “new guy,” presents, “Leila,” is often confused and bewildered, switching sides between the weekend fling and her own son on whom she depends for her safety and constant affirmation.

Events escalate and turn violent between the two men after “Ilmari’s” girlfriend tells him a lie about “Leila’s” man attacking her.   While the man himself is guilty for a few rash decisions to become physical against “Ilmari,” the situation becomes even more violent when “Ilmari” tries to not only protect his mother, but himself and their life together as a mother and two sons.  The man accuses “Ilmari,” of living in a sick situation (implying that there is some type of serious co-dependence, or worse, attraction between him and his own mother).  This enrages “Ilmari,” who nearly beats the man to death as his mother sleeps upstairs.  When she awakes, she realizes the horror of what her son has done and secretly helps the man to alert the neighbors.  Talking to her son, we can see she is shaken, but on one level has some type of residual allegiance to her son.  However, as her son rests his head on her lap to sleep for awhile, thinking he’s done the right thing by attacking the man, “Leila” waits for the police to arrive, knowing that she must finally let her son go.

I had no idea what to expect from this film.  I’ve never seen a Finnish film and did not know if there were typical conventions present in the film — perhaps I’ll have to see more Finnish films to understand the broader cultural context of THE GOOD SON as a work of art.  In the end, it’s a solid film which explores the mother-child relationship, teen angst, responsibility thrust upon children, and ultimately, the freedom to defend oneself against a threat.  Definitely a suspense thriller, Bergroth takes her time to develop the story, so simple on the surface, but so dark and complex as she peels away the layers.

BACK TO STAY (2011)

(“Abrir Puertas y Ventanas”)

Written & Directed by Milagros Mumenthaler

Country: Argentina / Switzerland / Netherlands

Language: Spanish

By the time I saw this film I was not keen to sit through another 90 minutes of virtually no dialogue and a story that develops at a snail’s pace.  Only in the days following the screening am I beginning to process it and understand the characters.  Director Milagros Mumenthaler has won some prestigious awards for this film, and I would love to sit down with some of those film festival juries to understand what they saw and why they feel it’s important.  That’s not to say that I do not see the importance of the film, though, but I would like to hear other people’s thoughts on it.

It’s a quiet film, almost painfully so, about three sisters who live in a house together which was recently also occupied by their grandmother (deceased about a year).  It seems as their relationships are extremely strained, each young woman with quite different personalities.  They seem to live in a type of purgatory where little happens, but they are inextricably tied not just as sisters but also as inhabitants of a house where their grandmother’s ghost seems to always be hovering.  The furniture is dated, the dresser drawers are still full of her clothes, the girls use a vibrating/bouncing bed that must have been such the rage when first purchased.  You feel as if you are living their lives, resigned to a life of boredom and uncertainty, completely blindsided when the youngest girl decides to leave with a boyfriend neither of her sisters knew she had.  What is to happen to them all?  Do they care about each other? Why don’t they show it?  There are scars you can only see in the moments of silence shared between them.

WHERE DO WE GO NOW? (2011)

(“Et maintenant, on va où?”)

Directed by Nadine Labaki

Screenplay by Rodney Al Haddid, Thomas Bidegain (collaboration), Jihad Hojeily, Nadine Labaki

Country: Lebanon / France / Egypt / Italy

Language: Arabic, French

About once a year, I see a film that makes me fall in love with film all over again.  I discover the magic that it provides, the exploration it challenges us with, the joy it can reveal in simple moments.  Nadine Labaki’s WHERE DO WE GO NOW? is just such a film.  I’m in love.  A small village in Lebanon made up of half Muslims, half Christians, that has lived in peace for many years, is suddenly turned on its head when an accident spurs a hatred between the two religious groups.  The village’s women take it upon themselves to counterract the violence and animosity that develops between the men of the village, resulting in a riotous series of schemes to get them to forget about their differences.

I will stop here and not go further as I think everyone should see this film, and it is filled with so many joyous little surprises and twists that to write about it would only spoil it.  But I will say that the rhythm of the film, the music used, the structure of the story, and the direction itself, are so effective that it is easy, if not also dangerous, to lose oneself in the film.  Why dangerous?  The beauty of the film and the inspirational story is tempered with the reality of war and the death of a child.  This film made me laugh over and over again, dream of a better world, had my heart soaring at the beauty of film and the love with which Labaki has treated the story and its inhabitants, but it also made me cry bitterly at the reality that exists on a daily basis.  You will be deeply moved by this film.

I am happy to say as well that Nadine Labaki won the Toronto International Film Festival Cadillac People’s Choice Award for this film, which is the top prize of TIFF, a non-competitive festival (no juries to judge films!)  It deserves it, and her winning this prestigious award is a testament to her craftsmanship and the beauty she has captured on film.

Sony Pictures Classics has just picked up this film for U.S. distribution.  I can’t wait to see it in theatres.

Toronto International Film Festival – pt. I

From September 12-18, the beautiful town of Toronto graced the soles of my vegan shoes as I attended the Toronto International Film Festival for the first time ever.  It’s something I’ve spent more than 15 years thinking about doing and wanting to do, but for some reason, have never done.  Suffice it to say that Toronto was replete with filmmakers, film lovers, film distributors, film journalists, well, you get the picture.

I went to Toronto with intent, not only for a long-awaited stint as a ticket-wielding Jane Q. Public, but also in my role as author of this blog.  With that intent came the welcomed responsibility to watch as many female-centric and female directed films as possible.  I think I got what I paid for: a unique experience that, as stated in the festival’s mission, changes how people view the world through film.

Here are the films that I had the opportunity to see:

THE LADY (2011)

Directed by Luc Besson

Screenplay by Rebecca Frayn

Country: France / UK

Language: English, Burmese (“Myanmar language”)

This film tells the story and recounts the struggle of the Burmese leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent the last 20 years fighting to establish a democratic society in Myanmar.  Michelle Yeoh portrays Suu Kyi with a grace, dignity and — according to audience members during the Q&A after the screening who personally know Suu Kyi — an admirable authenticity.  While it has been written off in some reviews as a “kitchen sink drama,” the true story it tells is anything but melodramatic.  If anything, it is a sincere look into the personal struggle and very public circumstances that prevented Suu Kyi from remaining in Oxford, England as the wife of an Oxford professor and mother to two young boys, and instead forced her into taking up the mantle her father once held before his brutal murder in the late 1940’s.  Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s greatest hope — a leader duly elected who has been routinely prohibited by the State from enacting or embracing any social or political mandate established by the Burmese people.

A bit formulaic on one hand (evoking tears and shocked looks from the audience), Besson nevertheless insists that you witness some of the terror and horror that existed (if not still exists) in Myanmar today.  This is what Aung San Suu Kyi witnessed and you understand why she did what she did, and what she is still doing even today, as her country struggles to reach a democratic resolution to its tyrannical history.

Ultimately, while the subject  and true protagonist of the film is Aung San Suu Kyi, the main character is her husband, Michael Aris (played by David Thewlis).  He is the main driver of the action in the story, and is the main player in this film as the person who tries to publicize not only his wife’s story, but the story of the Burmese democratic protesters.  He helps to ensure that Aung San Suu Kyi is considered for (and ultimately is awarded) the Nobel Peace Prize, and deals with family life back in England while she lives under house arrest and frequent threat for many, many years.  Understandably, there needs to be a character who drives the action, and living under house arrest doesn’t lend itself to action, so focusing on Suu Kyi’s husband, Michael, accomplishes that need; however, it also limits the exploration of Suu Kyi’s experiences and ultimate impact.

THE LADY was introduced by screenwriter Rebecca Frayn who passed on words from Aung San Suu Kyi herself, for audiences to exercise their liberties and freedoms as a way to remember the continuing struggle for human rights and democracy in Burma and around the world.  Inspiring…

SWIRL (2011)

(“Girimunho”)

Directed by Clarissa Campolina & Helvecio Marins, Jr.

Screenplay by Felipe Bragança

Country: Brazil / Spain / Germany

Language: Brazilian Portuguese

SWIRL takes a fascinating, meditative look into the lives of several people in small-town Brazil, drawing on the real lives of the non-professional actors who, essentially, play themselves in the film.  The filmmakers revealed in a Q&A following the screening that they spent six years researching the town and the people and about four months filming.  Using a very loose script and simple direction, the film captures the subjects (residents of the town) as they go about their lives, creating an almost docu-narrative hybrid style of film with a camera that is more observant than it is decisive.

The story focuses on an old woman (Bastu) who lives with her granddaughter (Branca) in the small town of São Romão.  Following the characters through their daily lives, we see the woman’s husband die, his spirit come to haunt the workshop, the granddaughter decide to leave town for nursing school, and many bits of wisdom shared mostly with the audience.  Music is keenly interspersed throughout the long, quiet shots — the film has little dialogue — sung by various characters, including the woman’s neighbor, a feisty older lady who also sings during an extensive opening scene at a community dance.

The contemplative style of the filmmakers lends itself to ambitious introspection!  Bastu, at the end of the film, stands in shallow water in the river looking out into the distance.  She shares her philosophy of life, almost as if speaking directly to the audience.  She loves life, despite what might be seen as very difficult circumstances (poverty, widowhood), and looks upon it as a blessing not to be ignored.

HYSTERIA (2011)

Directed by Tanya Wexler

Screenplay by Jonah Lisa Dyer & Stephen Dyer

Country: USA / UK

Language: English

Director Tanya Wexler introduced her film, visibly excited at the prospect of seeing it with another audience.  Having premiered it at the festival the night before along with the film’s lead, Hugh Dancy, and main female character, Maggie Gyllenhaal, she obviously adored her film and audiences’ reactions to it.  Often difficult to do, Wexler executed this period piece (set in Victorian England) with downright audacity.   Colors were brilliant; costumes were, well, Victorian (think whale-bone corsets, three-piece suits and furs); body language was cagey.  Informed by a well structured script and clever writing, Wexler most definitely loved this story and had a hell of a good time making the film!  She pulled off some very awkward scenes with hilarity and had the audience in stitches from the very beginning straight through to the end.

The film tells the story of the invention of the first vibrator, and the main character of Dr. Mortimer Granville (played by Hugh Dancy) serves as a composite of various historical figures simultaneously working on such a device.  The Victorian medical explanation for women’s “hysteria” was basically thus:  a woman experiencing stress would often suffer from a “wandering uterus,” (yes, that’s right), which would literally (according to Victorian medicine) wander throughout the body unless it could somehow become grounded back in its rightful place.  To ground the uterus in women’s bodies, these stressed out gals needed a good ol’ “paroxysm” (read: orgasm, but shhhh, because that’s not what it really was, it was simply a scientific inevitability of stimulation, nothing sexual involved here!)  Once they experienced a paroxysm, they felt less stressed, were able to concentrate better, felt happier, etc.  Well, suffice it to say that the young Dr. Granville’s hand became pretty tired, and, along with a budding romance (the I love you, I couldn’t love you, I don’t know, but I think I love you sort), with Charlotte Dalrymple (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) — Granville’s boss’s determined, class averse, ambitious activist daughter — he stumbled upon an idea for a vibrator.  The world would never be the same again.  Oh, that, and he realized (after being told by Charlotte) that women’s problems which he diagnosed as “hysteria” were due to them working too hard for too many hours and having a husband who would not make love to them (or not make love to them often enough).

Wexler waited for the credits to roll as various historical and current photos of vibrators appeared along with their often very funny names.  It was inspiring to see how in love with her film she was, and she gladly rattled off some of the best taglines she’s heard: “You’ll come again and again.” “The feel-good movie of the year.” “It has a happy ending.”  A Q&A followed with the screenwriters, Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer, who spoke a bit about the atrocious misogynistic mores and “scientific” understanding of gynecology, a history that hugely helped to inform the film.  It touched upon issues of forced sterilization (the punishment for a woman found guilty of stepping outside of the tightly proscribed behavior of the Victorian era), class consciousness, and female empowerment.  Somewhat predictable in how it turns out, in fact, predictable across many of the beats throughout the film, it nevertheless is a people-pleaser.  All in all, a very good film with a great message and even greater laughs.

According to the director, the film does not yet have a U.S. distributor nor a public relations budget.  In fact, she also stated that it has only one publicist (one who was specifically for the Toronto International Film Festival).  To see this film die on a shelf or be relegated to a special late night showing on Oxygen in three years would be a crime against women.  HYSTERIA helps to lay waste to misogynistic characters and gives voice to an important time during women’s history.

THE RED VIRGIN (2011)

Written & Directed by Sheila Pye

Country: Canada / Spain

Language: Spanish

Distributor: Freak (independent film agency)

– NO TRAILER OR CLIP FOUND – (to submit a link to a trailer or clip, please click here)

This fascinating short was included in the Short Cuts Canada Programme 6, and was inspired by a true story from the early 20th century of a woman in Spain who attempted to mold her daughter into a utopian ideal, a free woman.  Ultimately, her daughter refused to live under her mother’s rule and began to express her own thoughts and desires.  As a result, her mother felt that her creation failed to achieve perfection, and she murdered her own daughter.  Shocking as that is, the film shows the delicate balance between creation and destruction, love and obliteration.

Brilliantly portrayed by famed Spanish actress Maribel Verdú, “Aurora Rodriguez” explains herself directly to the camera, in deliberate fashion and stark terms.  She has an ideal that she wants to achieve.  When she realizes she can’t, then she must destroy what she created.  The film is introduced by “Hildegart,” the daughter (played by Ivana Baquero), who explains how she came to be — an experiment more than anything else.  The visual aesthetic is dreamy, almost like a water-color painting, with muted tones and highly controlled performances.  Certainly a film that is  not easily forgotten, the film’s writer-director, Sheila Pye, is currently developing the story into a feature-length picture that is meant to star Maribel Verdú (according to a Q&A which followed the shorts programme).

LITTLE THEATRES: Homage to the Mineral of Cabbage (2011)

(“Teatrinos: Homenaxe ao mineral do repolo”)

Directed by Stephanie Dudley

Screenplay based on a poem by Erin Mouré

Country: Canada

Language: Galician

This charming film is done completely in stop-motion animation, a medium that the director, Stephanie Dudley, wanted to use to explore something that is normally understood as mundane.  In this case, it’s the cabbage.  And the screenplay is a poem.  Erin Moure’s (a Canadian poet) homage to cabbage is the basis of the screenplay which comes to life as a narration in the Galician language.

It is a fast-paced story with brilliant detail in the animation, with lines of the poem showing up as scrolls which unscroll on the screen.  The tricks of stop-motion animation I do not understand, but the beauty of it (along with the painstaking work and long, long hours of slight movements) is impressive.   Dudley was not only the director but also editor, and played still many other roles in the production of the film.