Two-timing: New Zealand filmmaker Leanne Pooley brought the Topp Twins and the crowd-pleasing film "Untouchable Girls" to Toronto. (Photo courtesy TIFF)

Toronto International Film Festival 2009

B. Ruby Rich September 19, 2009

There are two ways to approach a film festival: Follow the buzz or try to create the buzz for yourself. Journalists usually opt for the former, critics for the latter, while audiences splinter in a dozen directions. The "big tent" approach of the Toronto International Film Festival has always allowed a generosity of pursuits to co-exist, rewarding the adventurous and satiating the lazy, all without judgment. This year, though, the balance of power lurched out of whack as the scrum of journalists turned all junketish. The corps of handlers trying to call attention to quality small or foreign films complained that all the media wanted to do was watch and write about the big movies that were about to open anyway. What a shame—I saw some of the most powerful, unexpectedly glorious films this year, not a one slated to open wide this autumn at press time.

Part one: the issues

Alongside the films were the issues. The main chatter along Bay Street was the dearth of distributors picking up films: much hand-wringing for the future of the business as this transitional moment (big screens, small screens, 3-D, video on demand, downloads, Netflix, smart-phone delivery, etc.) has set off a tsunami of trepidation regarding the unpredictable return on investment. Not to mention the national and global crash—at last glance, still known as a "recession" to calm the nerves—that has eaten up the easy money available for a minute to certain kinds of production.

But there was other chatter, too, that dominated one section of the festival: a number of filmmakers and cultural figures objected to the festival’s tribute to Tel Aviv, and signed a statement, the Toronto Declaration, saying so; media reports and mounting counter-responses in defense of the festival and Israel produced an escalating debate that festival leadership clearly did not expect. The Toronto International Film Festival has never hosted special-interest events, always insisting on the primacy of the films and filmmaker. This felt like a departure from that rule, and the inauguration of such a new strand with Tel Aviv, so soon after the Gaza war, was a dramatic statement over which the festival quickly lost control.

By the time the Declaration organizers’ panel on the subject took place, over 1,500 filmmakers and cultural luminaries, from John Greyson to Naomi Klein to Danny Glover, had signed on. [Full disclosure: this writer was one of the original signatories.] By then, counter-attacks were under way, too, notably a vituperative op-ed by powerful Canadian producer Robert Lantos, who inaccurately accused the Declaration signers of calling for a boycott. Jane Fonda signed the original Declaration, then recanted; Roger Ebert wrote against it, then reconsidered and changed his position; Atom Egoyan belatedly spoke against the Declaration, Sarah Polley belatedly expressed sympathy for the Declaration’s signers. Israel has claimed the tribute as a victory for its "Brand Israel" campaign to reshape the country’s global image. The festival insists that its program was independently curated and based purely on the merits of the film. Both are undoubtedly correct. For San Franciscans who witnessed a furor over the inclusion of the Rachel Corrie documentary in our Jewish Film Festival in June, it’s all familiar. Stay tuned for further developments.

Now, back to the films. Like most critics I know, this writer goes to film festivals in the hope of discovery. Buried under cascades of celebrity coverage, party reporting, and previews of titles slated to open in a week hide the unknown films poised to be unearthed, lifted aloft like buried treasure and saved from an archival half-life by critics who spread the word and distributors who take a chance. It’s an item of faith on which my very being depends. With luck, film festivals reward our ever-renewed hope of discovery and proclamation. Yes to the stars who reinvent themselves, yes to the directors who fulfill their promise, yes to the debuts that stun the soul. Happily, there’s some of each to report back from Toronto this year.

Part two: the return of the ’50s

I’m not talking about Mad Men. In this first case, I’m not even concerned with the ’50s literally but rather the ’50s figuratively: style, attitude, glamour. I’m talking about Italian wunderkind Luca Guadagnino’s glorious paen to cinema and passion, Lo sono l’amore (I Am Love), starring Tilda Swinton who speaks nonstop Italian and Russian throughout. A swooping title sequence straight out of Visconti, a family villa smacking of Mussolini Modern and a family in a crisis worthy of Douglas Sirk make for a delicious set-up. And then, there’s the food. This is a film about appetite, at all levels, and Swinton transforms herself from the ice-queen persona of many of her recent films into a woman repressed by family standing and freed by passion. The wealthy Milano milieu, the eroticized natural world of San Remo, and the dizzyingly dynamic cinematography, all accompanied by a tumultuous John Adams soundtrack, render the experience of watching I Am Love utterly wondrous. It’s not "about" the ’50s, nothing so predictable, but it revives the Italian and Hollywood movie magic of that time.

Two of my other favorite films in the festival dove into the ’50s as political decades while avoiding any degree of naturalness whatsoever. Shirin Nezhat’s Women Without Men and Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains are both exiles’ investigations into whatever happened to their country and culture (Palestine, Iran) but resolutely relying on the experience of individuals as the only sure route of inquiry.

Nezhat, already a well-known artist, here extends her authority over the big screen through an adaptation of a novella by Shahrnush Parsipur (who lives in northern California) that’s set in 1950s Tehran, just as a British-American coup prepares to overthrow the government and install the Shah. Women Without Men tracks the fortunes and misfortunes of four women whose destinies converge in a magical orchard outside of town. Nezhat and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht fashion a stunning rendition of historicized imagination, revivifying the past through a scrim of stylization, what I’d call "pictorial realism," that telegraphs complex emotional and political truths through a visual style, at once ethereal and wrenching, that externalizes her characters’ feelings through their environment. Certainly any Americans who see Women Without Men will understand the dynamics of U.S.-Iran history far better.

Ah, American foreign policy. Good luck, Obama, with that Mideast summit. Perhaps he ought to preview Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains, his latest historical fable chronicling life in his childhood home of Nazareth as refracted through his comic, fractured sensibility. Here Suleiman goes back to 1948, the moment of Israeli triumph and Palestinian Nakba, to tell his family history through the lives of his Resistance-fighter father and fashionable mother. Not for Suleiman the meticulous recreations of battle scenes! With his characteristic deadpan delivery, he represents the nature of life during and after this rupture: rules turned upside down, characters trying hard to make sense of the ’50s in a world that no longer makes sense. Based on his father’s diaries and his mother’s letters, Suleiman premiered the film at Cannes so it was off some folks’ radar at Toronto. For me, though, it was one of the signal delights of the week. The insoluble contradictions of the Palestinian condition seem to fuse comedy and tragedy together like a tough metallic alloy meant to avoid collapse.

At press time, none of these three had a U.S. distributor. [Editor’s note: Variety reported Magnolia just picked up I Am Love.] Nor does the next one on my list, my festival treat, even though it hearkens back to the ’60s, not the ’50s.

Hands down, the most unusual film at Toronto was a little Australian indigenous musical with a big heart, Bran Nue Dae, by Rachel Perkins, a particular favorite of mine for her work in drama and documentary. This is a singin’-dancin’ flight of fancy based on the stage musical of the same name, starring Ernie Dingo who first played the role of Uncle Tadpole on stage, with Jimmy Chi’s music, in 1990. An indigenous boy is sent to a boarding school run by a severe German minister, but he escapes to return to his home town of Broome, his mum and the girl he loves. Tap your toe to its theme song: "There’s nothing I would rather be/than to be an A-bo-ri-gin-ee/and watch you take my precious land/a-waaaaay?"

Part three: political documentary, or the big top versus the Topps

It was fascinating to watch, in the same festival, the arrival of the Michael Moore traveling circus with the premiere of Capitalism: A Love Story and the visit by New Zealand filmmaker Leanne Pooley with the Topp Twins and their Untouchable Girls. What a fascinating study in contrasting gender politics, film style and national politics!

The Topp Twins–Jools and Lynda Topp–are legendary New Zealanders, known as much for their rib-splitting country-western songs as for their lifelong involvement in New Zealand national policies (gay rights, anti-nuclear treaties, Maori rights). Pooley’s straightforward documentary situates the sisters in the issues of their times, while giving equal credit to their identities as lesbian farm girls who never saw any reason to act any differently than they always had. Girls of the people? Indeed. "They’ve never embarrassed us" is high praise from their folks back on the farm. Now that they have their fan clubs and a horse ranch, the twins still take their politics with them wherever they go: Jools’ recent encounter with breast cancer has made them warriors in the fights over public health, too. Judging a sheep-painting contest at an agricultural fair, undergoing chemo, thrilling girls at a lesbian bar ... it’s all the same to the Topp Twins. "We’re laughing with, never laughing at," they stress to me in an interview.

Michael Moore, on the other hand, has always enjoyed a good laugh at. He’s up to his old tricks, both pro and con, in Capitalism: A Love Story. It was one of my few capitulations to seeing a film that was about to open, but I’m there to serve. Most astonishing is Moore’s discovery that corporations are taking out "Dead Peasant" life insurance policies on their employees, then collecting on their deaths. It’s a deeply chilling discovery, especially when the bereft families get no such financial perk. Equally revelatory is long-lost footage of FDR announcing the need for a new Workers’ Bill of Rights, but dying before he got to implement it. Moore can still tell us what’s wrong with everything like nobody else, and he’s still the master of the stunt–like wrapping yellow crime-scene tape around the New York Stock Exchange–but every time he seems on the verge of telling us how things oughtta be, he just detours back home to Flint or his own past movies instead. His populism began to look mighty faux when compared to the Topp Twins’ effortless solidarity, but I guess we’re no Kiwi audience, either. Still, there’s hope: When the final day of the festival rolled around and the awards were announced, the audience award for best documentary went to The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls. Way to go!

Meanwhile, mid-festival, a panel convened at its first-ever documentary summit to consider the state of the discipline. Pat Aufderheide, director of American University’s Center for Social Media, appeared with her center’s new report, Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work, and challenged filmmakers to reexamine their own processes and practices.

Part five: other films I really, really liked

I know that lists are dull, so allow me just to offer you a sentence apiece to spark your interest in some of the other films coming this way, hopefully, given the Bay Area’s audiences or certain release patterns. Chuan Lu’s movingly poetic City of Life and Death is an epic recreation of the brutal Japanese occupation of Nanking, daring and horrifying even in black and white, yet already a hit in China and an impending release for Japan. Yanfu’s Prince of Tears reveals the betrayals that beset Taiwan in the "white terror" of 1950-54 (a rougher version of U.S. McCarthyism) with wild melodramatic turns of plot, dangers, and lesbian romance. Ozon’s Le Refuge may not be his best, but it’s better than most, and his facility with character studies and his expertise in matters of mortality nonetheless render this tale of a junkie who cheats death surprisingly touching (yes, Clean comes to mind, but this one’s a different story altogether). She, A Chinese meandered like a Chinese soap opera, though its chapter headings and spunky heroine should attract notice to writer-turned-filmmaker Xiaolu Guo, especially given her top prize from Locarno.

Finally, two guilty pleasures. I snuck away from more sober duties to root for the girls in Drew Barrymore’s directorial outing, Whip It!, the roller-derby fairytale where Ellen Page proves she’s no one-trick pony, Barrymore prove she can skate, and Marcia Gay Harden tries to convince us she cares more about beauty pageants than the roller rink (due in theaters the first week of October). What could be a greater guilty pleasure than that? Chloe, of course! Atom Egoyan, long the ringmaster of sexy escapades, films an adaptation of Anne Fontaine’s Nathalie to Toronto in this passion play involving a Julianne Moore as a wife who suspects husband Liam Neeson of straying, and hires call-girl Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) to find out, only to land in Fatal Attraction territory.

Well, that’s the news for the Bay Area this year ... almost. The film that won the audience award in Toronto for best feature film was Lee Daniels’ Precious, which under its prior title Push won praise and awards at Sundance in January. What’s the difference between Sundance and Toronto, then? In Park City, the industry crowd left the theater shaking heads and saying: Can audiences watch this? In Toronto, the Canadian audiences packed the theaters, didn’t worry and gave it a standing ovation.

And no, it wasn’t only for the presence of producer Oprah but really, truly, for star Gabourey Sidibe, recently profiled in the New York Times as a new young actress to watch, and her not-so-shabby co-stars Mo’Nique and Mariah Carey. You can watch them all very soon yourself: Precious comes to the Mill Valley Film Festival next month, then is slated to open nationally in November. Consider the powerful but vicious film as the most unlikely Thanksgiving offering in years. Prepare for abjection, then, but just make sure you go.

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