Toronto Correspondences #7: Big Screen Canvas

Our critics dispatches continue with Blake Williams's "2008," Lijo Jose Pellissery's "Jallikattu," and Affonso Uchôa's "Seven Years in May."
Daniel Kasman
The Notebook is covering TIFF with an on-going correspondence between critics Fernando F. CroceKelley Dong, and editor Daniel Kasman.
Dear Kelley and Fern,
I think many of us, amateurs and professionals alike, come to film festivals to be wowed. No one is at the Toronto International Film Festival simply for a nice time: Audiences attend festivals precisely to have a unique experience. This is why, for me, the shorts program of the Wavelengths section always feels like my home base at TIFF: Minute for minute, it provides the most surprises. Foregrounding artists’ films—variously but frustratingly called avant-garde (ahead of what?) and experimental (which suggests incompleteness) cinema—this section is wildly diverse: celluloid and video, abstraction and essay film, the art world and that of the cinephile, self-reflexivity and country-hopping globalism. You cannot leave one of these programs without your mind activated, your senses agog, and opinions abounding.
After attending Wavelengths for many years, I’ve slowly started realizing what kinds of artists’ films really hit me hard. These, more often than not, interplay the strict lines of cerebral form with the lyricism of rare beauty, structuralist conceptualization tempered by sensuality or exquisite observation and delicacy. Usually, each year there is a film that comes upon me like a wave and I can say, “yes! This is for me.” This year, that film is by a friend, Blake Williams. One of the foremost contemporary practitioners of 3-D cinema, Williams has followed up his remarkable 2017 feature PROTOTYPE with a new short film, 2008, that is sensually beautiful and technically mysterious. One of the great pleasures of this kind of cinema is that it frequently re-introduces the mystique of filmmaking back into the audience experience. Unlike so many commercial films, a movie like 2008 prompts us to ask, “What are we looking at?” and “How on earth was the made?”, two incredible questions, both literally and metaphorically, that the adherence to realism of commercial cinema removes from most moviegoing.
Like PROTOTYPE, Williams’s new work seem to be—I say “seems” because I’m only guessing—a play between an old monitor that shows images, still and moving, and a 3-D camera filming that monitor. It re-films it very close, creating a subtle but remarkable sculptural effect of adding ambiguous dimensionality to a physical screen projected onto the big screen we’re watching, and then also the actual material showing on the monitor itself, predominantly photos of blossoms whose dense and cluttered geometry fill the images with duskily colored beauty. The film opens with a dizzying shot of mounted binoculars in front of a sea view, the binoculars themselves jutting out to us, asking us to peer inside in order to split our vision and unify it in 3-D. We are made very aware we’re watching images through another device, underlined by hearing audio of the room the monitor exists in, as well as music later, as if we’re at home watching someone’s personal videos or slideshow. At the same time, there is ingenious play between the refresh rate of the monitor and what the camera is able to capture. This may sound dry and vaguely technical, but the result is of pulsating texture, simple, spatial, and entrancing, as we see bold scan lines crawl bent across the screen in another 3-D effect, sometimes a warbling black bar, sometimes lines of prismatic color, and all popping out in some strange space where it is impossible to tell if it’s emanating from the monitor that’s being filmed or the cinema screen we’re watching. 
These scan lines become the dominant motif, being itself a dimensional effect and also animating the still images before us: The past, perhaps memories (hinted at by the title), re-visited nostalgically, brought to life through this scanning line. The tone is not so different from the static-swathed opening credits of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me—without David Lynch’s abrupt destruction of the television. In Williams’s film, stillness become space, and space becomes movement, and movement is the animation of a memory. Two abrupt appearances of other images—a cat running through a yard, an image of a man standing in a desert photographing the distance—and the pauses between sections of the floral imagery and color banding suggests channel-flipping through sweet memories, traces of beauty always mediated, yet transformed, by the devices through which we watch. Without them, we couldn’t see what this film is made of; without them, perhaps these images would never live again. The matter seen is then inseparable from that through which we view it, a visitation to the past through the techno-conjuring of 3-D technology. Of course, we can’t go back—but the traces that remain can still be activated and brought before us, even if the space they live in is optical rather than physical. Cinema, the great re-animator! 
One of the best things about attending a section like Wavelengths is taking the open-minded sensitivity to unconventional forms from that screening room to another. This is precisely how I enjoyed Jallikattu, the story of a buffalo that escapes the butcher’s knife in a rural Indian village in Kerala and the chaos that ensues. It runs amok and the community goes into conniption fit of fear and panic in response, trying en mass to paradoxically flee and capture the beast. At first, I was frustrated by filmmaker Lijo Jose Pellissery’s lack of interest in defining the size or character of the village, of the townspeople, the social hierarchy, or other characteristics of the milieu beyond the bare necessities, since for a long time, perhaps too long, I took the film as an exploration of what happens to a town when it is turned upside down, how relationships are affected, what lines of decorum and civility are crushed—and how quickly. It is certainly not that. Eventually I broke through this mindset of realist social definition and embraced the roiling movement on screen, the gathering and dispersing tumble of humanity whipped up within nearly five minutes into a frenzy that never dispels through the film’s entire length. Effectively, it’s an action painting in motion, an evocative gesture devoted to the red mist of rage and anxiety that clouds the eyes of men, stoked and maintained by the crowd in response to an unquestioned facet of everyday life revolting when faced with its fatal destiny. 
Seven Years in May
That said, Jallikattu’s gestural approach loses political impact through its general gestalt. The same couldn’t be said about Seven Years in May, made by Affonso Uchôa, one of the Brazilian directors behind the sleeper favorite Araby (2017). Like that gem, this new forty-minute film takes a relaxed and episodic approach to sharing the real-life story of a poor and downtrodden Brazilian worker. It has the gentleness and patience I associate with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who also creates an easeful mood for contemplation, a convivial atmosphere for considering darker truths. The film begins with a man trudging along the road in the dark. Next we see an unexplained scene of young men opening a trunk in the middle of a field, finding in it police uniforms and weapons, and donning both the outfits and the attitude: Soon, these costumed men find, shakedown, and beat a man who, when questioned, says his name is Rafael dos Santos Rocha. This man wanders off to a bare fire lit nearby, sits and tells his story, but the tone suggests this isn’t want we just saw, but is in fact a real history—that what we saw was a ghastly reenactment or traumatic memory. 
In fact, the opening shot of the man is not the past but the present, of Dos Santos Rocha returning to his home town after years of exile, his home where he re-tells his story. It is a story not just of being severely beaten by the police, but of them then trying to extort him, which forced Dos Santos Rocha into exile from his community. This leads to a tailspin: homelessness, drug abuse and dealing, an itinerant life like that of the wanderer of Araby. The incident is told in what must be a rehearsed monologue told in a single, very long take by fireside, engrossing both in its testimony and in the habituated tone of the telling, since it has the formality of a practiced speech yet cannot avoid lived emotion. A devastating reverse shot reveals a listener who calmly says that his story is the same: “I’ve been through so many things, every story I hear sounds like mine.” They speak of fear and anger, which never go away. “If I forgot, what they did to me would be completed,” says Dos Santos Rocha, underscoring the testimonial importance of his participation in the film and connecting it with Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela and Eloy Enciso's Endless Night, also showing in Wavelengths. The finale is another episodic shift, this time to a public game where a uniformed man commands a crowd to be “dead,” and they must squat, and then “alive,” and they must stand, and who then mixes up the commands such that individuals make mistaken movements and are eliminated from the game. Eventually, all are removed except Dos Santos Rocha, who won’t sit down when told he is dead. He is told repeatedly and refuses to sit or to be eliminated. A bracing and direct gesture to end on, it confirms Seven Years in May as a compassionate but stark work of political resistance, serving as a empathetic, imagined testimony of abuse, misfortune, and misery in today’s Brazil.


TIFFTIFF 2019CorrespondencesFestival CoverageBlake WilliamsLijo Jose PellisseryAffonso Uchoa
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