OUTeast Day 2: Signature Move & Tom of Finland

Signature Move, from director Jennifer Reeder, is a cutesy rom-com with a standard plot. Lady meets lady, lady likes lady, lady loses lady. We follow the lovers as each navigates a unique path while figuring out the patience needed to accept and validate their differences. They make out, make jokes, and make up. Mix in cultural and generational differences, amateur wrestling, and some well-cued audience laughs, and you have OUTeast's second screening of the festival.

The film's Muslim, Pakastani-American protagonist, Zaynab, played by co-writer Fawzia Mirza, is a well-intentioned conundrum. She knows who she is; she just happens to be both an independent queer woman and the painfully dutiful daughter and caretaker of the conservative, equally well-meaning Praveen. Zaynab's social awkwardness is endearing. She takes up wrestling for “existential reasons”. Her romantic counterpart, the self-assured and uninhibited Alma (Sari Sanchez), is a bold contrast. When confronted with Zaynab's reticence to come out to her mother, Alma angrily affirms she will not “go backwards for anyone.”

Signature Move follows the lovers' mishaps as filtered through the influences of the mother-daughter relationships. This adds some intriguing moments. While the widowed Praveen escapes her lot through television melodramas and engages her world through binoculars, Alma's ex-luchadora mother, Rosa (Charin Alvarez), alludes to her own fascinating history of subterfuge and secrets within the early underground of women's wrestling in Mexico. It might have been interesting to probe the possible dynamic and sympathies between Zaynab and Rosa. Surprisingly, this goes unexplored and the wrestling has only a minor role in the film. It acts instead as a casual, fun stand-in for Zaynab's main struggles to reconcile the many facets of her identity and for the support or acceptance from those around her as she does. However light, the matches made for some of the film's more entertaining scenes. Judging from the sounds of the crowd around me, the OUTeast audience seemed to agree.

                                                                                                                                 - Rose Scoville

The art of Tom of Finland is proudly lewd, crude, and rude, filled with muscular mustachioed men, flaunting their phalluses in saucy little black-and-white cartoons. The life of Tom of Finland, as portrayed in this eponymous biopic, was, sadly, a tad blander. In fact, Tom of Finland was not really Tom; his name was Touko Laaksonen. He was of Finland, though, an unfortunate circumstance, since homophobia was rampant in his country, as it was most elsewhere.

The film contrasts how the joys of his artistic fantasies were at odds. His life in Finland was spent fighting in a war for a country that oppressed him and making dull advertising art. This dreariness was sometimes escaped, at gay parties, thrown behind closed doors and often interrupted by brutal police, and in a relationship with a secret partner, formed after an awkward love triangle in which his sister vied for romance with the same man. The drab life is also lightened up by the intrusion of an imaginary leather daddy friend Tom calls Kake; a sort of muse thought up in the absence of a culturally acceptable object of desire.

The cold scenery in the soft-spoken Touko's repressed days in Finland are filmed beautifully, but one can't help but want for something a little raunchier to match the artist's spirit. Fortunately, this comes around later in the film. After his art is sold internationally using his pseudonym, Touko is flown to California, in a celebratory gay utopia. Between the beautiful men who admire him in California and his romantic lover in Finland, it seems Touko may have finally found some happiness. Unfortunately, this is soon encroached upon by the AIDS crisis and subsequent backlash against queer individuals.

This oscillation between cold repression and oppression and the joys sexual fantasy is at the heart of Tom of Finland. Thankfully, our titular hero persists, insisting that gay men worldwide have their desire and existence represented. As a biopic, period piece, war film, romance, comedy, and queer film, it is a tale well told.

                                                                                                                               - Nick Malbeuf

OUTeast Opening Night: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson died almost exactly 25 years ago, on July 6, 1992. For many of her friends, family, and admirers, her death still remains shrouded in mystery two and a half decades later. After Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River, police ruled the death a suicide. Friends and family dispute that she showed any suicidal indicators, and the death was much more likely the result of an attack. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson fashions itself as a true-crime documentary investigation, the mystery being unravelled by trans activist and advocate at NYC Anti-Violence Project., Victoria Cruz. Cruz tacks up notes with possible theories - “suicide,” “dirty cop,” “4 guidos,” “accident,” “mob” – and makes calls to police officers and administrators to find more information, mostly to no avail. The mystery-solving set-up structures the film, but is ultimately one of its weakest points. Discussions about suicide are complicated and heavy, and the way that the film mostly limits itself to simplistic comments like “She couldn’t have, she was happy the day before” is understandable, but not the most illuminating. It would be an overstatement to claim that solving the mystery is beside the point; Cruz and many other trans activists in the film are understandably adamant that the truth be uncovered and justice sought. In the investigations though, the film indicates that whether the death was a murder or a suicide, the inhospitably hateful culture in which the trans women leading the revolution for queer pride lived in were responsible.

A photograph of Marsha P. Johnson.

A photograph of Marsha P. Johnson.

In many ways, the film is also a measure of how far American culture has come in its treatment of trans women – and how far it hasn’t. When Johnson and her peers, like Sylvia Rivera, fought back in the Stonewall riots and tried to launch a revolution, trans politics were not exactly on any mainstream agendas. “Transgender” was not even an identifying term for most of these women as they navigated gender and sexuality; they mostly identified or were labelled as drag queens or “transvestites.” Rivera and Johnson’s organization was even called “Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries.” In archival footage, Johnson is seen dressed in both masculine and feminine clothing, and when loved ones speak about her they switch between gender pronouns, often within a sentence. It’s unclear whether this fluidity was due to Johnson’s gender fluid identity or whether it was just more difficult for her to transition to the female identity she felt. Establishing acceptable terminology for discussing and respecting trans identities is perhaps the clearest example of how far popular consciousness has come – of course, whether people use it is another matter, unfortunately.

Victoria Cruz continues investigating Johnson's death, and works with NYC Anti-Violence Project.

Victoria Cruz continues investigating Johnson's death, and works with NYC Anti-Violence Project.

Trans women are faced with more than hurtful semantics, though. In the late sixties and early seventies, New York queer bars were raided by police, women were imprisoned, and rates of violence were higher than for cis citizens, as were unemployment and homelessness. In one especially painful clip from the 1973 New York Pride Parade, Rivera tearfully shouts about how she has been beaten, lost jobs and apartments, all for the queer revolution, only to have it co-opted by middle class white gay men. She’s met with boos from the crowd and barely allowed to speak. This kind of systemic discrimination against and disdain towards trans women, and especially trans women of colour, has perhaps changed, but certainly not enough. To this effect, Cruz’s unofficial investigation into Johnson’s death is placed alongside the official trial of a man for the death of Islan Nettles, a trans woman of colour murdered in 2013. Clearly, the violence has not stopped.

Marsha P. Johnson holds an umbrella as she and Sylvia Rivera march for Pride.

Marsha P. Johnson holds an umbrella as she and Sylvia Rivera march for Pride.

Like most crime documentaries, the film positions itself on the side of court justice, hoping for the system to start treating the deaths of trans women as fairly as it would treat a cis person’s murder. In the Nettles case, the attacker is actually sentenced to twelve years in prison. One trans activist responds by claiming that the murderer will get out with ten years and not have learned his lesson; this claim feels disconnected from the reality of black men’s experience in prison and many radical queer activists like Dean Spade would argue that individualizing systemic issues in this way and feeding the prison industrial complex is a mistake that feeds into cis/heteronormative white supremacist capitalism more than helping queer individuals. This is a complicated political discussion that is perhaps beyond the scope of a 105-minute documentary primer on a single queer icon.

As such a primer, though, the film is excellent. As a celebration of the revolutionary, prideful spirit of Marsha P. Johnson, the film was a brilliant way to kick off OUTeast. This is also essential viewing for audiences outside of the queer community as a very accessible introduction to the discrimination faced by trans women. As one person remarks in the film, people turned out to march for gay marriage, but nobody turns up after the murder of a trans woman of colour. Hopefully the documentary can shift agendas to become more aware of this. Netflix has acquired rights to the film, with a release planned for later in 2017; if you missed the film make sure to check it out, and if you saw it, make sure to tell your friends.

OUTeast continues throughout the weekend, including screenings of Signature Move at 7pm and Tom of Finland at 9pm tonight. Visit their site for more info and to buy tickets!

HIFF Day 2: By the Time It Gets Dark & Atlantic Auteurs II

Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark is ostensibly a film about the 1976 Thammasat massacre, a historical tragedy in which university students protesting the return of an ousted dictator were met with brutal violence and death. Suwichakornpong explained after the film’s screening that the massacre is still taboo in Thailand – to this day it is not taught in school. Still, Suwichakornpong claims some sort of connection to the event; she did not have any direct experience, but she was born in the same year, and describes it as a sort of second-hand memory. This inexplicable connection is the foundation on which the rest of the film grows out of, spiralling into many complex parts which are not immediately understood in any logical sense of relational narrative.

Beginning with black-and-white images of military men with guns taking power over a warehouse of young people laid on the ground before them, this scene is soon redefined as voices reveal that the scene is either a photoshoot or film set. The next scenes introduce us to Ann, a sort of protagonist, as she interviews writer and activist Taew about her experience in 1976. Ann is a director, planning to make a film about Taew and the 1976 massacre, the two staying in an isolated home, most often shown in the process of interviewing. There are hints of what is to come in these scenes; the opening scene of soldiers has already introduced an element of narrative uncertainty, the interviews are filmed through a window so that the two women are behind a reflection of the exterior, and in one scene Ann says to Taew something like “I’m watching our reflection on the television. It’s beautiful.” This sort of reflective doubling will continue throughout, as the narrative becomes increasingly unhinged. Ann walks through the forest, sees a small child in an animal costume, follows her, and the child morphs into herself. A trippy sequence of mushrooms growing in nature and Melie’s A Trip to the Moon follows.

Soon other characters are introduced, including a young woman working different menial jobs and a young male actor, named Peter. Peter’s scenes continue the uncertainty of narrative levels introduced in the film’s first scene; it is often unclear whether this is Peter’s life at the basic reality of the film or within a meta-narrative of a film within the film. As the film progresses, the meditation on reflections, doubling, and unsettled realities form not a subtext, but the film’s text itself. The film isn’t not about the Thammasat massacre, but it uses that event and Suwichakornpong’s connection to ask larger questions about cinematic representation and experience. In the Q&A following the film, Suwichakornpong stated that the film is both her love letter to and critique of cinema. She gives us a complex view of the nature of film; it isn’t reality or unreality, but a reflection in which it is often difficult to tell what is true and illusory, the two often existing simultaneously.

The film’s constant radical narrative and formal breaks build towards the ultimate such moment at its conclusion. The young woman dances in a night club, electronic music pulsing, the editing cutting between different angles of her in the transcendent moment of the ecstatic crowd. Suddenly, a digital glitch breaks down the image and transforms the sound, the night club replaced by a peaceful green landscape. It’s the brilliant kind of film moment which is not simply explained, but wonderfully felt. The entire film is like this, offering a calm serenity to wash over the viewer while also demanding attentive reconsiderations of the spectator’s relation to the narrative.

                                                                                                                            - Nick Malbeuf

 

The second round of Atlantic Auteurs was an eclectic delight. From the poetic drifting of THE WIND THE WAY to kaleidoscopic lake drifting in Folded River, from the quiet days of doubt to the frenetic energy of When You Need a Helmet, HIFF screened some definite favourites in this mix. Here are a few highlights.

 

days of doubt (Solomon Nagler)

This black-and-white, beautifully shot short is striking. Without a word of dialogue, the visual language is rich with much represented both on and off camera. Moments of an elderly duo's daily routines are imbued with significance as each mundane task, from washing a body to a leather bag, is performed with a kind of watchful silence and dedication. The care of the familiar and the ominous tension of passing time coexist precariously in the spaces Nagler creates here. In response to a question about a wounded bird trapped in the cluttered house, he recalls an old superstition that sees such an event as an ill omen or a portent of death, a connection he only realized later, but is one that underscores the film's weight.

 

THE WIND THE WAY (Kira Daube)

When asked what brought about this film, Kira Daube's reply is that she notebooks a lot. “Notebook” is modest. Daube writes poetry that's inquisitive, introspective, and expansive. Close-ups of snails, tree trunks, and a face making faces play against the freewheeling, occasionally funny narration as it talks about wandering and wondering, acknowledging the privilege of getting lost or of losing things. Daube mentions her time in AFCOOP'S Expanded Cinema Summer residency, picking up a super-8 camera as a visual notebook to complement her paper equivalent. Her results with each medium fit each other snugly. Snail trails and Daube's thoughts make an endearingly intimate team. This is good stuff, folks.

 

Black Cop (Cory Bowles)

Armed with body cams and satire, Cory Bowles's Black Cop explores racism in the hands of law enforcement and the luxury of aggression that comes with being in the position of power. A radio talk show sets the context for the film as people call in to voice their opinions on the latest killing of a young black man at the hands of police. We ride along as the listener, who is both black and a law enforcer, goes from policing the local police to turning the tables on the most privileged portion of the population he is sworn to protect. The film's questions of the psychology of duality and the reversal of double standards will be further explored, presumably with the same steady satire, in a feature-length film of the same name. Bowles aims for smart provocation, so watch for it!

 

And When Alone, Repeat (Becka Barker)

What do you get when you give Robert Frost, a 9th grade choir, and weather balloon footage to animator Becka Barker? You get the rotoscoped And When Alone, Repeat and an interesting Q&A lesson in curmudgeonly poet feuds of yore. This five-minute animation takes its title from a line in Robert Frost's “Choose Something Like a Star” as the young choir performs a musical rendition of the same. Ostensibly, the words ask for the quantification of an experience that may not be easily quantifiable. Becka points out the misconception in the poem. Frost's star is simply a critique on the obscuring tendencies of the contemporary poets of his day, namely T.S. Eliot. Playing with obscuring and misconceptions, the animation morphs from one landscape to the next, not always clear what it will become even as it changes. Barker's animation turns footage gleaned for scientific research into something fluid and surreal.

 

Folded River (Alex Balkam)

Alex Balkam generously invites a theatre full of people to one of his childhood haunts on calm Nova Scotian waters. This is a place he says he keeps coming back to, noting the theme of returns. Appropriately to this idea, the film, shot on 16mm, is “folded” back on itself to create a kaleidoscopic effect, adding uncanny features to a familiar scene and creating what feels like a circular journey through the landscape. Folded River is only three minutes long and, while I could zone out to this for much longer, those three minutes neatly span from morning to dusk. There is nothing to break the film's continuous and curious sweep, making for three extremely relaxing minutes.

 

When You Need A Helmet (Tim Tracey)

Tim Tracey, the award-winning stop-motion animator, switches gears in a big way. His characters are created from reclaimed bits and bobs and are set loose in the cluttered shadows of a warm, dirty world that seems like a post-apocalyptic fever dream. A mechanical, lizard-like creature makes good with hitch-hikers, set to a score by DoubleTooth that complements the film's high energy. Any attempts to describe the feel of Tracey's work seems doomed to fall flat. When You Need a Helmet was one of the most enjoyably bizarre shorts of HIFF. I highly recommend checking out his other works at his site, timtraceyanimation.com.

                                                                                                                                 - Rose Scoville

HIFF (P)review: Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves

If you missed this film during Canada's Top Ten Film Festival, you're in luck. HIFF is bringing back the award-winning Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves this Saturday. Besides being a title you will end up improvising at some point, this ambitious Quebecois drama, from directors Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie, is a fierce, unique viewing experience. The film spans three hours and is an eclectic collage of cinematic language and form. Tapping into the artistic influencing of Jean-Luc Godard's patchwork video essay, De l’origine du XXIe siècle (Origins of the 21st Century), and documentaries such as Gilles Groulx and Philippe Grandrieux’s It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve: Masao AdachiThose Who Make Revolution is an exercise in cinematic freedoms. The form fits the content well. The sometimes jarring effect of Denis & Lavoie's refusal to stick with many filmmaking norms mirrors the main characters as they make their existences a collective stance against societal norms.

Left to right: Charlotte Aubin, Laurent Bélanger, Gabrielle Tremblay (this role landed her a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the 5th Canadian Screen Awards, the first transgendered actress to receive this), and Emmanuelle Lussier Martinez

Left to right: Charlotte Aubin, Laurent Bélanger, Gabrielle Tremblay (this role landed her a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the 5th Canadian Screen Awards, the first transgendered actress to receive this), and Emmanuelle Lussier Martinez

For the first five minutes we see nothing. A haunting overture plays some funereal brass and bells throughout a black theatre. We open to night and four twenty-somethings as they channel their anti-establishment energy, still at its peak after the 2012 Quebec student protests, from vandalism into what will become increasingly severe acts of homegrown terrorism. From there we fill our eyes and ears with varying aspect ratios, dramatic monologues, interpretive dance, paintings, text, stylistic elements borrowed from the horror genre, and even a pseudo-intermission. Those Who Make Revolution's context may be strikingly Canadian, further emphasized with digs at familiar bigwigs and talk of Quebec cultural identity and separatism, but the concerns at its core are universal. Denis and Lavoie ask questions of disengagement and longing, and of the cycles of resistance, acceptance, and burn-out from one generation to the next.

TWMRHODTOG2.jpg

The main characters borrow from historical revolutions a language to articulate the dissatisfaction they feel. Notably, one character voices a first-person narrative of a moment set in Haiti's slave uprising, perhaps as her metaphor for her position within a capitalist society. This borrowing seems co-optive, which is a sign of one of the film’s great strengths—its ambivalence to its characters. Even as Denis and Lavoie borrow brutal footage of the Arab Spring, potentially bringing viewers’ sympathies closer to the four revolutionaries, the film's exploration of consequences offers strong criticism on the characters' methods and isolation. Those Who Make Revolution shares similarities with the video essay form, but it is not didactic. As it draws us to opposing plights or pushes us away from them, it creates an effective conversation. Don’t miss it! Bring your questions to continue the dialogue at the post-screening Q&A with Simon Lavoie. It should be an interesting one.

Want to go? Here's what you need to know.

When: Saturday, June 10th, 3 PM

Where: Halifax Independent Film Fest., located in Neptune Studio Theatre, 1593 Argyle Street

 

Yes, HIFF has free popcorn.

HIFF Day 1: Atlantic Auteurs I & Never Eat Alone

I must confess, I am not an admirer of nature in general. The visual pleasure I glean from film, does not extend to my natural surroundings. However, put that nature onto film and I am delighted; at least, that’s what I must gather from my enjoyment of Dawn George’s films. George turns her camera to find beauty and amusement in the littlest members of our habitats, this time dandelions in her new short work See Weeds. The film edits together the footage of the weeds from the filmmaker’s backyard rhythmically in split screen, forming a playful miniature symphony. The dandelions were not only catalysts of the film as inspiration, but were literally used to develop the footage in an eco-friendly processing technique George described during the Q&A that also involves instant coffee.

Dawn George's See Weeds

Dawn George's See Weeds

Ariella Pahlke’s short documentary Suzanne Gauthier: One thing leads to another portrays another artist with nature on her mind, the local artist and NSCAD professor of the title. Gauthier’s art translates across forms, her ideas flowing like a measured stream-of-consciousness. Readings of past diary entries sound almost poetic in their brevity. At one point, Gauthier brings Pahlke to one of her favourite landscapes, explaining that the camera cannot quite capture the beauty, displaying her much more satisfying sketches of the expansive land and rivers. Like George’s reconstruction of nature in an aesthetic form which captures the essence of the joy she receives from the dandelions, Gauthier shows us how art can redirect one’s attention to pleasures one may overlook otherwise.

In the pieces described above, artistic process was explicitly linked to the end result of the film. However, the film which opened the program was perhaps the most self-reflexive in this regard, continuing the process as the film screened. The film, by Christopher Spencer-Lowe, is called Aleatoria. A quick Google search translated the Spanish word as meaning both “random” and “fortuitous.” This is quite appropriate for the film, as a live balancing act between chance and control in filmmaking. The film itself contains what I believe is a woman spinning old-fashioned film editing equipment, her face confused, as the camera spins away into apparently random footage. While this screened, Spencer-Lowe played an eerie musical score live, using a contraption similar to that of the woman on the screen, apparently improvising with the playback of random loops. Thus, the filmmaker is doubled on the screen, the film concluding with the woman coming into ecstasy amid the chaos. During the Q&A, the Spencer-Lowe continued the chance/control gambit by rolling a die to decide how to respond to questions.

Christopher Spencer-Lowe's Aleatoria.

Christopher Spencer-Lowe's Aleatoria.

For those digging the chaotic elements of cinema, Josh Owens’ Humanity Hyuck Hyuck!!! would appeal. The experimental short is a character study at a moment of a nervous breakdown, a young man’s professional and pizza-related anxieties exploding into a colourful acid-trip stream-of-conscious monologue, scored by the unceasing mayhem of a mad drummer and mixed with animation. It’s like Eraserhead with the energy of Adult Swim’s late-night television. Owen insisted during the Q&A, with a suspected sarcasm, that the short had a very rigid script. (Note: one of the film's producer has disconfirmed my suspicion; the film did in fact have a rigid outline and conventional script).

In the guise of a more conventional narrative form, Leah Johnston’s Ingrid and the Black Hole also played with elements of control and chaos. The film opens on two children, Ingrid and Conrad, discussing black holes and time-travels, and then begins ricocheting through the chronology of their romantic and family life together, often within single shots. What at first appears to be a narrative device is then revealed to be the lived experience of its protagonist, as the elderly Ingrid sits, now dealing with Alzheimer’s, “bouncing around in time.” The sweet time-travel story is pleasant whether interpreted as a euphemism for the experience or an inventive fantasy.

Raghed Charabaty’s #Deema was another short, albeit more experimental, concerned with time and romance, poetically dancing through an Lebanese immigrant’s longing for her lover and the loss of a homeland. The loss of a homeland is not quite proper phrasing, as the film insists on the lingering effect of the home left. The vibrantly colourful film cuts to images such as leaves falling, black and red waves, and its protagonist in an animated dress, depicting the power of beauty and love in spite of trauma.

Raghed Charabaty's #Deema

Raghed Charabaty's #Deema

Kennlin Barlow’s short La Manciata (or the violence of man) approached trauma in a less romantic manner. Opening on a shot of a nude woman in bed in the apparent aftermath of a violent act, her genitals and thighs bloodied and her face obscured out of the frame while the blown-up yellow text of the title slowly rises on to the screen. It’s a sight not entirely uncommon to genre films, so when the following shot is of the same woman in bed with top-lighting, and a nearly imperceptible dark-haired figure sitting at hand in the shadows, I suspected a potential turn towards horror. This expectation was thwarted, thankfully, as the rest of the film consisted of the snoring or breathing of the woman becoming increasingly laboured and the occasional movement of the other figure. There is little offered up in terms of narrative explanation, leaving it broadly up to interpretation. I found it to be a haunting depiction of trauma, refocusing conceptions of violence from the moment of an attack, to the lingering effects depicted less frequently on film.

Lorna Kirk’s short, Him, took on the refugee experience in a ninety-second hand-drawn charcoal animation. In the film, Kirk uses found audio to construct an authoritative voice verbalizing instructional directions, the calm contradicting the destruction of the cityscape which a young boy walks through. Unfortunately, an audio issue prevented a few of the tracks from playing. Fortunately, the film belongs to the National Film Board and is available on YouTube for anyone desiring to understand the full context. The animation is moving either way.

The shorts program concluded with Chris and Susie Shapones’ La Vie à Vélo. The film depicts a sock-knit cat upon a unicycle, just riding. The cyclical ecstasy of the woman in Aleatoria returns here in a calmer manner with the unicycle, the simple serenity of the animation a breath of fresh air to close the first round of screenings.

Chris and Susie Shapones' La Vie à Vélo.

Chris and Susie Shapones' La Vie à Vélo.

In the 9pm slot, Toronto-based filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz was in town to present a series of her works; a trilogy of short films about her paternal grandmother and a feature about her maternal grandmother.

The trilogy of shorts is profoundly moving. First, Modlitwa (A Prayer) shows her grandmother as she works in her home, a poem by the filmmaker’s great-grandmother read on the sound-track. Bohdanowicz has been referred to as “the Canadian Chantal Akerman,” which is not just a superficial reference, but a link of inspiration for the filmmaker herself, sharing an interest in feminine domesticity, the passage of time, and films made largely out of empty interior spaces. Bohdanowicz revealed in the Q&A which followed the screenings that the film was shot on what turned out to be her last afternoon in her grandmother’s home with her. The next short, Wieczór (An Evening), was filmed after her death. The film is similar, but with the painfully significant absence of the woman herself within the home. The same places are seen without her, but hints of her still there – a locket with her photograph in the filmmakers’ palm, handwritten life-mottoes on the fridge, the soundtrack filled with the soft melancholia of an old tune played on a broken record player. The balance between her absence and the spectre of her personality is made even more clear in the final short, Dalsza Modlitwa. Bohdanowicz returned to the home once again, filming almost identically the same spaces as in Modlitwa, this time projecting the footage of her grandmother from that film onto the home. It’s a personal work of loss and art that is deeply felt.

Sofia Bohdanowicz's Never Eat Alone.

Sofia Bohdanowicz's Never Eat Alone.

Bohdanowicz turned to the subject of her other grandmother for her first feature, Never Eat Alone, to similar effect. The film is an unclearly delineated docufiction, centered on a narrative of her grandmother getting her granddaughter to help her track down a lost love from her days as an actress on a live television program. The familial documentation and uncondescending interest in the emotional lives of the elderly calls to mind not only Akerman, but a more experimental version of the work of Sarah Polley’s films (Away From Her, Stories We Tell). While the themes may be similar, the works are unique. The intimacy of Bohdanowicz’s story is aided by the acting of her grandmother, Joan Benac. Displaying a more classical performance technique in the archival television footage, Benac is now totally comfortable as a natural presence before the camera, honest and complex. A soft-spoken work of loneliness and memory, I suspect it will reward repeat viewings and thoughtful consideration.

Head to the HIFF website to check out the rest of their line-up and stay tuned for more blog entries!

70th Cannes Film Festival Awards

Earlier this week, the most prestigious film festival in the world wrapped up - Cannes Film Festival ended its 70th edition with an awards ceremony on Sunday. The Oscars may dominate awards talk in regard to popular North American cinema, but the awards revealed at Cannes, especially the much-coveted Palme d’Or, tend to influence the rest of the year for cinephiles with international interests. To even earn a spot in the line-up at the festival is typically an indicator of high quality, but the awards help those of us who weren’t invited to the exclusive festival sift through the films and direct our focus toward what may be the cream of the crop.

In Competition

 
From left to right, the Jury included Paolo Sorrentino, Agnès Jaoui, Gabriel Yared, Fan Bingbing, President Pedro Almodóvar, Jessica Chastain, Park Chan-wook, Maren Ade, and Will Smith.

From left to right, the Jury included Paolo Sorrentino, Agnès Jaoui, Gabriel Yared, Fan Bingbing, President Pedro Almodóvar, Jessica Chastain, Park Chan-wook, Maren Ade, and Will Smith.

 

The “In Competition” program of the festival is the main slate of films. The main awards handed out are selected from these films and judged by a jury of nine international figures with a passion for cinema. This year’s Jury President was Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar (Volver). The other eight Jury Members were German filmmaker Maren Ade (Toni Erdmann), Chinese actress Fan Bingbing (I Am Not Madame Bovary), South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook (The Handmaiden), American actress Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), French actress/filmmaker Agnès Jaoui (The Taste of Others), American actor Will Smith (Ali), Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), and French-Lebanese composer Gabriel Yared (The English Patient). These are the films they awarded:

Palme d’Or

 
Ruben Östlund's art-world satire won the Palme d'Or, one of the most important film awards in the world.

Ruben Östlund's art-world satire won the Palme d'Or, one of the most important film awards in the world.

 

The most highly-anticipated award at Cannes Film Festival, or any festival, is the Palme d’Or, given to the best film in competition. Past winners of the award include Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and Michael Haneke’s Amour. Needless to say, award-winners are in good company. This year, the award went to Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund’s film The Square. The film is a nearly two-and-a-half-hour comedy of manners, depicting the chaos which unfolds surrounding an art installation, co-starring Elizabeth Moss and Dominic West. If it matches the ruthless satire of Östlund’s last film, Force Majeure (which screened in Carbon Arc's 2014 fall season), it is sure to induce as many cringes as it provokes thoughts.

Grand Prix

After the Palme d’Or, the Grand Prix is essentially a second-place prize given to the runner-up for best film in competition. That being said, the Grand Prix winner often ends up overshadowing the film that bested it; past winners include Lázsló Nemes' gripping Holocaust drama Son of Saul, Jacques Audiard’s critically-acclaimed prison drama A Prophet, and Jury Member Park Chan-wook’s own 2004 film Oldboy. This year the Grand Prix went to Robin Campillo’s film 120 Beats per Minute. The film, a moving drama following a group of AIDS activists in the Paris chapter of ACT UP’s 1990s movement, was beloved by critics and predicted by many to be the prime contender for the Palme. In fact, the film also won the FIPRESCI Prize, the award given to the favourite film of the critics’ organization. Campillo is no stranger to Cannes; he co-wrote and edited The Class, which won the Palme in 2008.

Jury Prize

 
Andrey Zvyagintsev returned to Cannes with his new film Loveless and bagged the Jury Prize.

Andrey Zvyagintsev returned to Cannes with his new film Loveless and bagged the Jury Prize.

 

The jury chooses one more film in competition to award third place. Third place may sound like a consolation prize; it’s not. Past winners of the award include Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura, and David Cronenberg’s Crash. Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film Loveless took home the prize this year. The film is a family drama and critique of Russian society. This isn’t Zvyagintsev’s first time at the festival; his 2014 film Leviathan took home the Best Screenplay award (and also screened in Carbon Arc's 2015 winter season).

Best Director

You may have picked up on a trend in all of the winners mentioned so far; Cannes tends to be a bit of a boys’ club. So far, only one woman has ever directed a film that took home the Palme d’Or, Jane Campion’s 1993 drama The Piano. There was much buzz this year that a female filmmaker, like Sofia Coppola or Lynne Ramsay, may finally become the second. Unfortunately, it did not happen this way. However, Coppola did end up receiving Best Director for her new film The Beguiled, becoming the first woman to do so since 1961 (Yuliya Solntseva for Chronicle of Flaming Years), and only the second ever. Her film is a feminist revision of the 1971 Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood thriller of the same name.

Best Screenplay

Lynne Ramsay may have been shut out of the Palme and Director awards, but she did nab Best Screenplay for her drama/thriller You Were Never Really Here, starring Joaquin Phoenix entering the heart of darkness while trying to save his daughter from a sex trafficking ring. Ramsay shared the award in a tie with Greek writers Efthymis Filippou (another Carbon Arc alum, having written Chevalier) and Yorgos Lanthimos for their absurd dark drama The Killing of a Sacred Deer, starring Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman.

Best Actress

For her work in filmmaker Fatih Akin’s film In the Fade, Diane Kruger was awarded Best Actress. Kruger stars as a woman seeking revenge after he husband and son are killed in a bombing. Critics were a bit mixed on the film, but praised Kruger’s performance, which also marked her first time acting in German.

Best Actor

 
Lynne Ramsay's film You Were Never Really Here won both Best Screenplay Ramsay and Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix.

Lynne Ramsay's film You Were Never Really Here won both Best Screenplay Ramsay and Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix.

 

Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here didn’t just garner the award for Best Screenplay; it also earned Best Actor for its leading man, Joaquin Phoenix. This is Phoenix’s first time winning the award, but not his first time at the festival. He has had several films at Cannes in the past, including The Immigrant in 2013 (which also later screened at Carbon Arc).

70th Anniversary Award

To celebrate the festival’s 70th anniversary, the Jury also gave a special award to actress Nicole Kidman. In the midst of an illustrious career, Kidman starred in three movies premiering at Cannes this year (The Beguiled, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, How to Talk to Girls at Parties) as well as Jane Campion’s miniseries Top of the Lake: China Girl, also premiering at the festival.

Other Prizes

A number of ground-breaking films screen outside of the festival’s main competition each year. These films are also eligible for various prizes not chosen by the Jury. The following are just a few of these awards:

Camera d’Or

The Camera d’Or goes to the best first feature film screened at the festival. Filmmakers who have won in the past include Jim Jarmusch (Stranger than Paradise), Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!), Mirnada July (Me and You and Everyone We Know), and Steve McQueen (Hunger). This year the prize went to Léonor Sérraille’s Montparnasse Bienvenue, a French screwball comedy about a woman’s riotous downfall in the aftermath of a relationship.

Golden Eye Documentary Prize

 
62 years after directing her first feature, Agnès Varda says her latest award-winning documentary Visages, Villages, co-directed with street artist JR, may be her last film.

62 years after directing her first feature, Agnès Varda says her latest award-winning documentary Visages, Villages, co-directed with street artist JR, may be her last film.

 

At 88 years old (in fact, she turned 89 this week), Agnès Varda is still making award winning films, 62 years after her debut film La Pointe Courte. At that time, Varda was unfamiliar with most cinema. Since then, she unofficially kicked off one the most important movements in history as “ the mother of the French New Wave”, married another member of that movement (director Jacques Demy), and directed several renowned classics (Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond, The Gleaners & I, among others). This year, she teamed up with street artist and co-director JR, to make a documentary following the unlikely dynamic duo as they travel France and make art. The result, Visages, Villages won the prize for best documentary at Cannes. Perhaps more importantly, Varda’s cat also took home the Palme de Whiskers.

Un Certain Regard Prize

One of the most important sections of the festival outside of the competition is Un Certain Regard, containing 20 works with unusual approaches to filmmaking. The prize for the best film in this section went to Mohammad Rasoulof’s film A Man of Integrity. In 2011 the Iranian filmmaker won Best Director in Un Certain Regard for his film Goodbye, and in 2013 his film Manuscripts Don’t Burn won the FIPRESCI critics’ prize in the same section. Unfortunately, the filmmaker was arrested in 2010 alongside compatriot director Jafar Panahi, and his films are unlikely to be shown in his own country.

To browse all of the award-winning films, head to Cannes’ website. Keep your eyes peeled for some of them as they are released, go to other film festivals, and maybe even come to Carbon Arc!

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki

Well, folks, last week's screening marked the end of another season for us. Our last film was a debut feature, a multiple award winner, and a charming leave-off point. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, alternatively entitled Hymyilevä Mies or Smiling Man, is a sympathetic portrait of the historical and personal circumstances surrounding Finland's Olli Mäki's World Featherweight Championship match against America's Davey Moore in 1962. This is a subtle and evocative period piece, with Kuosmanen's choice of 16mm black and white reversal film adding beautiful tone and texture, further establishing that 1960s atmosphere. The story goes like this. An up-and-coming small-town boxer gets a shot at world renown. What Olli needs now is the focus to become the alpha hero his country believes he will be. Instead, he falls in love with Raija. It reads like a familiar plot, but the film's approach is refreshing. Boxing and romance may be central here, but this isn't your standard boxing or romantic fare. It's a character piece, dealing in the gap between societal expectations and personal fulfilment when both are at odds.

Jarkko Lahti stars as the titular boxer, Olli Mäki.

Jarkko Lahti stars as the titular boxer, Olli Mäki.

Kuosmanen grew up in Kokkola, Mäki's hometown. In an interview with Cineuropa, the director reports overhearing a conversation in which Mäki was quizzed on his experience of what was described as a catastrophe. The man marketed as a national legend, the next world champion, went down that momentous day in an astonishing two rounds. The boxer's response? “It was the happiest day of my life.” In a world of sports movies driven by narratives of overcoming adversity through force of will, of doing one's utmost to 'make it', to prove oneself according to the rules of the sport, of fame, and of the hero stereotype, Mäki's feelings seem quite a reversal. This narrative switch was an ideal set-up for Kuosmanen, who originally balked at the idea of another boxing film. He was drawn to the peculiar mismatch of Mäki's humble personality to the demanding, carnivalesque world of sports fame.

Oona Airola co-stars as Raiji Mäki, the woman Olli falls for.

Oona Airola co-stars as Raiji Mäki, the woman Olli falls for.

We get a glimpse of a man who had no interest in being the machismo icon the public wanted. He was reluctant to knock his opponents out, a quality not exactly complementary to the sport. What he wanted was to be left alone to enjoy a life not defined by the pressures of cultural notions of success. This is the unique charm of the film. This boxer doesn't fight to prove anything. The anticipated match is not a metaphor of triumph over oneself. There's no onslaught of violins cued to evoke our emotion. Kuosmanen achieves empathy simply and masterfully. He avoids the standard tropes in favour of more inclusive questions of fulfillment and the ways in which we define this for each other and for ourselves.

Thanks to each of you who came out for this round of films, stayed for the events, gave us feedback, and helped support independent screenings in Halifax. We love you for it and will see you again soon. If you want to keep your ear to the ground for the next batch headed your way in September, sign up for our newsletter.

-Rose Scoville

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

As our screening of Citizen Jane: Battle for the City was about to begin last Friday, I remarked “It’s funny; the theatre is full, but the parking lot isn’t like it usually is.” A few of my fellow volunteers replied, “Of course, because it’s people coming to see a film about Jane Jacobs.” I confess that Jacobs was not a figure I was familiar with prior to this film, a fact which I now realize should be a source of embarrassment.

In the film, Jacobs' influential work studying cities and critiquing urban planning is placed alongside such towering figures of American cultural criticism as Betty Friedan, Susan Sontag, and James Baldwin, who recently received the documentary treatment in the riveting I Am Not Your NegroCitizen Jane is structured somewhat differently from that film, which consists almost entirely of Baldwin’s own words. Here Jacobs' own words and voice, are placed alongside those of her friends and foes from the period, through archival footage and voice-over excerpts of her and Moses' writing, as well as contemporary interviewees who provide historical context and elaboration of her influence. All of this is cut together with slow-motion images of city life, past protests, and illustrations. Director Matt Tyrnauer is not interested in reinventing documentary form here, so much as using its conventions to tell Jacobs’ story with mostly unobtrusive filmmaking.

So, what is Jacobs’ story? Well, it is a bit of a David and Goliath story. Goliath, in this instance, is Moses; more specifically, urban planning titan Robert Moses. Moses borrowed the ideas of Le Corbusier, envisioning great American cities coordinated around express highways, sky-scraping high-rises, and impoverished communities concentrated into projects. Future success of these cities, in his hierarchical view, depended on neatly organized architecture, automobiles, and law enforcement. With money and power to back him up, Moses began putting these ideas into action. Then, along came Jane Jacobs, a young woman with an insatiable intellect and a completely different comprehension of how cities work. In her seminal 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs posited that cities are messy because this is how they should be. Amid the perceived chaos, she argued, were underlying structures derived from the needs and habits of the citizens who actually lived there. When men in suits, like Moses, decide to rearrange these complex systems around their own, economically driven agendas everybody loses; but most pointedly, the marginalized poor and racialized citizens are hurt most. I will not parse out the details of Jacobs’ ideas here, though; I am not and expert, and for that, you should seek out this film or read her writing.

During her introduction to the film Carbon Arc programmer Kendra Barnes claimed Jacobs as one of the original “social justice warriors.” The cultural context in which the battle between Jacobs and Moses occurred is strikingly resonant today. Noted throughout the film is the way in which the public debate was gendered, not only because of these two figures, but also the bases backing them up and the writing surrounding them. Many of the marches against Moses plans were arranged and led by mothers; one memorable photo op of Jacobs’ design featured her young daughter in a “ribbon-tying” ceremony, an parody of politicians’ ribbon-cutting addiction. The footage does not feel too far from the recent Women’s Marches against a certain 45th President of the United States of America, another man who made his name with controversial property practices and a history of discrimination. It is also worth mentioning that Jacobs’ early work found a publishing home in magazines like Vogue, demonstrating that Teen Vogue’s political content is not simply a new trend, but a moment in a long history of female-centric journalism’s intellectual bent being overlooked. Despite Jacobs’ wisdom, critics persisted; one scathing review in The New Yorker was titled “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies”; such subtle, poignant misogyny.

The theories Jacobs gave voice to are likely familiar to cinephiles. One can go back as far as 1927, before Jacobs even began writing, to the classic of German Expressionism and science fiction Metropolis for depictions of urban modernism’s failed ambitions and the class struggle which results. Perhaps more directly related is Ben Wheatley’s 2015 film High-Rise, adapted from the J.G. Ballard novel, depicting the chaotic violence erupting in a single high-rise complex in which the rich architects stay rich, while the lower classes’ needs go unmet. In this season of Carbon Arc’s screenings alone inklings of Jacobs’ insight are useful, from the personal impact of gentrification in Ira Sachs’ family drama Little Men, to urbanization’s impact on Turkey’s free-roaming feline population in Ceyda Torun’s documentary Kedi. I smell a thesis brewing; “The Death and Life of Great Turkish Kitties”, anyone? While these are all wonderful films, this film encourages its audience more explicitly to think about one's own city and the implications of the political maneuvering behind its design. Equally as important is that it is a movie which directly points to Jacobs’ as an originator of many of these ideas, a welcome and necessary addition. Viewers like myself would not be aware of her immense cultural contributions otherwise.

-Nick Malbeuf


Friday, April 28 marks the end of another season of screenings at Carbon Arc. At 7pm, we have the Finnish black-and-white boxing biopic The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, which garnered rave reviews at the last edition of Cannes. Then, at 9pm, we will end the season with beloved cat documentary KediMake sure to get your tickets early, and visit our homepage to subscribe to our newsletter and receive updates on our upcoming seasons!