summer-04.jpgIt’s a rainy day in Toronto, so I’m thrilled when I arrive at the Paramount theater to find that I don’t need to wait outside, though maybe waiting in the mist would’ve helped wake me up. 8:45am screenings are brutal, especially in the middle of the fest, but I’ve heard lots of good things about Summer ’04, so I didn’t want to skip it. And for the first 75 minutes, I enjoyed it a lot. It’s a tale of a couple, their teen son and his girlfriend Livia on a summer holiday. Livia is only 12 years old, but she’s way more mature than that, and she knows it. But instead of trying to seduce the father, she goes after another adult man who sails and has a beautiful sports car.

That, in itself, wouldn’t be terribly interesting, but screenwriter Daniel Nocke focuses not on Livia’s character but on the mother’s reaction. She’s both protective of her young charge and suspicious of the other man, but she quickly falls in love with him, and an odd love triangle develops. Several friends compared it to a Rohmer film in its focus on character and observational details, though director Stefan Krohmer has a long way to go to approach the old master. That becomes especially apparent in the final act, when the slow, comfortable pacing gives way to a rush through various plot developments and ends in an epilogue that comes out of nowhere. Fortunately, the film is somewhat redeemed by its strong acting, especially from Martina Gedeck as the mother. Not quite worth waking up before 7am for, but not a terrible way to start the day.

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Film number two is one of the most acclaimed of the festival so far: Jafar Panahi’s Offside. But as with his earlier features, I didn’t like it as much as a lot of other people (with the exception of The White Balloon, which I love). Offside is inspired by a real-life situation with his daughter where he tried to take her to a soccer (football, to the rest of the world) match and was told no women were allowed. His daughter mentioned that was ok; she had other ways of getting inside the stadium.

The movie is shot like a documentary and with the illusion of real time. We watch a teen girl heading to the Iran-Bahrain World Cup qualifier match, which will determine which team makes it to Germany for the World Cup. The boys around her in the mini-bus are chanting and singing, but she sits nervously, wondering if she’ll get in. After a tense five-minute sequence outside the stadium, she’s caught and taken to a holding pen. The next 45 minutes is mostly a conversation between the various girls who’ve been arrested and the guards who are keeping watch on both them and the game. A scene inside a bathroom is mildly compelling, but it’s otherwise a fairly didactic conversation where the girls (and Panahi) try to convince the guards (and the Iranian authorities) how stupid the policy forbidding women is. Offside has the same problem I had with The Circle and, to a degree, Crimson Gold. Panahi’s agenda is so obvious that even though I agree with him, I find it irritating how the story is subsumed into the message.

Things pick up dramatically, though, when the girls are herded into a police van while the game is in its final minutes. They convince one of the guards to turn on the radio, and the entire group listens in breathless anticipation and then celebrates joyfully at the result. This would always be exciting material, but Panahi made the brave decision to film this sequence on the streets of Tehran during and after the actual game. The jubilation that takes place is, as you might expect, full of energy and quite moving.

Given that I have two movies in the evening (more on that in a second), I decide to skip Cashback, which has received pretty dreadful reviews, and head back to the apartment to do some writing.

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The third film of the day is an African movie called Daratt, which is translated as Dry Season. It’s about a young man in Chad whose grandfather commands him to kill the man who murdered his father. It’s also about a man who travels from the countryside to the big city and has to make his way. And it’s also about the way a man without a father bonds to a man without a son.

These are all familiar tropes, and unfortunately director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun doesn’t do much with them. It doesn’t help that the main character Atim is dull and sullen, never allowing the audience to make any kind of emotional connection. Furthermore, the actor playing Atim, Ali Bacha Barkai, is less than compelling. Much better is Youssouf Djaoro as the surrogate father/father killer, though it’s always frustrating to be more interested in the secondary character than the protagonist.

I’ve also grown tired of revenge movies, especially in the context of world cinema. Given the current political/social climate, we know what the movie’s ultimate message will be: revenge violence only begets more revenge violence, and eventually someone must break the cycle. Yes, yes, yes–no arguments from me there. But when you already know what a movie’s going to say before you’re 15 minutes in, the director better have a few tricks up his sleeve. Daratt, on the other hand, plays it straight, with only a nicely measured conclusion offering any redeeming feature.

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Nonetheless, I felt like I got full value for my ticket because of the magnificent short film that played before Daratt. “Meokgo and the Stickfighter” is an incredibly rich, visually striking 19-minute short set in Lesotho that uses African oral tradition and the Hollywood Western in equal measure. I know I could take 15 minutes from Times and Winds or I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone which would compare favorably to “Meokgo,” but I can’t imagine I will see a better self-contained work this fest. Using the short format to his advantage, director Teboho Mahlatsi crafts images of pure poetry and weds them to a story that’s both iconic and captivating. Just awesome!
stilllife.jpg But that’s not the film of the festival I was talking about in yesterday’s post. That film would be Still Life, Jia Zhang-ke’s feature that won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and was a very late addition to the TIFF lineup. I would’ve switched almost anything to free up space for Jia, but fortunately I didn’t have anything else scheduled tonight. And with only one public and press screening combined, almost everyone I hang out with was there to see how Jia would follow up his success with The World. To answer in one word, brilliantly.

The film is set in the hilly terrain and cities around where the Three Gorges Dam is being built. A middle-aged man has come to find his ex-wife and daughter, though he quickly discovers their old address has already been submerged in the first installations of the dam. Deciding to stay and try to track them down, he joins a bunch of other men who are paid to tear down centuries-old buildings and structures in advance of the next flooding. Periodically, we see government workers marking on buildings and hills how high the water will soon reach.

A secondary story is similar, with a woman coming to the area to find the husband she hasn’t seen in two years. He came here for work but has made a name (and lavish lifestyle) for himself with connections to political leaders and organized crime. Of Still Life’s many qualities, one of the best is how Jia captures the incredible social upheaval taking place in China and particularly around the Three Gorges Dam. But the film also explores the nature of a changing economy where almost anything can function as currency and where currency functions as traces of memory. At one point, a woman says scornfully, “You’re nostalgic,” which earns the reply, “We remember our own past.” Unlike Panahi, who’d have characters pontificating on the various changes, Jia lets the story do the work, and the slow accumulation of details and situations builds to a climax of great emotion. And lest you think the film is one of those East Asian movies that plod along, Still Life has surprising moments of genuine humor. A bizarre flying saucer sequence somehow fit beautifully (and comically) with the rest of the tale.

Anyone who’s seen Jia’s work, though, knows there’s more than just story and character in his movies. He has an amazing compositional eye, particularly in Still Life where he uses the contrast of foreground and background to amazing effect. He also incorporates framing devices of rich beauty, and by showing the ruined architecture against the enduring landscape he incorporates a visual dimension to the theme of change and stasis. My friend Rob Davis made the astute observation that directors are finally discovering how best to use digital video, and Jia’s work is strong evidence of the possibilities. And as Rob and I were discussing afterwards, there are interesting connections between Still Life and other fest films like I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, though those will have to wait until I’ve had more time to synthesize.

Tomorrow is another five-film day with a fairy tale, a Belle de jour sequel, and an Indonesian opera on the schedule. Something for everyone, I say!

Summer ’04: 3 stars (out of five)
Offside: 3 stars
“Meokgo and the Stickfighter”: 4.5 stars
Daratt: 2 stars
Still Life: 4.5 stars