Category: movies Page 2 of 3

See The World Up Close

“iPhone gloves… really?!”

That was my exact reaction reading a friend’s tweet recently. Technology is everywhere; so go the accessories. Life without a cellphone (and the ubiquitous apps) seems unreal; twenty years ago, life without a Walkman was unthinkable. Technology has been so ubiquitous now that it’s turned into a simple matter of choosing what we want, and when, and being absolutely confident it’ll be there at our convenience.

It’s hard to imagine the shock waves English photographer Eadweard Muybridge created with his early experiments in photography -experiments that lead to the creation of cinema. Can any of us imagine life without movies or still images? It’s easy to take them for granted, especially since they’re everywhere: TVs, movie screens, the internet, computer monitors. A work colleague of mine has a lovely photo of her daughter set as her desktop; in Muybridge’s time (the mid/late 1800s), the only image of the girl that could’ve existed would have been a painting. Beautiful, but hardly the same thing.

The conveniences of technology, and its role in our lives -scientifically, artistically, socially -ran through my mind watching Studies In Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge, produced by Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre and presented by The Canadian Stage Company, currently on in Toronto at the Bluma Appel Theatre. The lauded work opens with a naked man carefully manoeuvring his way across the stage; I write “manoeuvring” because there is a real sense of trying to capture the basic -or seemingly-basic movements Muybridge did in his own experiments. The English-born, American-living/working photographer worked at the University of Pennsylvania between 1884 and 1887, and invented new techniques and technologies that significantly furthered the art of photography and lead directly to the world of cinema. The opening scene of Studies In Motion is exactly what its title suggests: studies (that is, people) in motion, across a grid-like space, forcing us to look at muscles, bones, structure and form, and the various shadows they cast across the bare expanse of stage -this mortal coil, perhaps or the new terrain someone might embark on whenever they try anything new.

Within the context of societal mores depicted within the play, the nudity is a source of shock, of course. One not-so-amused woman looks on pie-eyed and mouth gaping as the models demonstrate their daily business in the lab. Yet Muybridge (Andrew Wheeler) tells the shocked visitor this isn’t about titillation; if he could, he’d rip the flesh off to see the bone, and then take away the bone to see pure movement itself. Models cover and uncover according to the readiness of the equipment, but they are also comfortable around their technician cohorts. Thus the straight-laced Victorian world falls away, and we are taken somewhere considerably more modern; this modern sense is reflected, meta-theatrically at least in a sense, via Crystal Pite’s dance interludes, where the actors become the motion their theatrical counterparts set out to study. With a pulsating soundtrack (courtesy of composer Patrick Pennefather), the ensemble reaches, runs, stretches, and sashays through all variance of human-doings.

The team behind Studies In Motion are a talented bunch; director Kim Collier is a Siminovitch Prize-winner, and the impressive set, lighting, and video design is by Canada Council award winner Robert Gardiner. Crystal Pite is celebrated across Canada and has won a Dora Mavor Moore Award (a Toronto version of a Tony). Writer Kevin Kerr’s other works include Unity (1918) and Skydive, and the show itself was previously produced at Montreal’s impressive Festival TransAmériques in 2009. While there’s a true sense of exploration and curiosity and even wonder, I was left cold emotionally -but then, that’s probably the point. Kerr’s work eerily echoes the cold efficiency with which Muybridge approached his work, and even the inclusion of the famous murder he trial he was involved with (he shot his wife’s l0ver) fails to touch; it’s at its most compelling when in the lab, showing movement you take for granted -human technology at work -across a massive, sprawling grid.

Gardiner’s contribution was, I admit, my favorite part of the show. His eye-poppingly gorgeous grid-like design was complemented by various projections of Muybridge’s original works flashed acros the long screen running the length of the stage. The natural tendencies of the eye (moving left to right, small to large) were challenged, gently, skillfully, with a notion of continually widening, then narrowing Kerr’s narrative focus. The design was a dramatic dance companion to the occasionally-maudlin script, though it shuld be noted that Kerr is incredibly good at knowing when his characters should shut up and let the images do the talking. Here Collier’s incredible eye for integrating the piece’s various elements -dance, video, images, movement -comes forward as truly impressive, and truly remarkable. There was a nice future-looking play of words and sounds and images I experienced in watching Studies In Motion too; artists like the Lumiere brothers, Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, and in a more contemporary sense, Daft Punk, Jenny Holzer, the early 90s videos of U2 (Mark Neale’s direction of “Lemon”, above, was directly influenced by Muybridge’s work), and the entire Krautrock and industrial movements are all here, in various guises, occasionally naked, occasionally still, probing and pulsating and prowling.

Muybridge, and by extension, Collier’s work attempts to look at the mytery of humanity and existence by taking mall slices of movement and analyzing them to bits; thing is, there’s an art in those small moments, in and of themselves, that doesn’t require analysis so much as acceptance. We may marvel at the technical and scientific feat Muybridge achieve, but it brings us no closer to the mytery of the human heart, or indeed, the mysterious ways we’re moved by art itelf.

So this, then, is the final question Studies In Motion left me with, one I’m still wrestling with: does a person make better art through isolation? isolated movement, position, placement -consciouly created -good or bad for art? I don’t expect easy answer -and in fact, I’d rather enjoy the questions anyway. There’s poetry in the motion, and in stillness, and having both at my disposal through this little life feels like the best kind of technology I could want, iPhone gloves be damned.

Photo credits:

Top and bottom photos courtesy of Canadian Stage Company.
Photos by Tim Matheson.

You’re Where?

I like being challenged in cinema -confused, even. Daniel Cockburn‘s You Are Here fits the bill beautifully. Part detective-story, part Borgesian puzzle, the work draws on a number of influences, from Dali to Phillip K. Dick to steampunk. Cockburn has concocted a tale that will furrow your brow even as it opens your heart.

I had the opportunity of speaking with actor-filmmaker Nadia Litz about the film -and her own work -as part of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It was illuminating to glean her insights, as well as her thoughts around acting with fellow Canadian thespian Tracy Wright, whose final onscreen appearance in the movie is as much about the heart as it is the head. Wright waas beloved by many in the Canadian arts world; she tragically passed away earlier this year, leaving a gaping hole in the theatre and film worlds here. Ergo, the meeting of emotional and intellectual couldn’t be made more plain than in the many close-ups Cockburn has of her face. Litz is eloquent in speaking about not only a great actor, but a great personal friend.

Nadia Litz on You Are Here by CateKusti

Equally, the actor also witty and wise in chatting up her own short that screened at TIFF. With the intriguing title of “How To Rid Your Lover Of A Negative Emotion Caused By You”, the work is a zesty mix of macabre humor and ugly truth. Like, literally pulling-stuff-out-of-yours-and-your-loved-ones-guts truth. Ouch.

I really felt Litz really hit on a piece of honesty in this film, in a much more bold, if equally compelling way, to You Are Here. Both works are, at their essence, about the importance of connection; even fraught with peril, upheaval and discomfort, human connection is perhaps the most valuable thing we have -and the thing we most often take for granted, that passes us by, flickering, dying, and finding manifestation in something -anything -else, even its reverse. Ugly truths indeed.

I Want To See This Movie

Don’t you?

After watching the preview, I’m more eager than ever to find out what happens to these young people. From the Kickstarter page description:

For the first time a film gives a voice to Sudanese youth from different origins, Muslims and Christians. The Waiting Room is an intimate portrait of a society that remains unknown to most and misunderstood by many. It addresses contemporary issues of identity and religion which continue to shape the world we live in.

Maybe you’ve donated to causes for Darfur, but wouldn’t you like to know what it’s really like to live in Sudan? A lot of political decisions are being made by our governments about Sudan, but we still know so little about the people who live there.

In light of the United Nations summit on the Millenium Development goals starting this week, stories like the one Alexandra Sicotte-Levesque presents here are more important than ever. Amidst the heady rhetoric and plaintive calls to Do The Right Thing (which is more complicated than it should be), the human, real stories like the ones presented in Sicotte-Levesque’s film seem to get lost. And they shouldn’t. The MDGs are about people, after all -not statistics.

And statistics -of the glammy kind -are really all I’ve heard about when it comes to films lately. There’s something seriously refreshing for me to come upon a movie (make that, movie-in-the-making) like this after two solid weeks of non-stop glitzy TIFF coverage. Dear wag-tongued media, please, no more frock-and-name-dropping stories. I don’t mind the odd bit of fun, but the omnipotent wall of Glamazonian coverage lately has been like eating a steady diet of icing.

In truth, there were a whack of great, socially relevant films at the film fest this year -and hey, one of ’em won the People’s Choice Award (kudos, NFB & Mr. Suzuki!). I hope The Waiting Room will be among the lot at a future TIFF. Fingers crossed.

Amazon Rising

Long after I’d seen Amazon Falls I was thinking about it, about how we perceive celebrities, and about how far I’d go to chase my dreams. I was also thinking about how incredible it was that this movie, shown as part of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, got made in such a short space of time.

Director Katrin Bowen had originally planned on making another feature, but when that fell through, having already assembled a team, decided -bang -to make Amazon Falls, which explores the dreams and painful realities of being an aged-40 female actor in Hollywood. Partly based on her own time as a Troma performer, Bowen astutely cast former beauty queen April Telek as her leading lady, and fills the screen with all manner of creep and player, including a memorable turn from former X-Files baddie William B. Davis as a predatory producer. Also notable is the gorgeous, sparse score from Step Carruthers that nicely compliments the main character’s harrowing experiences without ever imposing saccharine emotion. Though the tale of broken Hollywood dreams is common, there’s nothing saccharine, or predictable about “Amazon Falls” or its characters.

Indeed, it isn’t incidental that the film is dedicated to Lana Clarkson, the female B-movie actor who became tragically mainstream-famous only in death; legendary music producer Phil Spector was sentenced for second-degree murder in 2009. If ever there was a perfect distillation of the Hollywood dream gone bad, that sad situation had to be it. The connection to Clarkson, and the thousands like her, is felt all through the movie, and not just via the similar names. Even days after viewing the film I was still thinking about Jana (played by April Telek), and the thousands like her who sacrifice everything -home, family, dignity, sanity -in the name of getting that one dream part that will (or, more than likely, won’t) change everything. In a broader sense, Amazon Falls poses some tough questions: how often do we tell ourselves lies -about career, relationship, strengths, weaknesses – and how damaging are they in the long run?

Katrin Bowen and I talked about this and more during our interview amidst the madness of TIFF; she’s enthusiastic, passionate, and, like the many filmmakers I interviewed this year, really articulate about not only her own work but the themes she deals with, notably the way women are treated in Hollywood. We spoke on September 13th, just days after the film’s premiere, when “Amazon Falls” was receiving a boatload of buzz:

Katrin Bowen & Amazon Falls by CateKusti

The movie screens one more time as part of TIFF, at the Yonge-Dundas AMC at 9:15pm. The fest -indeed, the entire film industry -might look a little less glam afterwards, but any dearth of faith in the power of film will be swiftly, powerfully restored. Thank you Katrin, and thank you to all the Janas out there, toiling, fierce, and ever-glamorous.

Magical Modra


Modra was among the many movies I screened during the 2010 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

It tells a simple story of two teenagers on holiday in Slovakia and features members of director Ingrid Veninger‘s own family, including her daughter (Hallie Switzer) who plays the lead, Lina. I adored the movie for a few reasons: its clean style, its intriguing story, and its strong, natural performances. No sappy, swelling score or predictable outcomes here; this is an honest, honestly-told tale about intimacy, family, and the stretching, flexible nature of identity. No wonder it generated so much buzz at the fest, and received such positive reviews.

I really enjoyed my interview with Veninger (audio below), originally broadcast on CIUT’s morning show as part of my TIFF coverage. It was truly fantastic learning earlier today that she’d struck a deal with Mongrel Media for Canadian distribution rights. Yay! Today Canada, tomorrow the world!

Ingrid Veninger And Modra by CateKusti

If you happen to be in the Toronto area, you can see it one more time as part of TIFF; it’s screening tomorrow at the Yonge-Dundas AMC. If you’re not in the city, look out for Modra at a cinema near you soon. It’s a gem.

Starry Night

Considering Toronto is cold at least half the year (if not more), anytime there’s an opportunity to get outside, in the nice weather, to … do stuff (read: anything!)… us locals take it. We’ll even sit on a beach that isn’t a real beach.

One of these carpe-diem-esque activities in watching movies out of doors. True, other locations around the city have had this very-same activity -including screenings at the loud and cruelly bright (and equally chaotic and utterly manky) Yonge-Dundas Square. I love Y-D Square for live music shows and some other live events (World Cup time is always interesting… if a bit dangerous if you’re a small woman) but for movies? Hmm. Would it be silly of me to want something intimate in an outdoor arena? Or is that being a bit… outre?

Enter Open Roof Films. Started by a group of art-minded Torontonians (including Michael MacMillan, former Executive Chairman and CEO of Alliance Atlantis), the series has a special focus on showcasing Canadian talent, as well as building community among the vast network of Toronto’s numerous cultural and economic pseudo-villages. I interviewed one of the founders of this newly-minted series a couple weeks back on the radio, and during that interview I was told the series is based on a similar idea out of New York City, and arose from that, as well as casual conversations between people who just… love movies (a lot), and, like me, were seeking a way of bringing people with similar passions together. Seated in a group, illuminated by a screen’s glow and a canopy of stars, one becomes enraptured with the night, the sound, the music, and the crowd. Really, you can’t much more intimate.

Part of what gives the Open Roof Film series this special brand of intimacy is its location; situated in the parking lot of a local brewery, the space is nestled between a raised highway (and Lake Ontario) to the south (and yes, you can actually see the lake), the thick-set brick building of the Amsterdam Brewery to the West, and a massive screen and sound system to the north . The East opens to the spectacular light show of the CN Tower and the cluster of skyscraper in the financial district. You’re close enough to the lake that you can actually see stars when the sky darkens. A gaggle of portable chairs is set up where the seriously filmy-minded can situate themselves, while a wide bar runs the length of space at the back, for the more social among us. It’s a nice set-up that encourages interaction and conversation, while providing a respectful option for those who want to sit and concentrate.

Not that there was a whole lot of that happening the night I attended. This Movie Is Broken, the film featuring band Broken Social Scene, was being screened, and the evening had the distinct feel of a gigantic party, much like the band’s own concerts. Observing the crowd swaying and smiling (some even danced), I couldn’t help but wonder how many had (or hadn’t) gone to see Bruce MacDonald’s movie when it was shown in a cinema proper. How much did being outside on a beautiful summer night influence their decision to see it? To go to a place where they could drink beer, smoke, dance with their girl/boyfriends, and laugh and chat with their friends? Probably a whole lot.

This Movie Is Broken is just the sort of film that was perfect for an outdoor film series; with a romantic storyline interspersed with some genuinely excellent concert footage (taken from a Toronto show last year), MacDonald’s dreamy, gorgeous homage to love and music was a genius choice to play at Open Roof Films, and a great example of the power of outdoor event to draw disparate group of people together. While the age of attendees ranged from anywhere between 25 and 40, there was no “average” anything (other than the challenging parking, which is de rigeur in Toronto, alas). There was a nice casual vibe to the entire evening, even though the audience maintained a respectful (ahem, Canadian) silence through much of the movie’s running time.

It was interesting when, peeking through the brewery windows (that lead to the loos) at one point, seeing the tiny dots of enraptured faces sitting mute and staring at a screen as the CN Tower flashed sades of blue and red past them. It says something about the power of cinema, music, and togetherness that simply can’t be replicated in a multiplex. Combined with the gorgeous after-film visuals of artist Brian T. Moore and the shining skyline, one couldn’t help but be intoxicated. Noise, motion, light, stillness, silence -and lots of gravel: I think this is the beginning of a beautiful romance… or maybe a re-introduction to an old lover -movie-going -I thought I’d forgotten the smell and taste and touch of. What bliss.

What She Wore

Clothing is a personal thing for many women. That material intimacy is something the Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron understand very well.

The award-winning duo, who’ve penned some of my favorite movies (including Nora’s “When Harry Met Sally“), have brought their award-winning play Love, Loss, And What I Wore to Toronto. It runs at the cozy Panasonic Theatre through the end of the summer. A portion of ticket sales will, appropriately, benefit Dress For Success, a fantastic charity that provides professional services (including attire) to disadvantaged women. What a perfect fit.

The Ephrons’ monologue-style play features a collection of stories that connect certain outfits with special, significant life moments. There’s the story of wedding dresses, sexy boots, and the joys (or not) of purses, the challenges of mothers, the pangs of body types, and the perfection that is “BLLAAACK!”. It’s all melded together with happy/sad/bittersweet/funny flavours. Performers Andrea Martin, Mary Walsh, Louise Pitre, Sharron Matthews and Paula Brancati do a truly fantastic job of combining the happy and the sad with equal dollops of grace, charm, wit, and sensitivity.

I asked the Toronto-based actor and performer Sharron Matthews about her thoughts around clothing, creativity, and cabaret recently. She has a long history of performance, with everything from Les Miserables to Mean Girls on her resume, and is a positively radiant stage presence. Her responses are very enlightening and refreshingly honest. Enjoy.

Which aspects of Love, Loss, And What I Wore do you most relate to?

That is a hard question. Not because I don’t feel like I relate, but because the things that I seem to relate to are a bit challenging for me to acknowledge. My first monologue is about a child losing a parent and when the material assignments were sent out I was hoping and dreading that I might get this piece. I lost my dad when I was very young and it had a huge impact on my family. I also talk a lot about my weight, now it fluctuates and how hard being a big girl can be. I was a bit nervous about doing these pieces as well but the more I read them the more I thought, “Well, these are truthful and this a group of women that needs to be represented in fabulousness as well as in hardship.”

Why do you think so many women associate clothing with other things? Do you think women are more prone to association (& connection) than men?

I think that women are more ‘collectors’ then men are: (of) shoes, jackets, purses. Men don’t have as many accessories as we do, as a rule. Some of us have closets that are like art galleries… I know I do… featuring shoe boxes with pictures of the shoes on them. And yes, I do think we are more prone to association and connection. We are also, for the most part, more sentimental. We see “a shirt that a wore on my first job interview, the day I was hired to begin my career”…and men see a shirt. I think that it can be a sensual thing, the feel of a fabric or the smell but is also a sense-memory thing… we feel something and we sometimes be in that place again… recalling our emotions.

How much has your other work, specifically in TV and film, has been useful in doing the Ephrons’ work?

Though I have worked in TV and film -of course not as much as Paula, Mary and Andrea -I think that my work in cabaret, as a storyteller has been my greatest asset with the stories in Love, Loss And What I Wore. I feel right at home in this piece. The audience is present and a part of the piece and the stories are brief… like a song.

Define ‘cabaret’ as it is, now. What does it mean to you? What do you think it means to audiences of the 21st century?

I went online to look for some definitions of cabaret. They are all very dry and general: “a form of entertainment featuring comedy, song, dance, and theatre, distinguished mainly by the performance venue.” I recently did a cabaret that was a part of the Young Centre’s Saturday Night Cabaret Series and (their) description is one of my favourites: ”Cabaret is a combination of intimacy, personality, and social contact.”

So my definition of cabaret is a evening of musical storytelling including themes that are universal and accessible, but challenging at the same time. I love cabaret. It is the way I best feel (able to) express myself and really explore my creativity and my artistic voice.

I also think that cabaret can be performed “intimately” in a huge theatre. (It) is an art form that is not fully recognized in Canada.

To some, the word ‘cabaret’ conjures up images of singers belting out “My Way” in gold lame outfits . I am slowly trying to change that perception. I believe that cabaret is a journey, not the picture I just described. It is a form of storytelling to me. A way of breaking down the fourth wall an reaching out to people.

Stage or screen -what’s your favorite?

Having done screen work, I have a huge respect for people who work in film and TV day in and day out. Film acting is a true skill and the people who do it well are artists as well as technicians. I enjoy the spontaneity that is the stage. It is so live in front of an audience and you can never be totally sure what is going to happen. I like to feel an immediate response to what I do… it fuels me to move forwards. I love the stage.

Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Making Docs Hot


I have a little movie confession to make: Hot Docs is my favourite film festival. Sorry, Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), don’t get jealous. The problem with TIFF is, despite its marquee appeal and oodles of excellent, beautiful content, it still feels chalk-full of sparkly, starry hype; it’s like putting ten cans of frosting on one cake. I kind of like cakes on their own, actually, with a nice cup of tea. And Hot Docs (running April 29th to May 9th) is just that.

There’s also a certain timeliness to the Hot Docs works that come to Toronto every spring. For instance, the documentary coming to Hot Docs about assassinated Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto, has a true resonance, especially as the country is rapidly becoming a fixture on the nightly news, and there is more coverage than ever -even give years ago -with a diverse array of topics on Pakistan, including (incredibly) fashion. The film, Bhutto, by filmmakers Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara, had its world premiere in the U.S. Documentary Feature competition at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and is making it Canadian Premiere at Hot Docs May 1st.

On to another kind of powerful woman: the one who serves you food. Dish: Women, Waitressing, and the Art Of Service, by Maya Gallus, explores the world of the female-dominated service industry. The full spectrum of the waitressing experience is documented, with the film moving from gritty truck stops to “sexy restos” and even Tokyo maid cafes. Gallus recently won a Gemini Award for Best Direction In A Documentary for her feature-length film, Girl Inside, which premiered at Hot Docs and launched the 2007 season of The View From Here on TVO. Her film Erotica: A Journey Into Female Sexuality premiered at TIFF in 1997 and was nominated for a Genie Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary. This interest in female stories makes me think Dish is going to be less dishy and more dramatic, in that good, involving, I-want-another-plate way.

Now, having served, and danced, and even done some mad combinations of the two (oh, those wild Dublin pub nights), the screening of A Drummer’s Dream intrigues, for its dance-y possibilities. The beat of not food but skins sits at the heart of this NFB work, written, produced, and directed by Canadian John Walker. Drummers who’ve kept the beat for Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Carlos Santana share their knowledge with forty students during a week-long retreat in the Canadian wilderness The film features the talents of celebrated drummers Nasyr Abdul Al-Khabyyr, Dennis Chambers, Kenwood Dennard, Horacio “El-Negro” Hernadez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Mike Mangini and Raul Rekow, and looks like big ole’ noisy celebration. I would imagine this is one of those inspiring stories that makes one want to shimmy up the aisle exiting the theatre. Or start banging on pint glasses with a spoon.

Lots more Hot Docs coverage in the weeks leading up to the fest’s kick off on April 29th. Stay tuned. And TIFF? Stop pouting. You have plenty of time to make it up to me before September rolls around. Get busy on that cake.

Drunk. Test Later.


Two days ago I wrote a post about a Drunken History episode, in which comedian Duncan Trussell tried to explain the significance of Nikola Tesla astride a toilet bowl. It was gross, it was funny, it was weirdly educational. Mainly, I posted a feature on it because I find the entire concept highly creative and original. Would any of us (okay, most of us) care about the history of electricity if it were presented with less… flair (or alcoholic influence)?

The video was removed owing to copyright claims, which rendered my original post useless; currency being vital online, I quickly pulled the post, entirely bummed out. Trussell was trying to explain the history of Nikola Tesla and his stormy relationship with Thomas Edison. I loved Crispin Glover‘s glaring Edison, and John C. Reilly‘s whole-hearted earnestness. (The video was over at Inquisitr but alas, has been pulled there, too.)

Following my original post, I was surprised to see I’d lost a follower here. I don’t know who, and I don’t know why, but it made me wonder: why? Surely there’s far more offensive material on the internet than a sloshed Trussell explaining the foundations of electricity.Created by Derek Waters (who worked on The Sarah Silverman Program as well as Funny Or Die), the series’ premise is to get a celebrity inebriated before having them expound on a particular point in history. Past episodes have featured Jack Black, Michael Cera, Zooey Deschanel, Don Cheadle, and Will Farrell, talking about Benjamin Franklin, William Henry Harrison, Frederick Douglass, and other important American historical figures.

Drunk History may not be your textbook history, but it is very funny, and it’s also weirdly informative. What with American history being re-written lately anyway, who’s to say Drunk History isn’t a better -and more approachable -information source than textbooks? Somehow, the drunken lessons have an indisputable kernel of truth that combine with a youthful spark of fire and ingenuity. That’s what inspires curiosity and creates a thirst for more. Score one in the education column for Drunk History: smart, sarcastic, and slurringly educational. Somewhere, somehow, I can hear Charles Bukowski cackling.

L’Chaim

Films for the 18th annual Toronto Jewish Film Festival were announced today -and what a great selection of choices! Funny, sad, historic, romantic, enraging, inspiring -the festival really runs the gamut of human experience, all while keeping intact its sense of exploration and openness. Running April 17th to 25th, the fest will be showcasing 93 films from 18 different countries; seven of the films are making their North American premieres.

Last year I had the opportunity of interviewing the festival’s leaders, including Executive Director Helen Zukerman, who explained to me that the point of the festival isn’t to engage in political debates but to facilitate dialogue and understanding, all while celebrating the past, present, and future of Jewish culture. A big part of that culture is comic -as in funny, sure (works of the Marx Brothers were featured in years past) -but also in an artistic, literal sense. People of the Comic Book: The Creators Of Superheroes, Graphic Novels & Toons is a series running as part of TJFF that explores the connection between the best-known superheroes (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man), and their Jewish creators. Animators, authors, and filmmakers will be attending to mark the occasion, among them writer Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), and award-winning graphic novelist Ben Katchor. The series will also include a film about animation legend Al Hirschfeld, a screening of Ron Mann‘s Comic Book Confidential, as well as a midnight screening of Ralph Bakshi‘s hilariously ribald Fritz The Cat.

Within the Festival programming, there’s also (much to my delight) a nice focus on the experiences of Jewish women. Among the huge number of selections is Ahead Of Time, the story of the truly incredible Ruth Gruber, a photographer, journalist, foreign correspondent and humanitarian. After World War Two, Gruber campaigned to allow Holocaust refugees from Europe into the United States; she also covered the Nuremberg trials, which are covered extensively in another work at the festival, Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today (details below) Gruber was witness to the Exodus 1947 ship enter Haifa Harbour following its being attacked by by the Royal Navy. She subsequently flew to Cyprus to meet and interview the refugees, and later, was the only journalist allowed by the British to accompany the refugees on their tragic return trip to Germany. Gruber was honoured in 2008 by the National Coalition Against Censorship. And that’s just part of her life.

Ahead Of Time is paired with The Irene Hilda Story (L’Histoire D’Irene), detailing the history of Irene Hilda herself, a cabaret singer who was forced to flee Paris. Still in the music vein is The Jazz Baroness, which traces the relationship between Pannonica (“Nica”) Rothschild and jazz legend Thelonius Monk. Rothschild left her wealthy background, her husband, even her children, to follow the married Monk and his magical sound. Even when her family cut her off financially, she still helped out her jazz musician friends as best she could, giving them what money she had for rent, food, and instruments. Monk took her deep into the bebop world of the day -so deep in fact, that she was exposed to the ugly, unpoetic side of the scene; like a sad badge of cred, Charlie Parker wound up dying in Nica’s suite at the Stanhope Hotel. The film, made by Rothschild’s great-niece, includes readings of the Baroness’ letters (by Helen Mirren) as well as music Monk wrote specifically for Rothschild. Dreamy.

Returning to the hard edges of history, however, and that dreaminess is soon vanished. Berlin ’36 portrays the Nazis’ recruitment of Gretel Bergmann, a world-class Jewish high jumper. The Nazis were so stunned by her mastery, and so worried about that mastery discrediting their racial theories, they took a rather drastic step to ensure her failure at the Olympics: they hired a man in drag to take her place. Berlin ’36 is complemented by What If? The Helene Mayer Story, which tells the story of fencer Helene Mayer who won a gold medal for Germany in 1928. She moved to the U.S. in the 1930s after being kicked out of her German fencing club for being half-Jewish. Her return to Germany however, after IOC pressure on the country, may have helped to whitewash Nazi racial policies internationally.

Those policies are explored in detail with Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today. Completed in 1948, the film was widely shown in Germany in ’48-49, though its release in the U.S. was withheld, in part because of the graphic, upsetting nature of its content. Original footage was painstakingly restored by filmmakers Sandra Schulberg and Josh Waletzky. The film documents how Allied prosecution teams built their case against Nazi War criminals; courtroom sequences are edited together with the Nazis’ own documents and films, one of which depicts the concentration camps that so shocked the military tribunal. Even nearly 70 years later, those images are still totally gut-wrenching and horrific. I want to see Nuremberg but I’m not sure I’ll be able to.

Then again, those symbols of hate aren’t so far from current reality. Hearing about the awful racial slurs that were hurled today at black politicians today in the United States over recent health care reforms, I can’t help but feel that a film like Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today is, in fact, just that. It’s more relevant and timely than ever; hatred still exists, however gussied-up and hidden (or not) it might be. All it takes is a mob fueled by ignorance and fear to spread hatred like a cancer through society. Showing Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today is a vital reminder for us -all of us –that hatred is never a wide road leading to greener pastures, but rather, a cracked narrow path of stones leading to a crushing dead end. The Toronto Jewish Film Festival remains as relevant, fresh, and important as ever.

For full information on the Festival, including schedule and ticketing, go to www.tjff.com.

Page 2 of 3

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén