Rightly called the Festival of Festivals, TIFF has, through the years, struck a balance between the masters and emerging talents in cinema. It is huge, even in its somewhat downsized edition this year, but runs smoothly, with smiling volunteers all around and very deftly conducted Q&As with the director and his crew after every film. An interesting feature of the film screening is that the Programmers themselves come on stage before the film to introduce the director. What also makes this festival unique is the announcement before every film of gratitude to the indigenous tribes who were the original owners of the land TIFF is held on every year. This year there was a short remembering Bill Marshall, founder of TIFF, who passed away in 2017 and another one honouring volunteers. An Indiana Jones kind of character jumps out of a plane, rides out in a canoe over the Niagara Falls, climbs up steep rocks, to find the treasure vault, full of sparkling jewels. But his face lights up at finding the real treasure: the priceless Volunteers’ T-Shirt! Needless to say, both these shorts were always met with warm applause from the audience.
This year TIFF also kept women directors as the focus of programming to raise their participation to 30/40 % and to, in the coming years, raise it to 50% participation. This resulted in several sensitive works by women in the programme. In the NETPAC selection, too, six of the twelve films were by women. Village Rockstars by Rima Das followed a group of young children in Assam, who despite deprivation do not give their dreams The only girl in the group dreams, as do most children of her age, of possessing a guitar and forming a rock band. The kids make believe with thermocol guitars, synthesisers and drum sets that they decorate to their heart’s content. The girl’s mother works very hard to keep the family going. She is the sole bread earner, since her husband has died, and is very [articular, despite the hard life she leads to nurture her daughter’s dreams and not give into societal pressures when other women criticise her daughter for her tomboyishness, for hanging out always with the boys. The girl is deft at climbing trees to pluck fruit and some of the heartwarming scenes are her saving up the money she earns by doing this to buy a guitar, and hiding it in the banboo, with which her house has been constructed, by slitting it and pasting it up. The director has caught the hardships and yet the grit and determination of the family in moving sequences as where the mother teaches her daughter to swim, the incessant rains and the people who live their everyday lives through the slush and heavy downpours. Rima Das treads the very delicate threshold of documentary and fiction, and the powerful performances by the non-actors, the girl and her mother, in particular, make this a very moving film. The puberty rituals for the girl seem to lapse into ethnography, but show the community coming together to celebrate her coming of age which does not in any way diffuse her dreams or her energy or her proclivity to hang out with the boys. The lead protagonist and the mother, both non-actors, gave remarkably moving performances.
The Butterfly Tree by Priscilla Cameron from Australia had cinematography that was stylized to create magical, imaginary worlds that the three main characters live in: the father and son who are fascinated by the same woman. Another love triangle film was Kim Yang Hee’s’s The Poet and the Boy (Sie-nui Sa-rang) from South Korea which explored the ambivalent sexual desires of a married poet, who has a low sperm count. In order to impregnate his wife, he has to give his sperm, and he realizes that he is fascinated by a young man at a doughnut shop he visits. The film has intertwined humour and sorrow in the lives of its three lead protagonists: the poet-husband, the sensitive loving wife and the young boy, who has his girlfriends, but is drawn into the strange relationship with the poet. In the Q&A with the director she explained that she was interested in exploring the relationships between the characters and their own ambivalent attitudes towards each other rather than positing it as queer film. The actress who plays the role of the wife has given a good performance.
Waru, the omnibus film by 8 women directors from New Zealand takes up the issue of child abuse which is among the highest in the world in this country. Each of these films was made with 2 conditions: that it would be shot in one take and that it woild be shot in one day. The child is dead, but his family, neighbours, teachers, ritual mourners and classmates are seen to be coping with this loss, bringing out the issues of social and economic deprivation of the Maori milieu in these 8 short ‘chapters’. The long takes make for an array of interesting and skillful choreography of movement of characters through different topographies, but what the takes lack is a sense of duration and temporality.
In fact, the dominant focus if the NETPAC competition films was strong women characters and children. Elizaveta Stishova’s Suleiman Mountain was another such film, which depicted an almost premodern Kyrgyzstan, in which Karabas, a con man, travels around the countryside in a Soviet era rickety van (called Elli), with his two wives. The elder one, Zhipara, practices shamanism combined with some elements of later religions, and sometimes really cures and at other times, cons customers with her husband. She has adopted a boy from the orphanage, whom she claims is her long lost son with Karabas. The second, younger wife is lame, though modern in her dress and behavior, unlike the traditionally clothed Zhipara. We travel around the countryside with Karabas. The boy gets very upset with the conning. Their life ends in tragedy for the women, but maybe, Karabas makes it up to the young boy he realizes is not his own. Having lost all, he is now ready to adopt. The child has a wonderful face, a face too old and discerning for his years.
Two films were of particular interest in the NETPAC section for the way in which they both evoked film movements from the past. Mohammad Jabarah Al Daradji’s The Journey (Al Rahal)from Iraq was a topical film that evoked neo-realist cinema. A woman suicide bomber comes to a railway station to blow up. She presses the trigger. I the moment that stretches for eternity, the lives of all the people who will be affected is seen in a flash. The city destroyed by war, the theme so often visited in neorealist cinema, and children and adults picking up the threads of their life, any which way they can. The gang of children in the station, the bullying and the young orphaned brother and sister who stand up to them, is a ‘quote’ from neorealist cinema, as is the band of musicians. But the main storyline of the con man and the bomber coming together and getting ‘bonded’ by the child that the unwed mother dumps on them, is somewhat of a weak link in the story. All the characters in the film seem to be in a time warp, and this becomes significant at the end of the film when we realise the ‘action’ that we witnessed was possibly a figment of the bomber’s imagination. The trope of a wedding, of meeting with god, of paradise that is promised, is built up throughout the film, and reaches its climax at the end when the bomber breaks down and asks god, is this the wedding that you promised me. The ‘marriage’ theme is reinforced in side plotlines of a bride who rebels against her mother’s wish for her to get married to a man much older than herself and the bandmaster who refuses to marry the woman who is in love with him. So unrequited love all around, literally and metaphorically. Only the young brother and sister emerge with their dignity intact, living with maturity of adults in a life that has made them age too soon. A brave film, in which the plot, almost entirely, unfolds on the railway platform. Yet the obvious references to neorealism do not infuse the plot with any new energy.
This is not the case with Huang Tsin Yao’s The Great Buddha + from Taiwan that won the NETPAC Award. The film quotes the French New Wave right from the nonchalant voice of the narrator (in this case the director himself, who talks of the producers and the characters in the film and fills in gaps in the narrative with laconic humour), the strange marginal characters who indulge in a bit of ‘unethical pleasure’ in a world without scruples. To spend lonely evenings, security guard, Pickle, and his friend who collects recyclable waste, Belly Button, hit upon a novel method of entertainment: they steal footage from Pickle’s boss’ dashboard camera and watch it. Only that there usually is very little to watch, other than the roads and parking lots the car drives to. What is of interest is the audio track that records the boss, Kevin making out with his numerous girlfriends. They witness him killing an old flame who protested too much, and Belly Button signs his own death warrant. The director uses black and white to capture the life of these have-nots and the only parts in the film in colour is the footage from the dashboard camera that is like a tunnel, leading into another world. The footage is the interface between the two very different worlds of the rich and the marginalized. The boss runs a factory in which great Buddha statues are made and this, too, is the subject of black humour.
Among the films that were of interest outside the NETPAC section were Stephan Komandarev’s Destinations, which follows different taxi drivers and their fares through the city and charts a psychological portrait of the new Bulgaria. Zvyagintsev’s Loveless from Russia once again focuses on the dystopian family, on a couple too busy with their new loves to pay attention to their young son and when he disappears, more faultlines appear. The parents have been so taken up with the new family units they are going to move into when they separate, that when a mangled body is identified as their son, a doubt remains whether they actually knew him well enough to identify him. The child who says that he can’t take it anymore, just before he disappears is heartrending. The circle comes round fully when the new ‘families’ they have set up, do not seem to be much happiness either and they are back to their old distractions. Sadaf Faroughi’s Ava, an Iranian-Canadian film looks at authoritanianism in the family that mentally wrecks a young girl in a semi-conservative family. The other Asian film that took a wry look at the Israeli-Palestinian relations was Annemaries Jacir’s Wajib (Duty) in which a brother returns to Nazareth from Europe to help his father distribute wedding cards for the marriage of his sister. Every home they visit unravels a bit of the tensions, social history and relations between various communities and relatives in the city, not the least between Israelis and Palestinians living in the same city. Father and son also smoothen out their own relationship through this journey. Sabiha Sumar’s Azmaish: A Journey Through the Subcontinent, a documentary on the rise of the right and fundamentalism in neoliberal Pakistan and India, had some interesting interviews, particularly in Pakistan, but lacked depth in many others.
The latest edition of TIFF lived up to its reputation as a warm, hospitable festival where exciting new voices in cinema get a chance to be showcased. That the festival is deeply embedded in the cultural life of the city is evident from the long queues and crowds outside the theatres even on weekdays.