Sunday, May 22, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Nine

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2004)

This is the ninth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2004 Toronto Film Festival.

Stage Beauty (Richard Eyre)
This gala presentation has already opened commercially. Set in 1660’s London, it depicts the era’s leading actor of female roles (played by Billy Crudup) as the times change and a royal proclamation opens the stage to women actors. Coincidentally (the film often feels as if the city’s population can’t be more than a couple of hundred people), his dresser (Claire Danes) is the first woman to become a star, passing him on the way down in Star Is Born style, but then her popularity also wanes as audiences realize her technical limitations. Eventually, of course, the two reach a happy accommodation.

This is a bland film with an indifferent sense of its period. The cultural and societal change it revolves around is surely of interest, but as presented here it’s all a matter of whims and petty interactions. The film has a mild undiscriminating bawdiness that may be its most intriguing and authentic quality, but otherwise it misses out on any kind of depth or distinctiveness.

Moolaade (Ousmane Sembene)
It’s amazing that this year brought a new film by Sembene, the pioneer of African cinema. A couple of years ago, the Cinematheque ran a Sembene season, which left no doubt about his overall achievement. His 1966 debut film Black Girl, about a young African woman brought to France as a domestic, is still as fresh as the best of the French New Wave, and its relative lightness makes its indictment of colonial attitudes all the more potent and tragic. His 1975 Xala, by comparison, is a broadly colourful patchwork of moods and themes, showing the risks to a modern Africa of overreaching, and sharp-eyed about the continent’s propensity for corruption at the highest level; despite its hard-headedness, the film communicates real excitement about the prospect of transformation, which makes it a little sad now. His 1992 Guelwaar muses against another splashy, discursive canvas on the mixed blessing of foreign aid. Now he’s over 80, with an amazing biography, not as well known as he should be, but clearly a towering figure.

His astonishing Moolaade, if it turns out to be his last film, will stand as a triumphant summation of his career. It’s simple in its technique, with the unadorned clarity and straightforward quality of a children’s story, but it exposes both the beauty and brutality of Africa with powerful eloquence. The film’s subject is genital mutilation (or “purification”) – an unquestioned rite of female passage in its tiny village setting where the elders claim it’s required by Islam. Four young girls flee the mutilation ceremony and take refuge with the only woman who opposes the ceremony, and has kept her own child intact. She places them under a symbolic rite of protection, opening up a chasm in the village that brings out all its ugliness and unthinking acceptance of barbaric rituals. It’s a life of poverty but not deprivation, where tradition and legend are as tangible as stone walls; radio is prevalent and TV is trickling in, but the progress is haltering and could easily be reversed.

The film has a hopeful ending, but not a naïve one: it acknowledges that even progress of the most obvious kind may be a matter of some steps forward, some back. It mentions globalization and free markets, and one character knows enough of the world to label the proposed marriage of an 11-year-old girl as pedophilia, but that character pays for his progressiveness with his life. Moolaade has no layered-on artistry or theories or Westernized ironies. It’s entirely a film about Africa – a cinema that almost seems to spring directly from the land.

Cinevardaphoto (Agnes Varda)
I hope this doesn’t sound like damning with faint praise, but Varda strikes me essentially as a decent and pleasant director. She’s not quite on the front rank of filmmakers – maybe she’s too itinerant in her interests, and she hasn’t made that one overwhelming masterpiece that might have sealed her reputation - but her films are hard to dislike. Her 1961 work Cleo From 5 to 7 is still one of the freshest works of the French New Wave, with a vibrant female perspective, and her films Vagabonde and One Sings The Other Doesn’t have a clear place in any survey of feminist cinema. She’s done much to honour the work of her late husband Jacques Demy, making several documentaries on his life and work and leading the restoration of his wonderful The Young Girls Of Rochefort. Her most recent full-length work, Les Glaneurs Et La Glanesse, evoked much affection for its essaying on the act of gleaning in all its variants, mixed in with musings on how filmmaking might belong to the same tradition. To me it seemed like a doodle, if not a winding-down.

Cinevardaphoto is a compilation of three short films. Only the first, Ydessa, The Bears and Etc., is a new work. It presents Ydessa Hendeles, a Toronto-based art collector and gallery-owner whose “Teddy Bear Project” contains thousands of archival photographs, mostly innocuous groupings, each containing a teddy bear. She calls it “a fiction of a world where everyone has a teddy bear,” disguised to look like some kind of documentary. The photos indeed seem to coalesce into an illusion of a vast family, but the installation also threatens to become overwhelming, to render the viewer “suffocated by someone else’s obsession” as one spectator puts it. The film catches the Project on display in Munich, where it’s housed in a museum used during the Third Reich to display Nazi propaganda: Hendeles (herself the child of Holocaust survivors) has placed a model of a kneeling Hitler in the exhibition’s exit hall. The undercurrents of all this are potentially endless, and Varda teases them out lightly. Like all her best work, it’s bright and accessible without merely spoon-feeding the audience with conclusions.

The second film, Ulysse, made in 1983, revisits a photo taken almost thirty years earlier, interviewing the subjects (who disclaim much memory of it) and musing on the production of meaning. More complex, slyly funny and allusive than Ydessa, the film evokes Chris Marker; Varda seems to be pushing here beyond her usual limits. It won a French Cesar for best short film at the time. The third film, Salut les Cubains, goes back to 1963 – it’s a montage of Cuban photographs, celebrating the island’s culture and society and in particular its music. It’s a skillful assembly, moving almost invisibly between subjects, providing a strong visceral sense of Cuba’s raw energy. Taken as a whole, Cinevardaphoto ably demonstrates the immense capacity of photographs to generate meaning, and provides a smart, seductive summary of Varda’s range and longevity. But I think festival audiences will have viewed it as a bit of a trifle, as relaxation between more demanding excursions.

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