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.

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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.

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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.

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The Frances Farmer Show #15: VIFF 2017 Recap

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We talk about many of the movies we saw at the Vancouver International Film Festival. Films discussed include: Maison du bonheur, Milla, Caniba, 24 Frames, Claire’s Camera, The Square, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the Future//Present program (Fail to Appear, Mass for Shut-Ins, Still Night Still Light, Prototype, Black Cop, Scaffold, Forest Movie), Faces Places, Top of the Lake: China Girl, 120 Beats per Minute, Bad Genius, Wonderstruck, The Florida Project, and SPL: Paradox.

You can listen to the show by downloading it directly, or by subscribing on iTunes or the podcast player of your choice.

VIFF 2017: Faces Places (2017, Agnès Varda & JR)

truck

At this point, it seems moot to emphasize the collaborative nature of film. With almost no exceptions, every single movie requires the work of many talented, gifted artisans and craftspeople who provide incalculable contributions. Yet, with the very valid tenets of the auteur theory in mind, films co-directed by two distinct voices are special cases, especially in the case of the magnificent documentary Faces Places. The first credited director, Agnès Varda, the octogenarian filmmaker of Cléo from 5 to 7, Le bonheur, The Gleaners and I, and other such acclaimed works, almost needs no introduction to cinephiles. On the other hand, her creative partner JR is quite literally an unknown quantity: the visual artist and street photographer’s identity is uncertain, and while he has directed a handful of films, including a short starring Robert De Niro, to my knowledge he has made no significant splash in the world of cinema until now.

Varda herself is coming off of a partially self-imposed hiatus from feature filmmaking, having made her previous and ostensibly last documentary The Beaches of Agnès in 2008. But the fusion of their two diametrically opposed figures – she an elderly, world famous director with two-tone hair, he a 34-year-old visual artist with perpetually perched dark glasses à la Godard (according to Varda) – only enhances both directors’ innate sense of exuberance and sensitivity. Faces Places‘ ostensibly modest aims of photographing and plastering large photographs of average people onto structures across France provides a surprisingly humanist and playful backdrop, against which two remarkable artists create something both profoundly personal and entirely universal.

goat

Perhaps what strikes most is how Faces Places‘s sense of collaboration arises. The film begins with a playful series of scenes imagining how the duo could have met (on a road, in a bakery, and most amusingly on the dancefloor), and while the actual point of first contact is much more mundane, it arises without ambiguity from a place of strong appreciation for each other’s work. Flashes of film clips from Varda (including Cléo) and some of JR’s large posted photographs appear at the very beginning, but on the whole the film relies solely upon the interplay between the two artists and their many camera subjects.

Whether it be the last woman living in a row of miners’ houses, a photograph of an old acquaintance pasted onto the side of a toppled bunker at Normandy, or the wives of shipyard workers, Varda and JR continually manage to tease out the fascinating and even fantastical via their particular mode of documentation. This isn’t the realm of, say, Humans of New York; the filmmakers do happen across incredible stories, but they are augmented and enhanced by the act of photographing, both in still and moving form. And, at least for Varda, this process is soon coming to a close: throughout the documentary her eyesight is failing, and there is a scene of an ocular injection quickly likened to “Un chien andalou.” Yet Faces Places feels no burden to be a capstone or a simple elegy, even if Godard almost makes an appearance. It is buoyed by sheer humanity in many forms, almost always managing to hit the perfect balance between the sentimental and the clear-eyed, prone to flights of fancy but persistently aware of when to come back to earth.

VIFF 2017: Close-Knit (Naoko Ogigami, 2017)

close-knit

While watching Naoko Ogigami’s Close-Knit, I often remarked to myself, “The camera is always at the right distance! Every Time!” like an idiot. But it is this observation that best captures the appeal of Ogigami’s cinema. She is not fashionable or current or modern in ways that are obvious. Indeed, her concepts and sensibility are probably downright corny. But she has judgment, and her gaze is always a respectful one. Thus her camera is always at a careful distance, marveling at the nature of her characters and accepting them for who they are. Hers is a welcoming vision, perhaps most ably realized in her masterpiece Kamome Diner (2006), where all sorts of people are brought into the fold of the narrative, their tastes, mannerisms and behavior given their place. The same applies for her latest feature, Close-Knit.

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