Tanna: A South Pacific Valentine

Carbon Arc is finally back after the holiday hiatus and what a way to kick the season off! In our first week we screened a sold out showing of Ira Sachs' coming-of-age drama Little Men. It was also the first night of our collaboration series with the Halifax Independent Filmmakers Festival, where we screen HIFF shorts before features. Filmmaker Stephanie Young introduced her documentary short Masculins, the first of eight shorts that have been programmed.

Audience members showed that nothing would get in their way this past Friday as they braved freezing temperatures to watch Tanna, the South Pacific love story of Wawa and Dain based on the story of a real life forbidden romance in 1987. The tale was shared with directors Bentley Dean and Martin Butler after the former lived with his family for 7 months on the Vanuatu island from which the film gets its name. The result of their close collaboration with the local Yakel people is this gorgeous Oscar nominated film, relatable to many and the perfect way to start the Valentine's Day festivities.

 
Yakel natives Marie Wawa and Mungau Dain play the leads, Wawa and Dain.

Yakel natives Marie Wawa and Mungau Dain play the leads, Wawa and Dain.

 

Tanna marks Dean and Butler's first feature film outside of the documentary world. They haven't strayed too far from the filmmaking of their previous successes: the way Dean, who doubled as cinematographer, framed his shots made every small moment feel documented as if the camera stayed recording until the perfect expression was captured from the non-professional actors. Speaking of the actors, programmer Zack Miller pointed out in his pre-screening introduction that the actors in the film were the people of the small community. Each member took on the role that they would have suited in the situation. They may have seen cameras in the past as documentary crews had been there before, but the way they performed in front of them was remarkable. One of the greater performances came from Marceline Rofit as Wawa's rebellious younger sister, Selin, who was given almost more focus than the two leads as she introduced us to each important plot point , running around the village and pushing her limits (as kids so often do).

The crew was limited to just Dean and Butler. Thanks to his familiarity behind the camera, Dean shot a vibrant and lush scenery that also becomes a character itself. It's been said before, but the most beautiful footage in the movie was anything that involved the active volcano close to the community. We first see it when a nearby tribe, the Imedin, brutally attack Selin's grandfather, the eruption in the background adding intensity to what is happening in the foreground. Later, Wawa and Dain are silhouetted by another eruption, now symbolizing passion.

 
The imposing presence of the volcano adds to the visual splendour of Tanna.

The imposing presence of the volcano adds to the visual splendour of Tanna.

 

As the two soulmates continue on their journey, separating themselves from their former tribe and keeping hidden from the Imedin, it's hard not to compare the subject matter to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Wawa and Dain defy the Yakel by sleeping together, straining an already tense relationship between the tribes. To avoid a life apart the two eat poisonous mushrooms, a fate very similar to that of the bard's young lovers. Overall, Tanna starting off this season of Carbon Arc was an incredible choice amongst other amazing screenings to come.

Join us this Friday, February 17th at 7pm with Pablo Larraín's Golden Globe nominated Neruda, a crime drama biopic of the famous poet starring Gael García Bernal that comes highly anticipated, especially after seeing his other feature for the year, Jackie. Following that we have the Iranian film Inversion this Saturday, a cat documentary from Istanbul called Kedi next week, then later a double feature of the Oscar nominated A Man Called Ove and local favourite Werewolf directed by Ashley McKenzie that's been getting a lot of attention at Germany's Berlinale Film Festival. We'll be lucky enough to have Ashley attend the screening, and will be having a Q&A afterwards.

Double Feature: Cameraperson and Demain

Perspective.

It was a tough week, trying to swallow the bitter pill of the US Election. Plenty has been written in the ensuing days: on what happened and why, on what it means for America and the world, on how to move forward. Much of the prose has been erudite, hopeful, and invigorated with purpose. I read a lot of it, but it didn't deliver what I actually needed.

Cameraperson, the new documentary-cum-travelogue-cum-autobiography from career cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, opens on a lone sheep farmer in Bosnia. Then we're in Nigeria, listening to a midwife recite the details of her latest delivery. In New York, someone is boxing; back across the Atlantic, others are dancing energetically. Johnson has spent 25 years travelling the world with storied filmmakers like Laura Poitras and Michael Moore, using her camera to capture moments of unfettered joy and unbounded sorrow. The accumulation of ideas and fragments over a quarter-century is what one might expect to find in a garage or an attic — indeed, Johnson seems to acknowledge this by including a scene of a friend cleaning out her mother's house after her passing. Cleaning out such a space is typically a private endeavour, a nostalgic and memory-laden process of catharsis and (re)discovery that would appear foreign to most others. In Cameraperson, the internal is turned outward and shared with the world as Johnson revisits and recontextualizes the images that have stayed with her.

 
 

On a technical level, Cameraperson is fascinating. The editing prowess required to unify decades of footage that varies in picture quality, shooting style, and pace cannot be overstated. That the film is so much more than the sum of its parts, then, is an even greater triumph. The trick, I think, is in how Johnson sneakily pulls back the curtain on the filmmaking process. She sneezes behind the camera. She films a kid playing with an axe and gasps at the same time as the audience. She talks with her director about a specific shot she wants to get and, boom, it's on the screen. So many other films, as impactful and emotionally-charged as they may be, feel polished and final. Cameraperson isn't about the filmmaking process, it is the filmmaking process. The footage implies a globalist perspective, but it is the construction that has Johnson actively participating which exposes her humanity and connects it to ours.

 
 

Art isn't politics, but it can be political. This week, the need for a renewed unity between people of all stripes has gone from apparent to essential. Speaking about the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr., one subject in the film remarks that "hearing someone talk about [an image] and actually seeing it is different". This gets at what the articles I've been reading have been missing. While the calls to action are prudent — We should be doubling down on efforts to support marginalized groups! We should be promoting meaningful political and humanitarian activism! — it can all seem a little backwards to start strategizing in response to an event rather than working to help the people it affects. As a film, Cameraperson is sublime; as a reminder of the beautiful, important lives outside our own, it is truly vital.

- Zack Miller


At last year's Atlantic Film Festival, a documentary called This Changes Everything purported to offer a different kind of study of the problems around climate change. Based on a book by narrator Naomi Klein — and directed by her husband, Avi Lewis — the film wound up beating the drum for indigenous cultures and grassroots alternatives to global energy consortiums and corporate resource management, but offering little personal engagement. 

Demain is the film that This Changes Everything wanted to be, a genuinely fresh documentary on the solutions to climate change. It is contemporary, hopeful, and compelling.

 
 

Directed by French poet and activist Cyril Dion and actor Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds, Enemy), the film is told in chapters, examining first the problems, then presenting possible solutions in areas of agriculture, politics, economics, energy, and education. The filmmakers travel to Detroit, San Francisco, Copenhagen, Normandy, Espoo, and Kuttambakkam to speak with people who have come up with local solutions to global issues.

Not all of it is directly about climate change — sometimes it's about smaller social problems that need to be managed before the bigger issues can be tackled. But all the examples show that lateral, progressive thinking serves people better than cynicism. Demain is also the first documentary of its kind to have a memorable score: songs by Fredrika Stahl are tuneful, with lyrics appropriate to the subject matter. 

 
Demain directors Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent

Demain directors Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent

 

It's not a perfect film. At two hours it could have benefited from a little editorial trimming, and it occasionally threatens to be too much about the directors and their inspiration than the subject at hand — the "Michael Moore Syndrome" of modern documentary-making. But as we go along, Laurent and Dion step back, serving as periodic narrators and charming observers.

The filmmakers' enthusiastic approach and faultless research, along with their choices of who to put on camera to elucidate these examples of positive change, are right on the money. It's so refreshing to come out of a film like this feeling positive about the world, our place in it, and a possible future for all of us. 

- Carsten Knox

Double Feature: Me and Further Beyond

As we all walked out of Mean Iranian thriller from writer-director Soheil Beiraghi, we were scratching our heads a little. When I say we, I mean the Carbon Arc programmers and volunteers. There were elements we didn't understand. That was at least partly due to a potent but dense and wordy script that tells the story of Azar (Leila Hatami), an oboe teacher in Tehran who moonlights as a smuggler of alcohol in plastic water bottles, an arranger of official papers for refugees who can pay, a real estate agent, and a record producer for an ambitious young pop star. The confusion also had to do with cultural barriers — some plot points were a little hard to parse without knowing a little more about Iranian society than many of us did. There was also a sense that the subtitles may not have been accurately representing all that was being said. 

All that said, the overall response was very positive. 

As a big fan of Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian filmmaker responsible for A Separation (which also starred Hatami), The Past, and The Salesman, which screened at the Atlantic Film Festival this past September, I can see a stylistic similarity here. Beiraghi's is more of a plot-driven piece, but the social and political lives of the characters in a society struggling under the weight of bureaucratic oppression is very much at the forefront. These films are all windows into real life in Iran, they're distinct cultural artifacts. 

 
Leila Hatami in Me

Leila Hatami in Me

 

Azar is a fascinating character. She's the driving force of Me, the hub of all the action as she moves through her day. A third of the film seems to take place in cars or on motorcycles, but she's never driving, only being taken places. She argues with her companions, offering advice and refusing to back down on all the financial wheeling and dealing. She's the kind of female character we'd only see in Hollywood in comedies — Melissa McCarthy in The Boss, or Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Here she's the protagonist of a thriller, a crime drama. Producers in Hollywood would say she's too unlikeable to be the centre of this kind of film, but that's patently ridiculous. She's electric, and in times when the plot feels a little too obscure, we trust that she knows what's going on. How she managed to accomplish all she does, and why she does it, remain something of a mystery. Her motivation to live this life is unrevealed, but it doesn't matter. All eyes on Azar. 

- Carsten Knox


To be completely candid, I was a bit worried about how I would fare during Saturday night’s screening of Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor’s Further Beyond. I have heard great things about the duo’s (otherwise known as the Desperate Optimists) work, but I have admittedly yet to familiarize myself with it. I was therefore totally uncertain of what to expect. Furthermore, Ambrose O’Higgins, the self-proclaimed “Baron of Ballynarry”, a man who journeyed from Ireland to Chile in the 18th century, did not strike me as an especially compelling subject for an experimental documentary. I was sure the film would be brilliant, but I was ready for it to go right over my head. But the thing is, the film isn’t really about O’Higgins. Well, it is, but it isn’t. The way I contradicted myself just then does not make for the best writing, but perhaps I am simply stuck in a mode of uncertainty in characterizing a film which itself engages in intense self-questioning, intentionally making clear how films misrepresent “reality”. The film is less about O’Higgins, and more of a documentary about making a biopic about O’Higgins (one which does not exist) narrated by two voice over artists who digress into philosophical musings, as well as an entirely separate narrative about Helen, a woman who spent her life divided between New York and Ireland, who is supposedly one of the voice actors’ mothers.

 
Aidan Gillen as one of Further Beyond's meta versions of Ambrose O'Higgins

Aidan Gillen as one of Further Beyond's meta versions of Ambrose O'Higgins

 

All of this makes the film sound very complicated, which it is in many ways, but it fails to communicate how intriguingly delightful the film is. The film is very intelligent, but avoids the pitfalls of heady intellectual films that I had feared by sustaining a self-reflexive playfulness. In an era that seems desperate to suck the freshness out of self-reflexive pop culture, Further Beyond actually sustains genuine self-reflection, making “meta” feel fresh again. It is a meditation on the difficulties of representing real times and places in artificial images, and strives to find some kind of truth contained in the absurd constructions presented in film. The complex layers of meaning contained in its brisk 90 minutes had me ready to watch the film again before I had even finished it the first time. This is in no small part due to the fact that the film is also an impressive aesthetic achievement, from the simpler portraits of Helen to the breathtaking landscapes O’Higgins travelled.

We were also fortunate enough to have co-writer/director Christine Molloy present for a post-screening Q&A. Once again, I was somewhat dubious. Q&As so often end up falling flat, with audience members who ask questions too vague or too specific and filmmakers who prefer to let their work speak for itself. However, I was also once again pleasantly surprised. Molloy immediately responded to the broad range of questions fielded with erudite observations about her work that matched the acute self-awareness displayed in the film. At one point Molloy discussed the benefits and limits of the film being available on streaming service MUBI, commenting that when a little film like Further Beyond is featured next to a familiar auteur like Terrence Malick, most people will tend to stick to what they know. However, my Saturday night seemed to exist as a testament to taking risks on unfamiliar films; my doubts about Further Beyond were quickly pushed to the side by admiration for the talented filmmakers behind it. I hope more people will take a chance on the incredible, odd film, too.

- Nick Malbeuf

Double Feature: Ixcanul/The Love Witch

Our most recent screening at Carbon Arc fell on Friday, October 28th. Unofficially kicking off Halloween weekend, it signalled that the time has arrived for parties, candy, and, of course, seemingly inevitable cultural appropriation. Each year, whether purchased from a costume company or made by oneself, a fresh batch of insensitive costumes arrive to caricature, eroticize, and generally exploit and demean oppressed groups, including indigenous peoples. At a time like this, it was refreshing to see Ixcanul, a Guatemalan film starring indigenous Kaqchikel people speaking in their own native language. That being said, full disclosure should be given that this post is being written by a white guy with zero knowledge of the experiences of indigenous Kaqchikel people, so any supposed insight herein contained should be taken with a grain of salt. Writer-director Jayro Bustamante was raised among the Kaqchikel people by his grandmother, only leaving to travel to Europe for a film education, and then returning to tell stories from his home. The film itself has racked up a string of awards since its debut, including the Alfred Bauer Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, an award given to a film that “opens new perspectives on cinematic art.” It certainly has opened new perspectives; it stands as only the second film Guatemala has submitted for the Oscars Foreign Film awards race (after 1994’s little known The Silence of Neto) and one of the few, if not only, films made in the Kaqchikel language.

 
María Mercedes Coroy in Ixcanul

María Mercedes Coroy in Ixcanul

 

The film stars first time actress María Mercedes Coroy as a 17-year-old Kaqchikel girl with the same first name. María lives on a farm precariously located on the skirts of an active volcano with her parents, who have arranged her marriage to the farm foreman out of economic benefit. Meanwhile, María has a fling with a boy who works on the farm, planning to run away with him to America. On paper, it sounds like it will either be a fairy tale or a tragic romance, but it turns out a less idyllic narrative was in store. In the early scenes of the film, María helps her mother breed pigs by dragging them together and giving them rum. Soon after comes a graphic slaughter scene. This, forebodingly, is closer to María’s story than any happily ever after. While María herself strives for active agency in shaping her own life, her fierce determination is repeatedly thwarted. She is consistently lied to and manipulated, and valued only for sexual pleasure, economic value, and fertility. While the Kaqchikel word “Ixcanul” literally translates to volcano, Bustamante says it also means "the internal force of the mountain which boils looking for eruption." This is how Coroy plays her role: in introspective and understated fashion, letting the energy of the character boil under the surface, desperately struggling to maintain her humanity while being consistently degraded to the indignity of livestock.

The encounters between the relatively isolated Kaqchikel family and the Spanish inhabitants of the Guatemalan city have a similar emotional disconnect. There is a cold tension between the family and the social worker who meets them — partially due to the linguistic barrier, but a sense of sad condescension is conveyed in each exchange. The indigenous family are portrayed as outsiders within the colonial city, and there is a similarity resonating between the patronizing paternalism they are treated with and that which María receives. The tension between them gradually grows until it reaches a plot point which I will not spoil, but reminded me of Alanis Obomsawin’s recent documentary We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice. This came as a reminder that Guatemala is not alone in its marginalization of indigenous families, but that we can find similar problems at home.

 
María Telón (left) plays the mother of Coroy (right)

María Telón (left) plays the mother of Coroy (right)

 

Amidst this largely patriarchal oppression, the only sincere emotional bond María seems to have is with her mother, Juana. The relationship is sometimes tenuous, with Juana often struggling to balance caring for her daughter with ensuring her family’s survival, but she is the only character to ever shows any kind of support for María. Juana is played by María Telón, a local theatre actress who brings a liveliness and authenticity to the role that makes me hope to see her on the screen again. The performance serves as a kind of emotional anchor for the film that ensures that it never becomes too cold. Her character acts in a way that seems opposed yet linked to Coroy’s performance. Coroy never quite displays the same vocal presence in María that Telón does in Juana, but her strength of character and resolve is a matriarchal inheritance.

Two of the main filmmaking influences Bustamante cites are Terrence Malick and Michael Haneke. The poetic beauty of Malick may seem diametrically opposed to Bustamante's clinical austerity, but traces can be found in Ixcanul. On one hand, the cinematography alternates from magnificent landscapes to intimate close-ups with a striking beauty reminiscent of Malick. On the other, the narrative subverts the volcanic eruption of melodrama it seems destined to conclude with; Bustamante instead takes a restrained approach, closer to the bleakness of Haneke. The narrative is often a miserable one, but Bustamante finds the perfect balance between softening its impact with pulled punches and making it unbearable with relentless button pushing. It’s a whopper of a feature debut that raises questions of gendered oppression and indigenous marginalization within the framework of an emotionally compelling narrative.

 
 

The film was followed up on a lighter note with a special Halloween screening of Anna Biller’s The Love Witch, a film that similarly deconstructs the devastation of the female experience under patriarchal conditions, albeit in a more playful way, with a feminist interpretation of an erotic fairy tale fantasy film reminiscent of the work of Walerian Borowczyk, Jean Rollin, and Jess Franco. 

- Nick Malbeuf

 

 

Our 9:15pm screening on Friday night was The Love Witch. Regular attendees at Carbon Arc might have noticed we often save programming that may appeal to an audience up for something other than international films and documentaries for our later timeslots, or the occasional Saturday nights. The Love Witch qualifies. Written and directed by Anna Biller, it's a picture made in the style of the exploitation and sexploitation dramas of the 1960s. If you've ever seen a movie by Russ Meyer, Italian director Antonio Margheriti, or a British Hammer Horror picture, you'll have a sense of what Biller is going for. 

Carbon Arc programmer Zack Miller pointed out in his introduction to the film this isn't the first time Biller has directed a feature in this style. Viva, from 2007, was about a California housewife in the early 1970s discovering the wonders of the sexual revolution. It took Biller almost a decade to get the follow-up made, and the range of her work on the film is astonishing: Not only did she write and direct it, she produced it, designed the production, sets, props, created all the period-sensitive wardrobe, and composed the music. I don't know that I've ever heard of a filmmaker taking on so many of the creative duties on their project. 

 
Samantha Robinson as The Love Witch

Samantha Robinson as The Love Witch

 

Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is the eponymous witch. She's moving to a small Californian town to get away from (some aspects of) her past, while reconnecting with a coven of old pals. She's deeply narcissistic, measuring her own happiness through the seduction of men. She triggers their adoration through love potions, but her conquests have no lasting power, leading instead to frustration and even death. It's a wonderfully retro vision—even including a none-more-cheesy renaissance fair sequence—with pointed feminist touches. It's also a little lethargic getting where it's going, but was still very much worth the trip. 

One of the other interesting things about The Love Witch is it isn't actually a period film. The cast wears their hair and wardrobe as it it were 1966, and drive late '60s-era automobiles, but we also get 21st Century cars and cell phones. This dissonance adds a weird little joy to the film: We're in uncharted territory here, folks. 

- Carsten Knox

 

 

This weekend we have two more exciting features, both presented as community partnerships. At 7pm on Friday, November 4th, we are teaming up with CineIran to screen an Iranian crime drama called Me. Advance tickets sold quickly for Me but, as always, we've reserved a block of tickets for sale starting at 6:30pm at our venue. On Saturday, November 5th, we're taking part in the Dalhousie University masterclass about documentary filmmaking with a screening of Further Beyond. Christine Molloy, one of the directors of the film, will be in attendance and a Q&A session will follow the screening.

Double Feature: Lo and Behold/Fire at Sea

"The hallways here are repulsive."

If you read that in the voice of Werner Herzog — possibly the only human alive who could find a nondescript UCLA hallway repulsive, and certainly the only one who would commit the observation to film — congratulations, you're a dyed-in-the-wool documentary fan. The words are indeed his, and they open his latest effort, which examines the revolutionary technologies that tie person to person, city to city, country to country. The title of the film is Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World and, besides being a mouthful, it is a reference to the first word ever transmitted over the Internet. Herzog's first guest, Dr. Leonard Kleinrock, explains how the message originated at a UCLA computing lab as a transmission to a similar lab at Stanford in an attempt to remotely log in to their server. During this experiment, the Stanford computer crashed in a brilliant stroke of fate, truncating the word "LOG" to "LO". As in, the professor enthusiastically reminds us, "Lo and behold!". 

 
In Lo and Behold, not even monks can escape the pervasive connectivity of modern times.

In Lo and Behold, not even monks can escape the pervasive connectivity of modern times.

 

Enthusiasm has always been a common trait of the subjects Herzog chooses to interview. Not all those who appear in Lo and Behold are as outwardly giddy as Kleinrock, but they're all willing to engage in conversations that go beyond the dry talking head fare that would typically show up in a tech documentary made by a less existentially inquisitive director (read: any other director). As the film progresses through ten chapters, we follow the Internet from its birth into its uncertain future, stopping along the way for musings on hacking, technological dependency, artificial intelligence, and more. The poetic is never sacrificed for the informative, and experts at the top of their fields end up stumped, chuckling while trying to answer questions like, "Does the Internet dream of itself?" Therein lies the greatest strength of a film built on information that, in a ceaselessly changing digital era, is already stale, or soon will be. Lo and Behold is less concerned with what the latest technologies are and more concerned with how they reflect the incomprehensible complexity of human life.

Human life, perhaps, like that on display in another new documentary: Gianfranco Rosi's Fire at Sea. The film weaves together two vastly different ways of life on the Italian island of Lampedusa, near the northern coast of Africa. The local population is just over six thousand people, many of them sailors and fishermen, who Rosi shows leading simple, pleasant lives. Far more urgent to the film are the refugees for whom Lampedusa serves as the closest landfall as they flee the turmoil in their home countries of Syria, Eritrea, and beyond. Recent records show migrants arriving on the island at rates of over 100,000 per year. In case those figures don't already paint a picture of the humanitarian importance of Lampedusa, consider that it is also the deadliest escape route; in a guest introduction at the Carbon Arc screening, Dalhousie professor Ruben Zaiotti noted that nearly 80% of all in-transit refugee casualties occur while crossing that small stretch of the Mediterranean. The dissonance between these two intersecting worlds serves as a starting point for Fire at Sea's impressive emotional heft.

 
Samuele, a young resident of Lampedusa, draws strong focus in Fire at Sea

Samuele, a young resident of Lampedusa, draws strong focus in Fire at Sea

 

But emotional heft does not a prize-winning documentary make. The Berlinale jury that awarded the Golden Bear, their top award, to the film must have also been impressed with its craft, of which there is no shortage. Rosi, who acted as cinematographer as well as director, draws deep meaning from luscious visuals. From the early shot of a lone searchlight scanning the choppy seas to the wide landscapes of the island's misty cliffs, each frame teases something just out of sight — a capsized boat, a body washed up on shore — that never materializes. This crisis, the film suggests, is happening right under our noses. Take Samuele, the young "star" subject whose loquaciousness is matched only by his appetite for spaghetti. By day, he carves grotesque faces into cacti and shoots at them with his slingshot; by night, he and his friends run around by the glow of flashlights. That the tension and imagery recall a horror movie is no mistake, but horror movies come built to release that tension. Here, the horror is of a different sort. By the time the camera finally dips below deck on a refugee ship, we're steeped in an almost insidious sense of quotidian normalcy that quadruples the gut punch of the innumerable lives lost. Much like Herzog bringing philosophical wonderment to technology in a way only he can, Rosi has taken a topic that easily could have been manipulative or pleading and deftly crafted a document as moving as it is timely and exigent.

Another back-to-back trip to the cinema is in store for Carbon Arc audiences this week, as we bring you two Friday night films on October 28. First up at 7pm is Ixcanul, a romantic drama set at the base of a Guatemalan volcano and filmed entirely in the indigenous Mayan language of Kaqchikel. At 9:15pm, we're offering a special Halloween presentation of The Love Witch, a feminist spin on 1960s thrillers from director Anna Biller, who also wrote, produced, and personally designed the sets and costumes.

 

My Love, Don't Cross That River: Still Crazy After All These Years

Before Friday night’s screening of the South Korean documentary film My Love, Don’t Cross That River, Carbon Arc programmer Kendra Barnes announced to the audience, “I chose this film because I wanted to make you cry.” Tissues were efficiently distributed throughout the crowd, in preparation for the waterworks which were sure to follow, and the film began. The first shot is of a gorgeous winter landscape, shimmering white snow hanging from tree branches, filmed beautifully by director Jin Mo-young, who doubled as the film’s director of photography. Dwarfed by this natural beauty is 89-year-old Kang Kye-yeol. Her tiny presence is difficult to locate in the shot, but the sound of her weeping is overwhelming. With this as the opening scene of the film, Jin seems to be making an announcement similar to Kendra’s: “I made this film because I wanted to make you cry.”

Of course, it would be reductive to claim that this is the only intent that the filmmaker had. The film is a portrait of a lifelong love, celebrating the 76-year marriage of Kang to the 98-year-old Jo Byeong-man, whose death, it will soon become clear, is the cause of her tears. If films like Gone Girl and Force Majeure indicate a trend of films which depict marriage as a cold, suffocating institution of begrudging commitment, My Love, Don’t Cross That River is a powerful antidote to their cynicism. The cold image which opened the film is quickly washed away with scenes of the loving couple together, supporting each other with constant kind words. Despite their age, they display a spry playfulness, alternately throwing leaves and snow or splashing water at one another with laughter, even when Jo’s body falters with exhaustion. Amid their fun is also a warm protectiveness. He accompanies her to their bathroom when it is dark and she is scared, waiting outside the door and singing a song for her. She takes joy in preparing his meals, claiming that he has never said he did not like one, even though she can tell that the enthusiasm with which he consumes them is varied. It feels as though they may sometimes be play-acting for the camera, but to find the energy to even perform a spark after that much time together is something to be admired, and it never feels as though the spark itself is insincere. Darker moments in their life are revealed later in the film, but there do not appear to be any in their relationship itself. While watching the film I did the math in my head and realized that Kang would have been very, very young when they were first married, but soon after she even addressed this potentially discomfiting issue, saying that even after they were technically wed, Jo waited years to “make a move.” From the very beginning of their relationship it seems they thrived on this gentle caring and kindness.

 
Kang Kye-yeol (left) and Jo Byeong-man (right)

Kang Kye-yeol (left) and Jo Byeong-man (right)

 

The lack of cultural context given helps to keep the focus squarely on the love story at the heart of the film. It seemed to me that a Canadian or American filmmaker may have felt the urge to investigate the meaning of all of the Korean cultural practices which differ from their own; asides which would have done little to serve the story at hand. I am reluctant to apply the term “universal” to a film, especially when the subjects’ experience and perspectives are so evidently different from my own, and seemingly peculiar even within their own culture. And the relationship at hand here certainly is a peculiar one, presenting us with a couple of delightful outsiders. The couple are not exactly hermits, as they go to the hospital regularly and join a local seniors’ centre on outings, but they do live a fairly reclusive life. There do not seem to be any homes near theirs, and their only consistent company comes from a couple of dogs they keep as pets. They also wear matching traditional attire almost everyday, which none of the other people in the film do. The vibrant colours publicly display their unity and commitment to a style which has gone out of fashion. Even if the distinction here was not intended to be generational, I got the feeling Jin may have been trying to represent a longing for a romanticized lost way of life. However, while these people are distinct, the lessons and values taught by the film do have a relatively universal and timeless resonance. The couple’s story makes clear that the hardships of life do become easier with a shared kindness. While the form which it takes is of a particular kind in the film, the basic values of friendship, understanding, and fun which they display are broad enough to speak to most audiences.

Although the film opens and closes with the sad image of the widow weeping, the second time around we are situated to understand where Kang is. She has just finished burning Jo’s clothes after his death, under the traditional belief he will need them in the afterlife. The fire burns literally, but also symbolically: their passion burns through even the coldest seasons of life and beyond. Before the credits roll, Jin tags on a dedication to “Jo Byeong-man, the eternal lover of Kang Kye-yeol.”  The implication that their love and tenderness towards each other extends beyond a lifetime into an eternity is enough to warm your heart, and bring on a shower of tears, both happy and sad. Quick, somebody grab me some tissues.

 
 

Make sure to get your tickets for the pair of documentaries we have screening at Carbon Arc this week! First up, screening at 7pm on Friday October 21st, legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog turns his dry wit and boundless curiosity onto the vast subject of the internet in Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World. Then, we have a special screening on Saturday night at 7pm, of Fire at Sea, presented in partnership with the Italian Canadian Cultural Association. The film captures the lives of the people living on the small Italian island of Lampedusa, a frontline in the tragic European migrant crisis. It is the first documentary in history to win the prestigious Golden Bear top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, so you won’t want to miss it.

The Fits: A Superlative Student Film

As soon as you designate a feature as "a student film," there's an immediate pejorative attached, but that's not my intention. Technically, The Fits is a student film: It was developed through the Venice Biennale Cinema College program, a micro-budget (reportedly 150 thousand Euros) and micro-timeline (a year from conception to premiere) feature project for first- and second-time feature filmmakers.

 
 

But what's praiseworthy in its "student-ness" is an amazing sense of experimentation, resisting the structural conventions of many American narrative films, whether independent or out of Hollywood. The Fits is a calling card for its creator, Anna Rose Holmer, the signalling the arrival of a brand new talent. 

 
Anna Rose Holmer

Anna Rose Holmer

 

Latonya aka Toni (the magnetic Royalty Hightower) is an 11-year-old tomboy who spends almost all of her time at the local community centre—does she ever go to school?—with her brother and his friends. They're into boxing, and so is she, sparring with whoever will take her on. It's a masculine environment, but Toni silently yearns for the glamour and excitement of the all-girl dance troupe, the Lionesses (Cincinnati's Q-Kidz dance team) who practice routines in an adjacent gym. 

The Fits celebrates movement and the limitless energy of children as it tells its story, the prowling, circling camera keeping Hightower in the foreground while sharing all the chaotic activity around her. Toni tirelessly applies herself to dance. As she loses her connection to the boys and is slowly accepted by the troupe, an unexplained contagion of seizures afflicts the older girls. What's causing it? Is Toni somehow responsible? 

 
 

This is a film about being an outsider: Toni wants the sense of connection she sees between the dancers, but as she approaches it, trying on the clothes and branding of the girls—including temporary tattoos, nail polish, and earrings—she sees what she's losing by walking away from the boys. The branding doesn't mean anything—she scrapes it off as soon as it sets, pulling out the infection-causing earrings. 

The seizures become a rite of passage for the girls—standing in for sex, for menstruation, for a loss of innocence—and when she sees her younger peers experience them (maybe even faking them in order to be included), she doesn't want it anymore. But she can't go back.

 
 

The final scene, a magic realist celebration of the dance, may signify Toni's acceptance of these inevitable changes, an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em conclusion. Its joyfully ambiguous, a break from the brooding vibe of most of the film—a dread accentuated by the terrific camerawork, borrowing tropes from horror films, and a soundtrack heavy on beats and atonal horn signatures. 

Beyond the skill and imagination of its writer-director, The Fits is also testament to the importance of casting. Hightower barely speaks in the first act of the film, but the camera loves her expressive face and body. She carries the film in the same way Christian Bale did Empire Of The Sun and Ellar Coltrane did Boyhood. It's a lot to expect from children, but it's also a credit to the filmmakers that they can draw such an intuitive performance from their stars, to where the films become a life support system for the lead character. 

The Fits was well-received by Friday night's Carbon Arc audience, inspiring plenty of conversation in the corridor afterward. Though the first two screenings of Carbon Arc's 2016 fall season had two shows, this coming Friday will only have one: the 7pm screening of My Love, Don't Cross That Rivera heartbreaking South Korean documentary about a couple who've been married for eight decades. Please join us for that, and for Saturday night's Nocturne screening

Chevalier: Greek Weird Wave meets wildlife documentary

In Athina Rachel Tsangari’s previous feature film, Attenberg (2011), her subject was a young woman who obsessively watched nature documentaries. I imagine she would have enjoyed watching Tsangari’s newest feature, Chevalier, even though it takes as its focus the human animal (more specifically, the cisgender heterosexual bourgeois male). Tsangari shows us these animals in an isolated habitat, afloat on a luxury yacht on the Aegean Sea. Although we certainly get an eyeful of the gorgeous scenery, the emphasis here is always on the relationships and interactions between the human subjects. No protagonist ever really arises out of the group; instead we observe the dynamics of the group as a whole.

 
Attenberg, the previous film by Athina Rachel Tsangari

Attenberg, the previous film by Athina Rachel Tsangari

 

The film opens on the group as they dive and fish, then we watch them peel the wetsuits off of each other like a second skin. The image of these men slowly peeling off each other’s skin hangs over the rest of the film, as they begin a contest to decide who is “the best in general”. It seems like an obvious set-up, but Tsangari does not settle into clichéd antics of macho competition. The men do not engage in grandiose feats of athleticism and dick-measuring, but instead study intimate details of each other's habits and abilities, from how well they sleep to how quickly they can assemble a shelf. The competition seeps into all aspects of their lives, vicious judgement causing self-conscious breakdowns due to paranoia of one’s own flaws throughout the film, with one character eventually howling in the night about his “beautiful erection” (okay, so there is some dick-measuring). There are no real winners, just the slow deterioration of delicate egos. I couldn’t help but think of another film about the harm of hypercritical social judgement and with a more direct allusion to nature documentaries, Mean Girls. Here, the action is simply transposed from female high school cliques onto a group of grown men.

Chevalier pairs nicely with another recent feature from a filmmaker lumped in the “Greek Weird Wave”, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster. Both films reveal truths that feel both timeless and contemporary by presenting stories of people navigating complex systems which seem logical to them as they are immediately involved in the social interactions, but absurd to the viewer when compared to the real world. However, while The Lobster creates a bizarre fantasy world of strict rules, Tsangari’s Chevalier only feels slightly removed from reality, with the rules only barely defined to the people desperately trying to follow them. There is an absurdist humour in the central premise and the manner in which the characters act, but the scenario is entirely possible and they always feel human.

 
The cast of Chevalier

The cast of Chevalier

 

This is in large part due to the wonderfully sincere deadpan performances from all of the cast members. Particularly enjoyable is Makis Papadimitriou in the role of one of a tag-along brother, a big awkward teddy-bear. He especially shines while performing a prepared lip sync routine to Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You”. It’s a beautiful, warm, and hilarious moment — an offering of humility without fear of looking stupid — and the song he chooses defines his character as someone who wants nothing more than to comfort the other men in a way that none of them will support him. The performance is, of course, quickly forgotten by the other men who become distracted by bickering.

Although the people feel real, the concept and setting always remains somewhat abstract, allowing space for many interpretations. The film could be read as a commentary of the harm done to a society based solely in competition, or a critique of fragile masculinity, or even as a class commentary: the underclass workers on the boat both observe the competition and eventually begin one of their own. Tsangari refuses to make any of these elements of the film too blunt or let the narrative lead to an explosive conclusion, and by doing so, lets the film feel like a parable without the didacticism.

It’s a strong start to the fall season of screenings at Carbon Arc; only time will tell if it will stack up against the upcoming films as “best film in general”.