Viewing and Reflecting: Seeing Ourselves and the World Through TIFF 2013

in 38th Toronto International Film Festival

by Leslie James

Some people prefer to see only some movies. The movies they choose to see may be in a specific style, from a beloved director, or with a favourite actor. The films may be in a particular language, or in a distinct genre. Other filmgoers occasionally like to test themselves by embracing the unknown, challenging their abilities to view worlds offering different, unexpected possibilities, through stories which are framed in fact or fiction, set in the past, present, or future. The Toronto International Film Festival has nourished the appetites of all types of moviegoers for nearly four decades, by making it possible for movie lovers, movie makers, and industry professionals to assemble in darkened theatres for the sole purpose of seeing both big budget films in feted global premieres, or get really close to first-time movie makers and speak heart-to-heart with them about their work.

Upon reflection, there always appears to be some common thread, or underlying theme, to some of the movies that I am able to take in. This year, there were close to 300 feature-length films from 70 countries, and I was able to see just over 30 of them. The Discovery Program consisted of 28 films, 16 of which were world premieres, meriting closer attention and special consideration. To seek out and discover new filmmakers was what I set out to do, to look at the world through the eyes of filmmakers who were intent on perhaps presenting us new ways of seeing. Yet that recurring, unifying theme began to emerge in the films that were part of this program, as well as in other movies that were not part of my focus this year.

Canopy, from Australian filmmaker Aaron Wilson, is an intense, palpable work, in which a World War II pilot is shot down and finds himself in the jungle of Singapore. Every which way he turns, he is assaulted by sounds and visions that may mask enemy Japanese soldiers, or provide cover for him and a Chinese soldier he encounters along the way. His capacity to remain alert and remember who he is, where he came from, and see what’s around him at all times, proves to be the very key to his remaining alive. Even days after viewing this powerful, and nearly dialogue bare film, I am also looking around, intent and alert to every sight and sound around me.

In Around The Block, also from Australia, an Aboriginal teenage boy changes his focus from just seeing himself as the son of a convict and a victim of society, to a brave young man who makes a connection with his own immediate past and his heritage by performing in a school play rendition of Hamlet. While some of the story choices are forced, the overall aim is achieved.

In Fat, from the United States, Paradise (Paraiso) from Mexico, and the Italian film South Is Nothing (Il sud è niente), either body weight and appearance, or apparent gender, are viewed and transformed by the characters themselves, by other characters with whom they interact, or by us. The ways they see themselves, and the manner in which they are in turn viewed by others, shape them to act in either beneficial or detrimental ways.

The Amazing Catfish (Los insólitos peces gato) from Mexico’s Claudia Sainte-Luce, poignantly smudges and blurs the dividing lines between strangers and family, as an HIV-stricken older woman, with a seemingly responsibility overburdened number of offspring, is able to see past her immediate circumstances and open her heart and her home to a lonely, disassociated younger woman. This is truly something that we do not perceive every day.

In Oculus, a centuries-old mirror may harbour an evil force. But do the siblings who are confronting this looking glass see a distorted and fractured version of their past, or the true nature of what they survived? It’s chilling stuff either way it’s looked at.

Perhaps the most vivid and haunting take on perception, and the very act of viewing a movie, is articulated in Godrey Reggio’s Visitors.

Shot in stark black and white, inseparable from its magnificent score by Philip Glass, Visitors is convincingly presented as the ultimate comment and call to attention, on how we view film, and how film, in turn, looks at and transforms us. It’s still surprising that perception is always everything.

Leslie James