bcholmes: shadows moving faster than the eye (magic shadows)

I mentioned in a quick post the other day that iNumber Number has taken the spot as my favourite film of the festival. I see a lot of very serious films at TIFF each year: documentaries about sober and sometimes sombre subjects and sad dramas. But iNumber Number is just all-out-action in the form of a heist film.

The (South African) director let us know before the screening that he gets a lot of questions about the title: apparently when speakers of the Zulu language adopt new words into the language, they put the letter ‘i’ in front of the word. Thus ‘iNumber’ (pronounced “e-number”) is the Zulu word for number, much as iRobot and iCar are the Zulu words for robot and car. (One might guess that iPhone is the Zulu word for phone; that wasn’t an example he used, though) More to the point, though, “iNumber Number” is underworld slang for heist — kinda like, “we got a smash and grab number going down this week.”

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Mirrored from Under the Beret.

bcholmes: shadows moving faster than the eye (magic shadows)

Film # 7 was called Cristo Rey, and it’s kinda made around this premise: what would Romeo and Juliet look like if it was set in the modern-day in a dangerous barrio of the Dominican Republic and the impossible romance was between the sister of a Dominican drug dealer and a Haitian immigrant?

Janvier, often just referred to as “The Haitian,” is the son of an undocumented Haitian mother and a Dominican father — Janvier’s birth was the product of an affair, and he didn’t grow up with his father. But he has a half-brother Rudy who seems to mostly be playing the role of Paris in this show. Jocelyn is the younger sister to a major drug dealer, El Bacá. El Bacá has been living and hiding out in Cristo Rey, a dangerous slum in Santo Domingo, the Domincan Republic. It happens that Jocelyn and Rudy previously dated, and although Rudy wants to resume the relationship, Jocelyn’s not interested because he cheated on her.

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bcholmes: shadows moving faster than the eye (magic shadows)

My sixth film was my first dud. It was the first film where, in the latter part of the showing, I found myself thinking, “Is this going to end soon? My butt hurts.” I have spent a lot of time thinking about it, since, because I think the message of the film makes me annoyed.

The film is called The Militant (or El Lugar Del Hijo, which Google translates as “The Place of the Child”), and it’s an Uruguayan film.

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bcholmes: shadows moving faster than the eye (magic shadows)

My fifth film was a drama called 1982. It’s a small, indie film by a relatively new director named Tommy Oliver. I must confess that I can’t quite remember what lead me to choose this film — it’s not foreign (except in the sense that, yes, Philadelphia is in a foreign country) and it’s not a documentary. It’s also a film where addiction is at the centre of the story, and I think I learned from watching Flight at the beginning of the year that I lack empathy for addict characters in film. But, whatever led me to choose this film, I chose it, and when Sunday night rolled around, I went off to the theatre to watch it. It was also a World Premiere, and those are always kinda neat.

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Mirrored from Under the Beret.

bcholmes: shadows moving faster than the eye (magic shadows)

My fourth TIFF film was a documentary called Mission: Congo. Its opening night was on Friday, but I caught it at its second showing on Saturday night. I caught it immediately after Bad Hair.

Mission: Congo kinda skewers US televangelist Pat Robertson and since the film’s premier a number of articles have been written in places like The Huffington Post, Indiewire, The Daily Beast, and The Guardian. In the Q&A, afterward, we learned that Robertson’s organization is considering legal action. That’s always fun.

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bcholmes: shadows moving faster than the eye (magic shadows)

My third film of the festival is a Venezuelan flick called Bad Hair (or Pelo Malo). Not a very happy-making film, that. It’s funny: after the film ended, I kept comparing it in my mind to Ma Vie En Rose — it feels to me like the opposite film. Warning: spoilers.

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Mirrored from Under the Beret.

bcholmes: shadows moving faster than the eye (magic shadows)

My second TIFF film was a documentary called The Square (or Al Midan): the titular square being Tahrir Square in Cairo. The film is directed by the woman who directed Control Room, Jehane Noujaim. It’s a slick, well-produced documentary and it would not surprise me if it became a contender for an Academy Award.

As an aside, the screening took place at the Bloor Cinema (now called the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema) and I think it might well be the first time I’ve been in that theatre in ten years.

The film, itself, documented about 30 months of the Egyptian revolution, starting in January, 2011 and ending with the unseating of President Morsi this past July (talk about up-to-the-minute relevance).

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bcholmes: shadows moving faster than the eye (magic shadows)

Another Toronto International Film Festival has started up, and today I not only went in to the box office to grab my tickets, I also had my first film.

I probably say this every year, but one of the things I really like about the festival is getting to see films that I’m unlikely to see any other way. Some people who go to the TIFF seem to want to sit in the same room with a celebrity, so they’re going for the major Hollywood releases. Me, I’d rather get tickets to smaller, more independent flicks that aren’t likely to come to cinemas. Usually the films I pick are foreign, or they’re documentaries. This year, once ticket selection started, I headed right for the Contemporary World Cinema track and found most of my choices, there.

Tonight’s showing was actually a set of five short African films: two very short films (11 minutes and 15 minutes) and three longer pieces (20, 25 and 33 minutes). Over the last few years, I’ve caught some really interesting African films in the last few TIFFs — I don’t get many opportunities to catch African cinema, so a sampling like this was pretty sweet.

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bcholmes: shadows moving faster than the eye (magic shadows)

The Great Kilapy is an Angolan film — a period piece with surprisingly good production values. It takes place in the final years of the Portuguese rule of Angola, and the costumes, locations and vehicles do a great job of transporting us to the mid-sixties. The film has a framing sequence that takes place in the present day where an older Portuguese man tells the story of “The Great Kilapy” to his children (“kilapy” is a Kimbundu word for “fraud” or “swindle”).

João Fraga is a mixed-race Angolan man living in Lisbon in 1965 at the start of the film. He has a suave demeanor and knows how to make women fall for him. He’s also good at financial legerdemain — some of his friends call him “Mr. Engineer” because he knows how to engineer a scheme or two. Lisbon is good to him: he enjoys the party life, and his primary lover is the daughter of a Minister who slips him a respectable stipend and keeps him attired in tailored suits. He really only has two big problems in his life. First, he’s not “a one-woman man” (and poly doesn’t seem to have been invented yet) which inevitably leads to broken hearts and angry break-ups. Second, a large number of his friends and former schoolmates have fallen in with the MPLA and the Security Police are confident that he’s also involved. For his part, João is sympathetic to the pro-independence MPLA but is too busy womanizing and funding his big-spending lifestyle to be politically active.

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bcholmes: shadows moving faster than the eye (magic shadows)

I’m getting behind of my film blogging. Thursday night’s film was a shorter film called Burn it up Djassa. It’s a film from the Ivory Coast about young people in a rough neighbourhood. Tony is a young, street-smart cigarette hawker who works Princess Street’s active night life area of Abidjan. At some level, he’s a bit bitter that his brother, Mike, got formal education before their mother died, and thus Mike has a good job with the police. Mike financially helps both Tony and their sister, Ange, but the financial inequities often grate. As does the Mike’s expectation of being able to lecture his younger siblings on how they should live their lives.

Ange, for her part, resents her own job in a hair salon, and has been trying her hand at prostitution as an income stream. Tony’s heard rumours that this might be so, but it really comes to a head when a john gets into a heated argument with Ange about someone stealing his cell phone. Tony knifes the guy, and takes off with Ange; he later hears that the guy died and is torn up about having become a murderer. But! Guess who gets to investigate the murder?

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bcholmes: shadows moving faster than the eye (magic shadows)

In the Fog is a Belorussian film set in WWII. The film starts with the hanging of three partisans by the occupying Nazi police. The scenes are slow, and leisurely — it nicely sets the expectation of pace for the rest of the film.

But it turns out that the three hanged me were originally arrested with a fourth guy: our protagonist, Sushenya. Because Sushenya was spared the gallows, everyone assumes that he must have ratted out his colleagues. Sushenya knows that that’s what everyone thinks, and it’s no surprise when two partisans, Burov and Voitik, show up at his house at night. They’re there to kill him for helping the Nazis.

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bcholmes: shadows moving faster than the eye (magic shadows)

My sixth film was State 194, a film about Palestine’s attempt to be recognized as the 194th state in the United Nations. The film follows a number of different people — Palestinian bloggers, Israeli pro-Palestinian activists, and several other — but the most visible subject of the film is the PA Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad. Fayyad outlines his goal: ironically, to follow the same path to statehood that Israel followed. He worked to build the apparatuses of a Palestinian state, and then approach the UN say, “look at us; surely you can see that we’re a state!”

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bcholmes: shadows moving faster than the eye (magic shadows)

I wish I could say that I liked Krivina more than I did. It has a lot going for it: a Bosnian living in Toronto returns after he hears reports that a friend of his, Dido, is wanted for war profiteering. He spends his time going from old address to old address, Dido’s relative to next relative. There’s almost a Godot-like quality, but rather than being a study of waiting, and life on hold, the overriding feeling is one of trauma and PTSD.

It’s a slow, languorous piece and I confess that I was impatient with it at times. It’s also a “but the aliens were really the humans after all” kind of story — the kind of story with a twist at the end that is supposed to make you go, “oooh”, but instead makes you think, “uh… is this your first screenplay?”

Mirrored from Under the Beret.

bcholmes: (beret)

The Gatekeepers has been the most powerful film I’ve seen so far. At first, I was a bit wary of it — it’s a documentary about the Israeli security agency, Shin Bet, in the style of The Fog of War, and I feared that this would be an attempt to humanize the people who plan out state-authorized atrocity. The director interviews the six most-recent former heads of Shin Bet and gets them talking about some of the big anti-terrorism cases of the last number of years. And what they say is really quite interesting.

They don’t say simple things. They describe, candidly, that for much of their history, they had no notion of an “illegal order”. They seem like people who’ve all come to terms with living in a world of shades of grey, and least harm and crap like that. They’re upfront about assassinations, and missile strikes, and collateral damage. And yet they’re not unaware of “the banality of evil” and are quite thoughtful about the efficacy (or lack thereof) of their brand of terror-fighting and about the political impossibility of any other approach.

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bcholmes: shadows moving faster than the eye (magic shadows)

The Color of the Chameleon is a Bulgarian film about secret police. The film is a little bit dark, and also a little bit absurd. Our anti-hero, Batko Stamenov, seems to have an aptitude for lying. And Onanism. So he gets recruited by the Secret Police to infiltrate a student group that’s geeking out over an anti-establishment novel called Zincograph (which is also the name of the novel that the film is based on). Oddly, the plot of the book seems to inspire him to start a career as a zinc etcher.

Batko also has an annoying landlady who mistakenly screws up his position with security services. Being an informant made him feel important, and losing the job brings out his resentment. So he kills his landlady and hides the body in an alcove in his house — he bricks up the alcove to hide the body. He also bricks up her bunnies.

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bcholmes: shadows moving faster than the eye (magic shadows)

My second screening was a Sri Lankan film called Him, Here, After. In it, our main character (only known as “Him”) is a former Tamil Tiger who has spent the last few years after the war in a rehabilitation camp. Now, he returns to Jaffna to a community that views him with mixed reactions. He wants to start a new life and put his past as a soldier behind him, but he has no job prospects, and can’t even afford to get a driver’s license.

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Mirrored from Under the Beret.

bcholmes: shadows moving faster than the eye (magic shadows)

It’s TIFF time, again, and I caught my first two (well, three really) films tonight. My first screening was a film about Haiti — TIFF seems to have one about every other year, and I always make a point of catching that screening.

According to the programme, the film was meant to be preceded by another film called Peripeteia, but there was some screw up and we ended up seeing that one second. Peripeteia is a fairly avant-garde film, and I can’t say that I love avant-garde. It starts out with a title card informing us that the painter, Dürer, produced “Head of a Negro” in 1508, but that all information about the subject has been lost to “the winds of history.”

Cut to a black actor who looks vaguely similar to the sketch. He’s in sixteenth-century Europeean garb, walking through the fields of the dreariest British countryside. It looks Too Fucking Cold, and we can hear non-stop winds. He walks a bit. We cut to him in a different field. He stands dramatically. Cut to him near a lake.

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bcholmes: shadows moving faster than the eye (magic shadows)

I saw my last film Sunday night: A Screaming Man by African director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. It was the third and final showing of the film, and we didn't get a Q&A afterward (a lot of the industry types start leaving the city before the end of the festival).

Plot: Adam (called "Champ" by most people who know him, because he won a swimming championship in his youth) works at the pool in a luxury hotel in N'Djamena, the capital of Chad. His 20-year-old son, Abdel, works with him. Champ lives with his wife and son in a modest home in town, and he has a relatively comfortable life. He enjoys his work; his friend, David, is a chef at the hotel, and he gets to drive to and from work in the moped motorcycle (with sidecar!) that goes along with his job. The only dark cloud is that Chad is still war-torn, with rebels and government forces periodically clashing in various locations around the country

And then the hotel is bought by new owners, who begin changing things up. David, the chef, is fired. And they don't see much point in having two people working by the pool. Champ is reassigned to work at the hotel gate in an ill-fitting uniform, lifting up the barrier any time someone is trying to drive in or out of the hotel's parking lot.

Champ is clearly ashamed at this turn of events. And his son seems a bit dickish about it all, too. He tries to go about his work, but he clearly feels like his pride has taken a blow, and he seems to spend his time quietly seething. And he has other issues, too. One of the people in his neighbourhood coordinates the people's contributions to the war effort. Champ is behind in his payments. If you don't chip in, it kinda looks like you support the rebels.

And then the suggestion is made: Abdel is the ideal age to be drafted into the army. That's a worthy contribution. We never see what Champ's response to this is, but shortly after that, soldiers arrive to collect Abdel; Champ hears this happening outside, but remains indoors, out of sight, as the soldiers take Abdel away.

And, after that, Champ has his job at the pool back. He briefly seems to be back into his old rhythm. But he spends a lot of time listening to radio reports about army clashes with the rebels.

When Abdel's pregnant girlfriend shows up, looking for Abdel, the guilt starts eating away at Champ. He goes to his neighbour, offering to take his son's place in the army, but Champ is too old.

And it becomes clear that the war is not going well. People are leaving the city because it looks like the rebels are close to taking over. One day, the hotel manager tells Champ that he's the only staff member that showed up to work that day.

Primarily the film is trying to portray Champs inner emotional states. First, as a man whose pride has been wounded, and then as a father who is wracked by guilt for having engineered his son's drafting. The film is beautiful, but these inner states don't always make for great visual moments. I liked the film; it did feel a little long in places. It did have a wonderful understated quality. And each evolution of the story is introduced subtly and slowly. A good film, but not in my top three, I think.

bcholmes: shadows moving faster than the eye (magic shadows)

Man, I'm exhausted. I feel like I haven't stopped doing stuff for the last two weeks straight. Final two films were today.

First up: I Am Slave, a feature film by Gabriel Range (director of Death of a President and The Last King of Scotland). This was a tricky film, and I found myself constantly going back and forth about whether or not I liked it.

The story centres on Malia, seen in the film in two time periods -- as a twelve year-old girl growing up near the Nuba Mountains in southern Sudan, and in the present, as an eighteen-year-old young woman in London.

Pretty much at the beginning of the film, we see Malia arriving through the airport in London. She's entering the country to work as a domestic servant for a wealthy Sudanese family. It quickly becomes apparent, though, that she doesn't really have a choice in the matter. The family make clear to her that she's not allowed to leave or speak to anyone. She lives in a cold storage room in the house. The windows are barred; a security system sounds an alarm if she tries to sneak out at night.

Through flashbacks, we learn that Malia was separated from her parents during a raid on her village. She was taken prisoner by the armed raiders and sold into domestic slavery, first to a household in the northern part of Sudan, and six years later, sent to London to serve the cousin of her first "owner".

During those six years, her father constantly searches for his lost daughter, moving from town to town, taking odd jobs, trying to hunt her down.

The topic is not about sexual slavery, and there are no creepy overtones of sadism. The slave masters are not sympathetic, but they're (mostly) not beating her or subjecting her to petty tortures (although there are punishments when Malia disobeys them). They keep her controlled in an almost cult-like practice of keeping her afraid and removed from any kind of support structure. Strangely, that made the masters seem so much more real. You could really see how someone like that could exist and live their lives thinking that they're entitled to domestic servants that they don't have to pay.

The other major character of the film is Said, the family's chauffeur. Said appears to be an Arab man who has been living in London for a while. At first, I thought he was going to be playing the role of creepy guy who has the upper hand but he doesn't. He seems to be the only one who strikes up a friendship with Malia. At first, he doesn't know that she's forced to serve the family, but finally pieces it together. And then there's this jaw-dropping scene. Malia is talking to Said in his car. She has spent a week locked in her room in punishment, and Said asks her where she's been. This is the moment that Said understands that Malia is there against her will.

Said: "You need to go to the police. They can't do this."

Malia: "No, I can't go to the police. I need to leave this place."

Said: "Right. Get away."

Malia: "I'll contact the police when I'm free."

Said: "Now you're talking."

Malia: "I need a place that I can go to. Someplace safe."

Said: "Do you know anyone in London?"

Malia: "I know you."

Said: "Uh-huh. But do you have some place you can stay?"

Malia: "I can stay with you."

At which part, he totally starts backpedaling. He has a wife and family, see. And his place is small. And he really needs this job, and can't do anything to jeopardize that. He fully understands what's going on in that moment. But he doesn't want to risk his job.

I think it's the quotidian that really makes it so horrible. The everyday qualities of the story line. If the characters has been any more larger than life, I think I would have mentally categorized them as fictional, and the film wouldn't have had as much of an effect on me.

I found myself constantly hyper-aware of race in the film. Malia and her family are Nuba; the slave-owning families are Arab. They're all Muslim (although the film does briefly broach the topic of prejudice that I'm given to understand exists in Sudan: the prejudice toward black Muslims by the Arab population).

Nonetheless, I did keep thinking: "oh, look. Helpless black people. Evil Arabs. Hm." I'm pleased to report that no white person rode in to the rescue. In fact, I think that the only white speaking role might have been the customs official. I think I'd want to see it again to fully figure out what I think of the race dynamics of the film.

The film ended with some stats. It suggested that estimates suggest that there are 5,000 people living in domestic slavery in London. And that the Sudan might have something like 20,000. Those are pretty sobering numbers. I confess that I'm more interested in knowing how many people are like Said.

bcholmes: shadows moving faster than the eye (magic shadows)

Pink Saris is a documentary about a woman of strong personality in India. Sampat Pal is a middle-aged woman who is the leader of a group of women called the Gulabi Gang (or the "Pink Gang") -- not a gang of thugs, but a collective of women who intervene in a variety of domestic cases, usually involving young women from the dalit ("untouchable") caste. Sampat, as I said, is a very strong personality and the group, in many ways, operates like a cult of personality. Through the course of the film, we see the kind of work that she does. Often, people come to her because they are young wives (twelve to fourteen) in difficult situations. One young woman has become pregnant by a boy from a higher caste, and the boy's family doesn't want him to marry a dalit. Another woman is being treated badly by the family of inlaws that she's living with. Another is a 14-year-old young woman, already married, but who is now in love with a young man.

The film follows these cases -- each somewhat unsettling. Sampat is a force of nature, who often uses the process of bringing the truth out into the open as a mechanism to trying to create a bit of safety for the women she's helping. She gets all the neighbours of a particular family, and holds a bit of a forum. Different people speak out, removing some of the secrecy of what's happening. To some extent, we can see how Sampat is making something of a difference in these women's lives.

But it also becomes clear in the film that Sampat, herself, is a very flawed person. At times, she seems to be chasing publicity. To some extent, that's understandable. Her renown affects her ability to have influence in some of these cases. But it gets a bit icky. Sometimes she seems to make bad choices. She's a damaged person who doesn't really feel loved, but she's trying to show these abused young women that they're worthy of love. She doesn't always get it right.

It was interesting, also, to see how often issues of caste factor in to these stories. The 14-year-old wife gets a divorce from her husband to pursue her love, Gudda. But Gudda's family doesn't want him to get involved with her because she's untouchable and will "stain" the family, making Gudda's sister unmarriageable.

I've met a lot of flawed personalities in Haiti work, and sometimes it's hard to talk about how such complicated people can be doing really good and important work. I liked that the film didn't shy away from showing Sampat's flaws, but because it does reveal those flaws, I feel like it's hard to talk about the good that she does.

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BC Holmes

June 2017

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