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TIFF 2016. Correspondences #8

From the film festival, docs about Justin Timberlake, concentration camp tourism, and Austrian safari hunters, as well as a Bhutanese fable.
Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait
Dear Fern,
I'm so glad we could share the sheer exuberant pleasure of Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids on an IMAX screen that gave J.T. the 30 foot high stature of a god: eat your heart out, Leni Riefenstahl! As you note, this infectious concert documentary by Jonathan Demme resoundingly describes Timberlake's appeal in thundering audio-visual terms: boyish charisma, guileless performing pleasure, and a remarkable sharing of his musical credit (so much of it studio-finessed, optimized of appropriation of other music and styles) with a veritable community of producers, musicians, backing vocalists, dancers and more. There's one incredible shot (among many) in this beautiful film of the entire collection of performers playing a song that's frankly mediocre—but the camera tracks along the whole band on stage, Timberlake one of many, all of whose smiles are genuine, all who sing along to the song even when they aren't singers, all who bob and sway and are sharing first and foremost with each other, their co-workers and peers, the sublimely jubilant spirit of creation. And then they project this positive energy out onto us, the audience.
Demme turns the camera on his subject in his new concert film, but Sergei Loznitsa inverts the focus in his documentary, Austerlitz, peering at the on-lookers rather than the subject of their fascination. Last year we were treated to The Event, another of the Belarusian director’s great documentaries observing crowds at a historical crux. He had followed his film of the protests gatherings of the recent Ukrainian protests, Maidan, with that powerful found footage assembly re-constructing public announcements in Leningrad of the dissolution of the United Soviet Socialist Republic. Austerlitz combines these two impulses towards mass behavior in the politically charged present and historically potent past: it observes tourists visiting two Nazi concentration camps. At the camps, Loznitsa’s camera is stoic and patient, a tourist more implacable than the groups milling around. Present but detached, its observation seems aware of the incongruity of the casual visitors, who choose to enter, mostly at a laconic stroll, the partially preserved site of some of humanity’s most abominable crimes. But the camera is a tourist nonetheless—one less interested in filming the place itself or capturing history’s present echoes than in filming people and capturing history largely uncommunicative to those present.
Austerlitz blends the two camps togethr and takes the structure of a tour of a tour, starting outside, crossing the threshold (and audaciously peering back) that still bears the infamous ARBEIT MACHET FREI inscription. It takes us from location to location—all shot from the static camera—that is also being traced by Spanish, English and American guides dutifully followed by their groups. Yet despite the promise of what one would assume would be the endless, minute variations of responses—dramatic or subtle, appropriate or not—from the tourists of a concentration camp, the crowds shown in Austerlitz attains a disturbing, homogeneous slurry of bored or disinterested looks. The only common incursion of the vulgar, beyond some ridiculous t-shirt choices, is the constant photo taking, selfies and partial reenactments—look, I’m stuck behind the gates of Dachau! But all this is gathered in the first minutes of the film, and eventually I found the sheer sameness of kind of people and of their behavior repetitive, hardly surprised by the sameness in demeanor, look and attitude of the camp’s visitors. The camera eventually seemed as blasé as they were, which in its own way was quite chilling.
A more successful (and equally provocative) documentary here at Toronto is Ulrich Seidl’s Safari. This Austrian director has remarkable consistency moving between documentary and fictional filmmaking, with his knife-sharp inquisitiveness, complicated compassion and gut-punch irony. His last film, In the Basement, looked at what is literally hidden under Austrian society, but Safari is all out in the open, following a handful of Austrians vacationing at a Namibian hunting lodge. Indoors, Seidl frames the individuals and groups—an elderly husband and wife, a beautiful and virile set of parents and children, two older men who might be father and son, and the verbose owner and his dispirited wife—frontally in brazen symmetrical compositions balanced with stuffed animal heads, adorned by African and animal themed curtains and wallpaper. The main family effuses their love for shooting game, cognizant of the strangeness of so passionately praising killing, bending over backwards to re-frame the activity as just, exciting, and natural. The owner defensively rebuts unvoiced skepticism about the morality of his business as well as implicit racism (his silent wife, looking wilted and more lifeless than the dead animals, pipes up only to explain how she’s not racist). And the older couple sunbath, praise wild meat as superior to beef, and enumerate how much each animal costs—though it’s not clear if the price is for the privilege of killing, the reward for killing, or the cost to stuff the dead. In short, Seidl gives the group the slack to hang themselves—the film, though less exact and incensed, is certainly as critical as his compatriot Peter Kubelka’s totemic avant-grade safari picture, Unsere Afrikareise—though his deep irony and criticism never fails to gives his subjects room not only to present themselves but also to exist as humans.
Out in the field, the camera loosens up and goes handheld, following several hunters as they follow guides tracking game. We track the hunters following the guides, and see killing from afar, and shot animals later approached, posed and photographed after the hunters and guide congratulate each other. Here we can see and understand the patience and thrill the tourists are experiencing—and immediately the abject absurdity of that pleasure. The whole thing seems quietly stage-managed by the foreign guides and their Namibian workers, perhaps much as Seidl himself collaborates to stage some of what he films. The film effectively climaxes with a graphic close-range kill, the shooting of a giraffe. When approached, it’s not quite dead, and the body is weirdly crumpled in a pose one never associated with the animal’s aloof, laconic grace. When its eye is prodded to see if it has finally expired, the long, heavy neck lurches like a animatronic sculpture dilapidated and convulsing in movement and shape so unnatural that seems a different being entirely than the herd of live giraffes quietly watching from the distance. The corpse is taken back to town and we see it entirely deconstructed—flayed, chopped up, split open. The Namibian workers, in the background of many scenes, become the protagonists, doing the bloody work created by the hunter’s bullets. Seidl visits them, too, at their homes, posed silently before the camera, explaining nothing but telling everything.
It is quite stunning, fact, that Safari chooses to not let some of its subjects speak on camera—only the Austrians can speak. Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz takes the opposite approach: his films must say what has not been said, and what must be said. And Lav's voice has been heard throughout the year: He won the Alfred Beaur prize (whatever that is) at the Berlin Film Festival in February for his revolutionary epic Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, won the Principal Prize (for ‘political urgency’) in May at Oberhausen for his short film The day before the end, and then just last week took home the top prize, the Golden Lion, at the Venice Film Festival for yet another feature. For a director marginalized outside the hardcore festival and art-house circuit, this series of wins is a huge coup which hopefully will bring some more audiences to his sprawling, immersive, challenging cinema and help him secure more funding.
The next stop for the Venice winner, The Woman Who Left, is here in Toronto, and compared to the 8-hour historical deep dive of Lullaby, it’s a much more spare and thereby pointed drama. In essence an old school noir stretched to its maximum durational limits, the film opens with a middle-aged woman, a “teacher and storyteller” (as she’s praised), being released from jail after 30-years of wrongful imprisonment when someone else confesses to her crime. Set in 1997 during a spate of high profile kidnappings that were terrorizing society, the woman shears herself of her previous life, selling her house, leaving her daughter and ignoring her missing son so that she may stalk the rich man who placed the blame on her so many years ago. And so that she may exact revenge.
But that revenge comes at the end of this 4-hour film, which uses its heroine's time between release and vengeance for her to fall into the orbit of a variety of low-class miscreants, the poor, sad, deranged and outcast—in short, humanity—to whom she offers a kind heart and an open wallet. By the end, one must ask what the real revenge on the upper class criminals of the Philippines is: armed revolt or proactive compassion and generosity. As a friend pointed out, the “woman” of the title is all Filipino women who have been thrown aside and mistreated, deserve justice and deserve their own stories told.
Back in the Platform competition one can find Bhutanese director Khyentse Norbu's instantly engrossing fourth feature, the gorgeous, effortless forest-set fable Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait. In a throbbing, neon swaddled prelude, a bar hostess in Hong Kong delivers drinks and considers herself in the mirror, counting the cash kept in her fishnet stockings. A jump cut sweeps us away to find a silent, anonymous man pushing through resplendent Bhutanese hills. Upon spying a marked cross hidden in the foliage, he dons a blank wooden mask, pulls out a flute, and calls out a gang of masked tribesmen who take him to their village. From here, Hema Hema reveals itself as a greatly (and pleasingly) simplified, fantastical telling of a man tested by anonymity. Masked along with a number of others gathered at the village, the group is told they are in a state in-between death and rebirth. There, they are entertained by plays of choreographed dance narrated by the songs of a leader who offers warnings and guidance for their moral actions.
Those in charge claim the masks eliminate gender and remove identity, but quickly we follow a few of the masks and import desire and indeed gender from them. Our own masked man, despite his naive face originally of thoughtful intentions, is drawn towards a woman with a three-eyed mask, eventually following her into the woods where identities are mistaken and mistakes are made. While Hema Hema may seem like an adaptation of an ancient Bhutanese ritual, in fact it is an original story by Norbu, who is the third incarnated lama of a strand of Tibetan Buddhism. Under his immaculate cinematic guidance—the film’s jungle colors are vibrant, its camera lucid and mobile, the masks a delight, the editing is by 5th Generation Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang, and even Tony Leung Chiu-wai is hidden behind one of the masks—it does indeed narrate with the vivid, timeless, pared clarity of an old legend. The lessons we know but are nonetheless pleasurable for their (re-)telling. With the pro- and epilogue set in a modern club, Norbu clearly and without a heavy hand brings into an open-ended present his tale of a limbo state. There, here, the possibilities and promises of anonymity are thwarted by a curiosity and desire undeniably human and personal.
And now, Fernando, I must head off to some of the installations that festival has curated and set here and there around the city of Toronto. I shall report back!
Warmly,
Danny

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