Dispatches from TIFF

Tiff09

Earlier this month, while flipping through the Toronto International Film Festival program guide, I glanced past the inclusion of a spotlight on Tel Aviv filmmakers, which encompassed a set of ten films. Frankly, I didn’t think much of it, since it’s common for the Fest to profile a city or country with a vibrant and emerging film culture. I made a note of the other Israeli films on offer, as I normally do, and moved on to other categories. Around the same time, I started to hear the faint murmurs of a protest aimed at TIFF, with the Tel Aviv selection at its focus.

At first it seemed to be a local skirmish, covered by the Toronto papers, with brief mention on local news — but nothing broader than that. Then, within a day or so, there was a group of names attached to the protest: Jane Fonda, Harry Belafonte, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, John Greyson. I was in disbelief that a group of prominent Canadian and American personalities would try to censor the work of Tel-Aviv filmmakers simply for being from Tel Aviv.

Surprisingly, they did not call for a boycott of the Festival. Remember, some of the voices of dissent had films premiering here (Viggo Mortensen with The Road, for one). So instead, they aimed their outrage at the Festival programmers and organizers who chose Tel Aviv as the spotlighted city. Around went a petition, encouraging more dissenters to lend their names to the growing protest. I guess they wanted ticket-buyers to avoid the Tel Aviv program, or at least share an unkind word with Cameron Bailey and Piers Handling, the Festival’s co-directors.

Arguing that TIFF is helping to support “brand Israel” and promote the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s new advertising campaign, the protesters stated that the Festival “has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine.” Strong words from a group of people who had yet to see the ten films comprising the program. No matter if the films glorified or critiqued Israeli domestic policy, these folks were acting on principle. Never mind that these films were made by talented individuals, who likely spent months or years making their film projects. In my view, these artists deserved better than to be the subject of a misdirected attempt to raise awareness to a controversial subject.

I felt compelled to respond to this story not because I saw the need to defend fellow Jews, but because so much of this protest is misdirected, uninformed, and ignorant. We can speculate on the reaction that another controversial choice may have garnered — say, Tehran. Iranian filmmakers have for decades been lauded for pushing cultural, aesthetic, and political boundaries within their own film community. Would the same folks who protested the Israeli spotlight have had the same worries over an Iranian focus?

Obviously, not all Iranian films support Iranian government policy. Several Iranian films have attempted to push back against the fundamentalist nature of the government regime (see the films of Mohsen Makhmalbaf). The fact is, Israel and its cities remain politicized targets, even as Israeli filmmakers attempt to reach a global audience with thoughtful stories and commentaries. Why should an intimate story (The Bubble) about dealing with modern life in Tel Aviv, warts and all, be treated as a site for international conflict? Why not celebrate the technique and artistry of the film, as well as its confrontation with some very delicate issues, including homosexuality, fundamentalism, and nationalism.

In fact, one voice of dissent, Canadian filmmaker John Greyson lamented the lack of focus on Palestinian films at TIFF 09 to offset the strong Israeli contingent. Actually there were a handful of films by Palestinian filmmakers on the Festival roster. I seriously wonder if the next time Greyson applies for a funding grant from the government of Canada if he will see the irony in that decision. Anyone on this side of the border knows that Canada Council grants and others like it aim to promote a certain–some might say restrictive–image of Canadian arts to Canadians and a global audience. Some might call it “Brand Canada.”

The double-standard at play here seems pretty obvious. I may not support everything the Israeli government does, but that should not preclude me from supporting individual filmmakers, who have a story to tell.

In the last few days of the Festival a counter-protest finally emerged. On the front page of the Toronto Star were two sets of photographs — one with Tel Aviv supporters and the other with the original protesters. Of course, most of the counter-protesters were Jewish personalities in film and television, which will simply reaffirm the notion that Jews will support Israel at any cost. I can’t speak for people like David Cronenberg and Natalie Portman, but maybe these filmmakers also realize that censoring a group of filmmakers for belonging to a city, a culture, and a religion should not be tolerated by anyone, especially those who seek to speak for minorities. You don’t have to be Jewish to see that.

Now with that out of the way, here are some thoughts on a few of the films we caught at TIFF this year.

Waking Sleeping Beauty

Beauty and the Beast

The highlight of the Festival was, for me, the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty. Getting its world premiere here in Toronto (after a sneak preview in Telluride the previous week), the film offers a glimpse behind the scenes of one of the most celebrated periods in animation history: Walt Disney Studios’ resurgence in the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties. From The Black Cauldron to The Lion King, filmmakers Peter Schneider and Don Hahn utilize found footage (mostly home videos) to explore the corporate culture at Disney and the relationship between Disney animators and the executives who wrote their paychecks. The tone of the film is captured best in an early scene, where we are shown outtakes from a corporate video presented by Michael Eisner, Disney’s CEO at the time. Eisner smiles and congratulates the crew of The Lion King on a job well done, then looks off camera, loses the smile and snaps, “That good enough?” He looks tired, defeated, and angry. Apparently, he was. While the Disney animators have a lot to say in the film about their work and crazy schedules, the picture belongs to Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who emerge as great Shakespearean characters at a time when the company was producing some of the most memorable and successful films. Eisner comes off as the better man, even after his two-faced display in the corporate video. While Eisner seems genuinely interested in the quality of Disney animation, Katzenberg has trouble connecting to his employees — the animators. He struggles to communicate, and when he does he ends up angering them even more with his aloofness. Interspersed with the found footage are high-def snippets of the films themselves, which have never looked better — from The Little Mermaid to Aladdin to Beauty and the Beast. It’s all topped by a moving section that details the work of Howard Ashman, the co-composer of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, who died of AIDS before Beast was completed. We were told that the film will be released in April. When it comes to your town, be sure to check it out.

The Hole

the-hole

I was excited to see Joe Dante’s new film, which turned out to be the first 3-D film ever exhibited at TIFF. The Hole is a predictable, if somewhat uneven, horror tale that represents the first live-action 3-D film I have seen since Captain EO back in the eighties. Dante’s use of 3-D is surprisingly underwhelming since he avoids the obvious z-axis stingers and arranges his 3-D mise en scene with subtle depth. Foreground and background planes are noticeably more pronounced, but focal problems were apparent. This may not be a glitch with the 3-D process, but a rack-focus error that occasionally threw the background into sharp focus when the foreground action was unintentionally blurry. In several sequences, Dante is in fine form, as he cleverly mixes humor with genuinely frightening imagery. The bathroom sequence is a real highlight, as is any scene with the demonic clown doll. During our screening, however, the fire alarm was pulled fifteen minutes before the end of the film, which forced us to abandon our seats and exit the theater. Looks like we’ll have to catch the rest of it some other time.

Get Low

Get Low

This is a low key affair with Robert Duvall in a rare starring role and Bill Murray in another memorable supporting part. This might be Bill Murray’s first period piece, actually. The film takes place in the early part of the 20th century, with Duvall playing a feared recluse who one day decides to drive into town on his donkey-drawn cart to ask the local priest for a living funeral. He intends to “get low” (i.e. down to business) and wishes to stage a funeral so he can hear what people really think of him. Duvall plays it close to the chest, emoting only when he absolutely must. As Murray’s character says late in the film, “Is it just me, or is he extremely articulate when he wants to be?” It’s still looking for a distributor, which will hopefully happen, since Duvall and Murray are terrific in the scenes they share together. First-time feature director Aaron Schneider stays away from “homespun” cliches and lets the story breathe on its own without showy editing, camera movement, or musical choices. Getting to see Murray and Duvall in person was a real treat, along with Richard Zanuck whose son Dean produced the film.

Les Herbes Folles

Les Herbes Folles

I was looking forward to Alain Resnais’ newest film, Les Herbes Folles, but left the screening scratching my head. Was he being deliberately playful with his narrative structure and tone? It was slowly building to a romantic pay-off, or at least an ironic punchline, but instead Resnais pulled out the rug from under us, and we were left with a seemingly unrelated and unmotivated question: when a young girl becomes a cat, will she be able to eat cat munchies? The audience, almost in unison, shouted “Huh?” when the screen cut to black. For most of the film Resnais hooked me with a rather simple love story that begins with a woman losing her purse and a lonely house husband retrieving it for her. He falls for her and finds it hard to stop thinking about the stranger whose wallet he found. He fantasizes about her, while she seems completely uninterested in his advances, and seems only content flying her plane. Maybe someone needs to explain this one to me.

Good Hair

Good Hair

Lastly, I wanted to mention Chris Rock’s documentary on African-American hair, called Good Hair. As a white man myself I never knew the complexities associated with black hair. Rock does a good job as on-camera interviewer and voice-over narrator, taking us through the many ways women style their hair. As the father of two young daughters, Rock sees himself as protector and educator. He digs deep and examines the social and cultural roots of what constitutes “natural” black hair (i.e. white Eurpoean hair), and the lengths black women will go to achieve straight, bouncy hair. There’s the highly toxic chemical, sodium hydroxide, which is the main ingredient in most relaxers. Rock and a scientist show how prolonged exposure to the hydroxide will disintegrate a soda can, even though it is commonly used on toddlers and young girls. To explain the origins of weave hair, Rock travels to India and finds that thousands of young women routinely shave their heads as part of a religious ceremony. This hair is then processed, dyed, cleaned and eventually sold to African-American women. Rev. Al Sharpton offers some insightful commentary, as do several other prominent celebrities.

Reading up on TIFF coverage in Variety and other trade sources, it sounds as if this was a pretty mediocre year in terms of film quality and acquisitions. Some blame the recession on the slow acquisition of titles by major distributors, others blame the quality of films for the slow sales. The film Creation, about the relationship between Charles and Emma Darwin, left the Festival without an American distributor, leaving some to wonder if its subject matter would prove too controversial for American audiences or if the film just isn’t that good. I was surprised to see Get Low leave the Festival without a major distributor either — even though the film’s pedigree (produced by the Zanucks, starring Murray and Duvall) suggests that it would be a no-brainer for anyone interested. Which is why I was relieved to hear that Waking Sleeping Beauty will actually get a release, unlike the 2002 behind-the-scenes-at-Disney doc, The Sweatbox. Many other notable features went home without a deal, making it the topic of conversation in the TIFF post mortem. Check out Roger Ebert’s blog post about some other titles that may not be coming to a theater near you.

It’s always a shame that none of the films my wife and I love are ever recognized by the TIFF award juries. This year, Precious: Based On the Novel Push By Sapphire won the People’s Choice Award, which seems to be building Oscar momentum. Last year we thought JCVD was a shoe-in for the audience prize, but then Slumdog Millionaire premiered. As a consolation, it was nice to see that the documentary category finally became eligible this year for the People’s Choice Award. Which is why we were keeping our fingers crossed for Waking Sleeping Beauty to take home that prize. Oh well.

Ben in 3-D

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