September 20, 2006

Toronto. Wrap-up.

Michael Sicinski wrote some of the sharpest short reviews out there throughout the Toronto International Film Festival. Here, he closely considers a few highlights and one "failure... worth arguing with and against."

TIFF: a few directors

Over the past few years, the Toronto International Film Festival has worked noticeably hard to shed its former "Festival of Festivals" mantle, striving to feature more world premieres alongside the expected titles from Cannes, Venice and, to a lesser extent, Sundance, Berlin and Karlovy Vary. Although this strategy has produced mixed results in the past, it seems to me that somehow TIFF 06 got the balance right. Brand new films from major artists shone forth alongside gems from the "weak" Cannes line-up which, in a different, less rarefied context, could be judged again on their own merits. Throw in a "secret," last-minute Venice winner, and some timely dispatches from the avant-garde, and this year's TIFF actually started looking a bit like one for the ages.

First things first: among those lucky enough to have made time in their cramped schedules for the fifth "Wavelengths" experimental program, consensus seemed to form almost immediately. Nathaniel Dorsky's new film Song and Solitude was probably the best film in the festival overall, and a major breakthrough in the development of his art. After making the leap with his 1999 film Variations from formally mediated abstractions into observational slices of poetic time, linked by a non-associative editing style, Dorsky spent nearly a decade making, well, variations on this style. Lovely as they were, they lacked the revelatory power of the first film in the series, the sense that the artist was developing a new way of seeing, allowing it to slowly detonate in his viewers' consciousness.



Song and Solitude, which world premiered at Toronto (and will play in October at the New York Film Festival "Views from the Avant-Garde" sidebar), finds Dorsky expanding his visual vocabulary once again. As with his earlier films, Dorsky's latest is presented in pure silence and projected at 18 frames per second. But although Song does contain recognizable images of daily life, Dorsky has produced a film predominantly composed of shimmering registrations of fleeting light, the sun peering through dense foliage or patterns of color and texture glinting off a glass surface. In short, Song and Solitude captures the momentary visual phenomena that define the interstitial moments of our lives, those that hover in the unconscious, fragile and half-perceived. The only real point of comparison for this film is the work of Stan Brakhage, and even then, Dorsky is working in the realm of Brakhage's least-compromising, most intensely materialist efforts, such as the Arabic Numeral Series (1981) and The Text of Light (1974). But in terms of unique qualities of luminosity and density that Dorsky manages to capture, Song and Solitude is a singular achievement.

Several films in the festival were notable for shifting our usual concepts of what counts as "political art." Like Dorsky's films, these features are committed to exploring the formal boundaries of cinema, but in addition their cumulative impact provides a different set of arguments on behalf of the subaltern and the underprivileged. One such film was Abderrahmane Sissako's Bamako, which had its North American premiere at the festival. I'll admit that I felt some trepidation regarding the film's premise - the citizens of Bamako, Mali, conducting a trial to prosecute the World Bank and the WTO -, not because I disagree with Sissako's political agenda (I wholeheartedly agree that neo-liberal economic policies have been disastrous for the developing world), but because the premise led me to suspect that the film would be an artless piece of well-intentioned agit-prop. As it happens, my fears were completely unfounded.


Sissako does stage a mock-trial of recent Western intervention into African affairs, but deftly enfolds it into the fragmentary observational style that characterized his previous film, the lovely Waiting for Happiness (2002). Through gentle rhythms and repetitions, the earlier film gradually provided a picture of day-to-day life in the West African nation. Stylistically, the film resembled early Kiarostami, but with a more disbursed narrative framework. In Bamako, Sissako takes his game to a new level, making the trial into one among many events marking daily life, albeit an important one whose impact is felt on all concerned.

The trial itself allows the rehearsal of some familiar arguments regarding African debt forgiveness and Western hegemony. But Sissako's "witnesses" deliver their testimony with such passion that it is as though we are really hearing these arguments (and the voices who make them) for the first time. (One of Sissako's biggest formal gambits is in the final third of the film, when an elderly Malian delivers his testimony as a mournful folk song. Sissako doesn't bother with subtitles, since the plangent musicality tells us everything we need to know.) So, instead of dryly educating his audience about African politics, Sissako employs the poetic skills of his earlier work in order to give these political arguments greater social force. He shows us what Malian society is, and what is at stake if the West allows unchecked capitalism to assimilate or even destroy it.

Two other films used the power of the aesthetic to allow their political interventions to reverberate well beyond mere reportage. Scott Foundas and Mark Peranson have already ably defended Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth, but it bears repeating that this film is an engrossing immersion into lives most of us know nothing about. In the rubble of a Lisbon public housing bloc, Costa's non-professional actors live out their lives, with dignity as well as mental and emotional turmoil. "Ventura," the tall Cape Verde immigrant with the depressive yet regal demeanor, struggles to find a place in the material world, just as his wife has opted to leave him behind. Costa employs long takes and highly stylized framings to allow his viewership adequate time in the presence of the Lisbon underclass, but his is not the usual "kitchen sink" cinema of liberal reform.

Colossal Youth

Instead, Colossal Youth affords its subjects greater dignity by allowing their beauty to emerge unscathed. Usually, "Ventura," "Vanda" and the other denizens of the Fountainbas housing project are shot in the classical, almost holy light one associates with religious icon painting. And yet, these shafts of hieratic illumination are usually present because of gaping holes in the subjects' ceilings. Likewise, what Costa's grainy videography loses in crisp definition is more than gained in intimacy, as well as an ability to register light as a slowly shifting, almost sculptural phenomenon. Costa's is a Heideggerian cinema, allowing society's outcasts to shine forth in their full human presence rather than slotting them into the standard categories that both cinema and bureaucracy customarily reserve for them.

In a somewhat different vein, Jia Zhangke's Venice prize-winner Still Life also used formal invention to register the seismic shifts in the lives and geographies of his homeland. Using documentary footage shot in and around the area rapidly being destroyed by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, Jia has not only recorded and dramatized the major changes in Chinese topography under accelerated capitalist development. He has achieved a subtlety of scale that allows Still Life to represent lives disrupted by social forces without reducing those lives to mere epiphenomena of those larger shifts. (To my mind, Jia was moving in this direction with Unknown Pleasures [2002] but backslid into somewhat deterministic schemas with 2004's The World.)

Still Life

Adequately unpacking Still Life would require more space and attention than I can expend here. But suffice to say that Jia's patient portraiture of his two protagonists - Han, the miner returning home years later only to find it submerged, and Shen Hong, a woman seeking out her husband to obtain a divorce - attains a new level of richness and complexity. Jia's characters achieve depth through cumulative details, a Cubist composition of interstitial moments. Venice was wise to reward Jia's finest film since his 1997 debut, Xiao Wu.

Of course, despite the generally high level of the films I encountered at this year's TIFF, not everything was rosy. The latest work from two of world cinema's masters, Aki Kaurismäki's Lights in the Dusk and Guy Maddin's silent feature Brand upon the Brain!, both find their directors treading water, rehashing themes and formal procedures better explored in earlier films. But perhaps the most interesting failure on display was Bruno Dumont's Flandres. After the Antonioniesque Twentynine Palms (2003), with its abrupt helter-skelter coda, where Dumont would go next was anyone's guess. As it happens, Flandres is Dumont's most conventional film, and his most wrongheaded. A story of rural French shlubs who sign up to go fight an unnamed war in a foreign land, Flandres attempts to delve into universal questions of war, violence and xenophobia, but does so at a moment when any such intervention will inevitably be measured against the invasion of Iraq. After a series of masterful tableaux depicting his leads' daily lives on and around the farm, Dumont heads to war, recycling images and gestures from Full Metal Jacket but in the director's awkwardly Bressonian mien. As a parallel to his rednecks' adventures abroad (which include torture and rape), Dumont shows how the local boys use the town "slut," a young woman so inured to her social position as to almost reflexively drop her pants in the presence of the menfolk.


There's much to admire formally about Flandres - Dumont's control of framing and figure / ground relationships is graceful as always, and in terms of narrative pacing, this is Dumont's most compulsively watchable film. (And I say this as someone who considers 1999's L'humanité a flat-out masterpiece.) But in the end, Flandres' view of the human animal admits of two rather unsatisfactory conclusions. Either Dumont is formulating a simpleminded, uninstructive parallel between woman and the ethnic Other (both unthinkingly abused at the hands of men), or else he is putting forward a doggedly ahistorical representation of human conflict ("mankind had always been a warlike creature") that, in the present circumstances, is rather unconscionable in that it serves to bolster social and political forces Dumont no doubt opposes. Perhaps more troublingly, from the standpoint of Dumont's art, the latter orientation is airily abstract and contravenes his cinema's greatest strength, its deep materialist immanence.

At any rate, like Mike Judge's rather incoherently neo-conservative comedy Idiocracy (not in TIFF proper but seen in Toronto by many, since its commercial run there was one of its few anywhere), Flandres is a political film worth arguing with and against, since its simplistic formulations still evince more intellectual rigor than those currently guiding our foreign policy. Poets and filmmakers, pace Shelley, may in fact be the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be voted out of office every now and then.

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Posted by dwhudson at September 20, 2006 3:26 PM


Michael, I don't know how you managed to see so many films and also write so insightfully about all of them, but I'm thankful that you did. Your write-ups were a daily must-read when I was in Toronto.

Posted by: girish at September 20, 2006 4:31 PM

Thanks, Girish. It's a trade-off, I suppose. I missed some key films since I spent so much time writing during the festival, but then I've also found that I forget a lot of vital information about films if I don't deal with them in a timely manner. But at any rate, I'm glad folks found the stuff worth reading.

Posted by: msic at September 26, 2006 1:06 PM