Still riding high from Maudie the previous night and equipped with my critic's toolkit (eyeglasses, two pens, notebook, bottled water), I wandered into Park Lane Theatres on Friday to begin my festival experience in earnest. The red carpets and speeches that accompany each gala are an integral part of AFF, but there's something to be said for the workmanlike schedule of the first full day. It's nice, if not a bit daunting, to face down the prospect of sitting through five potentially great films in a single day, especially after a summer at the movies that was even dry by tentpole standards.
First on the docket was a Chinese slow-burn drama, Old Stone. It centers on Lao Shi, a taxi driver who rushes a cyclist to the hospital after an accident and gets stuck paying the medical bills as the man falls into a coma. With its tone of bureaucratic immobility and a questioning eye towards society, it sounds like a plot ripped straight from the Romanian New Wave. A long fade in from red sets a mood of rising tension that is underpinned by a dissonant and percussive score. Gang Chen brings a weathered stillness to the lead role as he tries to get out of his situation by calling on favours from friends or winning people over with perpetual offers of "here, have a cigarette". Chinese-Canadian director Johnny Ma piles on dramatic irony, even in the final moments when the film veers into a hiccup of magical realism. Even if the ending is a bit off-key from the rest of the film, the overall effect is an engrossing social drama.
My second film of the day, however, I struggle to fit under any such terms. Perhaps keeping the "gross" from "engrossing" and tagging on a prefix to make "antisocial" will get us close enough to describe a John Waters' 1970 cult curiosity called Multiple Maniacs. A new restoration of the low-budget bacchanal is making rounds courtesy of Janus Films and I was curious to see what it was that they were snatching back from the unforgiving jaws of time. To their credit, the film looks... well, as good as it possibly could, to not say much. And that's where their credit ends with me. Waters can barely keep the camera in focus and the actors in frame as they stumble through what they remember of their lines. That's certainly not to say that cheap, guerilla filmmaking can't hold merit, but when the only discernible purpose is to offend delicate (or not-so-delicate) sensibilities, it's hard to count the result as anything more than puerile provocation.
Up next was Moonlight, a late addition that barrelled into Halifax on a train of praise from Telluride and Toronto International Film Festival. I'll elaborate, but just so I don't mince words: Believe The Hype. This triptych following the life of Chiron (by times also known as Little or Black) is a subtle and overwhelmingly rich examination of modern black masculinity. Barry Jenkins directs the film with supreme confidence and a keen eye for the smallest gestures and moments. Questions of nature, nurture, and self-invention are foregrounded as we see Chiron grow up trying to fit in, silently latching on to friends and father figures, looking for the bricks that will build his manhood. Under a sheen of dazzling colors, gorgeous cinematography, and stunning performances, Moonlight is a melancholy and original work of true art.
Sometimes two movies at a festival can clash in interesting ways, revealing hidden commonalities that you wouldn't expect on the surface. Sometimes, though, the connections are blatant, like seeing two movies about a bunch of weirdos shot in black-and-white. While the kitsch of Multiple Maniacs wasn't my cup of tea, I found lots to enjoy in Weirdos, a Nova Scotia coming-of-age tale from director Bruce McDonald. It follows Kit (Dylan Authors) and Alice (Julia Sarah Stone) in 1976 as they hitchhike from Antigonish to Sydney, where Kit plans to move in with his glamorous, Andy Warhol-connected mother. Everything about the film draws you in to the time and place of their journey: a jangling soundtrack spotlights Harry Nilsson, The Stampeders, and other radio staples of the era, while DP Becky Parsons' camera captures sights of Atlantic scenery that go beyond the usual crashing surf and fishing villages. To watch this movie is to grow up in rural Nova Scotia for 89 minutes; a rare treat of specificity on the big screen.
Spinning the dial back another 10 years, we land in Austin, Texas for a documentary about the 1966 mass shooting at University of Texas. It's called Tower, for the structure on campus where a gunman hid and opened fire at strangers for nearly two hours (an eternity for those present). Using a mix of survivor accounts and archival interviews filtered through the lens of rotoscope animation, director Keith Maitland tracks the events of a historic day almost in real-time. For most of the runtime, the film powerfully eschews the story of the shooter by not saying his name or showing his face, opting instead to focus on the stories of the victims and how it felt to be there on that 100-degree day, a prisoner in your own city. The decision stands in stark contrast to modern media coverage that headlines the "villian" of every story, which makes the closing minutes of Tower a bit disappointing when clips of innumerable shootings from the past 50 years are spliced in. Still, as an achievement in tension, tragedy, and unfortunate societal relevance, this documentary is unmissable.
At the end of a long day filled with more serious fare, it's nice to wind down with a comedy — even if that comedy is 3 hours long and mostly in German. The hulking riot in question is Maren Ade's newest effort, Toni Erdmann. On a meta-conceptual it's perfect: a comedy entirely about needing to laugh. Sandra Hüller plays Ines, a hardworking career woman visited by her father (Peter Simonischek), who believes that she is stressed and suffering. He creates the fabrication of Toni Erdmann, a vaudevillian life coach complete with false teeth and a bad wig, and infiltrates her work life to try and cheer her up. Ade's script is both broad and sly, mining as much humour from Toni's ridiculous behaviour as it does from Ines' (and presumably Ade's) acerbic views of sexism and gender roles. It doesn't feel a fraction of its protracted runtime, sustaining a great pace and delivering jokes for twice as long as most comedies while feeling half as stale.
So, after a jam-packed first day with lots to praise, what will Saturday hold? Check back tomorrow to hear about Operation Avalanche, American Honey, and others.