Progressive cinema: From dramas to race and culture, more unique films seen at Toronto

In the amazing wealth of great cinema premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, there are shining examples of humanism and progressive content. There are some touching and powerful stories among the dramatic feature films.

At a time when Mideast enemies are nose to nose, and the future seems bleak, “The Band’s Visit” tells a warm, good natured story that could only have taken place years ago in Israel.

An 8 piece Egyptian military band arrives in a small desert city invited for a musical performance. The hosts fail to arrive to greet the band and they are stranded with no money or transportation.

The local Jewish townspeople save the day by providing rooms and entertainment, and memorable experiences that will not soon be forgotten. This award winning film has won the hearts of many viewers, and will remain long in your memory, presenting a totally different perspective of that troubled region.

A stunning cast featuring classic actors Max von Sydow and Christopher Plummer, and brilliant performances by Susan Sarandon and Gabriel Byrne, tell yet another tragic tale of the effects from the brutal war against the Nazis in World War II.

Three young friends separated during the Nazi occupation of Paris end up together in a Quebec countryside estate decades later. They are dealing with severe emotional scars that resulted from their budding love triangle that was subverted in their youth by the Nazis.

Sarandon is a woman driven to document the numbers of victims, obsessed and overcome by the tragedies of war, while Plummer and von Sydow lend heavy moral weight to the emotional trials the three are forced to confront.

“Emotional Arithmetic,” directed by Canadian Paolo Barzman, is a deeply written and acted film about the profound issues of emotional healing.

Two films of distinction from Mexico deserve mentioning. “Under the Same Moon” is a tragic tale of a mother’s love for a son. Divorced Rosaria is forced up North to make money for her mother who is entrusted with raising her son who she leaves behind in a small Mexican border town.

While working as a nanny in Los Angeles, she loses contact with her family. Her mother dies back home and the 10-year-old Carlito is forced on a journey to find his mother.

The sweet undying love he has for his mother drives him through dramatic encounters with conmen and saviors, as he heads for California. This poignant tale deals with the emotional aspects of immigration.

“La Zona” deals with the growing class divisions in Mexico between the rich and poor. The phenomenon is engulfing many Latin American countries.

Gated communities protecting the rich, while pitting family members against each other, are the new way of life. In this film, some young teenage burglars become entrapped in the enclosed community and it’s frightening to see how far the town police and vigilantes will go to protect their property and privileged way of life. The gritty drama by first time Uruguayan director, Rodrigo Pla, hits hard at problems facing people in Latin America.

John Sayles has told stories of the South before. He excels in storytelling in films like “Passion Fish,” “Men With Guns” and “Lone Star.”

His newest offering, “Honeydripper,” is a meditation of the deep South in the 1950s.The Honeydripper Lounge’s owner, Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover) is going to lose his little bar if he doesn’t come up with a plan to pay the bills.

His scheme to bring to his club a famous guitar player, Guitar Sam, backfires. With competition from another bar that uses a jukebox to attract customers, pressure from the local white sheriff, and frustrations when he realizes Guitar Sam isn’t going to come to save the day, Tyrone comes up with an alternate plan that makes this movie one of the most entertaining, socially-conscious and well told stories from one of America’s greatest directors.



Films address race and cultural differences

Many of the films in the 2007 Toronto Festival addressed the issues of racial and cultural conflict.

“The Visitor” is a touching story centered on the problem of racial profiling. In a remarkably understated performance by Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under) as a widowed professor, Walter Vale returns to his apartment in the heart of New York after a long absence.

He finds a young multi-racial couple has been occupying it for several months. They are as surprised as he is and start packing their bags to leave as soon as possible.

Walter senses the difficult situation they have been put into, with their bags out on the street. He tracks them down and offers to let them stay with him until they can find a secure place to live.

He befriends the young couple, an African woman who makes jewelry and a Syrian man who plays drums. Walter begins learning drums from Tarek and once finds himself jamming with a large group of Third world drummers in an outdoor park.

This straight, white, aged professor drumming along with the friendly group of musicians offers an amazing symbol of cross-cultural possibilities. The story then takes a drastic turn when Tarek is arrested for jumping the subway turnstile, which had actually been broken. He immediately is sent to a deportation center and the professor learns quickly the new immigration laws of the land. His actions become a symbol for the awakening of resistance to the brutal effects of the war on terror.

One of the most prolific actors in the progressive community, Danny Glover adds yet another great portrayal to his long list of outstanding performances, as a boxing trainer and father of a young boy who is permanently damaged from a horrific racial beating.

Glover, emotionally scarred and fed up with violence, carefully deals with the pain by training the young man who almost killed his son, for a fight that will hopefully end the cycle of violence.

“Poor Boy’s Game” lifts African-Canadian director, Clement Virgo to new heights, with a tight script and terrific acting.

“Dans La Vie” tells another heartwarming tale of two women, one Jewish, one Arab, who seemingly would be at odds but eventually find common ground.

A son employs a housekeeper to watch his elderly Jewish mother while he’s away for a month on business from his Paris home. The fact that the housekeeper is an Algerian Muslim woman with totally different customs and beliefs concerns him a bit, but after he leaves, the two women gradually discover their commonalities.

His mother, ironically, is a French Algerian Jew with similar memories of her homeland and who has sensitivities towards Arabs. By the time the son returns, the Jewish woman has moved into the housekeepers Muslim home with her large family, enjoying the rare opportunity of learning each other’s cultures. The film provides a joyous view of how people with differing cultures can live together.

One of the world’s most class-conscious filmmaker’s, Ken Loach, offers his new study of the immigration problem in England. Uniquely, “It’s A Free World” tells the story from the exploiters side.

Angie, a young unemployed worker discovers she can make a lucrative income by taking advantage of the desperate plight of illegal immigrants searching for work. Her and her flatmate Rose set up a recruitment center in the shady world of cheap labor.

It isn’t long though before her cheap laborers are asking for the bare necessities in order to survive, and she can’t supply it. The law catches up with her and troubles begin.

This fine drama is yet another in a long line of realistic films from Loach that examine the cruelties of the capitalist system, and present them in heartrending stories.



More unique Films at Toronto film fest

Progressives can find films of interest in all styles. The animated fantasy film, “Terra” addresses the issues of environment and peace for the whole family.

“Terra” is an ideal planet where its inhabitants live in peace and harmony. Along come some alien ships filled will survivors from another planet whose resources have been totally exhausted.

These aliens also exhausted three other planets and are looking for yet another planet to invade. Guess where they are from? Well, these Earthlings discover with the use of a Terraformer they can make Terra’s atmosphere inhabitable for them, but will destroy it for the Terrians.

The film focuses on the survival tactics of the Terrians and how they preserve peace and their environment despite all the aliens attempts to takeover the planet.

One of the most unique films shown at the Toronto Film Festival was another animated tale, this time of a young woman growing up in Iran. Iranian-born Marjane Satrapi, has written an award-winning series of graphic novels that forms the basis for this film, “Persepolis,” winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes.

Told in stark black and white animation, the movie tells the story of a young woman growing up in Iran during the turbulent years of the revolution. Many of the Communists in her family who fought to remove the Shah ended up being persecuted worse by the Islamists. Personal stories of Marjane’s struggles with being a woman, dealing with religious and political repression and simply trying to be a teenager, make this a unique and telling film about life in Iran.

The German/Austrian production, “Reclaim Your Brain,” is an angry film on steroids, which makes “Network” look like “Alice in Wonderland.”

Totally disturbed by the downward spiral of television fodder, Rainer decides to destroy one of the most popular gutter TV shows and it’s producer. Realizing that the corporate funding for such televised tripe is based on ratings taken from select viewers with home rating machines, Rainer develops an ingenious method to sabotage the boxes.

A no-holds-barred storyline, directed at a dizzying fast pace, “Reclaim Your Brain” offers a drastic solution for reclaiming the television media for the people, and doesn’t allow your brain to rest for a minute.

An experimental film, “The Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind” by New Yorker John Gianvito offers a fresh and minimalist tribute to the revolutionary names that are well known to progressives.

Visiting cemeteries, touring landmarks and viewing historical markers, the film with no narration and little music, mesmerizingly revives the memories of many great political figures of the Left.

And finally, for music enthusiasts, three unique films appeared at Toronto that might be of interest.

Already playing in US theaters, “Across The Universe” offers yet another fascinating interpretation of The Beatles music. But this time it’s by the progressive director of “Frida,” Julie Taymor.

Vibrant colors in creative settings bring the music back to the days of hippies and the anti-war fervor of the 1960s. It’s a feast for the eyes, visually imaginative, with a strong message of love and peace.

“Glass: A Portrait of Phillip in Twelve Parts” is a fascinating documentary that tells the intimate story of the revolutionary composer who turned the music world around.

His minimalist, repetitive style of writing, appealing to a growing number of listeners, has brought him to opera stages, coffeehouses and theaters around the world.

His film scores include “The Thin Blue Line” and “Fog of War.” His opera subjects range from “Nixon” to “Gandhi” to “Einstein on the Beach.” He writes challenging and thought-provoking music and the film lives up to the subject.

“Fados” is a new music film from the classic Spanish director, Carlos Saura, who has authored many films about Spanish culture.

Here he introduces the Portuguese music style of Fados to the world. The sad, melancholy strains of guitars and singers marks the unique sound of a music steeped in history and longing. The screening in Toronto not only brought the director, but the vocalist Maritza, one of the better-known exponents of the emotionally powerful style. The audience was mesmerized by the unaccompanied, impromptu performance during the Q&A.

The Toronto International Film Festival is more than a film experience. Directors and actors are there to participate with the audience in a social discourse about filmmaking, history and the arts.

In conclusion, this series of reviews of roughly over 35 films just touched the surface of what this festival and many others have to offer.

Bill Meyer writes from Detroit and reviews films at the Toronto International Film Festival for the People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo.