Cielo (Alison McAlpine, 2017)


The images in Alison McAlpine’s Cielo are the primary draw and are probably themselves worth the price of admission. Not just the starscapes, captured in the pristine thin air of the Atacama desert, gorgeous sweeping vistas of galaxies and nebulae, planets and stars, shot in crisp digital images, time-lapsed over sunsets and dawns, but the images of the land as well: a slo-motion cloud of dust, a man descending into a hole in the earth, his sky several tons of rock, his only light a single bulb worn loosely around his neck. McAlpine breathlessly muses upon the meaning of the sky, the stars, and she interviews many of the denizens of the desert, all of whom have their unique relationship to the world above. Planet hunters, astronomers who use machines and high-tech imaging to scour the universe for other worlds, are contrasted with more ancient occupations: shepherds and storytellers, and the aforementioned miner, who writes poetry in his spare time.

The transitions are deftly made, and slowly the film’s main idea comes into focus: that of the interconnection between sky and land, mirroring the fluidity of past and future. The night sky is both. Light from stars that traveled through the void for hundreds, thousands, millions of years only to become visible to us in the present, representing our hopes for a future, which are then reflected back into the sky. The machines of the scientists, overwhelming, massive constructions that distort the space around them, McAlpine films in the style of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, or something like Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead, imposing impositions upon the natural world. The locals though are filmed in the desert itself, in run-down shacks, rickety tents, or the open air itself. The film comes dangerously close to ethnographic condescension in some of these scenes, with a poor couple and a UFO hunter. But the miner/poet is charming and the film’s ultimate star is the folklorist who recites old stories, examines petroglyphs, and comes closest to unifying the film’s disparate elements.

One thing McApline does not cover is what became the ultimate subject of Patricio Guzmán’s 2010 film Nostalgia for the Light: the fact that the Atacama, while an ideal site for star-gazing, is also home to countless bodies of people disappeared and murdered under Chile’s military dictatorship. It was probably wise to avoid repeating Guzmán, of course, but the total absence of the subject from Cielo is unusual. In focusing so much on the people who actually live and work in the desert, she seems to be prioritizing the specificity of this single place. But in cutting it off from one of the most tragic and telling passages in its history, she leaves a black hole. The desert becomes a no-place, a mere place-holder for a general concept of “land” and its subjects in turn merely “people”, relevant only for their relation to an impassive, distant, omnivorous sky.

SIFF 2017: Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison, 2016)


Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

Superficially more conventional than Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 and Back to the Soil, in its clear and direct narrative about the discovery of buried nitrate film in the Yukon. But in circling back to tell the simultaneous stories of cinema, Gold Rush, and the rise and fall of a western town, it contains multitudes. Dawson City is either a remarkable locus point of history or it’s not: who knows what forgotten histories lurk beneath our swimming pools.

Old Stone (Johnny Ma, 2016)


A year or two ago, reports began circulating chronicling a disturbing phenomenon in contemporary China. The nature of the insurance industry there was mangled such that people involved in car accidents where another person was injured had been incentivized to kill the accident victim, because if they lived the individual at fault for the accident would be responsible for their medical bills in perpetuity, and even if that person themselves died, the debt would pass on to their surviving family. The story of just such a murder opens Old Stone, the debut feature from Chinese-Canadian director Johnny Ma. It’s heard over a car radio, and the film opens with a man stalking a motorcyclist through crowded streets. His name is Lao Shi, which, as far as I can tell, translates to “old stone”, hence the title. “Laoshi” also means “teacher” and this is a film meant to teach us a lesson. (This is also where I point out that I don’t speak Chinese at all.) We flashback to three months earlier and Lao, a cab driver, has accidentally run over a motorcyclist. After calling an ambulance he decides to take the man to the hospital himself, urged on by a crowd of on-lookers, some of whom advise him not to do anything, others who insist the man will die if he isn’t hospitalized right away (a fact later confirmed by the emergency room doctor). This proves to be a mistake however, as in moving the victim, Lao has given his insurance company an excuse not to pay the man’s medical bills, leaving Lao and his family responsible. For most of the rest of the film, we follow Lao’s increasingly desperate attempts to navigate the legal system, raise money for the victim, and find anyone willing to take his side. In true noir fashion, it’s the story of a man who made a mistake, once, and must suffer the consequences.

Ma sticks close to Lao Shi throughout the film, the movie’s perspective becoming increasingly shallow and fuzzy as systemic torments drive our hero off the edge. Chen Gang is very strong in the role. Tall and angular, with beaten down shoulders and sad eyes, he is the embodiment of the everyman ground down by impersonal bureaucracy. An Nai as his wife, a day care operator hoping to expand whose dreams are ruined because of her husband’s foolish altruism is very good as well, and Jia Zhangke regular Wang Hongwei has a supporting role as one of Lao Shi’s not particularly supportive taxi driver friends. Ma has a good feel for the actuality of the Chinese city, its crowded streets, its small gestures of respect and camaraderie and indifference (often involving the sharing of cigarettes), it has all the specificity that Ringo Lam’s Sky on Fire (also opening this week) so frustratingly lacks. Unlike the bureaucratic satire of I am Not Madame Bovary, Ma doesn’t seem to find much humor in the absurdities of the system. As the film reaches its inevitable conclusion, the sense of accumulated doom is palpable: there’s no respite to be found, no outside perspective that might provide for some possibility of hope and change. We’re locked into the system with Lao Shi; all we can do is take a drink and face the on-coming headlights that, unmercifully, won’t ever arrive.

VIFF 2016: Werewolf (Ashley McKenzie, 2016)


It’s already too late for someone. A rope is pulled down from a tree and strung back up again. Two shots, and a cloud of suicidal despair rolls in over the coming proceedings. The film stops briefly to introduce itself—the title appears as if clawed across the screen—and just as quickly director Ashley McKenzie plunges back into the lives of two lovers and recovering drug addicts living on the fringes of society.

Werewolf is an addiction movie. And like many films in the genre, its drama orbits around the twin poles of drugs and romance. The compulsive behavior brought on by both intoxicants proves an irresistible symmetry for filmmakers interested in that sort of thing. Narcotics as l’amour fou, or vice versa. The more clinical term is, I believe, co-dependency, and although Werewolf plays freely with the established image of the addict lovers, it distinguishes itself by honing in on the pharmacological ties that bind this relationship. Methadone treatment isn’t just a metaphor here, but a very real medical regime with rules, regulations, lockboxes, and psych evals, all of which are administered and enforced by the faceless social workers who hover around the edges of the rigid frame, abstracted as benignly indifferent voices or anonymous limbs. Snatches of poetry do enter this antiseptic world through McKenzie’s eye, and her Denis-like fascination with skin— real skin, not the finely polished alabaster of most movie actors—keeps things pulsing with humanity. Human moments, however, give way always to the exhausting task of navigating the social order of recovery, and the film remains steadfastly committed to depicting the same degrading ritual time and again: hauling yourself up to the pharmacist’s counter to guzzle down one more dose, the humiliation nearly unbearable save for the fact that it’s shared.

The tragedy, as the opening shots warn us, is that this life can’t be shared forever, and so Werewolf is finally a diverged path, a fork leading two places, one deathly definitive and the other indeterminate, lonely, but not entirely without hope.

VIFF 2016: Never Eat Alone (Sofia Bohdanowicz, 2016)


Of the three films in VIFF’s new Future // Present series that I’ve seen thus far, the program Sunday night of Toronto filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz’s new feature paired with three of her short films is the standout. The feature is a fictionalization of the story of her maternal grandmother, Joan Benac, playing herself, who in the early 1950s, appeared as a singer and actress on a kitschy television show. Remembering this in a dream, she tasks her granddaughter Audrey (played by Deragh Campbell, in one of her three films at VIFF this year) with finding the show and tracking down the boy she co-starred with and had dated briefly. She does, she thinks, and writes the man a letter. He’s living on the other end of the country, in a small town where he lives alone and teaches a choir. Audrey writes the man a letter, asking him to call, but he never manages to connect with the women in Toronto (he’s played by George Radovics, Bohdanowicz’s producer’s grandfather). The bulk of the film cuts between the three principals, usually as they’re eating, alone. The television episode is interspersed throughout, and there’s a digressive slideshow of the grandmother’s trip to the Bahamas, both of which are actual artifacts. But wholly fictionalized scenes abound as well, such as one where Audrey tries on a bunch of old clothes her grandmother is trying to get rid of while the two delicately balance familial niceness with the desire not to give or receive these gifts. It’s a found-footage film, using bits and pieces of the past to build a collage of a fictionalized history, an alternate reality version of her family’s history. It bears a kind of inverse relationship to Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide films, which use a highly structured script and compositional style to document her family’s life, their work and routines and relationships as they go about various tasks: cleaning the house, making leather goods, cooking dumplings. Bohdanowicz in contrast films with an off-hand directness, emotionally straightforward compositions chronicling wholly improvised interactions (both Campbell and Benac receive screenplay credits).

Even more astonishing though, are the three short films paired with the feature, chronicling Bohdanowicz’s paternal grandmother. The first, A Prayer, is a short documentary, following said grandmother around her house has she does various chores (and eats a meal, alone, naturally). The second, An Evening, is something special: a tour of the grandmother’s house shortly after her death, patiently documenting its spaces while one of her records plays on the stereo, intermittently marred by a broken needle, from late afternoon until the space disappears into the darkness of night. It’s a film Chantal Akerman would be proud of. The third, Another Prayer, replays the first short, but superimposed over the now empty spaces of the woman’s home, completely silent. Each film is prefaced by a poem composed by Bohdanowicz’s great-grandmother, and the cumulative effect of the trilogy together is devastating.

VIFF 2016: The Lockpicker (Randall Okita, 2016)


The promise of summer comes early in The Lockpicker in the form of a sailing trip, a post-diploma work opportunity that doubles, more importantly, as a dream of warmth and far-flung travels, a balm for the bleakness of winter. And Hashi could clearly use a lodestar to navigate his way through his final months of high school, which find him in an unsustainable cycle of drugs and outbursts. As conceived by director Randall Okita and played by Keigian Umi Tang, Hashi embodies a familiar vision of teenage masculinity: haunted, but sensitive, confrontational at times, but more out of hurt than genuine ill-will.

Okita’s film charts the teenage mind’s limited horizon, where just one school semester seems an uncrossable chasm between the present and the future. Admittedly, the present does look pretty dull. A slushy gray tone dominates the film and the soft textures of DP Jackson Parrell’s cinematography turn this small Canadian town into a blurred no-place. Only the crushed blacks of night provide an escape, although Hashi’s evenings morph into baroquely staged nightmares just as frequently as they take the form of drunken revelry. Okita is most at home with these party scenes; he understands how intoxicants heighten juvenile braggadocio, but also how those boasts paper over pain and vulnerability. The pain, however, proves too much for Hashi. His high school days end in violence and he’s cast out into unceasing winter, the film finally giving into the grim cliche it earlier strived to avoid. It needn’t end this way. A little more wisdom, and a little more time, might be enough to convince all involved that summer always, inevitably rolls around.