Toronto Discovered

in 38th Toronto International Film Festival

by Robbie Eksiel

Being a rookie, as the undersigned was this year, one can easily get lost in the Toronto International Film Festival. You may have no trouble finding your way around in the squared-off city, yet as an avid professional filmgoer you might have a tough time trying to put things into perspective, given the vast program of more than 280 titles in various sections.

It goes without saying that even with an a priori, specific agenda, you cannot escape the “big” films — the much-anticipated titles from brand-name cineastes or the awards-oriented films from south of the border.

For example, I was looking forward to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, because Shame is one of my all-time favorite film studies on the clash of instincts with logic. 12 Years A Slave proved to be a breathtakingly relevant study, not only on the notions of race, but equally on power and property, through the titular journey of a man (Chiwetel Ejiofor, calmly heartrending) who wrongly thought himself to be free across the intolerance of a phobic nation.

I was curious to see how one of my most beloved directors, Atom Egoyan, would handle the notorious case of the West Memphis Three in Devil’s Knot. He didn’t do much, disappointingly, beyond the usual limitations of a heavy-handed made-for-TV movie that opts to depict characters and facts rather than investigate them.

I was also eager to witness both the technical and metaphysical aspects of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, of which I had heard so much from colleagues attending Venice. Gravity is an extremely immersive, yet a bit vague, contemplation of the human need to be (gravi)-tied to other humans no matter what the big picture one believes in is, with Sandra Bullock in her most physically demanding performance so far.

I caught the metaphorically titled Prisoners from Denis Villeneuve, Incendies’ brilliant Quebecois auteur. It ably tackles the topic of religious faith through a crime story perhaps not without its dramatic flaws, but with stylistic austerity and precision (credit to DP Roger Deakins’ astonishing work) only Scandinavian, based on crime literature thrillers have achieved in the last few years.

Then I saw Woody Allen doing… Woody Allen, but in another artist’s film, John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo. It’s an enjoyable if rarely focused comedy about the rise and fall of an ordinary looking, middle-aged Brooklyn man-whore (Turturro himself) managed by a stressed out yet over-enthusiastic pimp (Allen).

All that being said, I have to admit that one of the films I most enjoyed from the illustrious Special Presentations program was a romantic melodrama: Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, a simple yet absorbing love story between a single mom and an escaped convict circa 1987, seen mostly through the eyes of her teenage son. One might not recognize the hand of the director in this movie — the sardonic tone of his previous dramedies, Thank You For Smoking, Up In The air and Young Adult, is entirely replaced by a straightforwardness — though one cannot but celebrate his fluid storytelling and the tender chemistry he achieves between Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, within the context of a romance done in the best tradition (William Wyler, George Stevens) of the genre.

Big names aside, Toronto is also the perfect festival for finding new and upcoming talent. Such talent can be spotted in one of the TIFF’s newest sections, the 5-year-old City to City Program, which this year was dedicated to Athens through a selection of ten films. As a Greek professional, I obviously was one of the consistent attendees, going after films not yet screened in Greece (Alexandros Avranas’ challenging, Silver Lion-awarded Miss Violence, Yannis Sakaridis’ sensitive Wild Duck, Penny Panayotopoulou’s character-driven September, Yorgos Servetas’ social commentary Standing Aside, Watching) and enjoying the interest of both the Canadian audiences and the international press towards a struggling but steadily creative movie industry that has been showing a recognizable face in the festival circuits during the last few years.

But, since my main agenda was the Discovery program, I was mostly immersed in that and had the chance to hear a variety of different, yet very interesting cinematic voices from all over the world. Even though there was no “discovery” to sweep me off the ground, 3 of the 16 features I saw made me look forward to each director’s next work.

The Amazing Catfish (Los insolitos peces gato)

Family isn’t necessarily defined by blood ties, and in her first feature, Mexican director Claudia Sainte-Luce’s immensely tender film works as evidence of this, chronicling the unlikely relationship between a sad, resigned-from-life young supermarket employee and the 50-year-old, HIV-positive single mother of four kids she meets in a hospital room after being admitted for appendicitis. Not one second is superfluous in this slow burner, which unfolds its drama with grace, simplicity and hearty humor. It avoids the obvious trappings of sentimentalism and gives the necessary space to its two main actresses, Lisa Owen and Ximena Ayala, to convincingly flesh out their characters.

Canopy

Telling a story without a single piece of dialogue and entirely through images is the defining challenge for a first-time feature director, and Australian Aaron Wilson rises to the occasion with an enthralling survival tale set in 1942 Japanese-occupied Singapore, where an Australian airman, stranded in the jungle, finds an ally and a possible friend in a local resistance fighter also chased by the invading army. The ending leaves you wondering about the impressionistic dream sequences and wanting for more, though by that time you find yourself already dumbfounded by the fluidity of the storytelling, the brilliant use of the soundtrack and the creative use of every single technical aspect overall.

The Militant (El lugar del hijo)

Portraying a former student activist facing his late father’s debts and the vanity in every aspect of his once poignant social and political life, Felipe Dieste alternately sleepwalks and jars his way through the role of Ariel. His control of dramatic subtlety is what makes him the actual “discovery” of this stylistically and thematically very promising, though unnecessarily stretched out Uruguayan film by writer-director Manolo Nieto.

Edited by Leslie James
© FIPRESCI 2013