TIFF 2020 highlights and films that stood out, from One Night in Miami to Pieces of a Woman
TIFF going virtual this year offered an opportunity for novice film writers to cover a festival they might not have been able to otherwise. It democratised access to films, which may or may not release globally.
"You, in your bedroom, with your laptop. That's not the future of film festivals," The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw wrote earlier this year. At least, for 10 whole days of Toronto International Film Festival 2020, it was. For him, for me and for every film writer who opted to cover TIFF remotely from the safety of our homes. It was not the ideal festival experience. Alas, the curve refused to flatten, and film festivals had to adapt. Adapting is better than cancelling it altogether.
TIFF 2020 wasn't the usual frenetic stretch of standing-in-lines, screenings, and star-sightings, with the occasional pit stop for refuelling. The Gala Presentations didn't get red carpet premieres, but I did feel a compulsion to screen them on my TV instead of laptop. The Midnight Madness screenings didn't leave a room full of horror fiends gasping for breath at the same time. For me, it happened at 11am. Blankets, bags of chips and plenty of beverages may have been involved.
Indeed, physical film festivals can never be replaced by online platforms. They act as frontlines for film conversations, and a melting pot for filmmakers and film lovers to network with their counterparts from other countries. In addition, the sidebar sections create buzz around lesser-known work, introducing them to larger audiences. The only buzz this year came from the tenacious bee outside my bedroom window. That's another reason physical editions are irreplaceable. Watching films in a dark room full of strangers offers a distraction-free experience. You don't feel the need to check your phone or run to the fridge every 10 minutes.
TIFF going virtual this year, however, offered an opportunity for novice film writers (like me) to cover a festival they might not have been able to otherwise. It democratised access to films, which may or may not release globally. Though I had to battle through a few buffering issues, my first TIFF was mostly a memorable one. The scaled-down slate wasn't exactly an embarrassment of riches, and Indian writers didn't have access to some Gala Presentations (American Utopia, Ammonite, Bruised, I Care a Lot) and Venice-crowned titles (like Chaitanya Tamhane's The Disciple and Chloé Zhao's Nomadland). But the line-up had some vital ingredients: awards season contenders, class warfare movies and Shia LaBeouf. After digging through the main sections and sidebars for feature films, short films and documentaries, I've unearthed a few titles worth seeking out.
New Order (dir. Michel Franco)
Like Bong Joon-ho's Oscar-winning masterpiece Parasite, Michel Franco's New Order allegorises a clash between the haves and have-nots. The wedding reception of Marianne (Naian Gonzalez Norvind), the daughter of a wealthy Mexican businessman, in their obscenely fancy house becomes the scene of a home invasion. It is not as stealthily staged as it is in Parasite, because here, it's a large-scale anti-bourgeois revolution launched by the working classes. They storm the house, kidnap several hostages and throw them into hellish cages, where they're tortured and abused, to extort money from their wealthy families. Franco's treatment here is quite Michael Haneke-esque. He paints in broad brushstrokes what Bong Joon-ho does in a much more pointed way with finer details.
Despite the support of the military, the "new order" however sinks into anarchy as greed turns even the new ruling class into opportunistic monsters. The inevitable consequences of the revolt are seen through the eyes of Marianne and the housekeeper's son Christian, two people divided by class, but united by their sense of humanity. New Order attempts to illustrate Jean-Pierre Faye's horseshoe theory that there is little that separates the extreme left and extreme right. It also hints a cynical truth many of us refuse to accept: Coup d’états may overthrow governments, but in their transition from right to left or from left to right, little changes in the end. The power is as always restored to the powerful, who are willing to exploit the poor and marginalised for their own benefit.
Apples (dir. Christos Nikou)
Apples is set during a global pandemic, but quite unlike the one we're living through. In Christos Nikou's debut feature, there's a sudden, unexplained outbreak of amnesia. So, the doctors devise an experimental treatment to create a new identity for those — like our protagonist (Aris Servetalis) — who doesn't have any loved ones to claim him. Every day, a pre-recorded tape directs him to a series of activities (ride a bike, go to a costume party, have a one-night stand, etc.), which must then be documented on Polaroids to help reconstruct a fresh personality. It mirrors many of our own habits. Slave to technology and the social rituals it enables, we often participate in experiences to be photographed instead of experiencing them for their own sake.
Memory here is the taste of an apple, with a restorative power not unlike Proust's madeleine. But Nikou is more interested in the relationship between memory and identity, between what we remember and what we forget, and between what we are and what we want to be. He puts forth an important question in the process: if you are struggling with grief, is forgetting a blessing? Nikou, who worked as an assistant director on Yorgos Lanthimos's Dogtooth, displays a similar MO. The characters are awkward, the dialogue is affectedly deadpan, the colours are muted, and the mood is sombre. Where Nikou distinguishes himself from The Lobster director is in his more marked humanist approach.
Pieces of a Woman (dir. Kornél Mundruczó)
The apple becomes a less organic, more heavy-handed metaphor for rebirth in Pieces of a Woman. Kornél Mundruczó's chronicle of a woman who loses her child during home birth, kicks off with a masterfully staged prologue featuring Vanessa Kirby as the pregnant Martha, Shia LaBeouf as her husband Sean, and Molly Parker as the midwife supervising the childbirth. In a 30-minute uninterrupted take, Kirby makes you realise why childbirth is called labour. It's real hard work. Mundruczó's real-time staging involves the viewer emotionally in this "miracle of life" like it were an event, and its intensity increases with each contraction. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Martha and Sean just can't find a way to stay on the same wavelength. She internalises her grief, much to the dismay of her overbearing mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), who strongly believes bringing the midwife to justice could be the only way for her daughter to heal from her trauma and move on. Kirby brings a truthfulness to a mother's emotional entropy, unable to fill the unimaginable void left by the loss of a child. As Martha accepts, endures and slowly reassembles the lost pieces of herself, Kirby destroys the line between character and actor in a career-defining performance. The movie's emotional impact is however weakened by a climactic courtroom scene which feels like it was designed to move Academy voters to tears, at the cost of authenticity.
One Night in Miami (dir. Regina King)
On February 25, 1964, Cassius Clay (soon to be Muhammad Ali) became the world heavyweight boxing champion. The same night, in a Miami hotel room, Clay (Eli Goree) joins his three friends — political activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and NFL champion Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) — for a memorable, but fictional, conversation in One Night in Miami. The ideas, dreams and hopes of these four Black icons will merge and clash on a politically charged night. Though the film is mostly set within the four walls of a hotel room, you'll be a happier prisoner for staying with them till the end.
Regina King navigates these limits with a fever pitch of dramatic intensity. She sets up her big-screen translation of Kemp Powers' stage play quite beautifully. Before their meeting, the film's prologue shows these men not as Black icons, but as how they were seen in society by white Americans. Brown visits the home of a white benefactor (Beau Bridges), who calls him a credit to the sport and the state of Georgia before reminding him of his place when he offers to help move some furniture in the house. Cooke bombs in front of the all-white Copacabana audience. This is why, on the fabled night, Malcolm X needles Cooke for not using his voice as weapon to gather support for the civil rights movement, and rouses the others into political commitment to the Black cause. What King tries to accomplish is so vital at this point in time that it almost doesn't matter how stage-y some of its monologues and confrontations are. Like Malcolm X tells them, and King reminds us, just because a Black man is a boxing champion, an NFL star or a soul artist, doesn't mean things have changed for the whole community. Once the film gets a worldwide release, it will be interesting to see how it drives the ongoing cultural dialogue about the challenges still faced by Black people in America.
Limbo (dir. Ben Sharrock)
From the very first shot of Ben Sharrock's Limbo, you can't help but think of Elia Suleiman's observational tragi-comedies. You see Suleiman's influence not just in the humour, but in the camera setup, the framing, and the wide shots which reflect the world in all its beauty and its absurdity. He provides a deceptively naturalistic look at the physical and emotional reality of the refugee experience. The limbo here is a literal one. Omar (Amir El-Masry), a young Syrian refugee and oud player, is stuck on a remote Scottish island with refugees from Afghanistan, Nigeria and Sudan, all waiting to be granted asylum. They are not sure how long they will be staying here. So, their acclimatisation to Western culture gets underway: they are taught how to dance, they get sexual harassment prevention training, and they watch episodes of Friends. Like Suleiman, Sharrock finds humour in the lyrical, or plainly ridiculous, everyday situations.
The longer the wait, the more Omar misses his family. Phone calls to his parents reveal they escaped to Turkey while his brother stayed back in Syria to fight for his country. Sadness turns into remorse, as he feels guilt over leaving and not staying back in Syria to fight alongside him. Helping him through his struggle and from losing hope is Farhad (Vikash Bhai), an Afghan refugee with a Freddie Mercury moustache. He encourages Omar to start playing the oud again, in hopes of finding grace and beauty even in a world of violence and discrimination.
Shiva Baby (dir. Emma Seligman)
Emma Seligman's Shiva Baby is an awfully relatable story about a young Jewish woman who finds herself trapped in a family gathering she can't leave. Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is suffocated by a close-knit community whose bonds are little too close for comfort. So, she is torn between conforming to the expectations of a society obsessed with placing people in boxes, and defying them over the course of a Jewish funeral service. She knows what she wants to study and the job she wants, at least she thinks she does. Only, she can't seem to convince those around her. So, the confidence soon turns into fear, a fear of disappointing her parents, who are themselves torn between supporting their daughter, and maintaining a healthy reputation in their strongly competitive community. These are familiar circumstances many of us have found ourselves in, Jewish or not.
Adding to Danielle's mounting distress is an ex-girlfriend and the married man with whom she is sleeping. The camera ducks and weaves through all this domestic traffic. Each time her anxiety reaches a crescendo, it is accentuated with nervous, discordant strings. In all this manic dysfunction is an offbeat comedy which magnifies some of our own fallibilities as a young adult struggling to figure out what to do with our lives.
Violation (dir. Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer)
The only real highlight from this year’s Midnight Madness was Violation. Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer's film opens with a wolf about to tear into its prey. So, what it symbolises shouldn't be hard to guess. Miriam (Sims-Fewer) is trying to revive a failing marriage with her husband Caleb (Obi Abili) and an estranged relationship with her sister Greta (Anna Maguire) on a weekend getaway. But when Greta's husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) interprets Miriam's drunken kiss for an invitation to rape her, she plans an elaborate rendezvous to exact her revenge. What follows is a brutal tale of overcoming trauma, when the circle of trust that a family offers becomes a quagmire of shock, denial, numbness, disbelief, and anger.
In the wake of #MeToo, the debate continues whether rape-revenge films are feminist, or exploitation-flicks masquerading as feminism. Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer try to avoid falling prey to the subgenre's exploitation roots for the most part. They follow Coralie Fargeat's Revenge template, by showing the act of revenge, not the rape, in a gratuitously graphic manner. To mirror Miriam's fractured psyche, they employ a nonlinear structure where moments are pulled out of memory, jumping between flashbacks and the present. In the process, they deliver a sanguine and full-frontal work of horror, and announce themselves as an exciting new voice in genre cinema.
Still Processing (dir. Sophy Romvari)
Sophy Romvari's short film opens with a God's eye view shot of a letter from her parents. It concerns a box of old photos, home movies and some unprocessed negatives from her childhood. Romvari lost two of her older brothers, and as she unboxes this archive of lost memories, she gives us an intimate document of trauma. But it feels less like an intrusion on her private grief, more like we're being invited to her processing of it. The film gives her the unique opportunity to build an observer's perspective, a view of her loss outside the experience through a shifting window of time. What she struggles to tell us, the unspoken pain and unresolved guilt, she confides through subtitles. As she digitises these photos and videos, it's as much an exercise in catharsis, as it is a way to safeguard these memories. In the beginning, Romvari admits she isn't sure her film is finished, which in itself perfectly describes the "still processing" aspect of grief.
76 Days (dir. Hao Wu, Weixi Chen)
Hao Wu (People's Republic of Desire, All in My Family) joins Weixi Chen and an anonymous reporter to provide a fly-on-the-wall account of the patients and medical workers affected by the COVID-19 outbreak from the frontlines of Wuhan. They opt for a no-frills approach that looks beyond talking-heads and rule-of-thirds to chronicle the admirable work of the resilient men and women who came together to contain the outbreak during the city's 76-day lockdown. Half-an-hour into the documentary, we come to recognise some of these people despite their masks and protective gear: the restless grandfather eager to find a way out of the hospital, the couple yearning to see their new-born child, and the hospital worker with the unenviable task of notifying the loved ones of the victims to return their valuables. Wu takes an apolitical approach because he's not trying to hold anyone accountable here, but simply documenting a testimonial to the doctors and nurses "charging forward, braving the enemy's fire," as an elderly patient puts it. 76 Days can be a distressing film to watch, but it's worth watching because it's not without hope. It's a commodity in short supply this year.
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