Toronto 2021: Wavelengths
This article appeared in the September 16 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Futura (Pietro Marcello, Francesco Munzi, and Alice Rohrwacher; 2021)
Year after year, attendees at the Toronto International Film Festival flock to the Wavelengths section in search of cinema’s infinite formal possibilities. The 2021 edition of the festival is presented in a hybrid format, with both digital and in-person screenings. Even so, Wavelengths is vastly scaled down, with a single shorts program compared to four such programs in 2019. (It’s a welcome change from the 2020 edition, however, which had no dedicated shorts program at all). The number of Wavelengths features is also about half of what it was two years ago. And yet, the section remains vigorous, demonstrating that experimentation comes in many guises, with some films firmly rooted in rigorous and analytical visuality, and others more intensely personal and elegiac.
This variety of tone and approach certainly helped with my concentration as I watched digitally, on a home projector in Brazil, trying to preserve some meager semblance of a festival-viewing experience. Even under these conditions, there was much to admire in the lone shorts program, beginning with Daïchi Saito’s earthearthearth and Peter Tscherkassky’sTrain Again. In earthearthearth, shot on 16mm and transferred to 35mm (what a pity I didn’t see it on the big screen), Saïto transmutes the Atacama Desert’s hostile geography into a gestural composition, painstakingly collaging images and chemically manipulating colors using solarization and superimposition. Watching earthearthearth, I understood why early 20th-century painters had despaired when film was first invented. Once you feel color breathe like this, a canvas never looks the same. In earthearthearth, color is the real protagonist, nature its pale shadow. To put it plainly, there is only film.
Sourced from a wide array of archival collections, Tscherkassky’s Train Again collages sequences of motion—horses, trains, human-powered machinery, and laborers. (Tscherkassky cites the 1978 short 37/78 Tree Again, by Viennese Actionist Kurt Kren, as inspiration). The jolt of machines lurching at us, their staccato whirr splintering continuity and altering our perception of time, lies at the heart of this thunderous short. Tscherkassky’s editing is dazzling. In one shot, disparate images are montaged such that a mounted horse rides atop a speeding train and leaps into a pitch-black tunnel. It’s as if Tscherkassky took up Eisenstein’s quip that cinema is enchantment, and answered, “Hell, yes!” But Train Again also made me ask if cinema doesn’t heighten our anguished sense of interdependence—things, people, events, all converging on a collision course.
In a year when nostalgia might lead one to overstate the importance of cinema, Wavelengths curator Andréa Picard has thankfully programmed a number of films with decidedly ironic tones. In Nicolás Pereda’s short, Dear Chantal, a man corresponds with Chantal Akerman after learning that his sister is about to rent her house in Mexico City to the Belgian director. The film’s tone hangs between reverence and doubt: to the sister, a painter, cinema deadens perception, and in this age of algorithm-backed aesthetics, who can blame her? It’s doubly ironic to hear this judgement spoken in voiceover while observing delicate light and interior detail through the camera’s lens. It’s as if the cinematic viewpoint were inescapable.
Irony as distance is palpable in Michael Robinson’s short, Polycephaly in D, an exploration of erotic and cinephilic memory with a riotous King Kong interlude, and in Vika Kirchenbauer’s The Capacity for Adequate Anger, an intimate meditation on economics and class, sexual identity, and art as labor. The latter film’s punchiest line—“Distance is a resource administered unequally”—perfectly sums up how irony, as a rhetorical device, is bound up in socioeconomics, and is by no means neutral or universal.
Meanwhile, in Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes’s airy new feature, The Tsugua Diaries, irony functions more like a vaccine booster—a welcome defense against the tyranny and brutality of being on constant alert. What at first seems like an earnest story about bored vacationers is, in fact, a film within a film that’s being shot during the pandemic. Fazendeiro and Gomes play themselves as effusive film directors who fail to assuage their actors’ mounting doubts, while tending to their own personal crises. The film mines the hermetic microcosm of a film production for tart social satire: from the Portuguese Film Fund official announcing COVID-19 regulations in full Martian gear to talent and crew bickering over safety, lapses in scene continuity, pilfered socks, and incomplete breakfasts, The Tsugua Diaries vividly conveys a sense of forced community tinged with pandemic hysteria. Each shooting day for the film-within-a-film starts with a title card, the calendar winding backwards in a reverse chronology that confounds the actors (real, fictional, both?), who crave linear logic and consequence, but which leisurely saunters back toward a vision of pre-pandemic bliss. The result is a delightful reprieve, though it can also feel insular, suggesting that, in hard times, cinema is perfectly content to shut the door on misery and throw away the key.
In their feature documentary Futura, Italian filmmakers Pietro Marcello, Francesco Munzi, and Alice Rohrwacher do the opposite, venturing out on a road trip through their country to interview young people about their dreams and fears. Some concerns ring familiar (has youth ever not felt misunderstood?), but Futura also captures some harsher, more nuanced truths, including a persistent feeling of being crushed by unemployment or job precarity. Such ressentiment can be explosive: one of the trio’s stops is Genoa, where they ask teens about the 2001 G8 summit, where activists were brutally beaten by police for protesting the programs of globalization that threatened their livelihoods. Amid the picturesque Italian landscapes, the pandemic emerges as a cruel intensifier of pre-existing instability.
Fittingly for a film that stretches into the pandemic, Futura brims with anguish over adults’ inability to collaborate. The young people’s desire for communal feeling—not just for the sociability they’ve lost, but also for class and economic solidarity—is the film’s most heartening takeaway. A similar sentiment surges forward in the Afrofuturist musical Neptune Frost, directed by Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman, in which a former mine worker (Williams) joins a crypto-commune to hack global capitalism. Though the story fails to develop, Uzeyman’s sumptuous cinematography and the film’s dense lyricism and opacity offer a compelling counterweight to the limpid irony of some of the other films in the selection.
I also encountered a welcome opacity in Rhayne Vermette’s tender debut feature, Ste. Anne. Originally shot on 16mm, the film follows a young woman (Vermette) who returns to her Métis Nation community to regain a sense of belonging. Watching this quietly enthralling film, I often caught myself straining to see, relishing the joy of finally making out what is barely visible on screen. In one nocturnal scene, Vermette and other women go out masked and dressed as nuns, stopping in on neighbors and accepting drinks. The carnivalesque charade seems like a comic recapitulation of the monstrous history of the exploitation and murder of Canada’s Indigenous people by colonial powers and missionaries. A movie that revolves around notions of home and the comforts found in familiar objects and communal chores, Ste. Anne establishes a nearly baroque sense of chiaroscuro. It reminded me that, in cinema as in life, it’s the darkness that makes every flicker count.
Ela Bittencourt is a writer and critic who contributes to a wide variety of publications, including Artforum, Film Comment, Frieze, Hyperallergic and Sight & Sound.