VIFF 2017: BC Spotlight

Still8—Luk_Luk'I

Personal stories are the province of the emerging filmmaker and every year the BC Spotlight competition at VIFF is filled with a fresh batch of intimate debuts. This iteration is no exception, but this year the new arrivals have landed within a climate that has shifted somewhat. Earlier this year, TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey penned an op ed in The Globe and Mail bemoaning a certain tendency among Canadian indie features to favour small, personal stories – “coming of age, family tensions, falling in and out of love” – over more ambitious and widely aimed socially and politically minded works. Shocking as it was, coming from perhaps the single most powerful individual in the Canadian festival scene, this contemptible lecture thankfully received pushback from filmmakers. It remains to be seen whether anyone will take Bailey’s complaints to heart – perhaps it is too early to be reflected in the debuts of 2017 – but it remains one of the questions haunting Canada’s mounting national debate over what exactly lies ahead for its cultural industries.

Luk’Luk’I, the feature debut of Wayne Wapeemukwa, seems initially well-positioned to answer Bailey’s challenge for a more socially conscious cinema. Even if it weren’t emerging from a mostly vacuous and Hollywood-chasing local film scene, it’s audacious concept would still be just as striking and original. Set over the course of the last day of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, it follows the plights and paths of five marginalized residents (played by four non-actors and one professional) of Vancouver’s rapidly gentrifying Downtown East Side as they navigate a fevered city counting down the hours to the gold medal hockey final.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)

(Authorship Note: We are pleased to publish this essay, written by Sarah Hunter, a fabulous writer and brilliant student of film. Formerly a student at Whatcom Community College, where she received the discipline award in film in 2016-17, Sarah will be entering the filmmaking program at New York Film Academy Los Angeles in 2018.  ~MT)

Alicia in doorway

To many, famed director Alfred Hitchcock is known fondly as the “Master of Suspense,” whose enduring films have terrified and delighted audiences for decades (and who irreparably tainted the act of showering for an entire generation.) To others still, he is the quintessential auteur, a forefather of modern cinema whose methods have had a lasting impact on the craft of filmmaking – his disciples include the likes of Martin Scorsese and David Fincher. There is, however, another understanding of Hitchcock that, while perhaps possessing less of our collective consciousness, is no less significant or worthy of study: that of the capacity within his oeuvre for provocative and profound feminist analysis. In the words of scholar Tania Modleski, “Feminists have found themselves compelled, intrigued, infuriated, and inspired by Hitchcock’s works.” To be sure, feminist opinion of Hitchcock is undeniably split; many consider his persistent depictions of victimized women to be indicative of blatant misogyny. Yet others persuasively advocate for a more nuanced and open-minded examination, one which potentially suggests a richer depth to his representations of both women and men. Feminists, critics, and cinephiles alike would be remiss to ignore the subversive, oftentimes even progressive, approach to gender evident throughout Hitchcock’s body of work.

As Modleski argues in her seminal 1988 anthology The Women Who Knew Too Much, a number of Hitchcock’s films “reveal some of the difficulties for women in becoming socialized in patriarchy,” and that “despite the often considerable violence with which women are treated in [his] films, they remain resistant to patriarchal assimilation.” This indomitable spirit is best exemplified by Notorious’s brave, brazen Alicia; Shadow of a Doubt’s freethinking young Charlie; Rear Window’s daring, multifaceted Lisa; and Marnie’s titular bandit, a survivor of sexual assault. Furthermore, Modleski illustrates Hitchcock’s pattern of “putting the blame on violence against women where it belongs,” that is to say, on the male abusers and, by extension, the patriarchal system which enables them. This sentiment is echoed by biographer Donald Spoto, who points out that Hitchcock “describes the devastating effect of crime on the victim; his real contempt is for the victimizer, in every case a man.” Moreover, the men in his films (Notorious’ Devlin and North by Northwest’s Thornhill, most pointedly) typically can only achieve resolution by identifying with their female peers and gaining a more compassionate understanding of their struggles. Ultimately, it is incumbent upon the men to change – first themselves, and then the system.

This dynamic – the persecuted woman who boldly resists the patriarchal structure, and the unenlightened man compelled, both by transparent self-interest and a larger sense of justice, to empathize with her – is at its most distilled in 1946’s surprisingly sincere romantic-thriller Notorious. Unconventional leading lady Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is a binge-drinking Miami playgirl and estranged daughter of a convicted Nazi spy. A covert American agency interrupts her decadent lifestyle to recruit her for a unique mission: infiltrate a Nazi cell by seducing its ringleader, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains.) Their established history – Alex had once been in love with Alicia, though his advances were spurned – coupled with Alicia’s promiscuous reputation makes her, in the eyes of the exclusively male agency, the ideal candidate for such an unsavory assignment. “She’s good at making friends with gentlemen,” one operative explains suggestively. Continue reading

VIFF 2017: Top of the Lake: China Girl (Jane Campion, 2017)

Robin on beach

Jane Campion’s most recent project, Top of the Lake: China Girl, a follow-up to Top of the Lake (2013), is a 6-hour, episodic journey that premiered, variously, at Cannes, on the Sundance channel, and, played, most recently, at the Vancouver Film International Festival. It is, as its length and as its screening venues suggest, difficult to pin neatly into a category. Is it a gorgeously shot TV show? A very long film? Campion and her work, as usual, resist tidy classifications of all sorts.

Does her work represent “female annihilation in bonnets,” as BBC Radio 5 film critic Mark Kermode once suggested, or is she definitely a feminist director, her work “emphasiz[ing] and almost perverse figuration of female strength” as Professor of Film Studies at University of East Anglia, Yvonne Trasker has said? Campion herself has championed women and women filmmakers, quoted as saying in an 1993 Cahiers du Cinema piece, “I think I know things about women that men cannot express.” And yet she “bridles” Virginia Wright Wexman notes in Jane Campion: Interviews, “at being narrowly identified as a feminist filmmaker,” and Wexman cites Campion as saying, “‘I think it’s quite clear in my work that my orientation isn’t political or doesn’t come out of modern politics.’” Continue reading

120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) (2017, Robin Campillo)

pride

There is a key scene located someplace in the last third of the immensely moving and rousing activist drama 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) involving that most intimate of moments: a conversation about the past. There have been many such discussions between boyfriends Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a HIV-positive founding member of ACT UP Paris, and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a HIV-negative new member, but this is the first to take place during one of ACT UP’s meetings. As one of the speakers talks to the group at large, the two men turn to each other and slowly, considerately discuss how Nathan has managed, at the height of the AIDS crisis in a group comprised almost exclusively of HIV-positive gay men, to stay negative. The content is moving enough, but the context, of moving from this purposefully public forum into a private space, makes it all the more vital.

120 BPM is built on breaking down this foundational dichotomy, of making public activism a deeply personal mission and vice versa. Not one member of ACT UP is less than totally committed to their mission of fighting for better treatment, prevention, and medicine for HIV-positive people, and this sense of urgency pulsates from the screen in both the overtly political scenes and the ones motivated a less obvious purpose.

Continue reading

VIFF 2017: Sami Blood (Amanda Kernell, 2016)

measuring elle marja

Sami-Swedish writer-director Amanda Kernell’s debut feature, Sami Blood, opens on a black screen and the sound of a lonely, whistling wind. Then, we hear a knocking, as the introductory credits, white on black, appear, and a man’s voice speaks: “Mom?” More knocking, then the same man’s voice: “Christina?” The first image appears, an elderly woman, alone, in close-up profile, lighting a cigarette, looking out a window, ignoring the voice.

It’s a haunted space with that blackness, the wind, the disembodied voice, and the woman who is turned away, hiding from both the voice of her son and our public prying eyes. It’s a space that sets the stage for the film to follow, the story of the girl who becomes that woman, a woman who is, indeed, haunted, hiding, and alienated from those closest to her and from the larger world, too, a world, she fears, might stare at her too much and too long.

In the opening scenes, the elderly Christina (Maj-Doris Rimpi), reluctantly guided by her son and accompanied by her granddaughter, attends the funeral of her long estranged sister. It is a Sámi funeral, following the traditions of that complex and internally diverse people group indigenous to Sweden, and it is clear that Christina, living in Swedish dress and speaking the Swedish language, feels deeply uncomfortable within the Sámi community. She speaks to no one and shields her face with her hand while she sits silently at the post-funeral meal, apart from her son and granddaughter, who are eating and talking with ease with those around them. The intimacy of family-community bonds juxtaposed with the individual isolation of Christina, separate and silent, is what strikes us most immediately. It is one thing to feel alone among strangers, wholly another to be alone among kin.

Christina

Continue reading

VIFF 2017: 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami, 2017)

ocean poles

The frame holds me.
Straining to see beyond,
I sleep,
caught between
tension & peace.

In the sleep, I dream,
The dream, a window
into what is
and what could be. 
      –(Adapted from the original tweet, 9/29/2017)

An inevitable sort of melancholy hangs over a beloved filmmaker’s last film, and one feels a certain pressure to love it, whatever it is. Going into the screening of the final film of Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016), 24 Frames, I couldn’t ignore the nostalgia associated with the endeavor. I am not sure, ultimately, if it will ever be possible for me to disassociate the film from the cinema experience of sitting in the dark, grieving a film lover’s grief and thinking, “This 120 minutes will be the last new footage I will ever see.”  But sitting there, even so intensely aware of the experience as a memento mori, Kiarostami’s film–flickering relentlessly forward through those precious minutes–took on its own weight. Like all of his films have done for me, it slowly removed me from self-consciousness and immersed me in itself.

24 Frames is certainly unique within Kiarostami’s oeuvre. It’s the sort of thing you might expect to find in an exhibition at the MoMA, where you can study an art piece for a while and then wander away. It’s not the sort of thing you’d expect to sit in the dark and watch for two hours. But then, Kiarostami has always been playing with the idea of cinema, his films so often reflecting back on themselves and on the act of filmmaking, and in these reflections, he has continually made his audiences consider again what cinema is and what it could be.

Continue reading

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017)

the-killing-of-a-sacred-deer-1200x520

This is the first movie I’ve seen from celebrated Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, and it’ll likely be the last. A bearded Colin Farrell plays a surgeon whose patient dies during an operation. The patient’s son (Barry Keoghan, super creepy) first tries to get Farrell to hook up with his mother (Alicia Silverstone, sad and sadly underutilized) to take the dead father’s place, but when that doesn’t work out, begins supernaturally torturing his family in an attempt to force Farrell to choose which one of his two kids should die as compensation for the boy’s dead father. It’s an adaptation of the story of Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon who is commanded to be sacrificed after her father kills a deer beloved of the goddess Artemis. But in adapting the story into the bleak world of Euro-art house cruelty, Lanthimos drains the story of its humanity and its tragedy, leaving instead a deeply cynical, and exceedingly dumb, black comedy. Farrell and Nicole Kidman, playing his wife, speak and relate with an affectless precision, which is funny and weird when playing up their bizarre oversharing at parties or depressing bedroom antics, but serves no other apparent purpose. A satire of bourgeois zombiism dressed up with a classical education. Lacking belief in either the cause or the tragedy of Iphigenia’s sacrifice, all that’s left is a cheap mockery of humanity. An adaptation of myth from the point of view not of the people who strive and suffer, but through the eyes of an imperious god, tormenting foolish, hubristic mortal souls. A film almost wholly lacking empathy.

The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017)

Florida-Project-NYTimes

Tangerine director Sean Baker returns to Seattle Screens this week with another tale of life on the margins of 21st century capitalism. Set entirely around the vicinity of the cheerfully purple Magic Castle motel, a semiurban wasteland of hotels, abandoned houses and oversized promotional mascots bordering the unapproachable dream of Disney World, Baker takes for his heroes a small group of children, led by Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), an amoral, loudmouth innocent trying to entertain herself over summer break. The first half of the film mostly follows her adventures with the neighbor kids in the motel (begging for change to buy ice cream, playing hide and seek in the motel office, exploring empty houses and what passes for countryside amid Orlando’s sprawl). The second half focuses more on Moonee’s mother, just as loud, but more amoral, as she resorts to increasingly inappropriate ways of earning the weekly rent cash. Uniting it all is the weary presence of Willem Dafoe, motel manager, a good man trying to do his job with compassion and honor.

Like Tangerine, Baker films with a sun-dappled luminosity that’s all but anathema in the European art house tradition of films about poverty. Being poor isn’t supposed to look nice, or fun, and the easiest way to convey that is with a drab grunginess. The Florida Project rejects that approach, but also the kind of somber mysticism that makes things like Beasts of the Southern Wild* or George Washington palatable for a mass audience. His models instead go back further, to the Depression: Hal Roach and the Little Rascals are thanked in the credits, and the influence of those stories of kids being poor but nonetheless being kids is clear. I was reminded as well of Frank Borzage’s classic No Greater Glory, about unsupervised children recreating the martial ideologies and conflicts of their parents’ generation, with tragic consequences. The kids in The Florida Project aren’t playing war games, but are instead learning their parents’ approaches to failing in capitalism: acting out against things, not people – they vandalize objects of wealth, a car, a house. One of their first acts of terror is literally turning off power. Poverty in The Florida Project never looks fun, it looks brutal and crushingly sad (the unseen face of the boy forced to give away all his toys because they don’t fit in his father’s car when they’re moving away). But it’s still sunny in Florida, and there is ice cream and cows and maple syrup to be found.

*Spoiler Ahead*

Continue reading

VIFF 2017: Milla (2017, Valérie Massadian)

Still—Milla

Milla opens in a state of languor: a young couple snuggled up together, camping in their car. In our very first sight of Milla (Séverine Jonckeere) and Leo (Luc Chessel), condensation on the car windows forms a natural softening filter between the lovers and their audience, bathing their morning idyll in a haziness never to be seen again. Later, they eat a cobbled together breakfast in the forest, a lushly composed scene of domestic and romantic peace. It’s worth noting these early moments of leisure for they provide the first inkling of unfussy and unsentimental consideration that permeates Milla, a work of patient and heart-aching metamorphosis.

Continue reading

VIFF 2017: The Florida Project (2017, Sean Baker)

dafoe

It seems fair to say that one of the biggest breakouts in the film world during these past few years was 2015’s Tangerine, co-written and directed by Sean Baker. Garnering almost as much attention for its empathetic, energetic focus on trans female sex workers in Los Angeles as it did for its ultra-low-budget shooting style on three iPhone 5Ss, one could easily assume that the movie was Baker’s directorial debut. But in point of fact, the movie was his fifth feature, and with his sixth and latest film, The Florida Project, Baker returns to his favored shooting format of 35mm, this time in the at once fantastical and sober environs of Orlando, Florida.

Whereas Tangerine aimed for an almost abrasive, unapologetic energy, with its narrative confined to the drama of a web of relationships on Christmas Eve, The Florida Project‘s goal is something more sprawling and languorous. The film takes place over a summer at the Magic Castle, a motel-cum-extended-stay complex in the shadow of Disney World, focusing on Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, remarkable), a wild six-year-old, and Halley (Bria Vinaite), her equally uncontrolled mother. What framework of a narrative unspools at a leisurely pace, mostly content to observe as Moonee plays with a set of friends around the alternately pastoral and urban area surrounding the motel.

Continue reading