(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2006)
This is the second of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.
Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako)
During the last year or so I watched the documentaries Life and Debt and The Take, which slammed the malign effect of IMF and World Bank policies on Jamaica and Argentina respectively, and made me think I had been insufficiently skeptical of those institutions (if only by not thinking much about them). Then I had the almost life-altering experience of visiting South Africa, and going to a township, where I found myself at a loss to imagine how such deprivation could be constructively addressed in my lifetime. Sissako’s new film, combining these strands of thought, was high on my must-see list for this year. It’s based in the brilliant concept of a legal proceeding - African Society vs. the International Financial System - held in a courtyard in a destitute Malian village; there’s some stinging testimony against the ruling economic powers (and some distinctly weaker arguments for the other side). The film teems with outrage, although it doesn’t grasp at easy solutions – the greatest tragedy, it implies, is in how the history of exploitation and belittlement has by now seeped into the country’s DNA (manifesting itself, for instance, in institutional corruption and fraught personal relationships). It has many fine moments, but a fair amount of it seems rather laboured too, leading overall to a less revelatory experience than I was hoping for.
Transylvania (Tony Gatlif)
Gatlif is of Gypsy descent, and devotes most of his work to illuminating that underappreciated culture. He crams his pictures with tumultuous music and human chaos - a word that comes to mind is “zesty”. His last film Exils was an entertaining romp, and the new effort particularly appealed to me because of the presence of the explosive Asia Argento, who’s directed a couple of kinetic movies herself. And indeed, it’s hard to imagine Transylvania existing without the two of them. Argento plays Zingarina (now there’s a Gatlif kinda name!), a French woman who comes to the country in search of a Transylvanian boyfriend who got her pregnant back home and then disappeared. She finds him, he rejects her, and she goes off the rails; ditching her friends and settling into an itinerant life with a rough-edged petty wheeler-dealer. Among other things, Asia gets to scream, break plates, have milk poured over her, have sex on a car within feet of a foraging bear, smoke while pregnant, and submit to a harrowing labour scene. There might be a rough allegory there for the new European melting pot, and the mythic connotations of the setting lurk around the edges too, but it’s hard to get past such ramshackle psychology and narrative motivation. Hard to worry too much though, when it’s all so damn zesty.
Le Voyage en Armenie (Robert Guediguian)
Guediguian spent years making gritty, heartfelt movies – often very compelling ones - in a particular quarter of his native Marseilles, usually with the same lead actors. He’s only now broadening his reach a bit, first with a recent film about Francois Mitterand (not shown here to my knowledge) and now with Le Voyage en Armenie. Sadly, this film merely plays like a slower, bourgeois version of Transylvania. Ariane Ascaride plays a French doctor exploring her Armenian roots while searching for her dying father. Much of the movie is basically a travelogue with minimal narrative finesse: within a day or two of arriving she’s acquired a motley collection of friends, tangled with gangsters, gone up in a helicopter, visited strip clubs and churches and slums, and made a fair stab at learning the language. Later on the thugs come to the fore, and matters turn rather silly before stumbling to the inevitable closure, in which of course she’s acquired a new equanimity about her family and heritage. Inevitably, given its approach, the film seems to provide reasonable coverage of Armenian tour bus highlights, but it’s so contrived that you can’t engage with it as much more than a series of postcard images. Unfortunately, it’s one of those movies that tempt you to reevaluate the director’s previous work downwards; you wonder whether the modesty and commitment of his Marseilles projects obscured comparable weaknesses.
Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell)
Well, you’ve probably already heard about this one – a contemporary comedy about relationships in a very specifically post 9/11 New York, featuring lots of unsimulated explicit sex: it’s locally notorious for featuring the CBC’s Sook-Yin Lee (who turns out to be one of the film’s less interesting performers). It follows Mitchell’s first film Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which didn’t do a thing for me, although I suppose I may not have been the target demographic. No such problem here – the target demographic is presumably anyone who likes sex, and isn’t ashamed about it! Sure, it’s surprising at times in its physical, uh, concoctions, but even more surprising is the delicacy of some of the characterizations, even if a lot of it is just scattershot liberalism. Some of it, conversely, is rather trite and silly, and the movie exhibits what you might call Magnolia syndrome – it returns constantly to sweeping animated shots of the city, and pumps up its mythic scope through symbolic uses of blackouts and musical numbers (and, of course, orgy scenes). Overall though, Mitchell’s feeling for the milieu and the people is highly persuasive, and the film never compromises, visually or ethically. Every year, the festival crosses yet another new frontier in mainstream cinema sexuality, and some of those seem primarily like stunts (take 9 Songs for instance), but Shortbus periodically feels almost necessary.
I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang)
Tsai’s garish, porn-packed The Wayward Cloud was one of my favourites of last year’s festival, although it seemed to indicate a director in desperate need of a new preoccupation. His new film actually turns out to be more of a retrenchment, but it’s an extremely satisfying one. Although Tsai is filming for the first time here in his native Malaysia, he reduces the city to a largely familiar wasteland (although with an emphasis on diversity), threatened by rising water levels and lousy air quality, following a few deprived people holding on to love-starved existences, desperate for a meaningful connection (sometimes expressed tenderly, sometimes comically, although perhaps the broader point is the difficulty of telling the difference). The plot, such as it is, mostly focuses on a homeless man who’s beaten up and then taken in by a Bangladeshi immigrant who nurses him; when he recovers, he forges a connection with a local waitress. Tsai again deploys long takes, structured around recurring, elemental preoccupations – with a place to sleep, with images of one person tending to another (either functionally or erotically or perhaps both at once). Romantic old songs play on the soundtrack, their underlying sentiments strangely valid for all the strain in the circumstances. Take back what I just said about Shortbus - Tsai’s vision of modern relationships makes Mitchell look merely crass and opportunistic.