TIFF 2016. Wavelengths Features

An overview of the feature films screened in this year’s adventurous Wavelengths section at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Michael Sicinski

This was a busy year at TIFF, where I was a juror for FIPRESCI, helping to award a prize for best premiere in the Discovery section. Not only did this mean that some other films had to take a back burner—sadly, I did not see Eduardo Williams’ The Human Surge—but my writing time was a bit compromised as well. Better late than never? That is for you, Gentle Reader, to decide.

Austerlitz (Sergei Loznitsa, Germany)

So basic in the telling—a record of several days’ worth of visitors mostly to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienberg, Germany—Austerlitz is a film that in many ways exemplifies the critical theory of Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. What is the net effect for humanity when, faced with the drive to remember the unfathomable, we employ the grossly inadequate tools at our disposal?

Austerlitz takes its name from W. G. Sebald’s final novel. One of its themes concerned its titular protagonist poring over old films and documents, trying to find some record of his parents who had died in the camps. Predictably, the more he looked, the further away into history they receded. Here, Loznitsa shows us dozens of tourist groups with audio-tour players around their necks, ambling around somewhat aimlessly. We hear docents giving background information in German, English, and Spanish, and the overlap makes much of the explanation into a hopeless jumble.  

But more than this, Loznitsa shows us individuals and collectives (students, church groups, etc.) asked to confront the “concentration camp,” a distant artifact that resembles an austere Epcot attraction. What are they to do? They pose under the Arbeit Macht Frei gate. They gaze out from the gas chambers. They giggle nervously. On occasion, there is a break in the traffic, and someone can steal a private moment of contemplation. But Austerlitz is about the disconnection between the greatest horror of the 20th century and our inability to adequately convey it to the 21st. [Excerpted from a longer review originally written for Cinema Scope.]

By the Time It Gets Dark (Anocha Suwichakornpong, Thailand / Netherlands / France / Qatar)

The new feature from Thai iconoclast Anocha Suwichakornpong (Mundane History) is precisely the kind of complex, shape-shifting art film that TIFF's Wavelengths section was made for. If By the Time It Gets Dark doesn't really come together as a coherent artistic statement—and I contend that it does not—it is ultimately because Anocha's ambition gets the better of her. This is a film that is, in some sense, about dissolution and disorientation. The first third of the film, set in a quiet, well-appointed hilltop home, involves a filmmaker (Visra Vichit-Vadakan) conducting low-key interviews with an activist (Rassami Paoluengtong) who took part in the protests at Bangkok University in 1976. These protests led the Thai police to massacre dozens of students. Anocha does not so much re-stage the attack as stage a re-staging, complete with audible stage directions and visible sets. Between the stilted interviews, which at times resemble certain of Trinh T. Minh-ha's films, and the re-enactments, which implicitly call to mind sources as various as The Act of Killing and the Iranian New Wave, it is obvious that By the Time It Gets Dark means to consider the 1976 tragedy from the standpoint of cinematic meta-history. Can such events be represented, and if so, will doing so aid or compromise a nation's public memory?

Clearly this is more than enough for any film to explore, but regrettably Anocha moves in so many other directions that the larger trajectory of By the Time gets lost in the shuffle. Between random visits with a mushroom farmer, a clip from Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon, a lengthy observational excursus on tobacco harvesting, and some structural-materialist scratching and painting on the celluloid, Anocha pushes well past the idea of a disjointed historical inquiry. The final two-thirds of the film devolve into a sort of guessing game. Why are we spending time on this handsome pop singer (Arak Amornsupasiri), first observing his glitzy Asian pop video, then seeing him with his friends on vacation? In the absence of one master concept, the various parts of By the Time It Gets Dark bear little apparent relation to one another. "Contemporary Thailand" is one possible governing idea, but that's rather broad.

Another is a running joke, wherein we meet a bartender (Atchara Suwan) who keeps popping up in different jobs—not unlike Mrs. Rabbit from "Peppa Pig." By the Time It Gets Dark is a film that follows its own muse, and it is undeniably accomplished. Anocha's formal organization of space demonstrates just how completely this filmmaker is in control of her medium. This is also a film that showcases her ability to don various stylistic masks (documentary, nature study, pop video, casual record of urban youth) with total conviction. In this regard, I commend her for her puckish sense of play, particularly after beginning her film with a tone of such gravity. All the same, By the Time It Gets Dark feels like a collection of luminous fragments in need of a sturdier frame.

The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra, France / Portugal / Spain)

Ernst Kantorowicz’s concept of the “two bodies” of the regent—the symbolic embodiment of the State as well as a frail, flesh and blood human—gets a magnificent cinematic treatment in Albert Serra’s other great contribution to this year’s TIFF. In burnished ambers and Van Dyke browns evocative of both the canvases of Rembrandt and the candlelit interiors of Barry Lyndon, we observe the sad pageantry of Louis as he struggles to pull himself up, to swallow food, and to conduct even the most banal business of his court. As embodied by Jean-Pierre Léaud in a magnificent late-career performance, Louis is all too human (receiving open-mouth kisses from his beloved dogs), performative (“pleasing” the ladies with a theatrical wave of his garish ostrich-plumed hat), and ultimately a prisoner of the position that has been bestowed upon him by the Almighty. Will he have an appetite today? A phalanx of courtiers surrounds his bedside, applauding his ability to force down a bite of pudding. Although others have depicted Versailles as a sort of melancholy sideshow (most notably Sofia Coppola, in her unfairly maligned Marie Antoinette), Serra is not so much interested in the king as a locus of power. In that regard, those around him are much more conniving and worth keeping an eye on. No, much like his studies of other personages from the history of Western civilization—Casanova, Dracula, Don Quixote—Serra is fascinated by the word made flesh and the point at which history and legend atrophy into muscle, blood, and bone.

The Dreamed Ones (Ruth Beckermann, Austria)

The vast majority of the running time of The Dreamed Ones consists of two actors in a studio, engaging in a readers' theatre performance of the correspondence between Romanian poet Paul Celan and his longtime friend and lover, Austrian poet / novelist Ingeborg Bachmann. The performers, Anja Plaschg and Laurence Rupp, read the letters from their handheld manuscripts and speak them directly into studio microphones, one after the other. It is as if Beckermann is filming a documentary about the making of an audiobook. But this doesn't give a precise sense of the experience of watching Dreamed Ones. With their low-key delivery, Plaschg and Rupp carefully bring out the tension and anguish in the letters. There are numerous complications in the Celan / Bachmann relationship: professional jealousy that Celan felt at Bachmann's successes; the unspoken gulf of their disparate experiences of the war years; and Celan's ongoing sense of being an outsider in an anti-Semitic Europe, something he knows Bachmann cannot truly understand. And yet, apart from these crises, which are highly specific to this particular couple and their position within the postwar modernist literary intelligentsia, Beckermann helps us to feel just as acutely those infelicities that are fundamental to all star-crossed lovers. Bachmann knows Celan will not leave his wife and child; Celan knows she is too ethical to demand that he do so.

In the midst of the performance sequences, Beckermann shows us Rupp and Plaschg on break, rolling cigarettes, chatting idly about their work, discussing their own relationships, and gradually disabusing the notion that a conventional film would take as an axiom. The performers are cordial acquaintances, possibly friends, but pointedly not lovers, and their real-life relationship does not mirror the fictional one they are portraying as performers. The Dreamed Ones sits at the junction of several strains of experimental film practice. The film bears a surface-level resemblance to the cinema of Straub-Huillet, but Beckermann's direction, camerawork, and editing are slier and more agile, given to punctuation rather than the wide-open expanse of a blank page. In its making-of element, there is also a hint of Harun Farocki's influence, examining art's components coming together through visible labor. But above all, Beckermann is showing us how two performers can engage in a kind of fencing match through the epistolary record of a stunted, complicated love affair.

The Dreamed Path (Angela Schanelec, Germany)

There was probably no single film I’ve seen this year—in Wavelengths, at TIFF, or anywhere else for that matter, narrative or experimental—that has left me more befuddled than The Dreamed Path. By the same token, the experience of watching Schanelec’s new film is something I can only describe as hypnotic. It is so rare that I am glued to the screen in anticipation, not for some plot point or a character’s development, but literally for the next shot. (The last instance I can recall would be Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat.) It’s not that the progression from shot to shot is puzzle-like or generates Soviet-style mini-dramas. The montage doesn’t “burst.” (New) German though she may be, Schanelec’s movement is much more Swiss. It’s the precision that, once it unfolds, conveys total inevitability. You see this, of course, in Bresson (an obvious and avowed influence on The Dreamed Path) but also in the sadly under-seen experimental films of Warren Sonbert. Montage logic clicks the film’s bodies into place, imbuing them with a “second life” that partially overcomes that death-at-work that is cinema’s fundamental burden.  

As for The Dreamed Path’s narrative information, I can say that in my first viewing I was able to extract only a mere modicum. Thematically, we have parallel families, whose fortunes are only slightly offset by their relative class positions. Large temporal ellipses occur with virtually no signposting (shades of Maurice Pialat, perhaps) and actors are not made up to appear artificially aged. This perhaps speaks to Schanelec’s interest in cinematic time as an illusion that only editing can make “real” (along with her background in theatre, where temporal immediacy is the coin of the realm). But as the great Gord Downie said, geez, I don’t know.

General Report II: The New Abduction of Europe (Pere Portabella, Spain)

Only Portabella could make the Spanish equivalent of a two-hour NPR broadcast not only fascinating but genuinely cinematic. Just as the earlier General Report took the political and intellectual temperature of the Spanish nation immediately following the fall of Franco, GR II assembles artists, activists, scientists, academics, arts administrators, and ordinary Spanish citizens, allowing them the airtime to really explore the nation's most pressing issues. Some will be quite familiar to a non-Spanish audience. A group of researchers bemoans the fact that the government and the academy are drawing more and more funding from the private sector, so scientists are expected to restrict their investigations to things guaranteed to yield immediate (and lucrative) application. They all agree that such short-sightedness will inevitably compromise Spain's leadership in physics, chemistry, and medicine. At the same time, Portabella devotes a substantial portion of GR II to the most pressing political question facing his nation at the moment. A substantial majority of Catalan citizens want independence from Spain, and the Spanish government is denying Catalonia its sovereignty on "constitutional grounds." Portabella, who is himself Catalan, is also in the unique position of having been one of the men who drafted that very constitution. If anyone is qualified to cry foul, he is.

Although GR II covers a lot of ground and includes many participants (all helpfully identified by name and affiliation), the film flows, actually quite a lot better than perhaps it should. This is partly because of Portabella's grace as a director. Conversations conducted in corridors are shot with a camera that glides and tracks, interacting with the forms and edges of the urban architecture. His treatment of cramped office spaces and seminar rooms is almost effortlessly kinetic, prompting one to wonder just how he navigated his gear through such close quarters. (Sometimes he shows you, as when a group of academics—discussing their support of the Podemos party—are seated in a circle, and then we're given an overhead shot of the camera track that surrounds them.) But apart from the formal elegance of GR II, the conversations move easily, one to the next, because Portabella is showing that none of these problems facing Spain can be considered in isolation. In his subtitle, the director gives the game away; the domination of neoliberal economics within the EU is a primary culprit in this case. Many of the men and women in the film hold out hope that the anti-austerity, reversal-of-privatization policies of Podemos will help put Spain back on track. But the takeaway from GR II is that Portabella does not know. This is a report on how things are looking now. Tomorrow, one hopes, is a different story.

Hermia & Helena (Matías Piñeiro, U.S. / Argentina) 

Just as Gastón Solnicki’s Kékszakállú is only nominally about Bluebeard’s Castle, the latest film from fellow experimentalist and Argentinian Matías Piñeiro is only scantly related to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is a positive development, for a few reasons. While I have enjoyed Piñeiro’s previous films to varying degrees, the filmmaker was in danger of making a cottage industry out of his deconstructive Shakespeare riffs. In this case, largely foregoing the text (which was always something of scaffold for other cinematic and dramaturgical effects anyway) is a good way to start fresh, and perhaps a kind of metaphor for Piñeiro’s other big move: shooting in the U.S.A. 

Hermia & Helena is a joy. Part screwball comedy, part NYC loft farce, and to some degree the finest Woody Allen film anyone has made in years, this is a study of connections made and disrupted, long distances (geographical as well as emotional) traversed as abruptly as only cinema can manage—with an edit. Camila (Agustina Muñoz) is on a fellowship in New York to work on a translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But as with many such translations, the real business is in the margins. We glean that over the course of the year, she has developed a complicated relationship with one of the staff members (Keith Poulson), and that as the end of her tenure in the U.S. approaches, she becomes more concerned with the connections she has thus far failed to make.

Taking a leaf from the Hong Sang-soo playbook, Piñeiro pairs Camila, who is moving out of the foundation’s guest space, with the returning tenant, Dani (Mati Diop). She seems intent on making the space her own once again, while also adopting some of the identity markers Camila cannot take back with her to Argentina. (Dani’s postcards to an unseen lover are a repeated visual motif.) Likewise, as Camila heads upstate to meet her biological father Horace (Dan Sallitt) for the first time, we get the sense that aspects of her personal history may have been stationed in the States all along, although the extent to which this is true is an open question. (Camila asks Horace is he “believes in genetics,” which is her imprecise-English manner of posing the nature / nurture problem. In doing so, she inadvertently poses another problem entirely.) With its precise articulation of space, movement, and intra-cinematic vision—no other film I’ve seen this year is as focused on how characters see through portals and impediments—Hermia & Helena is not only Piñeiro’s best film to date. It is also his most openly entertaining, a rich film-text that wears its erudition lightly. 

I Had Nowhere to Go (Douglas Gordon, Germany) 

This theatrical work by video / installation artist Gordon has been described as being primarily an audio work, and the designation is not incorrect. For much of the running time, the screen is dark, meaning that the projection space is enveloped in the multi-channel stereo soundtrack. The majority of that audio consists of an extended narration by Jonas Mekas, describing his experiences as a prisoner of war in Lithuania and his eventual escape to the United States. The piece is about dislocation, exile, and the unique trauma of being a refugee, being of two states but identifying neither as home.

With this in mind, Gordon’s formal strategies make quite a bit of sense. I Had Nowhere to Go is not, strictly speaking, a film, but neither is it an installation or a sound-art work. Its hybridity will determine its fate in terms of what sort of exhibition life it might have out in the larger world. There are enough images—of light, color, Mekas himself, fruit and vegetables, and assorted synecdochal objects—that it must be treated as a cinematic work, even though it does not behave like one in address or temporal structure. Having said all this, I find that Gordon’s use of Mekas’s echoing, portent-filled voiceover and the use of sound effects (bombs, in particular) show a real tin ear for what makes Mekas such an interesting subject. These choices create an unexpected bombast that it very much at odds with the fundamental modesty of Mekas’s own work and personality. As with his Zidane film, Gordon seems unsure about how to command the big screen, lapsing into some rather hokey effects. This is a bold experiment, to be sure, but one that fails to deliver on its promise.

Kékszakállú (Gastón Solnicki, Argentina) and Rudzienko (Sharon Lockhart, U.S. / Poland) 

Two of the most difficult works in the festival could be said to intersect at a conceptual Venn diagram that, with some expansion, would also include The Human Surge. We could call it “bodies, at work and at rest,” which of course is a fairly broad category of human experience. But the new, third film (and first fiction feature) by Gastón Solnicki and Sharon Lockhart’s latest foray into experimental portraiture share more specific topoi. They are about young girls (becoming women, in the case of Kékszakállú) and how their desire to be who they are is at odds with the social and ideological demands of the larger world.  

I will freely admit that I had my fair share of trouble finding my way into Kékszakállú. It took my 2½ viewings to feel as though I had a grip on what Solnicki might be up to, and this is partly because I had read that the work was based on Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. When I saw Solnicki’s exquisite compositions and bourgeois environments, I was lost. The film felt more of a piece with recent Argentinian work such as Lucrecia Martel’s La Cienaga and Jazmin Lopez’s Leones. This is hardly a bad thing, but I was missing the mythological element.  

Alas, I was being too literal-minded. Where Bluebeard murdered his young wives, Kékszakállú is about the maturation process as a series of small compromises of identity, deaths of the soul. We see girls (and some boys at first) swimming and having fun, and then they are inside glued to their smartphones. Before long, they are working pointless office and factory jobs, answering to smarmy, paternalistic bosses. Then, as we focus on one young woman in particular, we watch her university experience go from uncertainty to a major—some kind of engineering degree—that will set her life on a permanent track. At times during these overtly banal moments, Solnicki delivers a minor-chord music sting from Bartók, as if to underscore the quiet horror of what’s going on. Possibilities narrow like a funnel, and that’s growing up. 

In a different register, Sharon Lockhart’s Rudzienko takes us to the Polish woods to meet some of the young girls associated with the Youth Center for Socio-Therapy. These are what we sometimes call “at-risk” girls, but of course this means something altogether different in the eastern European context. Some are orphans, some others are runaways. But Lockhart emphasizes the bonds that these adolescents have forged with one another. Who are they? They themselves don’t know, Lockhart seems to tell us. But her project is to create visual clearings wherein they can experiment and perform certain rites of self-presentation.  

Using her customary still camera, Lockhart excerpts clear images from the chaos of their lives—balanced compositions within nature, or around crumbling buildings, or just among one another—and these spaces become safe laboratories for trying on selves. The structure of Rudzienko (which takes its name from the town in Poland where it was shot) is two-fold. The shots of the girls are relatively quick—about a minute or less – and then they fade. After several such shots, Lockhart presents a white-on-black scrolling transcript of some of the girls’ conversations. (A second video consists only of such text.) The purpose of this separation is not readily apparent, but what is more bothersome is Lockhart’s impatience with her own images. Why are we given so little time in each context? Does she think that looking in on these girls, as she herself shoots them, is somehow voyeuristic? One gets the sense that Rudzienko is oriented more toward the restlessness of its subjects, and not the genuine interest of its viewers. 

Mimosas (Oliver Laxe, Spain / Morocco / France / Qatar)

I’ll admit that at the start of Mimosas, as the film cross-cut between desert-dwelling men on horseback and a scrum of taxi drivers begging for assignments, I thought that director Oliver Laxe was toggling between past and present. In fact, these are simultaneous moments: a driver is being dispatched to assist a caravan that is having trouble traversing the mountains. These divergent views of Morocco demonstrate the uneven progress of modernity, as well as the phenomenon that anthropologist Johannes Fabian addressed in his book Time and the Other. We fail to recognize that cultures different from our own exist in the same contemporary timeframe that we do—“the present” being a luxury we arrogate to ourselves.

Of course, in describing these effects, I may very well be saying more about my own spectatorship than about Mimosas itself. Laxe’s film is remarkably rich, but it also provides plenty of room for Westerners like myself to lose our footing, slipping into rank self-indictment. In the simplest possible terms, it’s a film about the literal weight of tradition. An aging sheikh (Hamid Fardjad) wants to cross a treacherous mountain pass so he can be buried in the town of his birth. He dies early in the expedition, and the youngest of the group must decide whether to carry out his wishes, at great personal risk. The primary conflict arises between Ahmed (Ahmed Hammoud), the cynical, agnostic leader of the group, who is much more concerned with survival, and the driver, Shakib (Shakib Ben Omar), a.k.a. “Pot Face,” a devout, idealistic young man dedicated to making Ahmed keep his word and get the sheikh’s body over the mountain.

Often, films depicting sections of the Arab world can suffer because their makers feel a surfeit of responsibility, trying too hard to represent the intricate specificities of a particular culture. Paradoxically, this often translates into characters that function much more as archetypes than as recognizable individuals. Laxe, who lives in Morocco, is nevertheless an outsider, and perhaps this distance helps him to see his collaborators a bit more clearly. Although Mimosas is not without its stock characters and recognizable functions—it’s essentially a Western, very much in the John Ford / Howard Hawks mode—we get to know these highly idiosyncratic outcasts by watching them struggle against a limpid but unforgiving landscape. (Viewers will notice a strong kinship with recent neo-neo-Westerns like Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff and Thomas Arslan’s Gold.) Laxe produces genuine moral dilemmas, not “typical situations.” By attending to the most basic problem of visual art—figures in a landscape—Laxe pinpoints the quotidian extraordinary. 

The Ornithologist (João Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal / France / Brazil) 

The Audubondage Society—Rodrigues is a filmmaker whose formal mastery is matched only by his go-for-broke audacity. He has become a staple on the festival circuit in recent years, particularly with films that could reasonably called “stately”—the Fassbinderian trans melodrama To Die As a Man and his last feature, the Chris Marker-by-way-of Sternberg essay film The Last Time I Saw Macao. Well, the total nutter who kicked off his career with O Fantasma (i.e., “the gay garbage-man in the full-body leather sex suit”) is back in full force. The Ornithologist is based on the life of St. Anthony of Padua and bears stylistic traces of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jean Genet, but it’s so steeped in cult mystery and seemingly random abuse, that it’s not so far removed from a hypothetical gay S/M re-imagining of The Wicker Man, or a Ben Wheatley genre-fuck that italicizes the ‘fuck.’ 

Fernando, a birdwatcher played by Paul Hamy (who even Wavelengths programmer Andréa Picard referred to as “hunky” in her catalog description) nearly dies after going over a waterfall. He is then beset by numerous human challenges—the seemingly innocent Chinese pilgrims, the howling, costumed lunatics in the woods (“Nothing can stop us!”), and Jesus, the deaf shepherd who Fernando quickly dispatches after a tryst by the riverside. The Ornithologist is as shapeless and picaresque as the conventional Lives of the Saints, forming a clothesline more than a narrative. Granted, when this concerns getting peed on and being hogtied and swinging with your junk hanging out, as is the case here, it feels a bit more dreamlike, which is probably what Rodrigues is going for. At the same time, The Ornithologist gets a bit tiresome in its relentless punishment of the nonbeliever. There’s a feeling that Rodrigues is showboating, seeing what he can throw at us next, which comes across as all the more awkward given the placid, non-emphatic presentational style. If there is one clear winner in all of this, it is nature (both geological and winged), never less than resplendent in this bold and curious film. 

Singularity (Albert Serra, Spain / Italy)

Almost any evaluation of this twelve-hour installation film is inadequate by design, since it’s difficult to take it all in. (Difficult, but not impossible—apparently the perspicacious James Quandt will be issuing a full report very soon.) In the hour-plus I spent with Singularity, however, a few things became clear to me. First, I want more. (I hope to nudge some folks into bringing the piece to Houston.) Second, I am very much enjoying Serra’s new luxurious phase. Granted, he has always been one of the more sybaritic of the newer generation of “austere” directors. While Louis XIV does push this tendency considerably farther, the earlier films (especially Birdsong) were awash in tactile pleasures.

Still, Singularity is something else. By placing the viewer in the midst of more “film” than he or she could possibly hope to take in at once, Serra throws down a challenge. Do you like being lost in the tangle? Given that the sounds and images themselves are hardly innocent (brothels, bedrooms, gold mines, cafes), we have the option of submitting to the orgy, quite literally losing our senses (or at least that part of our senses that makes everything “make sense”), or walk away in frustration. We can go from screen to screen (partner to partner), and / or we can double or triple up, positioning ourselves at the vortex and letting it wash over.

But what the actual material of Singularity is vital in this regard. Like certain other filmmakers (Tsai Ming-liang and Nicolás Pereda most obviously), Serra has a coterie. They work with him across films and become a kind of intertext. Here, they are distributed across time and space, sometimes appearing in two or more places (which are the same place) at once. This has multiple effects. First, Singularity harks back to the Warhol Factory and specifically Chelsea Girls—Pope Ondine replaced by Father Albert. This is important, because it re-codes the Warhol environment, not as a dysfunctional land of the lost but as a “perverse space” in the most positive sense: a space of possibility, where the usual laws of time, behavior, and traditional family are suspended in favor of something desired, something made.

In Singularity we are engulfed by Serra’s universe, crafted as just such a perverse space. (It’s even more perplexing, and seductive, if you’re like me and don’t speak Catalan.) In this place, power and meaning are up for grabs. The philosopher Jean-Joseph Goux, in his book Symbolic Economies, discusses how in Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, the phallus is the guarantor of meaning, the “God term” in Kenneth Burke’s language. Goux compares this with the gold standard in economics. Gold is simply declared to have “intrinsic value,” as the classical economists say, and all other values circulate around that fiat. But if gold and the phallus are unmoored, and meaning begins to slip, we have perversion, a new form of freedom. Singularity puts us in the midst of a contemporary conundrum. Our free-floating neoliberal economy is killing us, putting a price tag on everything while valuing nothing. But at the same time, this destabilization of value helps usher in new identities, new kinship, new pleasures. So perhaps leisure is the only bodily expenditure that makes sense. 

Ta’ang (Wang Bing, Hong Kong / France)

China’s greatest documentarian is an artist in transition. Although he became known for grand, highly formalist undertakings such as Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, Fenming: A Chinese Memoir, and Crude Oil, Wang’s recent work has shown more and more interest in following some of the broader practices of the Chinese Documentary Movement. It’s not that recent works such as Three Sisters or (especially) ‘Til Madness Do Us Part exhibit any less of the power and stringency of his finest films. But Wang’s earlier taste for ultra-rigor is now tempered with other values. Those recent films adopt Direct Cinema’s penchant for mobility and self-imbrication within uncertain, existential moments. He does not know how any given situation will unfold, but much like Frederick Wiseman or the late Allan King, Wang now has a repertoire of cognitive strategies that he can draw upon based on his intuition of the unfolding emotional, sociological, or political nuances of a given event. 

Ta’ang is very much a transitional work. Here we see Wang adopting what is probably the most observational, least reflexive attitude of his career thus far, and while it generates a higher degree of drama than one finds in, say, Three Sisters, it also raises a few red flags. This 2 ½ -hour project is an in-depth look at the refugee camps along the China / Myanmar border, where the Ta’ang ethnic group have been displaced by the violence of the Myanmar civil war. Whole villages are repeatedly packed up in trucks and moved further and further into China, while the skirmishes and artillery just spills over into Ta’ang territory with no concern for their safety. We spend most of our time with mothers, working to keep society intact, although occasionally a young man will return from an area closer to the front, describing what they’ve seen and recounting the number of family members killed or simply lost. 

The camerawork and overheard discussion makes it clear that Wang is “imbedded” with the Ta’ang, and that as women and children flee, carrying whatever they can while trying to find shelter from raining bombs, they ignore the documentarian in their midst. This is not just formally problematic. I find myself wondering, was Wang carrying anything other than his camera? He’s stronger than the five-year-old girls dragging bags of rice. And, since Wang has already completed another film, we know that this caravan survives. This is hardly the point, of course, but for a filmmaker who has worked so hard to reshape our notions of what nonfiction cinema can do, I find Ta’ang somewhat unconvincing. Their story must be told, but will it spur us to action when it feels so familiar?

The Woman Who Left (Lav Diaz, Philippines)

Clocking in at a svelte three and ¾ hours, Diaz’s second feature for 2016 strikes me as being not quite as impressive an achievement as his Berlin entry, Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, but such judgments are in the eye of the beholder and there is no sense quibbling when there’s so much to admire here. I strongly suspected Diaz might have a Golden Lion winner here, and so he did, for good reason. Many of his recent epics, whether micro- (From What is Before) or macro- (Lullaby) in their perspective, have been national allegories. This is a filmmaker who is telling the Story of the Philippines, and doing it quite well. By contrast, The Woman Who Left is much more of a Brechtian lehrstück, focusing on a single character whose essential decency reflects the characteristics that will save the nation, particularly in the face of Rodrigo Duterte’s murder state.

Horacia (Charo Santos-Concio) has been in prison for 30 years for a murder she did not commit. A dedicated teacher, she has spent her entire life behind bars educating her fellow inmates as well as the children they’ve borne while incarcerated. Upon release, she discovers that her husband is dead, her daughter needs convincing of her innocence, and her son is missing, most likely a homeless drug addict in Manila. With few family obligations of her own, and a substantial wrongful-incarceration settlement from the state, Horacia sets about helping the local street people, making friends with a wandering balut seller (Noni Buencamino) and a self-loathing trans prostitute named Hollanda (played with sensitivity by Diaz regular John Lloyd Cruz). Much of the film consists of Horacia helping these new friends, while also plotting to murder her ex-boyfriend, local crime boss Rodrigo Trinidad (Michael De Mesa), who she learns is the one responsible for sending her to prison in the first place.

This is an unusually character-driven film for Diaz (it is inspired by the Tolstoy story “God Knows the Truth”) and though it is attenuated compared to the standard arthouse fare (do I really need to say that?), The Woman Who Left is remarkably straightforward in its address. Rather than applying “unusual” length in order to envelop his viewers in a mood of trauma or an atmosphere of historical otherness, Diaz is using his time to elaborate character and develop backstory, which is one reason The Woman Who Left will prove to be even more accessible than Norte: The End of History.

What’s more, while Diaz is working in his customary black-and-white, there is not much physicality to the images here. They are in service to the narrative, and seldom assert themselves. A few setpieces emerge, particularly a karaoke evening between Horacia and Hollanda that is both comic and poignant. If there is one significant flaw in The Woman Who Left, it’s that it has about two too many endings. In the final third, Diaz has gradually shifted the meaning of the title, the “woman who left” becoming Hollanda rather than Horacia. However he seems needlessly concerned with tying up loose ends that were never that crucial to begin with. Diaz ends with a final image that might be suitably hallucinatory within the spectrum of his overall filmography, but feels mostly out of place here, given The Woman Who Left’s fierce determination to embrace emotional storytelling and play it clean.

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TIFFTIFF 2016Festival CoverageWavelengthsSergei LoznitsaAnocha SuwichakornpongAlbert SerraRuth BeckermannAngela SchanelecPere PortabellaMatías PiñeiroDouglas GordonGastón SolnickiSharon LockhartOliver LaxeJoão Pedro RodriguesWang BingLav DiazLong Reads
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