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…
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.
Directed by Tanya Wexler
Screenplay by Jonah Lisa Dyer & Stephen Dyer
Country: USA / UK
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
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
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.