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Toronto Correspondences #6: A Just Beauty

Our TIFF critics' correspondence continues with "Jordan River Anderson, the Messenger" and "The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open."
Kelley Dong
The Notebook is covering TIFF with an on-going correspondence between critics Fernando F. CroceKelley Dong, and editor Daniel Kasman.
Dear Danny and Fern,  
As the halfway mark of the festival approaches, perhaps you also find yourself and notice that others are trying to articulate a précis of sorts with whatever permutations possible—what it (movies, every single one) all means, where the industry is headed, which culturally relevant but politically insensitive, formally middling mid-brow title could win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. But today I find the predictions premature, and am taking my precious time to soak in the pause provided by Luke Fowler’s Cézanne, which screened in the third Wavelengths shorts program (titled “Look Around”).  
The film starts as a guided tour, its title card a street sign labeled Cézanne. Fowler films in Aix-en-Provence, the location of the artist’s studio and garden now occupied by what Michael Sicinski, in his overview of the program, describes as a “commercialized Cézanne industry”—the painter's signature and self-portrait have become ubiquitous among the flora and fauna of the area. Fowler does not seem so cynical about this, though. There are tourists sipping wine and snacking on the property, and he films these crowds from a distance, positioning their bodies within the landscape as if mere branches and their shadows. Fowler is acutely aware that he is also a tourist; he films himself reflected in a mirror inside the studio, holding the camera. Later, he appears in a shop window, superimposed atop an array of screen-printed Cézanne tapestries. Cars pass through a roundabout; then, it is we who become passengers of the vehicle, watching through the window as the trees dance. The excursion moves towards not a particular place or object but rather a trace or residue, something signifying nearness to artistic greatness. As close to beauty as one could get, whether as a leaf or a curtain for the kitchen. 
Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger
It is very delightful, but the idyllic pleasures of Cézanne are still tied to a cycle of contemplation-as-response; the film can only pursue Cézanne via a return to Cézanne, even if in the form of copies and artifacts. What it does not do is propel any further than the boundary within which the painter operated. In Jordan River Anderson, the Messenger, the 53rd documentary by Alanis Obomsawin, the fight for Canada's First Nations youth welfare is driven by a reparative, just beauty achieved in the undoing and re-writing of the law. Obomsawin begins with the birth and short life of the "messenger": Jordan River Anderson of the Norway House Cree Nation, whose death in a hospital—apart from family, at the age of five—was accelerated by the provincial and federal government's indecision regarding which entity would pay for his home-based care. Though the House of Commons unanimously agreed to pass Jordan's Principle in 2007, Indigenous families found themselves continuously met with the rejection and neglect of the Canadian government, sparking years of legal battles, government orders, and public demonstrations.
The tightly-bound film spans from 1999, Jordan's birth year, to 2019. In the two decades covered, the grief of Jordan's family over their loss expands to community, then nationwide initiatives organized by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to demand the rectification of Jordan's Principle as a legal guarantee for all First Nations children to receive the benefits of universal healthcare. To name The Messenger's components—talking head interviews, photographs, news excerpts—does not sufficiently describe the elegance of its sequencing. Chapters conclude with ellipses—a boy playing with his hand drum, Jordan's baby blue blanket held as the red of the Canadian flag glows in the background—a pedagogical move that allows for a rest between measures, for the density of the information to sink in and take hold.
The interviewees of the picture place the discrimination against Indigenous child welfare within a much longer history of cultural genocide against First Nations youth, from the residential schools of the 1880s to the 20th century, to a 2017 teen suicide crisis in Wapekeka (which, as the filmmaker notes in a voiceover, should have been addressed by the federal government through Jordan's Principle, but requests for federal aid were ignored.) The forthrightness with which Obomsawin situates the Indigenous subject within the violence of North American history is shamefully rare in cinema and frankly, it probably remains rare in part because her films are still under-discussed and under-seen—you can watch many of them here. (By comparison, the same Canada of the past that enables the crisis featured in The Messenger appears in Matthew Rankin's The 20th Century, showing in TIFF's Midnight Madness program, as a wacky world of only Anglophone and French Canadians, giggling about moose and maple.) The Messenger is ever-hopeful, following years of persistence until Jordan's Principle is passed as law. But Obomsawin's optimism is multidimensional; she ends the film in a summit gathering of Indigenous families, whose hearts celebrate but still worry about the loose strands: What will become of those children who receive benefits once they become adults, what about those who have not received their benefits yet? All, however, agree on one thing: None of this—the progress, the change, the future, the care—would have been possible without Jordan.
The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open
Justice is slippery, easy to see but harder to grab, in Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn’s The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open, a volatile film that invokes both the pouring of rain and the thickness of the air as it lingers. There in the storm, on the corner with no shoes on and sulking to cover the bruises on her neck, stands Rosie (Violent Nelson). Another Indigenous woman, Áila (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), takes notice of the bare feet (and the boyfriend screaming threats from across the street), walks out of frame and returns to help. She takes Rosie's hand and in one (or several, sewn together with sneaky cuts) swift movement, they flee across town. Refuge is found in Áila's living room. This offering of solidarity, however, soon changes shape as the pair discuss whether to go to a safe house or shelter, whether to call the police. Safety is only a phone call away, but a mental and emotional clash, then a deadlock, emerges between the two. Because each is already wounded, they cannot help but also wound one another.
Rosie, with no nearby family and a baby on the way, is understandably too scared to leave a gaslighting boyfriend (though she prefers the word "lover"), and therefore hostile to accepting help from strangers. Áila's insecurities are well-hidden but unpredictably externalized, her voice shifts from a soft whisper to a hardened growl, she herself surprised by the jagged edges. But The Body Remembers is not about hatred but a misdirected, misunderstanding love. When Rosie waits in the living room, Áila cries for her, overwhelmed by a fierce protectiveness. And when Áila takes a phone call, Rosie cries to Joni Mitchell while rubbing her belly, comforting her child. Long takes are the formal mechanism of choice, mirroring the meandering quality of the women's back-and-forth. Sentences spill out at a syncopated rhythm, rushed by shyness then interrupted by hesitation and, if the wrong words are said (they usually are), the awkward silence of immediate regret only broken by a muttered apology.
The absence of cuts is a deliberate evocation of exhaustion, brought on by a conversation that never seems to end because of the uncertainty surrounding when to end it (at one point, a compulsive lie is extended into a convoluted saga that lasts an entire car ride). Conceiving an end to the talk would require an acceptance of what happens next; whether or not the women like each other, it is painfully clear that neither really wants to say good-bye. In its smallness, the tension of the film lies in the opening and closing of doors, and that the film ends on the latter—a slammed door, a figure recedes into the dark without turning around—places it in dialogue with The Messenger, though Tailfeather and Hepburn ask trickier rhetorical questions of what to do when members of the community deny help even when the support is made available. "It can sometimes take six or seven tries before they think they are ready," a woman at the safe house tells Áila. Áila heads home alone, crying but not sobbing, a stubborn resoluteness behind her tired gaze, which blankly asks: What now?


Luke FowlerAlanis ObomsawinKathleen HepburnElle­-Máijá TailfeathersFestival CoverageTIFFTIFF 2019Correspondences
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