TIFF 2012. Correspondences #2

Our two-critic TIFF dialogue continues with films by Wang Bing, Christian Petzold, Ying Liang and Ernie Gehr.
Daniel Kasman

Dear Fern,

Here we are indeed—or at least, here we are somewhere, as I've only crossed paths with you once so far amongst the overwhelming number of films—press screened and public—in TIFF's 2012 lineup.

I, too, played “catch-up” the first day, as the greatest resource of TIFF's glut of films (you say “banquet,” I say “glut”!) is the ability for the cinephile who does not get to travel so often, or so far, to see what's been made a big deal of overseas at some festival or another. For you, it was Cannes; for me, lucky enough to have been there and therefore never having to see the Haneke again, it is Berlin, Venice and Locarno.

Thus on my first day was a hard film to top: the new work by Chinese documentarian Wang Bing, whose last feature—and first fiction—The Ditch, I saw the last time I was in TIFF, in 2010, and was a tremendous highlight, even though few seemed to have caught it and even fewer liked it. Wang's Three Sisters is a return to the documentary format, but within the constraints of a feature-length film, as opposed to his longer projects like Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks. Even before achieving the inevitable mid-festival fatigue and near biological—and certainly intellectual—need for a film to overwhelm one with things to see and think about, a refresher to remind one to keep going, plow through the dredges because cinema can open up the world—even before this need, I was startled by Wang's film, which I could imagine serving this purpose for those to find it later.

A glimpse at the lives of three motherless girls—ages 10, 6, 4—whose father works away from home in the city while they live and toil in a small village in the rural Yunnan province, every shot of Three Sisters, of a new space, object, or just of the light, seemed deeply etched on the screen, revelatory of a totally lived in world—and lived through, the scars of time are visible on every surface of concrete, wood and landscape; with almost no instances of modern technology, this film nearly appears a glimpse at medieval times. The spaces are thoroughly engaged with by the girls and those around them: objects are tools of their livelihood or their play, and if not than they remain in the reserves in deep shadows of natural lighting. If I knew more about the 19th century art movement that increasingly revealed provincial peasant and working class life as its own subject, both documentary and pictorial—in my weak knowledge, I'm thinking perhaps of Millet and Corot?—I'd make a greater effort to connect this absolutely humble and matter of fact exposition that always seems to find an image in the document within that tradition. Suffice to say I'll leave that line of thought with the suggestion and my ignorance.

The images are indelible: heaping bowls of meager noodle meals steaming in the light; the children's grandfather, who they see more of than their father, smoking with one hand and warming the other over the receding fire of the day's end; the paltry, overworn interiors contrasted to the stark, unfriendly vistas of the surrounding grazing land. Lives filled with nothing but activity, constant and varied, yet numbing and beleaguered. The eldest girl's season-long cough may be the most eloquent—and horrible—thing I've seen in a movie in a long time.

By the halfway point, the two youngest sisters have gone to the city to stay with their father, and the eldest is essentially left alone, and in this isolation I realized she was, with her daily live of cooking, gathering, shepherding, just working, that this 10 year old was objectively leading the life of a woman, and tending for herself as an adult would. She even carries herself like an adult: while her younger sisters are too young to have learned to put on any kind of "face" to the world or the camera—they're just girls, though their postures, sometimes fists stuck in their pockets, speak of them being strangely aged, too—the eldest already keeps her mind to herself, which makes her seem even older, even more experienced, pensive. With no images of young women in the film, it seems an impossible task to spool time forward and imagine what these girls, this house, these lives could possibly be in 10, 15 years. For all the constant activity in the film just to keep up an existence, that existence hardly seems to be going anywhere at all. Time is constantly worked against, but not with—a fight for the present, foresight being impossible.

This introduction of the solitary woman struggling against a world hostile to her existence remarkably continued through the next day, with Christian Petzold's Barbara and Ying Liang's When Night Falls.

The Petzold, set in East Germany in 1980, finds a female doctor recently released from incarceration having to doubly-navigate the world by both dodging the suspicions of all those around her in her new provincial assignment and at the same time turn her own suspicions on those who could be her neighbors, peers, friends or even lovers. In other words: living in a police state, you are as suspect to the state as others are to you, and you to them. This comes out nicely, if a bit too neatly, too schematically, in Barbara, where ostensibly conventions of the thriller and of the romance overlap: “Am I attracted to him?” becomes, or is, “Do I trust him?” “Will I sleep with him?” becomes, or is, “Is this man a Stasi agent?” One could hardly imagine a more exhausting existence—which certainly explains Petzold's usual steely restraint and impeccable, heightened precision: a mise-en-scène held in check as everyone in it must, too, hold themselves in reserve to forestall a tell that could mean their lives. I didn't find this film nearly as rich as the director's last, Beats Being Dead, in the Dreileben triptych, but its acute focus and especially its disturbingly casual, almost normative approach to making a period film (not stylistically similar to but philosophically like Michael Mann's ahistorical historicity in Public Enemies) is sleek and haunting. The way it presents the heightened risk of living in the world at the same time it flattens the sense that this dangerous world is something in the past, far removed, is undoubtedly a very bold gesture.

Even more clandestine and oppressed than East Germany of 1980 is the China of 2008, shown in Ying's When Night Falls, a muted drama told (and presumably shot) in secret much like Mohammad Rasoulof's Good Bye. An expanded version of Ying's contribution to the Jeonju Digital project, the film's documentary bookends are its most successful and moving evocation of how oppression can render a person unable to navigate the world around them. These are made up of the addled, slightly confused narration of the mother of a young man who attacked a police station, killing six, in protest of beatings and being mishandled by officials, and her secret incarceration in a mental institute during her son's trial. This narration, along with sound effects, is accompanied by thoroughly unhelpful news images of the crime scene, the district court, the judges. All three vectors in this bookend—added ambient sounds, the mother's narration, and the images—suggest a forceful incompleteness to the event, its story, its personal experience and its public documentation. These sections alone are stoic and eerie, and true to its entire audience of viewers, from Westerns to Chinese to the mother herself—all is vagueness, assertions, mysterious processes, unkept procedure, and rejected appeals of both emotion and bureaucracy.

In between these bookends, the bulk of the film is a fictional re-staging of the three days the mother is back in town after her incarceration, during which she learns that her son has been sentenced to death. Living in a world that feels like a concussion grenade went off in it—emptied, sullen, darkened and unfriendly—we see her withstand and then buckle under the threefold pressure of returning to normal life after prison, returning to her home and getting used to it without the presence of her son, and the help of a friend and youthful journalists and lawyers who want to help her appeal. All seems for naught, which explains her nearly sleepwalking through these days; in the door to the son's bedroom hangs a poster for Robocop 3, whose impotent tagline shines out as: “He's back to lay down the law.” The dramatization is at its most eloquent in tableaux master shots of groups of people crowded in the apartment or an official office, a crush of interest and passion muffled by a specific socio-political context for expression and existence. Yet, the day to day lonely activities of the woman carry little of the weight of emotion and confusion expressed so fully in the film's opening and closing. I understand the necessity to re-create this story in front of the camera, to represent things that, even in their existence in real life are actually unrepresentable (in a double sense of the word), but I still wish When Night Falls had stuck to its occluded, fragmentary documentary approach, which to me said so much more about this woman's life and her perception of it than any fiction could.

Indeed, by the time I got to the festival's first series of Andréa Picard's shorts program in the Wavelengths section—which used to be predominantly shorts and essentially dubbed “experimental,” but is now combined with the program previously called Visions to encompass both feature and mid-length films, and thus more successfully unite what used to be a sidebar with the festival's larger program—and found Ernie Gehr's two giddy new works, Departure and Auto-Collider XV, I was by this point thinking how remarkable the documented world is and how often, in cinema, fiction can get in the way of its revelation.

Departure, the highlight of the evening, was just that: recording, simply. It is made of three shots from a moving train, beginning with one of the landscape turned upside down—an easy trick that in digital video and on this moving route totally redefines the visual field and gives a three dimensional stream for the eye to dance over, finding depth and arrangements that, right-wise, would be totally unseen. The next shot is zoomed into two empty parallel tracks, whose fluid stuttering abounds with optical illusions of movement, where the tracks, like film strips, seem to spool/unspool, outpacing our train, then slowing down, then stopping, then speeding up, then going backwards, all the while framing a tiny strip on the top of the widescreen image of the landscape passing above the tracks, totally unabstract in comparison to their blurred, ribbon-color. Finally, a melancholy, smokey shot arcing from the Bronx to Queens, just skirting Manhattan, which remains in a grey-grey cloudy distance from the camera. In this final shot there are no “tricks,” just an evocative study in monochrome and mass, and the strange, oblique shape traced around a space to big to even register as “space.”

Auto-Collider XV, finally, cleared the palate: a rhythmic, totally abstracted series of color bands edited within the frame to dance, shift up and down, and pass sideways—I think, but am not sure, that the images are zoomed in abstractions from passing automobiles, but that could be a trick of the title in combination with a sense of movement and the cacophonous soundtrack of traffic. Suffice to say it is a graphical and compositional collision the title refers to, though at the same time that suggestion and the effect of the inner-screen montage renders it also a playfully nightmare-like plunge into the metal-on-metal-on-movement horrors of this age of the automobile.

So—I was a bit more successful in documentary than in fiction, I'd say. In fact, looking back, the on-the-nose-ness, and hitting-all-the-exact-notes of Petzold's screenplay for Barbara, already somewhat of a minor red flag for me even within this beautiful, studied film, seems to look, in comparison to what's found in Three Sisters, parts of When Night Falls and the Gehr digital shorts, a little forced, almost cheating. But that's probably only within the uniqueness of the festival context and forcing films on each other's backs—I'm lucky I didn't have to see Amour here, like you, as that is so antithetical to what I enjoyed about most of the films I've seen so far that it might have appeared repulsive. In that mode of total control, at least Kiarostami offers multiple mysteries and strangenesses, as you suggest—room for the viewer to move. And really, what else am I looking for here but room to move around and within a world brought into a certain relief by a film?

I apologize, now, at the end, for this unusually long missive; I'm still getting used to this format we talked about, and it's been two days since I got here so I had to say something!

Until the next time,

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