Festivals: Toronto 2017
“First, we would like to acknowledge the Haudenosaunee, the Mississauga of New Credit, and the Huron Wendat, the original owners of this land, for hosting the Toronto International Film Festival this year, and every year.” In a first for TIFF, every public screening in 2017 began with a programmer reciting this well-intentioned script. At the 40 films I attended, audience response split between enthusiasm and skepticism, the latter because “hosting” seemed like an awfully demure term for the colonial history motivating these words, the rhetoric of unclear value to the indigenous communities who were its ostensible dedicatees. I understood the qualms, but not one detractor I spoke to had attended any of the First Nations films distributed across the program, which might have furnished more organic proof of investment than clucking at the Festival’s earnest if unavoidably inadequate gesture.
Pre-eminent within this rich vein of indigenous programming was Our People Will Be Healed by stalwart Abenaki documentarian Alanis Obomsawin. This portrait of the pupils, teachers, and local environment of Norway House Cree Nation—a robustly successful school and community center in Manitoba, steered toward the needs of Native students and the hiring of Native faculty—represents the 85-year-old Obomsawin’s 50th feature, and she is already at work on the 51st. Showcased in the Masters section of TIFF alongside Haneke, Varda, and Hong, Obomsawin merits their level of global renown, and not just for the expository and activist value of her films. Her work seldom screens theatrically in the U.S. (MoMA’s 2008 retrospective remains a very welcome exception), but Our People deserves to change that. The movie presents as stylistically modest but makes expert use of its mobile camera, tracking and gliding down schoolhouse corridors and over running rivers in a way that amplifies the vitality of the Turtle Island people and of education as a dynamic process. Nowhere in sight are the usual static friezes of Native “nobility” or the pessimistic laments for doomed traditions, though Our People Will Be Healed is hardly quiet about the systemic oppression of indigenous nations and cultures. Still, the scenes of eight-year-olds learning Cree language and music, the cross-section of arts and sciences curricula that thrive in Norway House, and the glimpses of the school’s thriving job placement program make Our People Will Be Healed into a quietly rousing spectacle—an example worth emulating far and wide, at a grim moment for higher learning across North America. After a long standing ovation, Obomsawin confided how elated she is to have lived long enough to tell a hopeful story about flourishing, after so many years of dire prognoses for First Nations societies. Now audiences just need to see it.
Granted, other indigenous visions at TIFF felt more heartsick, however alleviated by aesthetic finesse or formal daring. Dislocation Blues, a short documentary by Ho-Chunk filmmaker Sky Hopinka, chronicled the 2016 Standing Rock protests in images both ravishing and harrowing, recalling the keen eye and purposefully jagged montage of recent nonfiction landmarks like James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments or Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist. Eccentrically structured, and thus slotted in the Wavelengths section for experimental work, Dislocation Blues is narrated, sort of, through intermittent Skype conversations with Cleo Keahna, a young two-spirit Ojibwe and Meskwaki activist who joined the anti-pipeline demonstrations. The experience Cleo describes of an eclectic native uprising, simultaneously strong and broken, is reflected in the film’s calico assembly—reflective, too, of Hopinka being too swept up in civil disobedience to worry about perfect coverage or to care about hiding the seams.
Life and Nothing More
Similarly premised on a tipping point between synthesis and disarray was the Kiwi anthology Waru, an unprecedented collaboration among eight Maori women filmmakers, each contributing a 10-minute short film linked in more and less obvious ways to the funeral of the title character, a young boy who died amid dubious circumstances. The creative constraints assigned to the directors—each required to shoot her film as a continuous shot, and given one day apiece for principal photography—sometimes serve Waru’s amazing production narrative more than the tales at hand. The framing and all-natural lighting, lacking the requisite time for more nuanced set-ups, miss opportunities to clarify the story or deepen the characterizations; some actors would have profited from multiple takes. But Waru is a feat nonetheless, gaining in potency what it sometimes forsakes in polish. Moreover, it’s about a state of emergency, specifically the threats posed to indigenous children, sometimes by predators in their own communities, though the condescension and indifference of white society remain implacable factors within these crimes. Psychologically, the richest chapters come early in the film, surveying the tensions in the kitchen where Maori women prepare the funeral meal, and profiling how the dead boy’s teacher recklessly expresses her guilt and grief. Later episodes orient themselves more pointedly outward, lambasting white media’s racist coverage of the case, or more confidently inward, lingering on an encounter between Waru’s two grandmothers during the wake. Facets of that ceremony may remain obscure to non-Maori spectators, who for once are not structured as the film’s primary audience.
These three world premieres stood out among several stories about Native identities and cultural positionings at TIFF, even as some perennial attendees griped that this year’s more streamlined festival had disproportionately sidelined independent filmmakers and outsider perspectives. That may be true, but only to a point; TIFF still abounds with opportunities to construct a two-week itinerary that privileges marginalized narratives and storytellers at every turn. What’s more, paying audiences turn out in droves to receive such movies, even if major media outlets largely omit them from their coverage. Such was the case with Antonio Méndez Esparza’s Life and Nothing More, still awaiting distribution despite being the timeliest, best-acted, and most moving of all the English-language movies I saw in Toronto. In ways that would surely resonate with the denizens of Norway House or the mourners in Waru, the African American single mom and teenage son at the center of this drama are lifelong residents of northern Florida but remain, at best, provisional citizens of their own country. Rendering characters they developed in tandem with their Spanish writer-director, these non-professional but astoundingly gifted performers convey so much of what matters in so many working-class black lives: the solidarity but also the standoff between parent and child; the series of low-ceiling jobs; the alienation from what few social services still exist; the yearning but also the wariness awakened by new romantic prospects; and the suddenness with which poor choices, ambient prejudice, or adolescent disaffection lead to intractable enmeshments in the penal apparatus.
Unlike Martin McDonagh’s People’s Choice Award winner, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which repeatedly bungles its big, block-letter ideas about justice, policing, and region-specific American life, Méndez Esparza opts for a quieter, more observant naturalism in relation to the same themes, stoking the anger at its core without smugness or hyperbole. Rather than mourn one child furiously while facing the judgments of another, as McDonagh’s Mildred does, Regina in Life and Nothing More sustains both relations to the same flailing adolescent. She juggles anger, tenderness, and grief toward a black teen who feels like a walking casualty; yes, he heedlessly steps into several traps, but few of these would exist in a systemically fairer world. The movie also furnishes a resonant complement to other TIFF darlings that have enjoyed film culture’s attention throughout the fall: as perceptive but less schematic than Mudbound, and even more credibly lived-in than The Florida Project, which could easily have been Méndez Esparza’s title. Circulation would be a boon not only to this barely-visible masterwork but to richer discourse about its more celebrated peers.
By a similar token, Sadaf Foroughi’s Ava would make a provocative double-bill with Greta Gerwig’s delightful and effusively received Lady Bird. Foroughi devotes her debut feature to a high-school girl whose charismatic stubbornness has more dangerous, erratic edges than Lady Bird’s. Plus, iconoclasm against feminine ideals carries heavier consequences in Tehran than in Sacramento. Ava’s conflicts with her mother are correspondingly starker; when she chastely meets a boy under the ruse of studying with a girlfriend, Mom hauls her off to a gynecologist to have her hymen inspected. The movie barrels forward with a violent momentum that evokes Ava’s steely will, constantly dueling with a family and a culture that punch even harder than she does. Ava sold out all its screenings faster than much starrier vehicles, which may be why the small but sterling distributor Grasshopper Films picked it up for U.S. release. Meanwhile, the film reaped some woeful headlines when Justin Trudeau’s government, vaunted for its embrace of refugees, classified Ava’s teenage stars as flight risks or likely asylum seekers, thus denying them entrance visas over TIFF’s formal protests.
Movie after movie, then, within their scripts or in their rocky paths toward production and exhibition, disclosed how many of our planet’s people still need to be healed. Some were jealously defending home turf, as in most of the indigenous stories. Others inspired elegiac tales of exile, like The Legend of the Ugly King, Huseyin Tabak’s world-premiering documentary about Kurdish filmmaker and dissident Yilmaz Güney, an epic hero but also a figure of unresolved mystery in Turkey, the country that bore and ousted him. Women, not surprisingly, improvised most desperately to retain their places in inhospitable worlds, all the way from the college-age single mom scraping by as a prostitute in Anahí Berneri’s Alanis, a bracing Argentine exercise in heightened vérité, to the ongoing travails of Kholoud Al-Faqih, the first female to preside over a Shari’a court, profiled in Erika Cohn’s indelible documentary The Judge.
Many of these survival stories orbited exemplary, embattled individuals but others adopted panoramic vantages on whole nations in turmoil. The most striking of these was Nabil Ayouch’s Razzia, a five-stranded narrative about differently precarious subjects in Morocco, including a Jewish shopowner, a woman seeking an abortion, a Freddie Mercury acolyte from an archconservative family, and a schoolgirl with forbidden desires. These incisive and intimate stories collide amid the fiery riots that overtook Casablanca in late 2015, where Ayouch crystallizes his skills at complex choreography. Razzia is virtuoso filmmaking by an auteur who, like most directors from the Middle East and North Africa, remains frustratingly unknown outside that region. His previous feature, the sensual and politically intrepid sex-worker drama Much Loved, was acclaimed in Cannes and Toronto in 2015. The Moroccan government banned that film; just as cruelly, other global markets failed to resuscitate it. Razzia is now Morocco’s submission for the Academy Awards but it’s still unclear how many audiences will see the film in that country, much less outside of it—further, sobering proof that it wasn’t just the characters fighting for livelihood and visibility at TIFF this year. That struggle extended to films and filmmakers as well, including many of the best and brightest.