Friday, 7 October 2011

VIFF 2011 - Patang

I went to Patang after I couldn't get into the film I wanted to see that night. I had planned on watching an hour and a half of the grey landscapes of the GDR, so Patang was a colourful visual surprise.

The film follows a group of family and friends in Ahmedabad, India, who are surprised by a visit from a relative and his daughter, who live in Delhi. The family's past and future come together during Uttarayana, India's largest kite festival.

Made over a 7-year period, this film was clearly a labour of love for the Chicago-based director, Prashant Bhargava. This was the second film I'd watched at the festival that was made by an ex-pat born outside their family's country of origin (the other being Circumstance). For both films, the directors clearly did a great deal of research in order to bring the country to life. In Bhargava's case, he spent three full years doing research before beginning to film. Never having been to India, it's impossible for me to comment on the accuracy or realism of the film, but Bhargava's decision to cast non-actors in almost all the major and minor roles gave the film a feeling of realism that certainly wasn't present in say, Slumdog Millionaire.

The film strenuously avoided sensationalism and pathos, which was refreshing. I did feel that it could have been more plot-driven while still capturing the languid beauty of the kite festival. I appreciated the way the characters held onto traditions they found meaningful, rather than mindlessly embracing modern "progress" with all its conveniences and compromises.

In addition to the director, who answered questions after the film, Vikram Vij was also in the audience. While he asked a number of articulate questions, I was disappointed that he and his entourage did not provide snacks.

VIFF 2011 - Miss Representation

Miss Representation
is a fascinating documentary that laid out a lot of information that I already knew in some capacity, but had never seen presented all at once. The effect of so many statistics -- including the very small percentages of women in leadership roles in government, the corporate world, media, and the arts -- was almost overwhelming. It's a slickly-produced film that makes effective use of graphics, interviews with celebrities and academics, focus groups with articulate high school students, and a soundtrack featuring Metric's Help I'm Alive and Gold Guns Girls. I felt pretty satisfied to see a Canadian band with a female lead singer on the soundtrack, and lyrics fit the content particularly well.

The director did a decent job of balancing truly depressing statistics and images with empowering messages of hope. I appreciated the call to action, even if it did carry the ring of preaching to the converted.

Like most pieces of polemic, this doc was of course selective in the media examples it chose. Not all music videos demean women, and not all TV shows and movies have women in ridiculously inadequate "supporting" roles, or (as one commentator deadpanned) "fighting fuck toys." But a great deal of them do. I always feel particularly cynical at Oscar time when so many films that get nominated are inevitably stories of a man's epic struggle against the odds, and oh right, so-and-so plays his exotic dancer girlfriend.

I felt that it would have been really interesting for the director to interview some prominent women who used their sexuality to gain success, and then used their success to further humanitarian or anti-oppressive work. Angelina Jolie comes to mind, and I thought she would have been a particularly interesting voice. How would she respond to a question about whether her influence on young women has been mainly to encourage them to become involved in volunteer work, or to inspire them to get collagen injections?

Since I watched this film last week, I've spent a fair bit of time thinking about its tagline: "You Can't Be What You Can't See."

It helps to have role models. But if you couldn't succeed without one, there would be no pioneers. I wished that there were a few more pioneers in this film. Not just activists, academics, and politicians, but female directors like Sarah Polley or Kathryn Bigelow.

All in all, I was very glad this film was made. Sometimes I spend so much time thinking about gender deconstruction and queer issues that I forget about feminism. I feel as though I've created an essentially women-only social world for myself, and forget that the larger world I live in is in fact misogynistic and hugely male-dominated.

It's good to get young women involved in this discussion as well. And it inspired me to not give up on trying to convince a particularly brilliant friend of mine to run for political office.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

VIFF 2011 - Our Future

I watched this film alone, and in a lot of ways, I wish I hadn't. I really wanted to talk about it with someone. And I wanted more people there to witness what I felt was a pretty extraordinary experience.

Our Future is a 75-minute film made by an entirely self-taught Japanese filmmaker. Iizuka Kashou was only 19 years old when he wrote, directed, shot, edited and independently-produced the film. While noticeably homemade, the raw quality of the footage and camerawork lends itself well to the unmitigated honesty of the emotions the film expresses. Iizuka cast his friends and people he knew in all the acting roles. As with many films starring non-actors, the unrehearsed quality of the performances is refreshing.

The film tells the deceptively simple tale of Yu, a teen who identifies as male and loathes the required school uniform skirt. Yu keeps his trans status a secret from his parents and all but a few close friends. He attends summer cram school, is teased mercilessly by fellow students, befriends two kind but equally vulnerable other kids, and writes love letters to a younger classmate, Masumi. It is a coming-of-age tale with a number of surprises, including the ambiguous ending.

I found the film extraordinary on a number of levels. Firstly, it's one of only a very few Japanese films that sympathetically portrays transgender experiences. These experiences are presented with a great deal of compassion and hope. Secondly, it's an autobiographical film made by a trans teenager, about a young trans person, and starring several young trans actors.

Both the director and the lead actor, Hyuga Riku, came all the way to Vancouver for the screening. Through a translator, they both answered questions from the audience. Hyuga Riku described how he was so excited to hear that the film was being made that he agreed to star in it without even having read the script. It was nothing short of incredible to see these talented young people talking about their film, and about their experiences growing up trans in Japan. In a country with only two surgeons who perform gender reassignment surgeries, and with limited access to counseling services, it was clear that these young people had in many ways charted their own paths to self-awareness and self-realization. That they had immortalized their journey in a work of art seemed to me to be a very impressive accomplishment indeed.

I felt a great deal of admiration for both of them, and wished I had more Japanese to express to them how I felt. All I could manage was a few words of hope that more people would see their film. As we bowed goodbye, I could say only "arigato."

Please go see this film! It is not a polished product by an experienced filmmaker, but in many ways it's an amazing achievement.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

VIFF 2011 - Michael

I think it's safe to say that I wasn't supposed to like this film. Tammy Bannister said it best. This is a film about "an unmentionable subject." It's a film that no one knew how to promote. How do you market a film about pedophilia, told from the pedophile's point of view? This isn't a film like The Woodsman, either. It's not a compassionate portrayal of a sex offender who served their time and tries to lead a normal life outside of prison.

Instead, this film offers the ultimate example of just how very banal evil can be. Michael is an insurance executive who lives in a nondescript suburban home in Austria. He has friends, speaks to his neighbours, is friendly with workmates, has lunch with his sister, buys Christmas presents for his nephews, and goes skiing in the alps. His life is perfectly ordinary, except for the fact that he keeps an abducted 10-year-old boy in the basement.

The relationship between the two is uneasy at best, and hostile at worst. The boy plays along with Michael's apparent desire to make them look like a family, asking permission to watch television and helping to clean his room. The two even decorate a Christmas tree together. But the boy's compliance appears more akin to survival instincts than any affection for his captor. He is a strangely wise child who endures daily abuse (which all takes place off-screen) with stoicism and smoldering resentment.

I respected this film because it strikes a masterful balance between creepy and compelling. Though the story is told entirely from Michael's point of view, we're not tempted to feel compassion for him. I felt only hope that the humanity in him will eventually compel him to let the boy go. The pacing is piano-string taut, and the plot twists genuinely surprising. The acting is believably understated. And the premise allows the viewer to  completely understand how something so dreadful could happen quietly in anyone's backyard.

It takes an open mind to watch Michael. I've heard several reviewers describe the director's approach to his subject as "non-judgmental." I wholeheartedly disagree. One of the signs of an accomplished filmmaker is the ability to show rather than tell. And images in this film speak volumes: browned ham on a plate, instant mashed potatoes on the boy's shelf, shutters that conceal all exterior light, foam glued to the door as soundproofing, and a TV propped up on a plastic chair.

I don't believe we need to be told that something is wrong in order to understand that it is. I think one would be hard-pressed to come away from this film with anything but revulsion for the protagonist and compassion for the boy. And in revealing the rarely-told perspective of a reprehensible character, the filmmakers do something very brave indeed.

VIFF 2011 - Like Crazy

I watched this film after I couldn't get into two others. It wasn't my first choice, but I was absolutely prepared to be blown away by something unexpected. Unfortunately, it didn't happen with Like Crazy.

This film screened at Sundance and has gotten generally excellent reviews. I've heard it described using words like "stylish," "exquisite," "beautifully-acted," and "a gem."

It is certainly a stunning film in a lot of ways. The lead actress, Felicity Jones, has a kind of British porcelain perfection that's not at all unpleasant to look at for 90 minutes. And Anton Yelchin is pleasant enough too in a boy-you-went-to-school-with kind of way. The lighting is certainly "stylish," with lots of vibrant colour and sunset shots of the Santa Monica pier.

But that's where the pleasantness ended for me. The film's story is simple: a girl from London meets a boy from LA while they're both studying in California. She overstays her student visa and is barred from re-entering the States. Will their relationship survive the distance? Will they sacrifice their careers to be together? And should we care?

My answer is - not really. I found this premise terribly conventional, and the execution quite underwhelming. The acting seemed mainly to consist of open-mouthed eyelash-batting (Jones), and red-faced sweating (Yelchin). The awkwardness between the two leads seemed less a reflection on the newness of young love and more just a lack of chemistry. The picture-perfect beauty of the young people, especially the two minor characters played by Jennifer Lawrence and Charlie Bewley, became nauseating almost immediately after we're introduced to them. And the spectacularly lavish apartments and lofts where these underpaid young professionals lived actually bothered me. Where were their roommates and dirty dishes and bad paint jobs?

I admit, I'm a tad biased. I find heterosexual young love stories to be generally pretty tedious. But there have been a few I've liked, mainly because they've done unconventional things with the subject matter. Blue Valentine comes to mind, and even 500 Days of Summer had its charms.

This film just did nothing remarkable with its premise. And while it was pretty, it didn't inspire me to care about the overwrought characters and their dull love story.

The young people in the audience loved it. A girl behind me told her friend "Oh my god, that was the story of my life." And two gay guys who stayed long after the last credit rolled opined to each other "I just really want them to stay together."

Sigh. On to the next.

VIFF 2011 - Wish Me Away

This doc about country music star Chely Wright surprised me. I'm tempted to put 'star' in quotes because it seems like country stars aren't exactly well-known in the rest of the music world. Or maybe I'm just out of the loop, because until I watched the trailer for this film, I had never heard of her.

Wright was a successful country singer in Nashville, and until the age of 39 had successful kept her lesbian identity a secret. Clearly tortured by having to lie and evade questions about her true self, for years Wright begged God to not let her be gay.

Coming out is always a brave thing to do. I forget how brave it is, because the older I get and the more time has passed since I came out, the less I remember the trauma of the whole process. I was lucky in that I got to come out in Vancouver, a gay-friendly city in a generally gay-friendly country, surrounded by supportive friends and a family who loved me no matter what. But Wright, who comes from a deeply homophobic right-wing, religious background and whose fan base is largely made up of the same, had everything to lose.

I felt a great deal of compassion for Wright, a clearly talented and articulate artist who wanted to do good in the world. Her struggle to feel like a good person when she had been told her entire life that homosexuality was a sin was absolutely compelling.

I've heard this film criticized based upon the fact that Wright still considers herself a Christian. In the words of her spiritual adviser, "there's nobody quite as mean as people being mean for Jesus." But I don't believe that her religion is by its very nature homophobic. I see it as a perversion of Christianity to express hatred for any group. I'm no theological expert, but I definitely missed the part of the Bible where Jesus walks around with a sign saying God Hates Fags. And I have a great deal of respect for the way Wright keeps the compassionate, loving parts of her faith while advocating against the bigotry.

All in all, I found this to be an important and engaging film. I was quite absorbed by Wright's story, and very moved by the reactions of her family members, particularly her father. Sometimes acceptance can be found in unexpected places.

And I certainly admire the courage involved in risking your career, family, and future in order to be honest about your true self.

One more thing: the theatre was not nearly full enough! Go see this film. You can read more and see showtimes at the VIFF site.

VIFF 2011 - Family Portrait in Black & White

I saw this documentary at a VIFF media screening, and found it genuinely moving.

The film tells the story of Olga Nenya, a single white woman raising 16 black and mixed race foster children in a small town in Ukraine. Opening with shots of skinheads and ordinary people discussing their hatred of blacks, the film reveals its concern for these children early on. They live in a place where most people are quite frank about wishing they had never been born.

Among the most powerful images from the film are of the camera following the children as they walk through  town. The expressions of disgust, loathing, and horror on the faces of the people they meet speak volumes.

But the film isn't mainly concerned with Olga's life, or simply with the theme of racism. Rather, it focuses intimately on the lives of the children - their interests, struggles, and uncertain futures. Olga is clearly a caring and compassionate woman, but her approach to parenting is far from free-to-be-you-and-me. She has clear plans for each of the children, and expects them to embrace hard physical labour, academic achievement, and absolute obedience to her rule. Art and music are considered wasteful frivolities, and reading a distraction from feeding the goats. At one point, one of the older children, Kiril, who studies political science at university, compares his foster mother to a soviet dictator. The analogy has an exaggerated ring of teenage rebellion to it, but it's not an entirely unfair comparison.

Shot in a simple style devoid of pathos, the filmmakers focus on the heartbreaking stories of the children who fall through the cracks. Lack of money and government interference in their lives have far-reaching consequences. Sensitive Andrey is sent to a school for children with special needs and then to a psychiatric hospital where he suffers horrendously. Roman's Ugandan father is unable to regain custody of him and his brother because he cannot pay for a $5000 paternity test. And Maxim loves the family he stays with in Italy in the summers, but cannot be adopted by them as Olga forbids it.

All these stories are told with heartbreaking honesty, and the viewer is invited to draw their own conclusions from the children's matter-of-fact explanations of their lives.

I highly recommend that children see this film - it's an excellent way for them to be introduced to a fascinating family, and to learn about the hurtful effects of racism.

Check it out on the VIFF's website. There are three screenings still to come.