AFF Day Three: Howl at the Moon

Yesterday I wrote briefly about the unexpected connections you can find in festival films. To my surprise, evidence was soon to follow as I saw two films, at first glance thematically unrelated, that incorporated wolves as significant symbols. In fact, if I really wanted to stretch for a third link, I could also say I saw one about the moon, its mystical powers whipping nations into a frenzy so their howls may be heard by others. Let's start there.

 
Operation Avalanche (Matt Johnson)

Operation Avalanche (Matt Johnson)

 

On any list of associations brought to mind by the Apollo 11 moon landing — Armstrong's "small step", JFK, the Cold War — it shouldn't take long to come across one conspiracy theory or another. While none are particularly convincing, their air of global intrigue can make them endlessly fun to dive into. Operation Avalanche, the new faux documentary-cum-thriller from Canadian director Matt Johnson, understands this well and sets out to build its own theory with just that in mind. Johnson plays a bizarro version of himself that lived in the 1960s and was hired at the CIA to work in the audiovisual department. After making a pitch film that sends him and his team to NASA to find an undercover Russian spy, he discovers that he could fake the moon landing and end the Cold War by doing what he loves most: making a movie. From its crackling, grainy opening, the film takes a found footage angle that allows for some amusing tricks in visual and sound editing. The entire plot coasts on a winsome sense of humour grounded in Johnson's incredulity and contagious enthusiasm. When some chase scenes ramp up the tension near the end, it works because neither the comedy nor the thrills need to be sustained beyond their shelf life.

 
Tharlo (Pema Tseden)

Tharlo (Pema Tseden)

 

Back down on Earth, somewhere in Tibet, Tharlo slows things down. And I mean way down: this slice of life of one Tibetan shepherd opens with a single unbroken take as the protagonist recites a 1944 speech by Mao Zedong from memory, his inculcation having turned it into more of a rhythmic chant. His memory is praised throughout the film, though he can't remember his age and barely recognizes his own name. He lacks identification, figuratively and literally, which sparks a journey into the nearest town to have his picture taken for an ID card. The initial scenes in the town are fascinating, an understated juxtaposition of Tharlo's simplicity with the relative chaos of modern culture. Blinking lights and reflective surfaces are foregrounded and the soundtrack is constantly undercut with the murmur of a TV or radio in the next room. As he is drawn into this world and begins to acquiesce, smoking menthol cigarettes and singing karaoke, the metaphors start to get a bit heavy-handed. A nagging cough returns, he stumbles through his chant, and my aforementioned wolves show up to eat a number of his flock. The exquisite formalist framing and greyscale photography make the film consistently pleasing to look at, but the final result is cynical and preachy in a way that undercuts the meditative beauty of the opening half.

 
Window Horses (Ann Marie Fleming)

Window Horses (Ann Marie Fleming)

 

Just as philosophical with none of the didacticism is Window Horses. It's the story of Rosie, a young poet living with her grandparents when she is selected to perform at a workshop in Iran. A lover of all things Parisian, she would rather the workshop was in a more "romantic" locale, but is soon overwhelmed by all that Iran and its people have to offer her. Animated by Ann Marie Fleming and a team of artists, this exploration of personal and cultural history, subtitled The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming, is made up of many unique and eye-catching styles. Rosie, drawn by Fleming, is a featureless stick figure with a moon-white face (I won't even try to connect that one) and a few sprigs of hair. The people she meets are more detailed and cohesive, their faces drawn as if by a single, looping line. They coexist on collage-like backgrounds and drift through expressionist dreamscapes when their poetry is read allowed. In a Q&A session after the screening, Fleming talked about where the story came from:

 
That’s a long story! But it really started because I’m from a lot of places. I’m part Chinese, part Australian, I wasn’t born in Canada, I’m an immigrant. I was brought up with so many stories of people talking about where they came from, but you can’t tell unless you ask, and not everybody wants to tell you their story. I was at an artist residence in Germany about 20 years ago with a lot of international writers, and I actually met an exiled Chinese poet who has since gone back to China. So, everything in it is true... except for the bits I made up. This is like a big journey. I like these “string of pearls” stories: Rosie is going on a journey, she’s going to met people, they’re all going to tell her stuff.
 

With Window Horses, Fleming weaves her broad cultural context into a beautiful lesson about discovery and open-mindedness through the lens of art and travel. 

 
American Honey (Andrea Arnold)

American Honey (Andrea Arnold)

 

Andrea Arnold's intimate epic American Honey closed out the night in a Gala presentation at the Oxford Theatre. Through her other works like Fish Tank and Red Road, Arnold has established herself as somewhat of an expert in capturing the misery and poverty of lower class society in a way that neither glamorizing or judgemental. Here, she has transported that sensibility from her British roots to the American south, where a ragtag clan of magazine salespeople travel from state to state, knocking on doors by day and living it up at night. Led by Crystal and Jake (Riley Keough and Shia Labeouf), the vendors seem more like family members than coworkers as they welcome newcomer Star (the equally fresh-faced Sasha Lane). The trail that they blaze across the country, leaving dollar bills in their wake, allows Arnold to showcase the highs and lows of the American dream in sun-drenched montages. Likely in a bid to highlight the animalistic nature of these nomadic youngsters, wildlife is a strong presence in the film, with the camera panning away to follow a bird in flight, a dog in a puddle, or a bear that gets too close for comfort before lazily wandering off without a fuss. And, yes, there are wolves, even though we never actually see them. Jake, the alpha male, frequently unleashes tortured howls to the sky as a means of reassembling members of his "pack" that have gone astray. Coupled with his predatory nature towards the young girls he recruits, it brings to mind the wolves of Tharlo. Both films tackle the dangers that lurk in the pursuit of something more than the simple life, cautioning that anything more than just getting by brings new complications. If American Honey is the longer film and tends to drag a bit in the final act, it's also the better film for its naturalistic touches and the connection and chemistry of the young cast.

As day two wrapped up, I was left wondering what connections my Sunday slate might be harbouring. Check back tomorrow to find out the secret threads running through Women Who KillAuthor: The JT LeRoy StoryThings To Come, and Werewolf. I'll give you a freebie now: 3 of the 4 are directed by women.