Friday, September 17, 2021

TIFF 2021 ZALAVA: Reflections by Robert Aaron Mitchell


 Arsalan Amiri, Zalava (Iran, 2021)

 Zalava is a small farming village. Nearby is a military outpost. The year is 1978, before the revolution in Iran. All is not well in Zalava.

 

The film opens with a woman hauling a large pack. She walks down cramped village paths. She comes across something. She stops dead in her tracks. She stares ahead with palpable fear. Her nose starts to bleed. Villagers arrive at the military outpost screaming there is a demon in the village. “She’s possessed!” Villagers surround her. Her fear grows. The villagers fear grows. She backs away from the mob and falls down a cliff to her death.

 

After this tragic death a complaint is filed towards the Sergeant of the outpost, Sergeant Massoud. (Navid Pourfaraj) He is blamed for the death of the woman because he ordered all the guns in the village to be confiscated. A young soldier Younes reads the military order that Sergeant will be effectively relieved of duty by the next morning.

 

As the villagers line up to receive their confiscated guns one of the people is Khalaj Zalavaei the father of the woman who fell to her death. Upon receiving his rifle he points the gun at Sergeant Massoud and pulls the trigger. The rifle, empty of bullets clicks. The Sergeant’s last night in command will be a long one. A black cat ominously wanders the military post.

 

The village is once again gripped in throes of fear. Another demon is attacking the village. Massoud and Younes take a jeep and drive up the windy, mountain roads to the village. A couple of dead, mutilated sheep lay on the side of the road. As they arrive villagers are in full panic mode trying to escape and save their livestock.

 

Way back in November 2016 here in America, people, mostly white people, began to wear safety pins as an act of solidarity with visible minorities who were rightfully concerned for their well being as a populist was elected riding a wave of nationalism and xenophobia to the White House. The underlying thought was that a person who was being threatened, say on a city bus, would spot the white person wearing a safety pin and approach knowing that they were with a “safe” person. Needlessly to say, placing the burden on the person who was already in a dangerous situation. In Zalava we also see safety pins being worn by the villagers. The thought is the demons are repelled by metal. Further, to this end we also see many scythes hanging from doorways.

 

A traveling exorcist by the name of Amardan (Pouria Rahimi Sam) - a true highlight of the movie – shows up to assist the village in the removal of the current demon. Amardan removes his shoes and heads up the stone steps to the house with the possessed person armed only with an empty glass pickle jar. If he is successful he will return with the demon successfully trapped inside the jar. If he does not succeed he has given firm instructions that he is to be stabbed below the waist to effectively bleed the demon out which will still keep the village safe.

 

Another character that should be mentioned is Doctor Maliheh. (Hoda Zeinolabedin) She works in the village collecting samples of the villager’s blood and urine to send to a government lab to ensure the villagers overall health but because of the level of anxiety in the village the samples contain far too much adrenaline and are not effective as true samples. Sergeant Mossoud is also quite smitten with her. Another matter to note is although Dr. Maliheh is very much rooted in science and medicine she does still believe that there is a possibility that demons do exist.

 


 

The film is ultimately the test of two wills. Khalija the influential villager who lost his daughter to the demon who wholeheartedly believes in the supernatural influences surrounding Zalava and the will of Massoud who believes that all the demon fears are nothing more than superstition.  Interestingly, Aramand may believe or may only be riding the wave of paranoia to cash in. As was mentioned earlier Dr. Maliheh is a person of science and still retains some belief that the demons could be real.

There are some wonderful standout scenes with Dr. Maliheh and Sergeant Massoud as well as Massoud and Amaradan debating if he is actually an exorcist or just a con artist. There is also some horror troupes of a black cat, creaky doors and shadows on the wall. One of the best scenes involves the black cat and the pickle jar. 

I consider this one of the best films I have seen this the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival because as a  demonic possession, exorcist film it is playing off the genre convention that the audience will dismiss the reality of the demon until the big third act fantastical reveal of the demon. We didn’t believe, but we knew it all along. Zalava wonderfully subverts expectations. The demons of fear and superstition were visible the entire time. We are watching a community give into fear and superstition. 

For me one of the great scenes of the movie is when the mob riding on delirious fear begin arguing amongst themselves on how they should proceed, contradicting the many long held steps to demon exorcism and removal. 

One other thing I want to mention, is the entry point into the story is definitely through horror conventions however the film is also very much a love story.

The film takes place in a per-revolutionary Iran but parallels a lot of what I am seeing in the world right now with an invisible virus. People are eschewing science and medical fact to chase disbelief and unproven medical cures. Of which the end result is many times, very scary, tragic and deadly results. 

 


 

TIFF 2021 ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT?: Reflections by Carol Borden


 By Carol Borden

Wen Shipei’s Are You Lonesome Tonight? / Re Dai Wang Shi (or, “Tropical Memories”) (China, 2021) is a remarkably assured first feature film that’s more like a traditional noir than many of the new wave of neo-noirs coming out of China right now--Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake (2019) or Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018), for example.

Late one night, HVAC repairman Wang Xueming (Eddie Peng) encounters a recalcitrant ox in the road. Unable to pass, he takes another road and hits a pedestrian. And then, as happens in noir, Wang makes a decision that leads to a chain reaction of events. He disposes of the pedestrian’s body. It’s 1997 Guangzhou and there are no surveillance cameras. Wang doesn’t have a cellphone. No one will know and it’s easy to move on late at night when there’s no way to call an ambulance without waking people up and confessing.

Later, Wang recognizes Mr. Liang, the man he hit, from a missing persons poster and then encounters Mrs. Liang (the legendary actor and director Sylvia Chang) as she is distributing the posters. He decides he will confess to her. Meanwhile, Wang learns more and more about Mr. Liang. And it leads him somewhere dangerous even as he can’t help getting more involved in Mr. Liang’s secrets and Mrs. Liang’s life. 


Eddie Peng embodies Wang’s guilt and fear well. He’s tense, silent and curled in on himself. There’s something in him he wants to say, but he just can’t bring himself to. It comes out in sweat, anxiety and cigarette smoke. There’s a great scene where Wang reveals his antihero ambivalence by berating a kid for smoking while stealing the kid’s cigarettes and lighter. Sylvia Chang is perfect as Mrs. Liang, a woman who is not a femme fatale but not exactly a model widow. She’s poised but she cannot cry. She doesn’t miss her husband, but she’s haunted by her past as a wife and mother. And the film occasionally shows us glimpses of her ghosts as she attempts to adjust to life on her own.

Are You Lonesome Tonight? has the lovely use of color I associate with Chinese neo-noir--influenced by the Taiwanese New Wave, Hong Kong films and, I assume, Jia Zhangke, who has his own neo-noir-ish film now, Ash Is Purest White (2018). Are You Lonesome Tonight? also plays with flashbacks, as when Mrs. Liang is haunted by memories of her husband and son or when the film alternates between Wang in 2005 and Wang in 1997. It has a very neat use of a flashlight for spotlighting actors engaged in specific actions during a confrontation on the street. And it has a dance studio sequence, which is another thing I’m starting to associate with mainland Chinese neo-noir.



But there’s also some explicit Freud, who always likes to show up in classic noir.. And composer Hank Lee dissonant strings simultaneously reminiscent of something like Kronos Quartet, classic noir and Bernard Herrmann. And there’s classic noir in the revelation of Mr. Liang’s other life, Wang’s efforts to make good for Mrs. Liang, and especially the arrival of sympathetic police lieutenant Chen (Wang Yanhui) midway through the film. Chen is there to get to the truth, solve Mr. Liang’s murder and catch the killer or killers. Chen is there to try to make sure that crime doesn’t pay. He’s not corrupt. He’s not cruel. He is a cinematic cop reminiscent of Hayes Code era straightforward police. And so it’s clear, in calling Are You Lonesome Tonight a more conventional noir, I am not saying it’s bad. Sometimes you want a more straightforward noir shot in shadows and neon color. Sometimes it’s nice when a police lieutenant solving a murder isn’t corrupt, the “femme fatale” makes out okay and someone sings a torch song.

Just in your own life never take the bag of money. Leave that alone.

TIFF 2021 YUNI: Reflections by Robert Aaron Mitchell

Yuni is the third feature film by director Kamila Andini and marks her return to the Toronto International Film Festival. Kamila has the distinction of the first filmmaker to be presented twice in tiff’s Platform competition programme.

The film follows the title character Yuni (Arawinda Kirana), a typical teenager. She goes to school. She fixates on a cute teacher. She hangs out with friends and scrolls Instagram. The world she navigates is rooted in religious customs and tradition. People try and blackmail kids that they are engaging in sexual activities. At school Yuni wears a hijab. On her own she dresses in contemporary, vibrant clothing. At home –nearing the age of seventeen – several suitors are courting Yuni’s grandmother to arrange a marriage with the teenager. Left to her own devices Yuni goes on adventures of self-discovery.

 


 

At school it is announced that far too many teenage girls are becoming pregnant and that mandatory virginity tests will be implemented. The Islamic Club is now in charge of school activities now. Everyone must conform to Islamic teachings. There will be no more music bands.

Yuni has an obsession for the color purple, so much so, that she constantly steals purple items from other students, a water bottle, a food container. It does not matter what the item is as along as it is purple. This lands her Mrs. Lilis’ guidance councilors office. Mrs Lilis recognizes that Yuni is someone trying to forge their own path and instead of punishing the teenager, the councilor encourages Yuni to work towards going to college. In order for this to happen Yuni will have to be accepted in a special admissions program. She has to graduate third or higher in her class, have achievements in the humanities, sports or other activities and she must not be married.

As the pressure mounts for Yuni to get the highest grade possible she meets a boy Yoga (Kevin Ardillova). He is smitten with her and begins to write poetry for her assignments in Mr. Damar’s class, the teacher Yuni has a crush on.


 

Some of the great scenarios in the movie is when Yuni is dealing with the predatory practice of arranged marriages. She confronts would be suitors herself. Interestingly, the suitors meet with Yuni’s grandmother as Yuni’s parents are currently out of town. Upon meeting Yuni’s mother we can see why. Her mother is extremely supportive of Yuni telling her, “Whatever makes you happy I will support it.” As paths and avenues close around her she continues undeterred to be her own person and follow her dreams. 


 

Arawinda Kirana brings a phenomenal performance as the title character. The entire film rests on her shoulders and she carries the weight exceptionally well. The emotions and the strength necessary for Yuni to seek her own life on her terms and survive the society around her is very relatable. The cinematography by Teoh Gay Hian reinforces the traditional Indonesian society as well as the vibrant colors that inhabit the world that Yuni is trying to create for herself.

Yuni is ultimately a beautiful poem of a young woman navigating the expectations of religion and a traditional society to forge her own path. 


 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

TIFF 2021 SALOUM: Jean Luc Herbulot Director Statement & Festival Poster

 


Get ready for SALOUM

Here is what writer and director Jean Luc Herbulot has to say about the movie, "I have always admired Sergio Leone’s Westerns, Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai films, Jean Pierre Melville’s Noirs, George Miller’s post-apocalyptic action, and the Kim Jee-woon’s and the Park Chan-wook’s of the filmic world - all strong ambassadors of a genre but also acontinent or a country. I believe you can survey an entire country’s identity and mood by its best genre films and filmmakers.I want SALOUM to feel real, hard, raw and darkly poetic in its own original way. 

A film that stands as purely African and that also speaks unconditionally about universal truths, and is also respectful of the Sine Saloum area’s ancestral stories. The time has come for Katiopa (Africa in our indigenous language) to bring its heroes and myths into the modern mix. Growing up in Congo and witnessing the lack of African heroes as a child, it was my imagination of a bigger world that brought me to filmmaking. The creation of SALOUM is part of a bigger universe - a universe I based on reality and military and political history that I later tainted with a layer of adventure and horror. 

SALOUM was created in collaboration with my creative partner, Pamela Diop. We went on a creative brainstorm weekend trip to the mystical and isolated region of Saloum, where Pamela has a deep and spiritual family history. It was here that the initial seeds of the story took shape. We wanted to capture the atmosphere of the region, the mysticism that lives in the air, and were also inspired to tell a story of strong characters on a tale of revenge. And then we decided to bring some heroes in... some colorful ones may I say. That’s how the Hyenas were born. That’s how Chaka was born. SALOUM is not a hero movie, but a movie about heroes. Heroes that we have not seen before. I love movies, I breathe movies, and SALOUM is my love letter to Africa and to cinema."

TIFF 2021 AFTER BLUE (Dirty Paradise): Reflections by Robert Aaron Mitchell

 

If cinema is a dream like state than Bertrand Mandico's latest film After Blue (Dirty Paradise) is pure uncut cinema. 

Bertrand created the Incoherence Manifesto in 2012 with fellow filmmaker Katrin Olafsdotir. Bertrand states, "To be incoherent means to have faith in cinema, it means to have a romantic approach, unformatted, free, disturbed and dreamlike, cinegenic, an epic narration." 

A voice says "You are no longer on your planet. You are in space."  Hues of red and blue wash over us. "The Earth was sick so we had to look elsewhere." Rules were set once After Blue was discovered. Rules to avoid the same errors of Earth. No machines, no wavelengths, no chemistry. Living in micro-communities, based on nationality. Laws were set to cut the bad weeds. When evil appears, it's roots are cut. There are no men on After Blue. Once the planet was colonized, they all died early on. The hair of the men grew inside because of the atmosphere. The population of After Blue continues when women are inseminated with good Earth sperm.

We meet a woman by the name of Roxy (Paula Luna). The village girls have named her Toxic. On a beach Roxy and three other women run around. They find a head submerged in the sandy beach.  They examine it and refer to it as an octo-whore. Soon the three women get tired of this find and strip naked and run out to the water to swim. The head begins to plead for Roxy to unearth it. "If you help me. I will grant you hidden desires. Three desires." The apple as a genie. Roxy frees the woman. Paradise might have been found but paradise still requires guns. As it is, the newly freed woman takes one of the guns stuck in the sand and shoots the three women who are still swimming. Setting off an epic narration of events. 

 


 

The woman Roxy has freed reveals that her name is Kate Bush. She is recognizable because she is tall, has a hairy arm, a tattoo and an eye between her legs. Kate has already granted Roxy her first wish by eliminating her friends.

The village arrives at Roxy's mother's Zona (Elina Löwensohn) salon to demand Roxy and her go out and find and kill Kate Bush. To further reinforce this demand the Gucci rifle they are handed to accomplish this has a blue glowing inscription YOU WILL KILL KATE BUSH.  

Slightly off topic but interesting, director Bertrand Mandico and Elina Löwensohn have began a project entitled "20+1 Projections" The project involves the pair making twenty-one short films in twenty-one years. The themes of aging and desire will run throughout these films. 

When the current Pandemic began to take hold in March and April of 2020 I was personally drawn to post-apocalyptic cinema. Not the drab color palette Mad Max kind of cinema though, the Italians making films in 1970s New York City kind of cinema. The Enzo G. Castellari kind of cinema. The explosion of color and ridiculous leather vest as armor cinema. 1990 Bronx Warriors, The New Barbarians. There is something comforting that during the end times people have great hair and rock regalia that is more fashion esthetic than pure defense. As the pandemic continues, it also comforts me the people crafting films right now, in the Almost End of Blue, are also exploring colorful post-apocalyptic landscapes.


 

After Blue is the direct descendant of Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo. After Blue is the child of David Pelham's 1970s sci-fi, paperback covers. It is also to say Bertrand Mandico's film is midnight madness.  The cinematography of Pascale Granel is exquisite as is the score by Pierre Desprats. 

Clearly with a film of this ambition and weirdness, you are either going to be on board with this trip or you will not be.

On a final note, surprisingly or perhaps not, the world of After Blue looks eerily similar to wandering a cattle ranch in South Texas after eating things that sprout up from the Earth.

TIFF 2021 ZALAVA: Reflections By Carol Borden

By Carol Borden 


 In Arsalan Amiri’s Zalava (Iran, 2021) there is certainly a demon among the people. They are scared and capable of anything. But is that demon their own fear or is there something else cursing them?

The film is set in 1978 in Zalava, Kurdistan, a village settled by Romani one hundred years ago. The village itself is beset by djinn that can only be controlled either by capturing the djinn in a jar or bottle or by wounding a possessed person below the waist. The people of Zalavi prefer to shoot someone in the leg as it has a higher chance of survival but they also will stab or cut a person below the waist so that they “blood spurts.” This prevents the demon from possessing others. As the film opens, a young woman has been declared possessed and the villagers have summoned Sgt. Massoud Amhadi (Navid Pourfaraj) to do something about it. Massoud confiscates the villager’s rifles to prevent them from hurting the girl. He tells them, “She’s better possessed than having you mutilate her.” But after Massoud, his sidekick / underling Younes (Baset Rezaei) and the rest of the local gendarmerie return to their station outside Zalava, the girl’s father draws his knife to do what he believes must be done. Unfortunately, as she backs away from him, she falls to her death.

 

The local people complain to the government, blaming Massoud for her death and his illegal confiscation of their rifles. Massoud receives orders to step down and return the rifles. The day before he is to retire, he dons a very 1978 suit, goes to sign papers and turn in his badge. But the villagers return to the station demanding that he do something about the demons attacking Zalava. Instead of telling the new commander it’s his problem now, Massoud dons his uniform and returns to Zalava to discover metal implements hung in front of doors and strung across alleys to scare the demons away. Everyone is terrified. Some appear to be convulsing. And the center of the activity is a house people are certain now contains a demon. They have called a ritual specialist, Amardan (Pouria Rahimi Sam) to exorcise the demon. Amardan tells the assembled villagers to bring their rifles and all the musicians. The musicians come, but no one will bring a rifle because they believe Massoud will seize them again. Amardan tells Massoud to shoot him in the leg if he comes out empty handed. Then he asks someone to stab him in the leg if Massoud is too afraid to shoot. Amardan comes out of the house carrying a clear jar that he claims contains a djinn. The musicians play. Everyone dances. Massoud is extremely skeptical. And now the real suspense begins. 

 Like a lot of folk horror, Zalava relies on the fear of what people are capable of based on their beliefs and what might be happening that’s rooted in things from long ago that urban and urbanized people might no longer understand. But Zalava also reminds me of Val Lewton’s psychological horror movies at RKO in the 1940s. Though there is a lot of successful suspense built around it in the film, it doesn’t really matter if there is a demon in that jar. The demon’s presence or absence is less important than the destructive power that people themselves are capable of. It’s hard to see how one djinn is really worse than a village of people willing to shoot, stab and even kill each other in their fear that something secret is wrong with someone among them. And the accused we see before they are shot, stabbed or driven off the edge of a building don’t seem much different than anyone else. Though while embodied djinn seem initially innocuous, we do hear that Amardan can send disembodied djinn to do things like pee in dams. While watching Zalava, I couldn’t help thinking about Emir Ezwan’s Roh / Soul (Malaysia, 2019), another film with another demon setting people against each other. But as that demons says, “All we do is whisper.” In Zalava, our fear and panic is far more destructive than any demon could be by itself. 

 


I assume there are social and political implications that aren’t immediately apparent to me in setting the film before the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979, but I do appreciate setting it in that time for other reasons. Massoud’s suit and the film’s color palette certainly reflects that era in film. There are some beautiful shots of Massoud’s tan jeep driving through arid, rocky mountains. I didn’t mention Dr. Maliheh (Hoda Zeinolabedin) in my synopsis, but she is integral to the film and she has fantastic chemistry with Navid Pourfaraj’s Massoud. Pourfaraj is another actor who conveys so much with his eyes alone. 

I also appreciate director Arsalan Amiri’s point in his introduction that this kind of panic can happen anywhere anytime. It’s not specific to this place. At the same time, I am not entirely comfortable in setting it among an ethnic minority, Kurdish Romani, even as I know that having some kind of other who is simultaneously outside society and involved in secret and perhaps dangerous supernatural activity is a common story the world over. I don’t know enough history about the area or of Iranian film to say more about whether the people of Zalava are even read as Kurdish or Romani. All that aside, Zalava is an excellent film. And we are wise to remember that, yes, these panics can happen anywhere and we should watch out for them not just in others, but in ourselves because they always feel righteous. 

And if you are concerned about the kitten or the rabbit, they don’t die.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

TIFF 2021 I'M YOUR MAN Ich bin dein Mensch: Reflections By Carol Borden

By Carol Borden

Maria Schrader I’m Your Man / Ich bin dein Mensch (Germany, 2021)

Sure, there are a lot of movies about people falling in love with androids, robots and AI, but a lot of them are about the risks and even dangers of men falling in love with robots. In Ex Machina (2014), Her (2013), and Godzilla vs Monster Zero (1965 / 1970), for example, men have learned what it is to feel a love beyond computation. And there is even The Companion (1993), in which a woman falls in love and experiences the perils of a smitten Bruce Greenwood android with full autonomy. But that doesn’t mean that there’s not room in my heart for one more.

Unlike Her, Ex Machina, The Companion and Godzilla vs Monster Zero, Maria Schrader’s I’m Your Man / Ich bin dein Mensch (Germany, 2021) is mostly a romantic comedy. It just has some additional existential drama. Schrader is also an actor. You might know her from Aimeé & Jaguar (1999) or Nobody Loves Me / Keiner leibt mich (1994), but she has moved into directing and I am happy she has.

Dr. Alma Falsar (Marren Eggert) is working on breakthrough research she is about to publish on previously undiscovered poetry in cuneiform tablets at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. The museum’s administration has offered her additional funding if she’ll participate in an experiment. She’s to spend three weeks with an android designed to be her perfect partner* and then write an evaluation that will help determine whether or not robots should be allowed to marry and have other rights in society. Of course, this funding is a “thank you gift” and not a bribe.

Alma meets Tom (Dan Stevens) at a special club designed to show off the romantic possibilities of androids--and even holograms. Tom attempts to woo her with compliments and the rhumba, but it’s not really Alma’s thing and she seems more interested in him as a robot than a potential partner. She does, however, take Tom home and set him up with his own room. And so the experiment begins.

In another film, Tom might rampage or we might discover he is more “human” than human. Another film might let Tom be hit by a streetcar for maximum pathos or to resolve the central conflicts it has set up about what it means to be happy and what it means to have a perfectly compatible partner who only wants to make you happy and give you everything you want. Another film might echo the warnings of earlier science fiction that the robots will trick us by being perfect servants and then take over. (Shades of Benito Cereno). I’m Your Man / Ich bin dein Mensch does not. But it does provide the possibility of Alma navigating her principles and concerns while also, perhaps, allowing herself to love and be loved. And I appreciate that it navigates issues of consent well--not only Alma’s but Tom’s ability to consent.

The above might make it sound like the film is not funny, but I have to say that Dan Steven’s Tom was hilarious to me. His reactions, his romantic poses, his delivery and his too much intense eye contact and initial overuse of Alma’s name were all on point. Marren Eggert’s responses to Tom are similarly hilarious. Her bewilderment, her incredulity, her absolute bafflement and exasperation at times were delightful And I enjoyed how Tom and Alma would watch each other in different ways. The film has a lovely and quiet use of the gaze. And Marren Eggert is fantastic as Alma moves towards a vulnerability that she does not want to feel and that makes her feel more alone. But Alma’s integrity and her commitment to her work and living as she thinks she should are not compromised. They are just complicated by not just her growing feelings for Tom, but by her curiosity about him. I’m Your Man is another favorite at this year’s festival and I’d gladly watch it again.

(Incidentally the Bleecker Street trailer translates Alma saying “This is the penis of my dreams” as “This is the man of my dreams.” You know better, Bleecker Street).

*A Mechanized Organism Designed Only For Marriage. I want to be more sorry about this joke than I am.