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Crossing Borders: Future//Present at VIFF 2018

The 3rd edition of Vancouver's spotlight on emerging Canadian filmmakers cements its position, but struggles against insularity.
Lawrence Garcia
M/M (Drew Lint).
Nestled within the multifarious Canadian offerings of the 37th Vancouver International Film Festival—officially the “True North” stream—is Future//Present, the brainchild of critic and programmer Adam Cook, now in its third year. Consistently comprising eight features and a number of shorts, the program has since its inception been positioned as something of a haven for emerging Canadian filmmakers, directors working on the fringes of—or in some cases completely untethered from—state funding. (That five of this year's selections have at least one other listed country of origin is telling.) In other words, it offers a set of films that, without undue extrapolation, one could surmise would have previously been passed over, not necessarily for deficiencies in accomplishment or sensibility, but for their lack of adherence to established norms. This third edition offers as good a time as any to take stock of the ways in which the program does (or doesn’t) fulfill such a mandate.
The work of F//P perennial Sofia Bohdanowicz (recently included in Reverse Shot’s “15 Rising” symposium), who arrives this year with no less than three new short films, offers a useful starting point. (Her Locarno-premiering Veslemøy's Song, programmed elsewhere at the festival, has already been ably covered.) The first two, Roy Thompson and Where, channel physical spaces of memory—respectively, the eponymous music hall in which Bohdanowicz’s grandfather played as part of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and various sites of a toxic former relationship—into silent expressions of diaristic intimacy. Shot on 16mm film hand-processed with organic plant extracts, both films have an amber-encased look to augment their emotional depth, with their haptic material qualities—luminous, silvery and sparkling—as full evidence of Bohdanowicz’s bespoke, artisanal method. Equally indicative of such is The Soft Space, produced during a fellowship with the cinema-arts non-profit Mono No Aware and co-directed with Melanie Scheiner, a short that alternates the “soft” abstracted parts of Scheiner’s body with the “hard” spaces of New York’s public transit system. (In its clarity of approach and the rhythmic intuitiveness of its montage, it had me thinking obliquely of Jodie Mack’s Wasteland No. 1: Ardent, Verdant and that film's natural-artificial juxtaposition of flowered fields and printed circuit boards.)
Possessing an intimacy and focus that feel not insular but generous, Bohdanowicz’s films in some ways represent the F//P ideal—that is, a genuinely independent cinema entirely divorced from reverse-engineered notions of quality, which, in their specificity of vision, manage to resonate beyond a ready-made festival audience. Two of the program's least satisfying selections, though, Aïda Maigre-Touchet’s Song of a Seer and Bojan Bodružić’s The Museum of Forgotten Triumphs, fail to do exactly that. Like Bohdanowicz’s films, both are concerned with the ways by which material objects and spaces become infused with the weight of lived history. Maigre-Touchet’s subject is the Haitian poet, critic and actor Dominique Batraville, while Bodružić’s is his ancestral home in Sarajevo (the museum of the title), in which his grandparents lived until their (relatively) recent passing. But what some might term a “modesty” of form here registers more as complacency; there’s a sense that the filmmakers have taken the viewer’s attention as axiomatic and willfully stripped away any markers of interest, formal or otherwise. (That much of Bodružić’s home-video footage, recorded on-and-off over a 15-year period, is in widescreen, with little to no attempt at using the frame's full compositional potential, is indicative of a greater lack.) While a case could be made for both works as bearing necessary witness to lived experience, it doesn't seem unreasonable to ask that a film offer more than ancillary archival interest.
The Stone Speakers (Igor Drljaca).
In the case of Bodružić’s film (which won the Best Canadian Documentary prize), one need only look to The Stone Speakers, the program's other Bosnian documentary, for a comparatively worthwhile approach. Whereas Museum filtered the efforts at rebuilding Bosnia and Herzegovina into essentially a series of home-videos, with the director's grandparents drawing out the generational divide regarding optimism about the nation's future, Speakers, directed by Igor Drljaca (who happens to be Bodružić’s brother-in-law), takes a literally monumental approach to former Yugoslavia's history, filtering the nation's attempts at rebuilding itself through the lens of tourism. Individuals involved in specific arms of the country's multi-faceted efforts are filmed like statues, unmoving, against an array of postcard-ready backdrops. Attendant stories, histories and long-winded explications are relayed with minimal directorial intervention and allowed to simply play off of each other—an approach that is necessarily limited, but also informative, humorous, contradictory and thus illuminating.
The Stone Speakers is one of two Canadian films F//P has in common with the Toronto International Film Festival's Wavelengths program. The other, Andrea Bussmann's Fausto, also happens to be the director's second film in the program after The Tales of Two Who Dreamt (2016), co-directed with Nicolás Pereda. Filmed largely on Mexico's Oaxacan coast, it filters the Faust myth through local legends and oral histories. Regional landmarks like the Witch’s Rock are, via broken-off, half-told tales, imbued with—in concept, at least—unknowable depths. Bussmann's sepulchral, low-light frames (shot digitally on a Sony a7S and transferred onto 16mm) gesture to the “conscious coexistence” of the universe in an attempt to evoke a sense of ineffable mystery. The irony, then, is that it should feel like a ready-made arthouse object in its formal-intellectual bet-hedging: fact and fiction are blurred through a mix of local and invented legends; human perception is questioned via animist whisperings; the larger anthropological project is self-reflexively treated with suspicion. Such a considered framework is not without its value, but there’s little risked and thus little gained. Far from a sense of the forbidden, what Fausto ultimately offers is a guarded, festival-approved bargain.
Whereas Bussmann’s film fits into a growing trend of festival-circuit output, Olivier Godin’s Waiting for April is, at least on paper, something contemporary cinema could use more of. Inspired by tales from Québécois musician-storyteller Michel Faubert, it evinces a distressingly rare attention to pure storytelling pleasures and is thus not unlike the work of France’s La lettre du cinema circle, particularly the work of Serge Bozon. Indeed, the film’s playful story—a policier peppered with details like a “mystical singing bone” and a character with the arm of a gorilla—contains numerous instances of what Bozon has termed “moments of rupture,” here mainly in the form of musical numbers that frame the fantastical proceedings, not to mention the recurring hand-done, in-camera iris effects. And yet Waiting for April also seems like the least of such efforts, wanting in overall narrative conception and scattershot in its particulars, so that it registers, ultimately, as a mélange of forced whimsy.
With four features under his belt, Godin is something of a veteran compared to Drew Lint, who makes his feature debut with M/M, for which he received a Special Mention for the Emerging Canadian Director prize (the award Bohdanowicz won two years prior). The film's intriguing, confounding logline can’t really be bettered by synopsis: “Matthias lives in Berlin. Matthias likes techno. Matthew likes Matthias. Matthew wants Matthias. Matthew wants to be Matthias.” This is no accident, since what could broadly be sold as a queer psychosexual thriller frequently resists easy classification. Skirting around the contours of genre, it’s as much an eros-thanatos dance of assumed identity and conflated desire as it is a formalist study of (male) bodies in (urban) spaces, with a particular attention to the queer subculture that its characters inhabit. An early sequence at a community swimming pool devotes as much, if not more attention to the particulars of the environment (light refracted through rippling water, white tiles and their borders alternately sharpened and blurred by rack focuses) as to the narrative drive (the erotic tension of Matthew’s first encounter with Matthias). Forceful and vigorous, Lint’s film ends with the (literal) construction of an identity—appropriate, for it’s also the most promising selection of this year’s slate of films.
Spice It Up (Calvin Thomas, Yonah Lewis, Lev Lewis).
The vaunted highlight of the 2018 program, though—and exemplary of what could be considered the F//P ethos—is Spice It Up, a film that through DIY ingenuity and resourcefulness takes a desire to create cinema independent from established norms as its very subject and process. As such, it follows Rene (Jennifer Hardy), a film student in Toronto attempting to complete her thesis project, the title film—an absurdist comedy about seven teenage girls who fail out of high school and then attempt to enlist in the Canadian army. Simply, but effectively, the filmmakers (Calvin Thomas, Yonah Lewis and Lev Lewis, the latter making his second appearance in the program after The Intestine) toggle between the film-within-the-film and Rene’s attempts at reworking it with the advice of a few uniformly unhelpful (male) individuals, including her professor played by film critic Adam Nayman. (Among his complaints: the title. “Spice what up?”) Clear-eyed about the uncertainty and effort required to succeed in the current cinematic landscape, Spice It Up manages an impressive and oddly moving sleight-of-hand, affirming the vitality of a genuinely personal cinematic vision while acknowledging that the majority of such are doomed to becoming, at best, fringe efforts. That the filmmakers’ multi-year production roughly parallels that of Rene’s undertaking—the in-film project was originally intended to function independent of a frame story—adds yet another layer of interest.
Finally, there’s Terry Chiu’s Mangoshake. Made with a group of close friends and various acquaintances one summer in unspecified Canadian suburbia (presumably in Québec, where Chiu lives), the film revolves around a mango shake (read: not lemonade) stand over the course of a summer. Not unlike Spice It Up, the project bears clear markers of its process; it's self-evidently collaborative, minimally budgeted and brazenly disinterested in conforming to glossy, “well-produced” Canadian offerings, in particular, feel-good coming-of-age fare. And yet Mangoshake’s immediate pleasures are virtually indistinguishable from, say, those of a high school video project, which makes it a singularly strange object to consider within the program. The film almost seems unproductive to discuss, in part because it so openly dares you to dislike it—a challenge that its program note and Cook's screening introduction, which name-checked no less than Keaton, Chaplin, Tati and Roy Andersson, only feed into.
Chiu’s film does have a smattering of veritably beautiful moments—its use of on-screen text during a bucolic reminiscence is finely judged—but most of its value arguably lies in the rhetorical force of its inclusion in the program. As one observer noted, likely the most subversive thing about Mangoshake is that it actually played a festival like VIFF and was seen by a paying audience. Enjoyment will largely depend on whether one accepts willful separatism as a useful aesthetic barometer, since to these eyes it seems just as indicative of outright ineptitude as of unrecognized genius; and Chiu’s genuinely effective gambits are too few and far between to really tip the scales. For all of his stated desires to rail against establishment thinking, Mangoshake demonstrates an alarmingly insular (festival) tendency, one that seems to take separatist rhetoric as de facto value. A worrisome impulse though this is, it’s also entirely absent from the program’s best offerings. But a shelter is, after all, always in danger of closing its doors.


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