The 2011 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival’s Wavelengths program included Mark Lewis’s short film, Black Mirror at the National Gallery, in which two bulky, fully articulated machines – one manipulating a round mirror, the other a camera – roam unattended and with immaculate precision through galleries dedicated to 18th-century Dutch landscapes. It’s an unnerving viewing experience. For most of the film, we see two distinct depths of field simultaneously: the walls and paintings beyond the frame of the mirror, and the reflected image within the mirror itself. The former is objective and familiar; the latter is strangely subjective, as if the Martin Szekely-designed mirror apparatus were a sentient spectator, choosing with taste and curiosity the paintings most deserving of its full attention. Lewis has said that one of his goals with the project was to experiment with the very notion of composition:
I want the machine—and in Black Mirror at the National Gallery this means the camera, the mirror, the apparatus that carries the mirror and moves it through the space, and even the space itself—to come up with a composition through a collaborative exercise. The idea that the machine already has these possibilities programmed inside of it is something that feels right to me.
Lewis returned to Wavelengths this year with Invention, a feature-length compendium of short films that were shot on location in Toronto, São Paolo and the Musée du Louvre. Again, Lewis’s camera moves with servo-controlled elegance, this time floating, panning and rotating through gallery spaces, city skylines, late-night streets and office lobbies. On a few occasions, Lewis adds a touch of narrative to the edges of the frame by way of human figures – characters, really – who perform for the camera, or who are, at the very least, conscious of being filmed: a man shovels snow so that he can trick-ride his bike; a couple has a long, seated conversation on a pedestrian-packed elevated freeway; a crowd forms around an injured cyclist. These small human touches are welcome additions to a film that is always in danger of being little more than a cinematic sideshow or, worse yet, derivative (like other critics of Invention, I can’t ignore the most obvious precedents in Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale, 1971, and Ernie Gehr’s Side/Walk/Shuttle, 1992).
The patchwork structure of Invention is a problem for the larger piece – some sections are considerably more interesting than others – but Lewis’s project is a usable contribution to our ongoing and oft-vital discussions of power, privilege and spectatorship, not only in the cinema but in our image-mediated lives, generally. Lewis’s mechanical eye draws a stranged new attention to the omnipresence of closed-circuit surveillance, smartphones, dashboard cams, drones and the myriad other digital cameras that seem always to be hovering nearby. Should Lewis go to work for Big Brother, we can at least take consolation from knowing that our lives will be documented exquisitely before they’re uploaded into the cloud. One especially disorienting shot tracks down a spiral staircase at magic hour and plays like an extended variation on the “upside-down shadow” theme (to borrow a musical analogy) from Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011). It’s all quite lovely.
Viewed within the context of Wavelengths 2015, there was something downright quaint and comforting about the aesthetic and intellectual remove we get from Invention – as if Lewis had stepped aside, relinquished some measure of authorial control (and responsibility) and simply loosed the machines to generate the modernist images “programmed inside of” them. The pleasure I experience while watching Invention is relatively uncomplicated and almost purely formal. As the camera rotates, for example, I can feel the image steadily approaching a balanced, more ideal composition. Lewis often pauses the camera’s motion at these moments, allowing the viewer to enjoy a measure of harmonic resolution (to borrow another musical analogy). It’s an interesting idea – that resolving visual tension in a balanced composition can function as a caesura, mimicking a cut within a long take.
This kind of purely formal pleasure was in relatively short supply in Wavelengths this year, with a few notable exceptions. Daïchi Saïto’s Engram of Returning, which closed out the four evenings of short-film programs, is a mighty explosion of a movie – 19 minutes of 35mm CinemaScope images blown into super-saturated, deep-black abstraction. Engrams, I’ve learned since returning from Toronto, are neurological remnants of lived experience: researchers have hypothesised that traces of memory are scattered throughout our brains, etched onto neural tissue. Saïto, in essence, conjures new trace memories for his audience by offering hazy glimpses of landscapes that are never fully graspable, like half-remembered dreams. (An engram is a nice analogy for all of cinema, I think!) The visceral thrill of Engram of Returning owes much to Jason Sharp’s circular-breathed saxophone score, which is ruthless and mesmerising. The overriding effect of the film is primal and ancient, like recovering memories of some past-life visit to Sun Ra’s promised land.
Björn Kämmerer’s seven-minute film, Navigator, is different from Engram of Returning in nearly every respect – it’s silent, concrete, immaculate – yet the viewing pleasure is much the same. Beyond evoking the most basic question, “What am I looking at exactly?” both bypass comprehension completely and burrow straight into sensation. (After years of eagerly anticipating every opportunity to see a new film by Charlotte Pryce, I’m still at a loss for describing them. Needless to say, her latest piece of golden, hand-processed “natural magic,” Prima Materia, fits into this category as well.) Navigator is meticulously assembled from close-ups of rotating, beveled glass, presumably a Fresnel lens in a lighthouse. Kämmerer’s intervention is in the editing, which establishes a rhythm through crosscutting lighter compositions against dark, and then explores endless variations of movement along the x- and y-axes. As in Black Mirror at the National Gallery, movement and light are difficult to track precisely because the rounded, reflective surfaces constantly invert perception – we see light and its opposite, movement and its opposite. Notably, Kämmerer doesn’t vary the duration between cuts until the final shot of the film, which gives the piece a constant pulse. In her program notes, Wavelengths curator Andréa Picard compares Navigator to Cubism, which is true enough. It’s also a cinematic analogue to a Steve Reich chamber piece.
In his overview of the Wavelengths short programs for The Notebook, Michael Sicinski noted a telling demographic shift in this year’s lineup. While Picard has consistently programmed young and emerging filmmakers, and rarely with even a hint of tokenism, Wavelengths has, over the past decade, been an important showcase for the elder statesmen of avant-garde cinema, including Robert Beavers, James Benning, Nathaniel Dorsky, Ernie Gehr, Peter Hutton, Ken Jacobs, Michael Snow, and Jean-Marie Straub. This year, Peter Tscherkassky’s The Exquisite Corpus played alongside a restoration of Paul Sharits’s 3D Movie, and Invention and new films by Chantal Akerman, Guy Maddin, and Tsai Ming-liang screened among the selection of mid- and feature-lengths films. The Wavelengths program as a whole, however, skewed significantly younger in 2015: the “median age,” Sicinski writes, “is somewhere around 33.”
I’m not qualified to speculate on the causes of this shift, but I’m intrigued by an apparent correlation between that programming decision and another shift in the lineup – that is, away from traditionally formalist art (structuralist films, optical experiments) and toward areas of the avant-garde that are more explicitly didactic, ideological and symbolic. To describe Invention as “quaint” and “comforting,” and to say that Navigation “bypasses comprehension” is, potentially, to damn with faint praise, which is not at all my intent. Rather, if curation is an act of criticism itself, in that it lays so many of the ground rules for the resulting conversations, then – and I say this as an observation rather than a critique – Picard seems to have biased the discussion somewhat this year.
Case in point: the psychological and aesthetic dissonance of experiencing the disembodied camera-machines of Invention so soon after watching Ben Rivers’ The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers.
With his first two features, Two Years at Sea (2011) and A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (2013, co-directed with Ben Russell), Rivers proved himself a compatriot of Lisandro Alonso, carrying his Bolex into remote regions of the world to document the hard-scrabble lives of solitary men. Like Alonso’s, his films exist somewhere in the murky middle of the non-fiction/narrative spectrum – that place where anything resembling anthropological documentary tends to be described as “problematic”. Or problematising, in the active, political sense: Alonso and Rivers are well aware of their cinematic and critical lineage, as are Russell (also in Wavelengths with his short film, YOLO), Denis Côté (also in Wavelengths with his short film, May We Sleep Soundly), and, to name just one prominent off-shoot of this movement (if “movement” is even the right word), Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel, Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez, J.P. Sniadecki, and the other members of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab. This is a smart and self-conscious bunch, these children of Jean Rouch, Chris Marker and Harun Farocki, and judging by the Wavelengths lineup, their numbers are expanding by the day.
With The Sky Trembles, Rivers’ effort to problematise the experimental docu-fiction form folds in on itself in delirious fashion. It opens in Morocco, where the filmmaker Oliver Laxe and a small crew are shooting his follow-up to You All Are Captains (2010). Rivers is a sympathetic and astute behind-the-scenes observer, cutting between extreme long shots of landscapes and more intimate portraits of the filmmaker and his cast and crew. The new film, Las Mimosas, is about a young man who leads a troubled expedition through the Atlas mountains, and there’s a suggestion of analogy between the character and Laxe himself. In a recent interview with Filmmaker Laxe says of one particularly challenging day on set: “It was a very critical moment, when you see that you are working on a project for four years and because you were maybe too ambitious you are making a disaster. I was asking myself, ‘How did I bring all of these people to this place?’” Of course, Rivers is aware also of the third layer of this analogy – that the protagonist of Las Mimosas is analogous to Laxe and Rivers and, by extension, to other filmmakers like Alonso and Russell who package these images for festival audiences around the world. To drive the point home, Rivers cuts near the end of The Sky Trembles to a handheld walking shot that melds his camera’s point of view with Laxe’s. It’s one of the only subjective shots in the film but one that seems inevitable and necessary.
Thirty minutes into The Sky Trembles Laxe climbs into his Land Rover and drives off alone. Rivers watches from a distance at first, panning from a fixed position to follow the truck’s movement, until Laxe turns a corner and disappears from sight. With a jarring cut, the point of view then jumps to the back seat and the soundtrack erupts with metal guitars blasting from the truck’s speakers. The drive, which lasts several minutes, functions symbolically as a journey through a liminal space, during which Laxe transitions from “Oliver Laxe, the director, performing some version of his own life” to “Oliver Laxe, the actor, performing in a fiction.” More specifically, he steps into the role of the Professor in Paul Bowles’ “A Distant Episode” (1947). As in the original short story, he is a personification of colonial alienation, overconfident and naïve. He wanders unaware into danger and soon finds himself beaten, bound and gagged. His captors later cut out his tongue, fit him in a hooded suit covered with tin cans, and force him to dance for their amusement.
The remainder of The Sky Trembles tracks closely with Bowles’ story. The film is so interesting and important, however, because of the new complications that are activated by Rivers’ translation of the scenario from one form (literature) to another (cinema). In “A Distant Episode” Bowles offers scant description of the Professor’s costume or his dancing:
That night, at a stop behind some low hills, the men took him out, still in a state which permitted no thought, and over the dust rags that remained of his clothing they fastened a series of curious belts made of the bottoms of tin cans strung together. One after another of these bright girdles was wired about his torso, his arms and legs, even across his face, until he was entirely within a suit of armor that covered him with its circular metal scales… He was now brought forth only after especially abundant meals, when there was music and festivity. He easily fell in with their sense of ritual, and evolved an elementary sort of “program” to present when he was called for: dancing, rolling on the ground, imitating certain animals, and finally rushing toward the group in feigned anger, to see the resultant confusion and hilarity.
I quote at length in order to illustrate Bowles’ voice, which is ironic (“their sense of ritual” is a loaded phrase, certainly) and plain-spoken. The same could be said of Rivers’ style, and yet Laxe’s embodiment of the “King of the Tin Cans”, as his captors call him, is uncanny and knotted in ways that are erased by Bowles’ prose. Each time he appears on screen, the tin can man exists simultaneously in three states. He’s a character – a tortured, desperate man who is gradually losing his humanity. He’s a symbol – of colonialism, generally, and of one specific contemporary symptom of it (the arthouse, docu-fiction filmmaker). And he’s a rendered art object – a brown and silver mass of cloth and metal that jangles noisily when Laxe moves, that reflects light unpredictably, that is framed in particular compositions and edited at a particular rhythm, and that is itself both a symbol (the refuse of industrialism) and a real thing (rusted tin cans that threaten to cut and infect the wearer). To a certain extent, the process of experiencing and interpreting filmed images is always a negotiation between these three states. Watching the King of Tin Cans dance, however, is an exceptional case because the negotiation is so disconcertingly self-conscious, immediate and unrelenting. I suspect I’ll be using the tin can man as an example for years to come when I find myself in a conversation about the messiness of interpretation.
The Sky Trembles, as a whole, traps viewers in this interpretive flux, which is a radical move only because its line of criticism is so focused on the particular problems of representation at this moment (whatever we want to call this stage of the West’s war on terror) and in this context (the festival-friendly art film). In the first act, Rivers shows Laxe working with a non-professional actor, telling him precisely where to walk and how to deliver the line, “The sheikh is gone!” There is a rehearsal, some discussion, and then a live take, which Laxe observes through a monitor. Later, members of the crew fold dozens of cardboard boxes that are eventually used to break the fall of a stuntman, who plummets, again and again, from a cliff, while Laxe films from below. The boxes are then dissembled and neatly stacked. These are standard, making-of scenes that reveal the labor and intentionality of filmmaking. So when Rivers intercuts portraits of aging Moroccan men, the images read, likewise, as objective, documentary moments. Viewers might be aware that a British man is behind the camera and choosing which footage to include and in what sequence, but everyone involved here (Rivers, his crew and his subjects) is participating in a common cause, the making of a film. They’re not equals, certainly, but they’re all willing collaborators, joined in fraternity. Indeed, Laxe has described the first section of The Sky Trembles as, “a beautiful homage to our profession.”
When The Sky Trembles transitions, midway through, from documentary to narrative, the shift is not signaled by a corresponding transition in form. Rivers’ cinematographic style remains consistent throughout, extending even to small details such as a droning, non-diegetic music cue that plays over two contemplative shots of the Moroccan skyline. The first instance is one more behind-the-scenes observation, the second is an establishing shot in a fiction. That the two shots could be swapped with little to no discernable effect on the larger film is what makes The Sky Trembles so deeply interesting. Rivers has taken the Kuleshov Effect to its logical extreme: instead of limiting the object of re-interpretation to one blank expression, as Hitchcock does so famously with Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window (1954), Rivers destabilises every image, whether a face or a gesture or a landscape.
That destabilisation is the truly radical act. In adapting “A Distant Episode”, Rivers has cast three non-professional “locals” as Laxe’s kidnappers and tormentors, which is a textbook example of problematic contemporary cinema, in that it transforms the men – even if always self-consciously and ironically – into one-dimensional representations of the terrifying, unknowable Other. They slice out Laxe’s tongue and feed it to a dog, fire warning shots at his feet to make him dance, and sell him off for profit, all without a trace of mercy or regret. We in the audience are made to stare at their laughing faces, which have been turned ugly by the context of the scenario and by the dictates of their director. And there’s the rub. Like Laxe on the set of Las Mimosas, Rivers has scripted every line of The Sky Trembles, staged every scene, rehearsed every stunt. The three men who torture the King of the Tin Cans are also collaborators in the process, brothers in arms. They likewise exist simultaneously – and at all times – as characters, symbols and objects. Their portraits could be swapped with those in the first part of the film with little to no discernable effect. They exist somewhere in the interpretive flux between fact and fiction.
The Sky Trembles ends with a long shot of the King of the Tin Cans running across the desert toward the setting sun. He waves his arms as he flees, and his howls can be heard over the clattering cans. Because Laxe is between the camera and the only light source, he’s little more than a dark silhouette at the centre of the frame, more graphic element than actor. (The effect reminds me, fittingly, of the ghost monkeys in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives, 2010). In “A Distant Episode” the Professor’s final escape is witnessed by a French soldier, who calls him a “holy maniac” then lifts his rifle and takes “a potshot at him for good luck.” Rivers omits those last two details but the final image is from the perspective of two soldiers, who turn and watch as Laxe passes. The sudden shift in point of view is critical because it takes The Sky Trembles beyond even the ironies of Bowles’ story. When, after nearly three minutes, Rivers finally cuts to black, the King of the Tin Cans is utterly destabilised and foreign. He’s barely a character, barely a symbol. Instead, he’s now essentially a black spot on an orange horizon. It’s as unsettling a representation of existential terror as I’ve ever experienced.
After the screening of The Sky Trembles, I joked with another critic that the film might put Rivers and other filmmakers like him out of work. Its inside-out critique of docu-fiction representation is so thorough and final, I wondered what was left to say. (It’s worth noting that Alonso’s most recent feature, Jauja, 2014, seems to signal a shift away from this style of filmmaking.) Rivers offered an answer of sorts – and a not especially satisfying one – at Wavelengths with A Distant Episode (yes, really), a 17-minute companion to The Sky Trembles. Another behind-the-scenes project, it’s quite similar to the feature in terms of content. Again, Rivers intercuts long landscape shots with observational footage of the cast and crew at work, including familiar sequences in which the director, Shezad Dawood, rehearses an actor and another performer prepares for and then executes a small stunt. In A Distant Episode, however, Rivers abandons the docu-realistic style and instead conjures from the material a kind of fake artifact. The black-and-white, hand-processed footage is scratched and pulsing with imperfections, and the soundtrack has been replaced by silence and by occasional music cues from Pere Portabella’s Cuadecuc, vampir (1970), which is itself a self-conscious deconstruction of genre filmmaking. Dawood’s project, Towards the Possible Film, appears to involve astronauts who wash ashore on another planet, which lends a playfulness to A Distant Episode that certainly distinguishes it from The Sky Trembles. Inspired by Morocco’s long history as a film location, Rivers gets a bit lost in the funhouse-mirror artifice of it all – the false facades of an abandoned movie set, the nostalgic kitsch of 1960s sci-fi, and the formal signifiers of the avant-garde.
Certain shots in A Distant Episode could be mistaken for footage from the silent era, and in that sense it’s reminiscent of Guy Maddin, who also had a new feature and short film in Toronto this year. The Forbidden Room (co-directed by Evan Johnson) has received more critical attention, but the short, Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton (co-directed by Evan and Galen Johnson), is the more interesting of the two, I think, and the parallels between it and A Distant Episode are notable. As Maddin explains in voice-over, the film was born of financial necessity. Crippled by the ballooning costs of The Forbidden Room, he signed on to make a behind-the-scenes featurette that would eventually accompany the release of Paul Gross’s big-budget Afghan war film, Hyena Road (which also premiered at TIFF!). Maddin soon found himself in the Jordanian desert, disgusted by the situation –“Everything about my visit is gross, hideous” – and daydreaming of ways to salvage both the project and his dignity: “All I can do is dream of taking Paul’s actors and sets for myself, gratis, and shoot my very own ultimate war-movie cine-essay, a formally radical, ill-tempered retort to Paul’s digestible adventurism.”
And that’s what he does, in a roundabout way. Maddin and the Johnsons convert much of the footage to high-contrast black-and-white and then mimic digitally the imperfections of well-worn celluloid, the end result being a film within the film that looks remarkably like Rivers’ short. In one scene, a platoon of soldier-actors makes its way across a rocky landscape accompanied by vintage-sounding electronic music that would be at home on that same Cuadecuc, vampire soundtrack. (Could it be? I honestly don’t know. Wheels within wheels.) But Maddin, never more serious than when making a joke, seems to tire of the idea after six minutes and renders the first battle scene in the style of a 1980s video game, with super-saturated color and laser beams, and then gradually works his way back to more familiar thematic territory: hockey and movies. War movies, in particular, appealed to Maddin as a child, he tells us, “with their thrills and romance, camaraderie and cool uniforms, all the pomp and ceremony of real war but without real death.” And with that, Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton blossoms into the cine-essay he’d imagined, a very moving and very funny analysis of the costs (in the most biting and ironic sense) of war.
Rivers’ frequent collaborator, Ben Russell, filed his Wavelengths dispatch from Soweto, South Africa, where he teamed with the Eat My Dust youth collective on YOLO, a playful short that employs mirrors and pre-roll sound to capture, in a structuralist turn, the collaborative work of filmmaking. As a mirror passes in front of the camera, we catch glimpses of rooflines, a face, and an azure sky. The world beyond the mirror changes with each pass – sometimes it’s a white brick wall, sometimes brown, sometimes the image is upside down, sometimes not, sometimes we see people at work or play, sometimes no one is present at all. How Russell achieves these effects – more mirrors? hidden cuts? flipping the image itself? – remains a mystery, like an illusionist’s secrets. YOLO was shot in the ruins of the Sans Souci cinema, which in 1948 became one of the few public spaces where black South Africans could gather, and was later a site for organising collective political resistance. In the final seconds of YOLO, we see some of the kids playing soccer and dancing to pop music, while Russell can be heard (asynchronously) saying, “You’re just going to press it down, and I’ll tell you when to put the mirror in.” It’s one more behind-the-scenes, self-reflexive moment in a festival chock full of them, but here it’s also a passing-on of the tricks of the trade, which given the context is both an act of memoriam and empowerment.
A Foreigner. And Not.
When asked if he felt like a tourist when shooting Las Mimosas in Morocco, his home for the past decade, Oliver Laxe replied:
No. We have to attack this subject from a different point of view. First, I think any artist is a foreigner—and this is a good thing. When I was born in Paris, I was Spanish, and when we came back to Spain, I was French. Of course, you suffer through adaptation, but with time you realize it’s a good position, a good distance from which to watch things. You have to be a foreigner. I’m a foreigner in Morocco too—and not.
Laxe’s defense of cosmopolitanism as an artistic (and political) first principle summarises nicely a strain of thought that animated much of the best work in Wavelengths this year – hence my earlier suggestion that Picard’s programming had biased the critical conversation somewhat in favour of work with an explicitly economic or historical bent. To watch all of the films in Wavelengths meant spending six hours with Arabian Nights, Miguel Gomes’s three-part, carnivalesque satire of Portugal’s descent into austerity. Closely related was Night Without Distance, in which Lois Patiño blows out his digital images and then negative-reverses them (Command-I in Photoshop) in order to defamiliarise his story of smugglers preparing for a late-night journey through the Gerês Mountains between Portugal and Galicia. Paris-based, French Guyana-born artist Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc takes a more scholastic approach with his first feature, Sector IX B, in which a young anthropologist whose research confines her to the antiseptic halls of a museum takes an ancient drug and becomes lost, a la Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette, 1974), in colonial memory and sensation.
Another standout among the Wavelengths features was The Other Side, Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini’s latest distant episode in the American South. His absurdly problematic portrait of God-and-guns “white trash” in Louisiana is a vital testament to the limits of empathy at a moment when American politicians are calling for the rounding-up of Muslim immigrants and refugees. Also impressive were two features shot just below the U.S. border. Nicolás Pereda’s Minotaur is set almost entirely within a Mexico City apartment, where three young adults are stricken with a pathological and decidedly bourgeois ennui. Pereda choreographs them – and their put-upon housekeeper – like alienated wanderers in an early Tsai Ming-liang film. In Santa Teresa and Other Stories, one of the real discoveries of the fest, Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias transforms Roberto Bolaño’s epic novel 2666 into a difficult-to-classify mash-up of fiction, non-fiction and essay about corruption and violence in Ciudad Juárez. In only 65 minutes Santos Arias manages to weave together a variety of image formats, blends documentary footage with staged scenes, and intercuts a performance by the activist Judith Gomez and a series of crime-scene postcards by the artist Ambra Polidori. The result is tangled, sorrowful, and bracing.
Santos Arias exemplifies the cosmopolitan spirit of Wavelengths in that he was born in the Dominican Republic, was educated in Scotland and the United States, and made his film in Mexico. The same could be said of Yto Barrada, whose latest short, Faux Départ, screened with Sector IX B. Born in Paris and educated at the Sorbonne, Barrada has lived most of her life in Tangier. It should come as little surprise then that, having had a similar foreigner-and-not experience to Laxe’s, she would also echo his sentiments. “My French passport is my most important document,” She has said:
I’m in a position of incredible power because of my ability to leave. That possibility changes everything. My ability, because of my work, to articulate things, that’s another privilege: to name the disease and to point at the symptoms. I just lift the rock and the termites and the holes are everywhere. My role is to transfigure them through what I can do, which happens to be art. I have the perception, but the perception is nothing unless you do something with it.
When I described Rivers’ A Distant Episode as a fake artifact, I had Barrada’s film in mind. Faux Départ recalls Farocki’s In Comparison (2009) in that it celebrates the labour and craft that undergirds third-world economies. Instead of brick-makers in Burkina Faso, Barrada observes the Moroccan artisans who fabricate fossilised relics for the tourist market. It’s a ready-made metaphor, heavy with irony, but Barrada, like Farocki, focuses on the work rather than the workers and avoids editorialising. When, near the end of the film, she shows a craftsman laying out the tools of his trade, the gesture is uncommonly dignified and arresting.
And then there’s Behrouz Rae, whose work directly addressed the experience of crossing borders. During a Q&A, Rae mentioned that both of his films in Wavelengths, Untitled and The Reminder, were conceived with a traditional three-act structure. At one minute each, the results are like haiku. In Untitled, we see Rae’s hands place small pieces of paper face down on a white surface: on the right, a single rectangle; on the left, two items, each with a torn edge. Next we’re shown an atlas opened to a map labeled, “Retreat of Colonialism in the Postwar Period,” which Rae uses to illustrate, using a pen and ruler, his migration to California from his native Iran. Finally, Rae re-places the pieces of paper, this time face up, revealing old, black and white photos of an elderly white woman and a black man. A simple voiceover builds to this moment: “I got my green card. I came to the United States of America. And discovered two major colors, white and black.” The sentiment and irony are both fairly simple, but Untitled packs a bruising punch because of its tactile, intimate presence. Like Jean-Paul Kelly’s The Innocents, which screened in Wavelengths last year and employs the same technique of arranging photos by hand, Untitled makes literal the very private process of choosing and ordering images from which autobiographical, independent cinema is made. We hear not only Rae’s voice but also the sounds of his hands and objects as they brush across the filmed surface, as if we were sitting there alongside him. In the silence immediately following the final cut to black, Untitled’s sounds and images collide and generate a new, unexpected sensation – not irony or cynicism but bitter disappointment.
The Reminder also opens with a voiceover, this time in Farsi, but the original voice is soon drowned out by its English translation. An adult man addresses his mother in a letter, recalling the day fifteen years earlier when, while moving out of their home, he stared at her portrait and imagined himself walking, breathing, smelling and hearing just like she did. “I thought you were not looking at anything but me in this world,” he says. Rae illustrates the letter with a classical shot breakdown: a wide shot of a young boy looking up at an old photo; a medium close-up of the boy, who stares intently; and an eyeline match to a close-up of the photo. Rae then zooms in and the photo dissolves to a portrait of a man, revealing striking similarities in the two people’s facial features. The zoom and two more cuts – to the boy’s face and back to the photo again – are accompanied by a music cue that recalls a Hollywood film noir, as does the final, cryptic line: “Please destroy this letter like other things that have been destroyed.” The Reminder is a classic, Rebecca-like mystery reduced to its essence, and its core elements – nostalgia, regret, saudade – are invigorated by political anger and by the suggestion of violence (who has ever wished to “destroy” a letter?).
Finally, a too-brief word for Chantal Akerman, the matron saint (though she surely would’ve scoffed at the term) of border crossings, homesickness and cosmopolitan filmmaking. There’s a haunting scene in Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978) in which Akerman’s heroine, a young Belgian filmmaker who is struggling to make a home in France, steps from one train car to another and is surrounded, suddenly, by passengers who haunt the space like ghosts of the Holocaust. It’s a paradigmatic moment in Akerman’s cinema, at once autobiographical and universal – a profoundly moving expression of dislocation and trauma, both personal and historical. Akerman, as we see first-hand in what is presumably her final film, No Home Movie, was forever on the move, shooting films, promoting films, installing films, writing, teaching, and lecturing throughout Europe, North America, Asia and seemingly all points in between. In No Home Movie she reports back to her mother in Belgium via Skype. “There’s no distance in the world,” Akerman tells her, as if hoping it might be true.
The Skype calls are one of the many formal touches that allude to News from Home (1977), in which Akerman reads letters from her mother, Natalia, over images of New York City. In the earlier film, Natalia’s expressions of concerns for her daughter are sweet if occasionally overbearing. In No Home Movie, her concerns remain but are revealed through extraordinary tenderness. After the film’s premiere in Locarno, Akerman said, “I knew she loved me, but when I see that Skype moment, it’s really like a love affair between us.” Much of the film consists of conversations between the two, usually at a small kitchen table where Akerman sits with one foot tucked up her, like a child. They discuss the family and their lack of religious faith (echoed in occasional shots of a desert in Israel) but navigate around the details of Natalia’s experiences in the concentration camps. Instead, Natalia prefers to remember Chantal as a mischievous, brilliant, beautiful child. Near the end of No Home Movie, we watch from the distant perspective of a tripod-mounted camera as Natalia sleeps in her recliner. Akerman takes a seat on the floor beside her, camera in hand, and looks up at her mother through the small LCD display (yes, this is another making-of scene). Akerman’s sister Sylviane is also there, busying herself in the next room, but she calls out, “Mama, tell us a story. Mama, wake up and talk to us.” Natalia stirs in her sleep and mumbles, as if in a dream, but the words never come. This is, as far as I know, a unique scene in all of the cinema. In real time, we observe as a life’s stories become lost to the world. It’s devastating, and with Akerman’s passing, doubly so.
Toronto International Film Festival
10-20 September 2015
Festival website: http://tiff.net/festivals/festival15