Narratives from the 2015 Toronto Film Festival

As mentioned in a previous column, documentaries are not always more truthful that fiction films. A good example of this is the sarcastic titled, Thank You for Bombing, which premiered at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. War correspondents stationed in far off places like Afghanistan can get awful bored just breathing dust while waiting for some action to report on. When the bombings begin their jobs elevate to one of heightened importance, and in many cases, extreme danger.

Austrian filmmaker Barbara Eder pays tribute here to the often-underappreciated correspondents who report on the bloodbath and horrors of war. The film, which is structured into three chapters about different reporters, is prefaced with a quote from the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland who also sarcastically states, “All this talk of blood and slaying has put me off my tea.”

It’s the Second Chapter that burns in the memory. Titled “Fitz and Bergman,” referring to two American soldiers who burned the Quran, a daring female reporter risks her life going out to a remote outpost to get interviews with the obviously extremist warriors. She gets her testimony, but at great sacrifice, in a humiliating sacrificial scene rarely depicted on screen. Chapter 3, titled “War,” covers a TV reporter Cal Branigan, whose driver is fatally crushed under a car, and later his wife leaves him due to the changes in his personality caused by the pressures of war reporting. At one point Branigan explains “sensitivity has not been America’s strong suit during its presence in Afghanistan. If you look how the American-NATO occupation has treated the Afghan people over these last years, it’s quite clear that this burning of the Quran, showing blatant ignorance against the culture here, is just the tip of the iceberg.”

All three reporters have lost their sanity, and now with Obama’s prolongation of the longest war in American history, we can only expect more troubling confrontations to appear.

A new film produced by world-renowned progressive French director Costa Gavras (Z, State of Siege, Capital), covers the Algerian Civil War, also known as the ‘dirty war’ where extreme brutality was used by Islamic extremists to defeat the ruling government.

During the 1990s more than 200,000 people were victims to mass killings, suicide bombings and terrorist activities. The Islamists had been poised to win the parliamentary elections against the long standing National Liberation Front, but a military coup stepped in to stop their victory and imprisoned thousands of its members, eventually creating a massive backlash of anger and violence. The film clearly marks the difference between the religion of Islam and the extremist interpretation by some Muslims. Former neighbors and allies fell victim to the fighting and were expelled, tortured and killed. Let Them Come fearlessly addresses a touchy subject, in a new and deadly honest fashion.

The film title Anomalisa combines the word ‘anomaly’ (something that deviates from what’s standard or expected) with a young woman’s name, Lisa. Author Michael Stone travels the world around giving motivational speeches based on his latest self-help books, while covertly sporting a deep blandness for life. Everything seems boring and mundane, everyone he runs into is just another version of sameness. Director and writer Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), however, is noted for the exact opposite –  extreme creativity and a joy for life. He depicts this ‘sameness’ by giving the same voice to all the characters in this uniquely stop-motion animated feature film.

British thespian David Thewlis gives grandness to the main role, while all other characters sport the same dull voice supplied by Tom Noonan. Until – one young lady named Lisa comes along with a fresh new voice. She is certainly someone different, that one person that may just pull Stone out of his slump. But after a night of some of the most honest lovemaking in film history between two animated dolls, breakfast brings back the old monotonous voice from Lisa. Stone is hopelessly trapped in a mundane world. But where is this story leading? I say that the prime meaning of this entire project is expressed in just two lines, blurted out during Stone’s presentation to yet another audience of mindless adulators. Rather than ruin the movie for you, these lines give the entire film a powerful political meaning, coming at an unexpected time and manner, and then the film calmly returns to the mundane existence of the main character after startling the audience out of their complacency. Another strange and shocking film from the fertile mind of Charlie Kaufman.

Italian director Nanni Moretti has created many wonderful and stylish films about the Left, Caro Diario, Aprile and We Have a Pope, to name a few, but My Mother (Mia Madre) is surely one of his most endearing and entertaining. It’s a film within a film, with Moretti actually playing the brother of a woman director who’s working on a film about a labor strike. During her work on the film, they both are attending to their mother who is dying in a hospital, all based on Moretti’s real life experiences. In a tricky play of roles, Moretti plays the brother of the woman director who is actually playing him in real life. Issues of filmmaking, family bonds and politics are all neatly tied together in a complex and rich script than includes an over-the-top performance by esteemed American actor John Turturro. Once again, Moretti writes, directs and stars in a film with depth, compassion and political awareness.

When is a great film hard to watch? When it’s so well written, acted and directed that you actually feel you are in the gas chambers of Auschwitz experiencing the unimaginable barbarity. With little dialog, extreme close-ups, and long takes, young Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes, offers Son of Saul, adding significantly to the large number of memorable Jewish Holocaust films.

Saul, a camp worker assigned to the gas chambers, methodically carries out his job, gathering the clothes off the hooks in the locker rooms, dragging out the bodies, mopping the floors, all in a trance state while trying to block out the horrid reality and just trying to stay alive. He finds a young boy breathing his last breath and feels the need to give him a proper burial, something far out of the ordinary in a camp like this. The movie is about this highly difficult attempt, as he hides the body, gets transferred to another camp, bribes his way from one place to another with the hope of carrying out this impossible act. The camerawork is mesmerizing, many close-ups leave out the rest of the set to the imagination of the viewer. Sounds off camera imply a further unseen hell, but despite such a gruesome subject, the film shows the humanity of a simple man, finding a connection to this one unnamed child out of many victims, while hanging on to a shred of civility in his attempt to carry out at least one civilized act.

A couple Hollywood films of importance gain status with some big name talent. In Truth, Dan Rather is played by venerable Robert Redford and Mary Mapes by Cate Blanchett. The star power alone brings attention to this important chapter in TV news history when Dan Rather reported on George W. Bush’s supposed avoidance of serving in Vietnam by getting a coveted spot in the Texas Air National Guard in 1968. Coming off a primetime expose of the Abu Ghraib prison crimes in Iraq, Mapes gets a tip that Bush avoided Vietnam, and follows through with intense investigations, interviews and confirmations, but apparently not deep enough, as the facts and charges ultimately fall apart at the last minute forcing Rather to forfeit his 40 year career with CBS. The dramatic retelling of the intricate stages that led to this unexpected ending, is well presented by actors at the top of their form.

Actor Tom McCarthy, won his place in the annals of great directors with his humanist film about a shy and passionless professor, who returns home to find illegal immigrants living in his apartment. Rather than kicking them out he arranges to get African drum lessons in exchange for a few days stay. But in the process he learns much more than drums as he becomes sensitized to the tragic plight of illegal immigrants in America. A priceless gem of a film.

And now comes Spotlight, a true story about sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Boston in 2001, which is uncovered by the dedicated work of four Boston Globe reporters. This four-person department called Spotlight, ran into endless obstacles, the Church, the police, the legal system, all putting up roadblocks to prevent the exposure of Catholic priests in a city that is pretty much Catholic. And it all took place at a time that seemed ancient, before the Internet became the standard, and investigative data gathering was with pencils and paper, photocopies, and footwork, which makes the endless procedures all the more impressive. The film provides a strong story held in place with outstanding ensemble acting including the likes of Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Stanley Tucci.

Photo: Toronto International Film Festival


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.