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Thoughts about the Toronto film festival

Film, social reality and authenticity


This is the second in a series of articles by IWB arts editor David Walsh on the recent Toronto International Film Festival. This year's festival presented 281 films from 58 countries. One question, above all, occurred to me after watching and considering some 40 films at the Toronto film festival: What gives a film, or any work of art, authenticity in our day? By authenticity I mean the degree to which an artist has shaped a work to correspond with what one takes to be the deepest currents in life.

If I say, for example, that of the films I saw I thought five possessed the highest degree of authenticity--Lin Cheng-sheng's Murmur of Youth, Zoran Solomun's Tired Companions, Jafar Panahi's The Mirror, Bruno Dumont's The Life of Jesus and Hsu Hsiao-ming's Homesick Eyes--what does that means.

One senses in each of these films, first of all, that the filmmaker is being true to his own inner self. These films, in other words, were not made in response to the "demands of the market."They may or may not be successful at the box office, but that is not the reason they were created. As Marx explained about the writer's function more than a century and a half ago: "The writer naturally must make money in order to live and write, but he should not under any circumstances live and write in order to make money.

The increasingly discredited market-oriented film industry produces very little of value at this point. The general worthlessness of its products stands in inverse proportion to their domination of the world's movie screens, a domination so overwhelming as to form a kind of censorship. No one in Detroit or Cleveland or Pittsburgh, for example, will be likely to see any of the more interesting works screened at the festival. In New York, Toronto or Los Angeles one might be able at best to see the occasional Iranian film or perhaps Chinese director Zhang Yimou's amusing new work, Keep Cool. Even an interesting independent American film, like Sue (with a luminous performance by actress Anna Thomson), directed by Amos Kollek, is unlikely to become available to large numbers of Americans.

Nonparticipation in the commercial film industry, of course, is no guarantee of anything. Some of the most dishonest and self-serving filmmakers work as "independents," although it is not clear of whom and of what they are independent. Money is not the only pressure in the art world, or at least it does not always operate openly and directly as a pressure. Many movies seem to be made primarily to enhance the standing of the filmmaker in the eyes of others and thus in his or her own eyes.

Cultural stagnation

Historical circumstances help to explain this phenomenon. The discrediting in many eyes of socialism and the possibility of remaking society generally, as a result of the crimes of Stalinism, has left its mark on art too. If the artistic efforts of the last 30 or 40 years have demonstrated so little imagination, at least in the field of social life, so little of a utopian and liberating spirit, this cannot be explained merely as the result of individual weaknesses.

Hemmed in and at a loss intellectually, cut off from one of its primary functions--to aid in the liberation of mankind--and uninspired by the present order based on the selfish drive for profit, culture, even in the hands of its more serious representatives, has more and more turned in on itself. Many film directors currently at work know a considerable amount about the history of the cinema, at least in a formal sense, i.e., they can invoke the proper names and references, but they know very little about the history of the twentieth century and its implications.

Thus, if there is a huge gap between market-oriented and artistic cinema, there is also a significant gap within the so-called art cinema between the minority of directors who have something to say and the majority who would like to appear as though they had. One sees, in fact, the emergence of an international school of filmmakers who are skilled at creating the outward appearance of real feeling and thought, but whose films are fundamentally empty.

French filmmakers, who always have their fingers in the wind, are particularly susceptible to this malady. The Toronto festival highlighted the films of Benoit Jacquot, to take an example. A Single Girl (1995), shot more or less in real time, examines an hour and a half (with the addition of a brief scene set a couple of years later) in the life of a young woman who discovers she is pregnant, quarrels with her boyfriend in a cafe, begins a new job and then returns to break up with the boyfriend. The film suffers from what one might call false simplicity. Its various incidents, whose very banality is intended to impress one, seem thoroughly contrived. The film, to be blunt, is as phony as a three-dollar bill.

I had the same reaction, more or less, to Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together, the story of two gay men from Hong Kong who take off for Argentina and have a generally unhappy time of it. Wong, who has a growing international reputation, has made a film which is intended to be thought of as sensitive, but merely comes across as glib and opportunist. Canada's Atom Egoyan is another director who, after a number of exotic efforts, has decided to try his hand at something more accessible in The Sweet Hereafter. The film failed to move or intrigue me on any level.

A number of young Japanese filmmakers also seem to be merely striving for emotional impact, rather than slowly and stubbornly creating the intellectual and aesthetic conditions under which it would arise of itself. Like Hirokazu Kore-eda's Maborosi, which I saw at the San Francisco film festival in 1996, Naomi Kawase's Suzaku, while it has genuinely touching moments and a wonderful performance from lead actor Jun Kunimura, tries a little too hard to be moving. Its poetry comes at too cheap a price.

Nor did filmmakers exhibiting what might be termed an ostentatious avant-gardism fare particularly well at the festival. The Pelvis of JW, by veteran Portuguese director Jo--o Cesar Monteiro, contains some striking and original images, but its abstract playing around with conceptions of good and evil seems fairly tired. Rob Tregenza's Inside/out, apparently set in a psychiatric hospital, is an attempt to explore sanity and madness. It comes off as silly and pretentious. Anyway, what is one to make of one filmmaker who urinates on screen (Monteiro), and of another (Tregenza) who, at the public screening of his film, declares, with a straight face, that "the entire history of cinema" is contained in his work?

The Mirror from Iran

By contrast, in the five films I listed above, and to a greater or lesser extent in numerous others presented at the festival, one feels that the artist is genuinely grappling with the problems of life and reality.

Panahi's The Mirror, one of the most subversive films in the festival, takes up themes and situations common to many Iranian films. A little girl, Mina, with her arm in a cast, waits after school for her mother to pick her up. When the woman doesn't show up, the girl, who doesn't know her street address, takes off across Tehran in search of her home. She encounters a series of grownups, who are not indifferent to her plight, but offer no real assistance either. She is relentless and resourceful, refusing to accept any obstacle as insurmountable.

Halfway through the film, as the little girl stands at the front of a bus, we hear the director's voice: "Don't look at the camera, Mina." The girl takes off the fake cast and her head scarf and announces that she is not acting any more. She quits. The director puts his heads in his hands. Various people are sent to talk to her, to no avail. She won't explain why, but she refuses to go on with the film. Since she still has a microphone attached to her clothes the director decides to follow the 'real' girl with a camera as she now tries to

find her 'real' home. Real life mirrors the film story, or vice versa. Mina makes her away across the forbidding big city, with only a few familiar landmarks as her guide. The status of women comes up frequently. When she attempts to enter a bus by the front door, for example, she is told to enter by the rear door, reserved for women. In a taxi we overhear an older man who believes in the inferiority of women.

An old woman, whose son and daughter-in-law want to place her in a nursing home, sits on a bench and stares into space. It is to her that Mina confides her reasons for quitting: that if her friends see her with a cast on her arm they'll think she's clumsy, that the film script puts her in the first grade when she's actually in the second, that the film makes her look like a nagger and a crybaby and that she hates the scarf she has to wear on her head.

In the end, by one means and another, Mina reaches home. The director, through the man who originally put the little girl in touch with the filmmakers, makes one final appeal to get the young actress to reconsider. No, she won't do it. Now bareheaded, she decisively closes the door to her house.

The film is impervious to censorship. Who could object to a simple and undeniably moving story about a girl who quits a film in the middle of shooting and finds her own way home? But, looked at from another point of view, a film about someone who says, in effect, "I reject this role. No, no, no. No matter what you say, I refuse," has considerable implications. It says something about the girl, about all those who try to persuade her to change her mind and about the society. (See interview with Jafar Panahi.)

A social view?

Does authenticity, as I understand it, imply a certain attitude toward class society? It would be absurd to deny it. How can an insightful artist not aspire to a better world? A correspondence to the "deepest currents in life," at least for a socialist critic, implies a hostility to cruelty and exploitation. It is difficult to imagine a major work being produced in this day and age that celebrates wealth, greed and ruthlessness. Art critic John Ruskin's observation--in Plekhanov's paraphrase--"that a maiden may sing of her lost love, but a miser cannot sing of his lost money," seems even more apt in our day.

But to stop at that point, of decrying injustice and expressing sympathy for the oppressed, is entirely inadequate. A great deal of water has flown under the bridge in the past 75 years. Many aesthetic, and not merely aesthetic, crimes have been committed in the name of a self-satisfied "social realism." The serious artist penetrates beneath the surface of reality. To explore the latent content of a historical period involves as well the exploration of human beings' inner lives. Not every human resource that will be called upon to play a part in transforming the world is subject to rational examination. The invisible, the marvelous, the world of desire and fantasy--these can only be represented by poetry. Any serious social realism, it seems to me, would have to possess a critical (and self-critical) spirit that refuses to prettify anything or anyone, and the ability to speak poetically, in the language of human intuition.

Tired Companions, about the plight of refugees from the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, is a deeply compassionate and poetic film. So is Hsu Hsiao-ming's documentary work, Homesick Eyes, which examines the plight of foreign workers, primarily from other Asian countries, in Taiwan.

The film, carefully and beautifully photographed, begins with titles explaining that the Taiwanese government opened its borders to foreign labor only in 1992. In the factories and construction sites each worker is given a four-digit serial number. 5391, the subject of the first section of the film, is a young worker from Thailand who emigrated because of love. He followed his fiancee to Taiwan. In six months of working long hours on the expansion of the Chiang Kai-shek Airport, however, he has only been able to see her twice. She now wants to break their engagement. He would like to go home, but he owes money to the agent who arranged his employment in Taiwan and he must support his family at home. His face reveals his pain and loneliness.

Many women come from the Philippines to work as domestics in the homes of upper-middle-class and wealthy Taiwanese. Jean has left five children behind with her husband. She told them she was going shopping and never returned. "I miss them very, very much," she explains. "I start to cry." A religious belief is her only consolation.

Another of the Filipino women workers, Remy, is going home. She was forced by her employers to clean two large houses, working from six in the morning until midnight, seven days a week, in violation of her contract. All expenses, even the price of a Coca-Cola she drinks, were deducted from her pay. Finally, unable to sleep and driven beyond the point of endurance, she burned her employers' clothes. For this she is being deported. Although she has borrowed money from the bank to come to Taiwan and leaving will mean a serious financial blow, her husband wants her to come back.

Interview with Hsu Hsiao-ming

Interview with Jafar Panahi

Untitled Document


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