The Notebook is covering TIFF with an on-going correspondence between critics Kelley Dong and Daniel Kasman.
The festival definitely is changing now: the industry-oriented market side of the event has finished, so many sales agents and distributors and other such folk have decamped, even as premieres keep being revealed, and audiences are delighted (or exasperated). There's still plenty on my schedule and plenty more I want to share with you.
Are there filmmakers for you, Kelley, whose sensibility you embrace but whose films you sometimes struggle to like? That, for me, is Mia Hansen-Løve, who has made six features to date, two of which I think knock it out of the park—The Father of My Children and Things to Come. But her other recent work, including Goodbye, First Love, Eden, and now Maya, may resonate with a sensibility of intelligent compassion and emotional insight, yet tell stories I find torpid. At first, her latest film feels quite fresh, for its first reel is busy narrating the return of a French war correspondent, Gabriel (Roman Kolinka), who has been held hostage in Syria during the early years of the civil war. With his sunken eyes, retreating in introspection, Gabriel celebrates his return with another hostage (Alex Descas) and his ex-girlfriend—who movingly confesses that the reasons for their breakup have been forgotten during the crisis—and later dismisses the assistance of a state-provided therapist. All this is told with brisk, suggestive efficiency which almost immediately halts upon Gabriel’s sudden suggestion of—and a wonderful, fleet edit to—vacationing in Goa. There, he and the film meanders.
Gabriel has some convoluted family history in India, which includes a dilapidated family home, his wayward, hashish-smoking mother (Johanna ter Steege) and his Goan godfather, but the pull of the story shifts upon the entrance of the godfather's teenage daughter, Maya (Aarshi Banerjee). Astonishingly pretty, thoughtful, but discreet, her mere presence suggests an inevitable romantic development. But the real story of Maya is not the eponymous young woman but rather how a war reporter unwinds. Gabriel’s job, his time as a hostage, and his possible trauma mostly fade away from the film while in India, as he spends time half-aimlessly swimming, traveling the country, reconnecting with his mother, fixing up his house, and not so much pursuing Maya as courting her by mere proximity. Few of these activities are full of incident but are very full of a relaxed if withholding vibe, in keeping with actor Roman Kolinka’s quality of emanating handsome, sensitive internalization. It’s not a particularly interesting or telling demeanor, which seems more fitting for lopping at a cafe with a book than either expressing or repressing a hard-boiled life in the thick of it.
The issue seems to be this: Whatever his qualities of a reporter, and whatever he may have gone through in Syria, Gabriel doesn’t seem like a very interesting person; and his experience in India, ranging from casual tourism to the eventual, inertial seduction of a teen beauty, seems in keeping with his lack of impetus or imagination. The film ends with a terrific punctuation mark, so pointed that it feels like the script had an opening and a closing for the film and let the middle relax, and this may in fact be the point, in a way: The slack, somewhat eventless, aimless quality of most of the film is what is required for a person with such a job, or has gone through something so horrible, to re-charge, to come to himself. The problem is, that person hardly seems one of note; and without his scarring backstory, it might even be easy to dislike someone like this and the casual, vaguely exploitative tourism upon which they rely.
A film of similar but far more productive and enjoyable ease was hajooj kuka’s aKasha, a fictional turn from the Sudanese director after his documentary debut, Beats of the Antonov (2014). The story of two men gamely avoiding military conscription in their country’s civil war after a break at home during the muddy season—a bleakly funny fact that tells of the expanse of Sudan’s conflict, now in its third modern iteration—kuka’s feature is a buddy film that disarms war’s disciplined heartlessness through a charmingly comic and loose-limbed tale of procrastination and avoidance.
After setting the stage with documentary footage of soldiers and jeeps bogged down in the mud, aKasha opens on the handsome, bragging young soldier Adnan (Kamal Ramadan) in bed with his girlfriend, Lina. In playful back-and-forth banter characteristic of both the film’s wry humor and its empowered women, Adnan keeps insisting on his heroism which will win the war, make Lina (Ekram Marcus) a queen, and take them to the big city—while Lina easily rebuts with sly depreciation of the war, of soldiers, and of her boyfriend’s ego. He admits his love to her, but also to his Ak-47 that he has nicknamed “Nancy.” And we soon learn later he’s flirting with other women in the village, too. “May peace abandon you,” Lina spunkily curses as she kicks him out.
Despite his claim to fame in the area for having shot down a drone, when the army comes to get the young men Adnan flees, all the while claiming his martial prowess and insisting he will fight, whereupon he runs into Absi (Ganja Chakado), another deserter but one who has no qualms with pacifism. From here we get a ramshackle and easy-going series of incidents as the two crossdress to retrieve Nancy, variously dodge and flirt with the village women, and get captured by and promptly escape from their local commander. The hijinks are mild and not particularly anarchistic, but in its freedom of form and storytelling, modest humor, deflating of masculine militarist ego and celebration of homestead women’s coy intelligence and strength, aKasha isn’t just a lovely picture, but one which achieves a great deal with modest means.
L.A.-based artist Karissa Hahn, whose work we’ve shown before on MUBI, has made one of the most rigorous and beguiling short films presented in Wavelengths, Please step out of the frame. You asked me in an earlier letter, Kelley, about films dealing with tomorrow: this film plunges into that black hole of today, the computer screen. Filming her laptop screen with a Super 8 camera—a format that resets and successfully mystifies the high definition of the LCD—Hahn then manipulates the display, digitally zooming recursively into the screen, creating desktops on desktop, images on images. Hahn then compounds this vertigo by integrating what looks like—in an antic maelstrom into and out of the screens upon screens—YouTube clips of first-person roller coaster footage, static Eadweard Muybridge motion studies, Apple's Photo Booth green screen video effects that lay people upon other footage—including the roller coaster—and those eerily vacant moments before and after video calls when all you see is yourself looking at your own camera. Some of this activity seems to be happening live before us and some, surreally, appears to be video files that contain some of these very things already recorded that Hahn plays back, jumbling live action with the pre-assembled.
All these component parts, and indeed their frequently composited combination, aggressively cluster into Hahn’s screen, disperse as she zooms in or cuts backwards, clutter, fragment, accordion in and out. During this madness, as we peep at this stranger’s desktop, we get sucked into and spit from the maw, a vacuum that slices and smashes that before its camera with which appears within. The title, normally an admonishment, becomes both a warning to escape the suction and a playful acknowledgment of the dancing qualities of Hahn’s rhythmic screen flux, a roundelay between user, camera, and screen: once you step in, it’s hard to step out.
And now, Kelley, I'll step away from this screen for another, much bigger one: Another film here shot on 65mm! More to come.