AIFF 2017 Review Roundup

As you may already know, Carbon Arc comes back in to season with The Midwife on September 29th. Before that, though, we're sending our programmers to dine on the veritable cinematic feast provided by the 2017 Atlantic International Film Festival, running September 14 - 21 in Halifax.

We strongly encourage you to get out and watch, watch, watch — full listings can be found at the festival website — but know we've got you covered for anything that you can't see in person!

Follow along with all of our festival reviews below and on our social media channels. And, of course, don't be afraid to stop us for a chat in the hallway of the Park Lane cinemas.

 
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FIN Festival Closing Gala (P)review: Call Me By Your Name

Coming to FIN after rave reviews at Sundance and Berlinale earlier this year, and still hot from its Canadian premiere at TIFF, Call Me By Your Name is one of the festival's most buzz-worthy attractions. Even with the hype, the film does not disappoint. Coming just a year after the theatrical release of director Luca Guadagnino's underappreciated, but thrilling A Bigger Splash, this film sees Guadagino returning to film in his home country; a title at the beginning of the film reveals its setting "Somewhere in Northern Italy". A sun-soaked romance set in 1983, the film follows the relationship between Elio, a 17 year-old musical prodigy, and the 24 year-old understudy of his father.

 
Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) meet for the first time.

Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) meet for the first time.

 

The pair are played, respectively, by up-and-comer Timothée Chalamet and Hollywood star Armie Hammer. The two  are both revelations. Anyone who caught last year's underseen Miss Stevens has seen Chalamet's acting chops at work. Here, he seamlessly navigates the difficult waters of portraying a character who's moody pretentiousness derives from an underlying insecurity. Hammer, who's been appearing on-screen as a blandly underwritten big, handsome blond in films like The Social Network, The Lone Ranger, and The Man From Uncle, gets a chance to play that role again here, but with a legitimate character arc. After appearing against type as an arrogant, bearded criminal in a 1970s Boston warehouse in Free Fire earlier this year, Hammer seems to be finally breaking through to display a talent he hasn't been able to elsewhere. His character, Oliver, is a bit pretentious (everyone is in the bourgeois home featured in the film), but also shy. His intellectual insecurity is a little less obvious than Elio's, but there nonetheless. Guadagnino's camera fawns over Hammer's body, a movie star physicality rarely afforded in an erotic sense to male performers other than Channing Tatum. In one scene, a bitter, skinny Elio essentially plays waterboy to Oliver's dominating athleticism in a volleyball match. In another, Oliver is unimpressed by Elio's arrogant refusal to play a Bach number as originally written. They are not quite opposites, but seem to perceive themselves as lacking what the other possesses.

Despite its American stars, the film has a European sensibility. Guadagnino's direction gives the script by James Ivory (The Remains of the Day, Howard's End) space to breath. The leisurely pace of its 132-minute run-time in the absence of obviously propulsive plotting may feel slow near the beginning, but it allows the characters time for a sincere growth, feeling their way through an initially thorny mismatching, to eventually only feel whole together. Without spoiling anything, the final act is perhaps the highlight of the film, and wholly dependent on the chemistry achieved in what preceded it; Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio's father triumphs with a heartfelt monologue that manages to convey an honest sentimentality rather than triteness, and the final shot of Chalamet in close-up is the best moment in his performance. If I misled you into thinking the pacing may be a bore, allow me to correct myself - it also gives us awhile longer to bask in the beauty of the Italian, creating a real sense of the setting.

 
Oliver (Hammer) attempts to relieve some tension (Chalamet).

Oliver (Hammer) attempts to relieve some tension (Chalamet).

 

Although the great costume design is somewhat distinctly 1980s, the soundtrack of the film, ranging from classical, to The Psychedelic Furs (check out Armie's dance moves!), to Sufjan Stevens, creates a sense of timelessness. Out of the particularities of the setting grows a passion beyond time and space. Don't let the intellectual conversations of the characters mislead you into thinking the film is meant for the head, rather than the heart. It's formal beauty feels foreign, but its intimate details are deeply human. An erotic and emotional masterpiece, you will not want to miss it.

FIN Festival (P)Review: Happy End

As anyone who has seen a Michael Haneke film may suspect, the title Happy End is an ironic one. Happiness is an emotion seldom glimpsed in Haneke's oeuvre. His first film, 1989's The Seventh Continent, chronicled the destructive undoing of a middle class family, concluding with their suicide. His 2005 film Caché depicted the psychological breakdown of an upperclass man in France as he is confronted with anonymous video tapes and has to reflect on the horrors he inflicted on his briefly adopted Algerian brother as a child. His last film, 2012's Best Foreign Film winner and Best Picture nominee at the Oscar, Amour, was the closest the filmmaker has come to romance. It depicts an elderly man, unable to handle his wife's illness, as their bodies betray them. Fun stuff. Happy End could either be seen as a pointless rehashing or a brilliant culmination of themes present throughout Haneke's career. Austria apparently believes the latter, choosing it as their submission to this year's Oscars. I'm inclined to agree.

The film opens with a series of Snapchat-like videos, with text commentary by the person holding the camera(phone). This person is 13 year-old Eve Laurent, and these are, hopefully, not the kind of videos you would expect to see on a barely-teenaged girl's phone. At first, she voyeuristically films her mom's boring routine, predicting the steps as they happen. Then she gives her mom's pills to her hamster. It dies. Then she gives too many pills to her mom.

 
Fantine Harduin as Eve Laurent.

Fantine Harduin as Eve Laurent.

 

With her mom hospitalized, Eve joins her father and his family, a depressed bourgeoisie quartet made up of Eve, grandfather Georges (Amour's Jean-Louis Trintignant), his daughter Anne (Things to Come's Isabelle Huppert), her son Pierre (Victoria's Franz Rogowski), and Eve's father Thomas (Amelie's Mathieu Kassovitz). We soon learn her relatives may be in an even worse place than she is.  Georges' mind is leaving him, along with his will to live. Thomas has a new wife now, but is still working out some kinks. Anne is struggling to handle an accidental workplace fatality which happened on Pierre's watch, while Pierre just can't stop messing everything up.

The plot synopsis listed on IMDb and Wikipedia describes the film as "A drama about a family set in Calais with the European refugee crisis as the backdrop." While this is basically true, it is rather misleading. Refugees barely factor into the narrative, appearing only briefly and without any lines. Haneke's real target, as usual, is the cruelty and disillusionment of the upper classes. These characters are always the subject of Haneke's films; he even recycles variations of the names Georges and Anne, as though the protagonists of each of his films are interchangeable. This is not because he is interested in the glamour of the upper class, but quite the opposite. You could say his films' messages tend towards "money can't buy you love" cliches, but that is an oversimplification. The films don't make you envy the characters' wealth, but it doesn't sound much better to be the working class subjected to their cruelty. Haneke is mostly interested in analyzing the mental and physical tolls of upper class isolation, not just from the lower classes, but from each other. His characters possess immense amounts of self-absorption matched only by their ability to rationalize the harm they inflict. They just keep acting as they do until they realize how sad and bad they are. Then, they die.

 
The "happy" family.

The "happy" family.

 

If one isn't turned off by all of this misery, there is a dark humor present in HAPPY END. Hard emphasis on dark. In one scene, Pierre performs Sia's hit single "Chandelier" in a karoake bar. He is break-dancing in a drunken stupor without any indication of pleasure. It's actually very sad scene, but one can't help but giggle at the absurdity. Jean-Louis Trintignant is brilliant as Georges, alternating between dementia and cold calculation. The interactions between 13 year-old Eve and the elderly Georges are some of the best scenes. Finally, members of this family are making a connection. Unfortunately, they're bonding over their inability to see the value of life.

Haneke is as aesthetically austere as his characters are with their emotions. He uses no musical scores, and often shoots scenes from the perspective of unseen characters or from a distance without dialogue, so that narrative gaps must be filled in by the viewer. The difficulty of these films makes repeat viewings beneficial; a first glance is rarely enough to catch all of the substance. Take your first chance to check out the film at FIN Festival next Wednesday, September 20th at 9:30pm.

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!