The Toronto International Film Festival (Web Exclusive)
by Richard Porton

Even among seasoned festivalgoers accustomed to Cannes or Berlin, the Toronto International Film Festival can seem like an intimidating behemoth. It’s easy to go slightly mad circling the three films worth seeing at 9:30 in the morning and then finding out there are large swaths of time during the rest of the day when the pickings are annoyingly slim. The huge number of films (nearly 300) is even more daunting than the Cannes lineup—especially if one doesn’t factor in unofficial market screenings at the Riviera’s annual cinematic blowout.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in Damien Chazelle's La La Land.

An overemphasis on “buzz” is perhaps the silliest, as well as the most dismissable, aspect of Toronto’s characteristically self-congratulatory fanfare. 2016’s loudest buzz was reserved for Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a schematic retooling of the movie musical that had premiered several weeks before in Venice and was featured as a “Special Presentation” at TIFF. Chazelle’s film, while not without its pleasures, spawned fawning reviews by many journalists eager to laud a film that was deemed Oscar-worthy by the trade papers. Weighed down with forgettable songs and wan choreography, La La Land is an overcalculated synthesis of motifs culled from big-budget American Fifties musicals and Jacques Demy’s more melancholy film operettas. Cribbing its basic formula from A Star is Born, Chazelle attempts to reignite the glamour of Hollywood’s Golden Age with a tepid narrative that revolves around Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who ultimately achieves great success and her stormy, ultimately doomed affair with Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz musician whose career is going nowhere fast. Despite some sporadically appealing scenes in which the stars show off their respective dance moves and fairly weak singing voices, Chazelle’s confection fails because it’s a pastiche that lacks the conviction of the films that inspired it. Perhaps La La Land has garnered praise merely because making any sort of musical at all in the twenty-first century is considered a noteworthy achievement.

Lav Diaz's The Woman Who Left

While La La Land disappointed because its conceptual framework was little more than a gimmick, Filipino director Lav Diaz’s The Woman Who Left, which ended up winning the Golden Lion at Venice, proved moving because its aesthetic eschewed empty razzle-dazzle and combined neorealist earnestness with noiresque expressionism. An unabashed melodrama from a director known for difficult and extremely long modernist sagas (the tendency of reviewers to crack that The Woman Who Left clocked in at a mere four-and-a-half hours soon became tiresome), the film is both a spirited salvo against a legacy of repression in The Philippines and a homage to one woman’s endurance against the odds. Horacia (played, in a superb comeback performance, by Charo Santos-Concio), the victim of a false accusation, is released from prison after thirty years. Framed for murder by her ex-lover Rodrigo, Horacia’s path of vengeance is juxtaposed with meditative interludes that differentiate this saga from the usual pulpy road movie. Horacia’s friendship with Hollanda, a transgender prostitute, adds an off-kilter lyricism to the proceedings. Towards the end of the film, Diaz enlivens the narrative with a decidedly un-La La Land tribute to show tunes. In a poignant moment, Horacia encourages Hollanda to sing a rendition of West Side Story’s “Somewhere.”

Segueing from the more or less sublime to the more or less ridiculous, Walter Hill’s Re(Assignment) explored gender fluidity and retribution in a manner that fused over-the-top farce with the conventions of a taut thriller. As Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver) languishes in prison, she recounts her bizarre transgression to a psychiatrist played by Dr. Galen (Tony Shaloub). Incensed by the murder of her brother by a hit man out for blood because of her sibling’s unpaid debts, Dr. Kay performs forced sexual “reassignment” surgery on Frank Kitchen, the thuggish assailant. Kitchen, and his transgender doppelgänger are both unconvincingly portrayed by Michelle Rodriguez. Although LGBTQ groups attacked the film sight unseen, Re (Assignment) is less about sexual politics or matters of topical concern than it is a movie obsessed with resuscitating age-old generic preoccupations that acknowledges contemporary sensibilities while also nodding to the tradition of the exploitation film. A glorious mess, it’s as difficult to thoroughly dismiss Hill’s film as it is to take it seriously.

Bertrand Bonello's Nocturama

TIFF’s “Platform” sidebar, introduced last year, was designed to foreground stylistically and thematically audacious films. One of the most audacious Platform entries, Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama, was noteworthy for eschewing the usual moralism that pervades most films determined to condemn terrorism. Despite a certain ideological opacity, Bonello subverts many of the standard clichés concerning violent direct action. The young Parisians of various ethnicities and classes who assemble clandestinely to bomb outposts of capital such as HSBC Bank and governmental edifices such as the Ministry of the Interior are neither religious zealots nor lunatics. Although it’s rather difficult to locate these young insurrectionists within any tangible antiauthoritarian tradition, Bonello helpfully mentions the influence of Étienne de La Boétie’s sixteenth-century manifesto, Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, in the press notes. Often termed a protoanarchist document, La Boétie’s succinct treatise tackles one of the knottiest questions in political philosophy: why do masses of individuals willingly relinquish their autonomy and become subservient to despots?

The teen protagonists of Nocturama, who, despite their hazy motivations for covert activism bring to mind somewhat more alienated members of groups resembling Occupy Wall Street and the French quasiequivalent, Nuit debout, appear to be as invested in personal autonomy as they are in urban sabotage. The film’s climactic sequence takes place in a desolate department store as news of the attentats is being broadcast. The young militants prove besotted with hip clothing and, above all else, the electronic tools that enable them to transform their temporary digs into an ad hoc DJ station with an infinite number of dance tunes available for the comrades’ delectation. This oscillation between militancy and seeming self-indulgence might seem perplexing. Nevertheless, this incongruous trajectory can be attributed to the Romantic roots of consumerism outlined by Colin Campbell in The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism. For Campbell, hedonism or “pleasure-seeking” is “not …regarded as an end it itself, but as a means to moral and spiritual renewal.”

Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie’s Ceux qui font les revolutions á moitié non fait que se creuser un tombeau (Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Grave)

Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie’s Ceux qui font les revolutions á moitié non fait que se creuser un tombeau (Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Grave)

In fact, “moral and spiritual renewal,” in tandem with an inchoate radicalism, defined the agenda of another Platform entry—Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie’s Ceux qui font les revolutions á moitié non fait que se creuser un tombeau (Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Grave), It’s difficult to know if the young veterans of Quebec’s “Maple Revolution” who go underground in Denis and Lavoie’s film are anarchists, Maoists, or anti-Leninist Marxists. The members of the cell engage in ruthless self-criticism that resembles old-style Sixties Maoism, while one militant constantly carries around a text by Rosa Luxemburg. As Denis and Lavoie insist, their protagonists are “disaffected youth” who question “postmodern cynicism…who refuse to resign themselves, who fight, who still believe in the greater good, in social change that will outlast them.”

This ambitious if slightly misbegotten political epic by a pair of relatively unknown directors was far more provocative than the newest film by a much better known filmmaking team—the Dardenne brothers’ The Unknown Girl. Each new film by the Dardenne brothers is soothingly familiar in the sense that the directors masterfully recycle tried-and true-motifs. For their detractors, the Dardennes are in danger of making formulaic art films while their equally fervent supporters maintain that, by continuing to plow familiar terrain, they are enriching an already distinguished body of work.

Adèle Haenel in The Unknown Girl

The Unknown Girl, while certainly competent and intermittently moving, is unlikely to convince skeptics who wonder if the brothers’ flair for socially conscious melodrama might have peaked with acknowledged landmarks such as La Promesse, Rosetta, and The Son. Like much of their previous work, The Unknown Girl deals with questions of moral responsibility and the plight of forgotten, impoverished individuals. Dr. Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel), an ultraconscientious Liège-based doctor, is as hard on herself as she is on her harried intern. When she learns that her obliviousness to a late-arriving visitor might have inadvertently caused the death of a young African immigrant, her guilt compels her to become one of the most assiduous investigators since Hercule Poirot. Although Haenel’s portrayal is never less than brilliantly self-assured, the fact that the unknown victim referenced in the title remains a tabula rasa ensures that the film is rarely more than a somewhat rote exercise in liberal self-flagellation. Dr. Gavin’s dedication to both her medical practice and the lives of her forlorn patients make her something of a secular saint. But the film’s cathartic twists are less well earned than the culminating moments in the Dardenne brothers’ best work.

Since many of the tonier art films at TIFF proved underwhelming, documentaries, as usual, partially saved the day. And at a time when documentaries are increasingly resorting to gimmicky ruses, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Hissein Habré: A Chadian Tragedy, an austere film on the bloody legacy of Hissein Habré, the Chadian dictator who was found guilty of war crimes by a court in Senegal in May, was a breath of fresh air. Completed before the trial ended, but at a point when the human-rights community looked forward to the eventual verdict, the film is a meditation on political barbarism that believes that a sober presentation of the facts is preferable, for better or worse, to the re-enactments and metafictional strategies of filmmakers such as Joshua Oppenheimer. Like Claude Lanzmann, Haroun abjures the use of archival footage and foregrounds the testimony of victims.

Sponsored by both France and the United States—supposedly because he provided a “bulwark” against Gaddafi’s Libyan regime—Hissein Habré, whose reign of terror lasted from 1982 to 1990—was responsible for the death of an estimated 40,000 Chadians and a political climate that resulted in the torture of countless others.

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Hissein Habré: A Chadian Tragedy

In a logistical maneuver that balances detachment and impassioned outrage, Haroun uses an intermediary, Clément Abaifouta, Chairman of the Association of the Victims of the Hissein Habré Regime, to conduct most of the interviews. The interviewees recount, in gruesome detail, the sadism of the Directorate of Documentation and Security, the secret police who functioned as freelance agents of terror. From the evidence of the film, most of the victims were not even political opponents or militants but innocent civilians ensnared by totalitarian madness. In a haunting echo of previous genocides, a former torturer admits “he was just following orders.” It is to Haroun’s credit that he lets this statement stand alone without any editorial embellishments. For the attentive viewer, there’s no need for the director to connect the dots and invoke historical precedents.

It’s important to highlight the merits of Haroun’s film since it was slightly lost in the shuffle among some of the flashier documentaries that received the most hype. Yet, in a strong year for nonfiction, Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan, Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Karl Marx City, Steve James’s Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, and Werner Herzog’s Into the Inferno, the best Herzog film in years, were also standouts. As TIFF programmers tell us incessantly, it’s possible for savvy festivalgoers to design their own festival within a festival. In 2016, sticking to documentaries when designing one’s personal festival was one of the most appealing options.

Richard Porton is currently revising his 1999 book, Film and the Anarchist Imagination, for Verso and writing a monograph on the work of Adam Curtis for University of Illinois Press.

For further information on the Toronto International Film Festival, click here.

Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 1