The Notebook is covering TIFF with an on-going correspondence between critics Fernando F. Croce, Kelley Dong, and editor Daniel Kasman.
Dear Kelley and Fern,
It's funny that you mention the pleasure of public screenings at Toronto, Kelley, as I was thinking about this separate experience quite a bit as my festival wound down. Most of the screenings I attended at TIFF this year were for the press and industry; frequently crowded, these showings are nevertheless intended for professionals and certainly have that tenor: more walkouts, more people checking their phones, less tolerance—frequently being an attendee’s third or more film that day—and almost always less fun than the energetically charged public screenings. But I still had one of my best theatrical experiences at such a press screening: Ugandan director Nabwana I.G.G.’s infectiously exuberant Crazy World, a comic child kidnapping action thriller running on sheer enthusiasm and ingenuity rather than budget.
It is unusual enough to encounter a Ugandan film at a major film festival, let alone a film by Nabwana I.G.G.'s prodigious Wakaliwood studio, but Crazy World also has the added oddity of being a 2014 film somehow re-configured for this Toronto premiere. This was most obvious in two separate, very funny dramatized interruptions of the film that warn the watching audience about piracy, and, startlingly, mentioned TIFF by name and mentioned press badge holders specifically as the most likely to pirate! This was not the only mention of Toronto in the film, for the whole movie as shown to the press was accompanied by a canned voice-over narration by the riotously funny VJ (video jockey) Emmie that existed outside the story’s fictional world. (Usually at public screenings in Uganda, this would be a live accompaniment.) The experience was incredible, like the old Japanese benshi narrators if they were both comedians and hype men: As we watched this brief but energetic action movie, the narration joyously talked along with it, anticipating action, overdubbing lines, calling out the actors we were watching, boasting with good-natured braggadocio, complimenting characters and the filmmaker, plugging other movies by the actors and director (even suggesting one will be premiering at TIFF 2020), and all together weaving between narrating the story, getting the audience excited about what’s on screen, and playing with the frequent absurdity of movie conventions.
“Crazy World the movie is on!” the VJ yelled during a flurry of action in the prelude, introducing the story of Kempala gangsters kidnapping local children for nefarious purposes. “The rich say they are protecting our future—then why are our children crying?” asks a helpless detective. As we watch squibs explode and beautifully cheap gun flashes go off, the narrator preemptively boasts, “This is WakaWorld, best action movies—best director!” The kids ably fight back—including the director’s own son, whom the narrator acclaims proudly throughout—against the kidnapping gang, and when a hoodlum flees the kids, the narrator, channeling the ribald zaniness of what we’re seeing, chants “movie, movie, movie!” Our action movie hero is described as “Uganda’s best commando...and father.” (Later, the filmmaker is “Uganda’s best director...and father;” and the villain, “Uganda’s worst bad guy...and father.”) Little we see goes unremarked upon by this nearly non-stop commentary track, and is made all the better for it.
As my first encounter with this kind of movie, the experience was entirely fresh to me, and I found the bounty of energy and humor overwhelming and was frequently dying in my seat from laughter. The swift story is lean and well-staged, the action, a mix of martial arts and gun play, terrific even without the extra layer of the storyteller, but VJ Emmie truly rockets the film into the stratosphere of fun. Full of jokes and self-reflexivity, feverish enthusiasm and pride, the film radiates the sense that making movies is a silly and fun enterprise that cross-bleeds between fiction and reality, and creates a sensation of enthusiasm shared between those making the films by the seats of their pants and the audience nimbly shifting between immersion and self-awareness. “Action movies rot your brain? We’ll see,” humorously chides the narrator. My audience was in stitches, and I can only imagine what the proper public midnight screening at TIFF was like, where the film was narrated live.
This viewing day really was a roller coaster for me, as I went from this gloriously positive experience with Crazy World to the cinematic gut-punch that is Romanian director Alexander Nanau’s Collective. Named after the nightclub Colectiv whose deadly 2015 fire precipitated a healthcare scandal in Romania that resulted in a change in government, Nanau’s highly constructed vérité documentary charts a series of astounding revelations for an outsider unfamiliar with this national crisis. Its first half follows the newspaper investigation of the Sports Gazette and its editor Catalin Tolontan that discovered the incapability and corrupt malfeasance of the burn units that the fire victims were taken to. The paper uncovers the decisions which prevented proper care, delayed transferring to facilities abroad, and in fact caused fatal bacterial infections at the hospitals. These revelations, among other things, resulted in the resignation of the health minister and the suspicious death of the CEO of the company manufacturing what was found to be intentionally diluted disinfectants used at the hospitals. The film’s second half moves away from the journalism side of the story, where Nanau asserts and easily proves that the press serves a function to check the abuse of power, to following the new and very young health minister, Vlad Voiculescu, who claims to desire a new era of anti-corruption and ministerial transparency. This section sees the minister identify a vast amount of graft and inexperience inside the Romanian healthcare system, and try to make structural changes to eliminate it, all the while dodging voracious criticism from a political opposition that seems to have a vested interest in the old and corrupt system that has long been in place.
Step by step, this story is as enthralling as it is astonishing, how the domino effect of this nightclub fire through the intervention of a free press cracked open and revealed a rotten and greedy public health system. The film is certainly more interested in telling this narrative from a very specific side of the crisis, and with its impressive access but also limited perspective of the newspaper and the new health minister should not be taken as any kind of rounded or comprehensive exploration of the event. Rather, it suggests the two ways, interrelated, that broken governments and public services can be changed: From the outside, through journalistic oversight; and inside, by politicians and administrators willing to risk their careers in order to fix loopholes and remove the corrupt and self-interested from the system. Collective is nail-biting specifically because in it appears an entire government, and through it, society, on the line. In the film, the responsibility of change for the better—meaning punishing wrongdoers and ensuring that lives can be saved in case of another disaster—is being ably wielded before us. The results of that attempt form the bitter conclusion to the film, which takes us to our present moment, in Romanian specifically but more generally in too many places around the globe, where the desire to make society a better and safer place has been overwhelmed by a misinformed and misguided population that wants to hold onto a reactionary past. But despite this crushing ending, Collective’s story suggests that impact can—and therefore must—be made to change odious and venal government practices.
And finally, as the festival wraps up, a few short notes of recommendation. Canadian director Heather Young proves that the spirit of Chantal Akerman is alive and well in a young generation of new filmmakers with her debut feature, Murmur. A portrait of an isolated middle-aged woman and alcoholic rebuilding her life after an ambiguous past event—possibly prison, or at least a DUI—she finds solace by volunteering at an animal shelter. Discovering that the presence of the animals is therapeutic, especially when her daughter won't return her calls, the woman convinces the staff to let her take a very old, very sick dog home to care for rather than put it down. Soon she starts adopting more and more animals, and her lonely routine at home is quickly disrupted, with gently comic melancholy, by the overwhelming responsibility of multiple infirmed pets. A touch too long and underdeveloped for this discrete scenario, nevertheless Young’s handsome and careful framing, emphasizing habit and loneliness, and wonderful collaboration with non-professional actress Shan MacDonald reveals a compassionate understanding of addiction, depression, and the need for humane understanding.
Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness—a tender and spare film, and one of my favorites at the festival, but already written about in our Venice dispatch—wasn’t the only film whose language is bold, master shot tableaux. Atlantis, by Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych (and not to be confused with Mati Diop’s Atlantics), is set in the near future, after the Ukrainian conflict with Russian is over, and follows an ex-soldier across a landscape and through a society that seems post-apocalyptic yet utterly realistic: contaminated water, closing factories, unexploded mines, bodies exhumed everywhere. This state of the world, as well as the PTSD suffered by the soldier, whose comrade commits suicide early on in the story, is starkly shown to us in these long-take tableaux vivants, which thankfully never attain the monumentality, pretension, or debilitating artifice of such a forceful style. But this approach does mean we are confronted again and again with an implacable world. There is almost no subtext to the film; what you see is what you get: Ukraine as a land, economy, people, and history is in a profound state of devastation and contamination. A few people, our protagonist included, are trying to keep it from total collapse, some others are even trying to clean it up. No subtext is needed when a film is made as a dispatch from a catastrophe.
There were other, smaller TIFF pleasures of note, as well. The fantastic visuals of the impressively sprawling family crime melodrama A Sun, by Chung Mong-hong, a Taiwanese director who, like Vasyanovych and Steven Soderbergh, serves as his own cinematographer. Chung can always be counted on for boldly cluttered imagery, vivid work with color, and creative staging. The beguilingly odd pacing of Comets, a minuscule Georgian film by Tamar Shavgulidze that slows down a reunion between two middle-aged women, who may have illicitly loved each other as young girls, into the lugubrious strangeness of old memories and unspoken things. The film also startlingly ends with a jump into a 1970s science fiction film, re-created in the bare budget minimalism of the whole production, suggesting that movies are a solace for unrequited fantasies disavowed by society at large. And the last film I saw was Sarah Gavron’s Rocks, whose story of a British teen caring for her younger brother and dodging social services after her single mom goes missing is fine and proceeds as expected, but whose good-natured evocation of groups of female friends, teen girls chatting and having fun and messing around, carries the joyful energy of life’s vibrancy well-observed. It was a very nice tone to end the festival on, a note of positivity, empathy, and camaraderie, and it is on that note too that I’ll sign of our correspondence this year. It was great watching and writing with you both, Fernando and Kelley. Until next time.