All My Puny Sorrows, Attica, Dionne Warwick: Don't Make Me Over, Hold Your Fire, I'm Your Man, Kicking Blood, Oscar Peterson: Black + White, Petite Maman, Saloum, The Mad Women's Ball, Three Minutes: A Lengthening, Toronto International Film Festival, tt stern-enzi
By virtual necessity, my remote experience of the Toronto International Film Festival required a different approach. Ordinarily, after spending days building the impossibly perfect beast of a screening schedule, I write up a preview of the hot titles before leaving the Queen City and then dive into my daily ruminations on the previous day’s screenings and/or interview opportunities, while also offering a feature or two for my freelance alt-weekly coverage.
My last couple of pre-COVID festivals included a bit more of a roving travelogue of the city of Toronto’s loving embrace of the event. I’ve become acquainted with artists and gallery owners near the festival’s King Street hub, critics, freelance compatriots, and coffeeshop natives who provide me with a sometimes-needed escape from the self-imposed grind of the work of watching.
During anxiety attacks, the reminder is to breathe; when dealing with the impulsiveness of the ten-day festival rush, it is best to never forget to simply be, to live in the moments beyond the screens.
Year Two of COVID meant making the decision in June to accept virtual press accreditation with the hope that I would still be able to access most of the festival’s slate. The fall festival season is all about generating buzz for awards season favorites. As a small market Midwestern critic, Toronto grants me the opportunity to have my voice included early in the hype machine. This is how representation matters in the industry continuum. Filmmakers on one end, audiences at the other end of the spectrum, but critical commentators operating in the middle ground (beyond the established trade class) must be given the chance to be heard.
The lack of full access to those of us who made the choice and stuck with the virtual option, initially felt like a punishment of sorts, but eventually created a certain freedom to expand my vision. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all.
So, I accepted the challenge of surfing along the lower frequencies, if you will, opening myself up to the possibilities removed from the awards season hunt. Forget feeding the buzzy beast. Find and ride other waves headed towards shores and ports not readily taken.
Let start off by disavowing the notion of breakdowns. Women on the verge of life-altering awareness would be the over-arching theme of Petite Maman (Céline Sciamma), All My Puny Sorrows (Michael McGowan), and most obviously The Mad Women’s Ball (Mélanie Laurent). In Sciamma’s understated follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a brief and meaningful encounter develops between two young girls as Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) wanders the woods behind her recently-deceased grandmother’s home and encounters the strangely familiar Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) building a treehouse. The story quietly observes how its characters deal with grief and an anticipated hospital stay, but swells with wisdom as it becomes a lesson on understanding. Sciamma exhibits great sensitivity as she coaxes such adult performances out of her two young leads and resists the urge to extend the narrative past its delicate means. The film clocks in at a lean 72 minutes, but it folds generations of secrets and longing into one truly lived experience.
All My Puny Sorrows, in some ways, feels like a spiritual companion piece to Petite Maman, but it exposes the blood passed down through raw generational wounds that can never heal. The relationship lines are more clearly and distinctly delineated though as struggling writer Yoli (Alison Pill) receives word that her classical concert pianist sister Elf (Sarah Gadon) has once again attempted to kill herself, following a seemingly inherited family curse.
At its core, Sorrows, based on the bestselling Miriam Toews novel, is a character study of the two sisters and their fraught dynamic. What is the connection (or the disconnect) between a sister who seemingly has everything to live for except the will to carry on and a sibling who heedlessly rams into every obstacle – real or imagined – before her, and drags herself along to the next? Pill has the more recognizably grounded role, the one most viewers will relate to, and she remains our steadfast center throughout, but Gadon with dry resignation makes us appreciate the passion and inevitability in Elf’s journey. That way lies an acceptance of a harsh reality.
Period pieces, of late, have come unmoored from the past. It seems as if we can’t reflect on historic lessons unless past miscues are just dressed up versions of current calamities. Is this what lies ahead for representation?
I thought I might wind up asking myself that very question as I cued up Mélanie Laurent’s Mad Women’s Ball. I am a sucker for performers who step behind the camera and Laurent’s work as an actress spans Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds to the magician caper Now You See Me, so I was more than willing to see where this mercurial French filmmaker might go on her own. The premise takes us inside a 19th century Parisian asylum for women, plagued by a host of problems that have more to do with men (family members and those with privileged positions in society). But, instead of committing to #MeToo from an earlier age, this Ball takes the time to shake the social commentary shackles for understated diversions.
The protagonist Eugénie (Lou de Laâge) has been unfairly institutionalized by her father for the twin sins of being a bit to progressive for the times (reading in cafes and attending funerals of writers) while also claiming a connection with the dead. In other words, Eugénie has a sixth sense.
It is the treatment of this ability that sets the proceedings apart for me. Played as a minor-key personal parlor trick, Eugénie helps those around her find lost heirlooms or have much-needed conversations from beyond that bring peace more so than otherworldly resolutions. Of course, none of the male powers-that-be believe in Eugénie, although it is pointed out that what she does is no more unbelievable than the notion of God. Laurent enters the mix as a nurse at the asylum who begins to recognize the wrongs committed against the women in the name of treatment and who comes to appreciate Eugénie’s gift.
There are no miracles saving the day or ushering in a new age. The victories are small and somewhat hard-earned, but by the end, I believed that every once in a while, someone secures a win against the madness of the day.
If a movement has the ability to reflect upon its arc, what moments – the lesser recalled – swing low and speak louder, when remembered around the collective campfire of memory? My TIFF 2021 included calls from the past demanding responses in order to grant meaning to the idea of truth and reconciliation.
Show, don’t tell. That’s the charge of great fiction. A vital part of the showing, in documentary filmmaking, is in the updating and contemporizing of the past. We may think we know what happened way back when because a version of the truth has been presented, but has every voice been lifted and heard? The double feature of Attica (Stanley Nelson) and Hold Your Fire (Stefan Forbes) offers a jazz-like swing to the proceedings, granting solos to participants forgotten, ignored, or completely expunged from the original tellings.
Both films capture events from the early 1970s. The prison uprising at Attica is a storied moment that a great number of folks don’t truly know the story of at all. They might recognize the name and the tag (prison riot), but none of the facts, especially if by time or geography there is a remove from the period and place. Imagine prisoners demanding to be treated – despite their crimes – as human beings. The mostly black and brown inmates were faceless and nameless. Identified by numbers and the acts that landed them in prison.
MacArthur Fellow and esteemed documentarian Nelson (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Rise Up: The Movement that Changed America) introduces us to some of these men (not merely the composite characters borne of quasi-fictional retellings of such events) and provides a platform for their voices to be heard. It is incumbent upon filmmakers to find those who survived and remain from these moments and allow them to share their perspectives.
And in Attica, Nelson places them alongside family members of the guards who worked at the prison, the outside facilitators brought in to ensure some sense of fairness for the inmates, and colleagues of the politicians and officials making key and devastating decisions over the course of the days-long siege. It matters that all of these voices are given equal measure during the documentary. This history doesn’t just belong to the victors telling their version of events.
This rigorous practice of adhering to form and structure continues in Hold Your Fire and is even more important, due to the fact that robbery and ensuing hostage situation that occurred at Joe & Al Sports in Brooklyn in 1973 is, on the surface, not as well-known. But the tactic of hostage negotiation, developed during this crisis by Harvey Scholsberg, became the standard approach of not only the New York City Police Department, but departments everywhere.
Watching the film today, a little over a year after the death of George Floyd and several others at the hands of police officers around the country, it is still difficult to believe that four Black men between the ages of 22 and 24 wouldn’t all wind up in body bags after a most cursory attempt to determine whether or not the hapless civilians who found themselves caught up in the situation could be saved. Forbes, through pinpoint use of first-person recollections from officers on-hand, proves the rank and file were ready to rush in, cocked and loaded, damn the casualties.
These documentaries capture moving testimony from first-hand participants, family members of those who may not have survived or have passed on following the incidents, and critical voices seeking to define sad elements of our imperfect humanity. Movements, it must be remembered, are more than flashpoints. Their sustained nature is dependent upon confronting past sins. When we speak of admissions of guilt; the admission is not just the first step, but the one we’re most likely to skip over.
As a working member of the Critics Choice Association with Rotten Tomatoes accreditation, I know I will eventually have access to the awards season’s usual suspects. The honest truth about covering festival is, at least for me, about stumbling upon a find that lets you know your instincts are sharp and attuned to the cultural zeitgeist. I received confirmation of my underground credibility when Germany selected I’m Your Man from Maria Schrader as their submission for Foreign Language Academy Award consideration.
From the moment I read the festival synopsis – and saw the name Dan Stevens – I was all in. I was a latecomer to Legion, but thanks to quarantine, I binged my way through that delirious mind-trip and I’ve dedicated a probably not insignificant portion of my brain to furthering the narrative on my own. Maybe it’s just so I can spend more time with Stevens.
I’m Your Man provided me with the opportunity to get out of my head and still spend some quality time with a Stevens character who reminded me of Legion’s David Haller. Here, instead of being a schizophrenic mutant, Stevens is a humanoid robot named Tom assigned to a research scientist named Alma (Maren Eggert) who doesn’t believe in the experiment she’s taking part in. Alma is supposed to see if she can develop feelings for Tom, who is algorithmically designed to be her perfect partner.
The surreal twist of Stevens being Stevens is that he’s always the most human being onscreen, regardless of the role. In the hands of anyone else, Tom and I’m Your Man would be a broad lark playing to an assumed laugh track, but the drama in this dramedy matters more, which means the humor will too.
I made a brief return to movements while watching the music documentaries Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over (David Heilbroner & Dave Wooley) and Oscar Peterson: Black + White (Barry Avrich). Much like Samuel Pollard’s Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, each of these films spotlight noted Black performers who, during their celebrated careers, faced blatant racism, especially while touring throughout the United States. Their individual strength and willingness to stare down the perpetrators isn’t what elevates them to iconic status.
Warwick and Peterson created musical moments attuned to either race or another marginalized group and compelled their audiences to join these movements. There was no way their fans could obliviously walk on by societal injustices and still dare to listen to their work.
I look forward to the day when we won’t wait for the music industry to acknowledge the impact of Warwick and Peterson. Instead, hopefully thanks to these documentaries, these two performers should be celebrated at institutions like the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
Documentaries about the Holocaust continue to expand the scale and scope of historic imagination.
In 1938, during a self-defined grand tour of Europe that included a stop in Poland, David Kurtz shot footage of his travels. Some of what remains of that recording was discovered by his grandson a little more than ten years ago. Director Bianca Stigter embarked on the deepest of deep dives into the segments from Poland, important to Kurtz, since that was his original family homeland. Miraculously, Stigter couldn’t be limited by the 3+ minutes of footage available. She and an amazing team fashioned themselves as scientists intent on breaking down the tape, frame by frame, to determine the human protons and neutrons of this elemental discovery.
By the time the Germans made their way through this region of Poland, only a handful of survivors would remain, with fewer still hanging on decades later. Three Minutes: A Lengthening illustrates the devastating impact of genocide by bringing life back from these fleeting framed moments.
Genre, in the right hands, is a foundation that a skilled visionary can transform into quirky multiverses of little wonders. I knew absolutely nothing about Jean Luc Herbulot or Saloum except the all-too-brief description – three mercenaries extracting a drug lord out of Guinea-Bissau are forced to hide in the mystical region of Saloum, Senegal. Think Three Kings meets Extraction, right? Maybe an infusion of the topicality of Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods.
Personally and professionally, I’m heading into a new phase of discovery. I am hungry to explore Black diaspora filmmaking outside the United States. I’m longing for a sense of connection with stories about Black folks borne of different cultures and traditions. And Saloum delivers a heady mix of the thrills inherent in the premise along with the idea of the urban legends that are the three mercenaries. Individually they represent the brains (a leader with head full of plans and alternative options for any situation), the brawn (a warrior with the survival instincts of the wildest and most free predator around), and the believer (an unconventional addition who has connections to the spirit world or at the very least, the mythic hype generator that grants legends their power).
But that’s not all. Saloum incorporates the complex history of Black people and survival on a continent rife with colonizers and native oppressors. It is a supernatural undertaking, but Herbulot never lets you forget that his protagonists are made of worn flesh and strong but completely breakable bones.
Notice I shied away from the mention of blood because Blaine Thurier went there for me at the very beginning of the festival with his entry Kicking Blood. Yet another vampire story, but the bloodthirsty center of Thurier’s film is Anna (Alanna Bale, recalling the melancholic longing of Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda), an undead vision with centuries in the life bank, but a desire for something more to the idea of everlasting life. She’s lured into the struggles of a man (Luke Bilyk) seeking to kick his drug addiction and starts to consider that her bloodlust may be an addiction of its own.
Although not nearly as surreal or as caught up in Old World charms as Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, Kicking Blood has a unique fascination with day-to-day existence and a search for meaning rather than a never-ending accumulation of knowledge and power for its own sake. Who wants to be addicted to forever? I think that’s what most of the glossy vampire tales fail to see as the downside to the genre dream.
Tune in for clips and updates as more of the Toronto International Film Festival selections I screened are released either in theaters or On Demand.