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Wednesday, October 23, 2019

A festival of many facets


The 38th Toronto International Film Festival will, besides its Oscar buzz-generating entries, be remembered for a spread of superb cinematic essays from the Arab world and a handful of benchmark-setting documentaries Saibal Chatterjee
SAIBAL CHATTERJEE | Issue Dated: November 30, -0001, New Delhi
Tags : 38th Toronto International Film Festival | Tsai Ming-liang | Kim Ki-duk | Sono Sion | Why Don’t You Play in Hell? |

The 38th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) delivered all that it was expected to, and much more, offering something of significance for virtually every kind of cinematic appetite that there is in this world.

In fact, the festival posed the question upfront this year: “What is your festival personality?” The answers ranged from “the star-gazer” to “the cinephile”, and “the believer” to “the auterist” and “the extended lunch-breaker”. As the largest public film festival in the world, TIFF has a character that is pretty much in keeping with the essence of the city it is held in – it embraces cinema in all its diversity.    

A slew of outstanding films from names known and unknown, some great Oscar buzz-generating screen performances, and a sustained sense of excitement over the non-stop parade of A-list Hollywood stars at the Roy Thompson Hall kept festival regulars of all hues busy and happy all through the eleven days of the event.

Not surprisingly, the big Hollywood films drew the biggest crowds. But that did not mean that the smaller films from less fancied movie-producing corners of the globe went a-begging.

The latest works of much sought-after Asian helmers such as Tsai Ming-liang, Kim Ki-duk, Sono Sion and Brillante Mendoza, and of course Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki, made the 38th TIFF memorable for the world’s largest continent.

The films by the first four divided the audience and that was par for the course. Philippine auteur and festival favourite Mendoza was represented in Toronto by a visceral horror flick which was actually a searing indictment of his country’s electronic media. Sapi (Possession) is certainly not for the squeamish but has many moments that are bound to delight fans of the director.

The same is true of Japanese veteran Sono Sion’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, a film that throws gangsters and moviemakers into the same pot and stirs up a visual riot that is riveting and unsettling at the same time.

Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises is a characteristically brilliant yet caustic look at Japan between the wars seen from the standpoint of an aviation engineer driven by uncommon dreams and desires.  

The 38th TIFF will be remembered for a rich complement of films from the Arab world provided evidence that the resurgence of cinema in the region is here to stay.
Especially noteworthy were four Palestinian entries – Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar, Rani Massalha’s Giraffada, Mais Darwazah’s My Love Awaits Me by the Sea and Rashid Masharawi’s Palestine Stereo.

In Palestine Stereo, Gaza-born Masharawi uses a combination of poignant irony and biting satire to probe the questions of freedom and homelessness.

Two brothers, Milad and Sami, lose their home in Jenin in an Israeli airstrike. Milad’s wife is killed and Sami is robbed of speech and hearing. The twosome decides to migrate to Canada in a search of a new life but before they can secure the requisite visa they must build a sizeable bank balance.

Giraffada, the debut film of France-based Massalha, erstwhile assistant to Rachid Bouchareb, Hiner Saleem and Bruno Dumont, is an unusual look at the impact of continued occupation on the lives of people – and on a giraffe in the Qalqilya Zoo.

An airstrike kills a male giraffe and the pregnant female giraffe stops eating. The zoo vet’s 10-year-old son is distraught. So father and son, with the help of a French journalist and an Israeli friend – plan a daring animal heist from a safari park and pull it off against all odds.

Like Palestine Stereo, Giraffada is delightfully witty even as it lays bare the sheer absurdity of the lengths to which occupiers can go to impose their will on an oppressed population. Giraffada is a “free” adaptation of a real-life incident.       

The appearance of such divas as Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johansson had the shutterbugs in a tizzy, while a film about Nelson Mandela’s fight against apartheid and a drama focusing on the hours and days following the assassination of John F Kennedy drew sustained attention.

Several actors have garnered unstinted applause for their performances with Idris Elba of Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom and Matthew McConaughey of Dallas Buyers Club leading the way. Also in the mix is Ralph Fiennes, who makes a charismatic Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman, the English actor’s second film as director after 2011’s Coriolanus.

The critic of The Telegraph, writing after the world premiere of The Invisible Woman in Toronto, had this to say of the film and the star turn: “Fluid, handsome and confidently contained, it benefits from the actor-manager air of Fiennes's presence as Charles Dickens, which is bustling and authoritative but frequently offstage.”

The Invisible Woman centres on Dickens’s secret affair with a young actress that ended his marriage and lasted until his death. The star of the film is Felicity Jones, who plays Nelly Ternan with empathy and restraint. With this her breakout performance, Jones is likely to be heard of more not only in the months leading up to the Academy Awards but in the years to come.

Matthew McConaughey is the lead actor of Quebecois filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club and his interpretation of the character of a real-life 1980s AIDS victim and womanizer and law-breaker who triggered an alternative and experimental treatment of the disease.

The Hollywood Reporter believes that the film “will get its biggest assist from the tremendous gusto of Matthew MCConaughey’s lead performance”.

The THR review of the film says: “While much of the attention will focus on the actor’s astonishing weight loss for the role, transforming himself into a gaunt bag of bones for a good part of the action, this is a full-bodied characterization that will take McConaughey’s already impressive career regeneration several steps further.”

While English actor Idris Elba slips into the skin of Nelson Mandela with respect and an unfailing sense of responsibility, he comes up with a performance that blends restrained intensity with flashes of bravura touches. The film, Justin Chadwick’s Nelson Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom – wouldn’t be half as impressive without Elba’s commanding performance.

Post-TIFF, the world will be abuzz with the names of several other ‘best actor’ contenders – Chrish Hemsworth as British racing legend James Hunt in Ron Howard’s Rush, Benedict Cumberbatch as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate and Chiwitel Ejiofor in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.

Among the more unusual films in this year’s TIFF were I Am Yours, the feature debut of Pakistani-Norwegian filmmaker Iram Haq; Indian-Canadian director Richie Mehta’s Siddharth, set in Delhi; and Pan Nalin’s fascinating Maha Kumbh Mela documentary, Faith Connections.

If there is one film that left an indelible mark on this writer, it has got to be Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky’s Watermark, a visually stunning documentary that probes mankind’s relationship with water and the life-sustaining commodity shapes civilizations while being constantly and indiscriminately depleted by flawed development models.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017