Friday, October 14, 2011

CIFF 2011 -- All about the Mavericks

Calgary International Film Festival 2011

Every year I joyfully look forward to the 10 day cinematic adventure that is the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF). Normally, I have my festival specific routines and relish tweaking my schedule as the festival goes on, adding in extra films or altering my plan to get some rest. However, this year my schedule for the opening weekend was decided well in advance because I was invited to be on the three person jury to judge the Mavericks competition award. The Mavericks competition featured eight films from first time directors. The goal was to watch all eight films in the cinema along with the audience during the opening weekend and then deliberate to come up with the award. As per the film schedule, I had two options to see all eight films:

1) 2-3-3: Start off with two films on Friday and then take in three each on Saturday or Sunday.

2) 3-3-2: Three on the opening day and end the weekend with two.

I opted for the second option and added two more films for personal viewing, making the format a much more soccer friendly 4-4-2. This format also allowed me to give my full attention to the Mavericks films.

The eight Mavericks films seen in order of viewing:

Maria, my Love (2011, USA, Jasmine McGlade Chazelle)
Heat Wave (2011, France, Jean-Jacques Jauffret)
The Sacrament of Life (2008, USA, Joseph Sorrentino)
Flowers of Evil (2010, France, David Dusa)
Radio Free Albemuth (2010, USA, John Alan Simon)
Old Goats (2010, USA, Taylor Guterson)
The Whisperer in the Darkness (2011, USA, Sean Branney)
Sunflower Hour (2011, Canada, Aaron Houston)

All the eight films are quite wonderful and different from each other which made it fascinating to judge the competition. The eight films are also clearly a labor of love by the filmmakers and it was a great experience to hear the stories about how some of these films saw the light of day. I had the pleasure to listen to Jasmine McGlade Chazelle, Joseph Sorrentino, Sean Branney and John Alan Simon talk about their films and had a very nice chat with Joseph Sorrentino. These films highlight the importance of film festivals in helping to showcase talented filmmakers whose works would otherwise be lost in the overpowering Hollywood dominated North American cinemas. I relished viewing all these films and hope they get the larger audience they deserve.

In the end, we chose Flowers of Evil as the winner of the Mavericks award.

Here is our jury statement:

Flowers of Evil is a bold, innovative film brimming with fresh new ideas. David Dusa has crafted a unique film that smartly integrates social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube within the film’s visual language while maintaining the story’s flow. Dusa’s film contains living breathing three dimensional characters who draw the audience into their lives thereby creating an emotional connection with the characters lives in Paris and a revolution taking place in a far off land.

In addition, Flowers of Evil also features a grooving soundtrack and makes great use of Shantel’s Disko Boy song.

The other two films that I saw on the opening weekend were Kill List and Alps.

Kill List (2011, UK, Ben Wheatley)

Ben Wheatley’s film packs quite a powerful punch and increases the tension and violence as it races along at a riveting pace. One remarkable aspect of the film is that it keeps certain elements off the screen thereby allowing the audience to fill in their own version of certain events related to the characters background story and even to the cult group. The violent scenes cause plenty of discomfort although the film’s most shocking scene won’t seem as a surprize to those who saw a certain 2010 film.

Alps (2011, Greece, Giorgos Lanthimos)

Lanthimos’ follow up to Dogtooth features far more deadpan humor and less of the strangeness that might have put some people off Dogtooth. That is not to say that ALPS is without its quirky dark humor but it is presented in a much more accessible manner than Dogtooth. The material that is presented in ALPS only seems much more darker and sinister when one walks away after seeing the film and thinks about the characters and their lives.

Some quick comments on other films that showed at the festival:

Guilt (2011, Canada, Marc Bisaillon)

This excellent Canadian film is based on a true story and raises some worthy moral questions about guilt/punishment. There is some humor as well regarding how the champ jock is given preferential treatment but the humor is subtle and does not draw attention to itself.

In Heaven, Underground (2011, Germany, Britta Wauer)

The story about how the Weissensee Jewish cemetery survived the Nazi era and continued to operate for more than a century is certainly extraordinary. Surprisingly, this is a very light tender film about the heavy topic of death and features many poetic and contemplative moments.

Target (2011, Russia, Alexander Zeldovich)

Like all good sci-fi films Target uses a single topic, elixir of youth in the film’s case, to explore larger issues about human behavior and morality in society. Plus, the film uses current trends of China’s growth to extrapolate a future where the political power balance is altered. One forgets the sci-fi element 30 minutes into the film after which the story unfolds like an epic Russian novel, carefully highlighting the disintegration of the principal characters. The ending shot certainly evokes Tarkovskiy’s Solaris as do certain other aspects in the film.

Journey of a Dream (2011, Canada co-production, Shenpenn Khymsar)

This worthy documentary is a fascinating mix of a memoir, a road journey, a political film about Tibet's struggle of independence and a look at the underground music scene in Darjeeling. Each part contains many engaging aspects which are nicely tied together in the end when the filmmaker draws a line between his Buddhist beliefs and love of metal music.

Le Quattro Volte: I wrote about this film previously and it is still a front-runner for one of my favourite films of the year.

George the Hedgehog (2011, Poland, Wojtek Wawszczyk, Jakub Tarkowski, Tomasz Leśniak)

And now for something completely different...George the Hedgehog is a Polish animated film that is a blend of political and social satire packed with plenty of sexual innuendo and some nudity to boot. The film is surprizingly liberal with its sexual depiction and is not afraid to offend with its crudeness and racial jokes. George the Hedgehog also smartly includes the impact that online videos can have in swaying public opinion and starting a revolution of sorts.

The ones that got away

The opening weekend certainly exhausted me and that meant I had to give away some of my film tickets over the next few days just to recover. So I missed seeing Take Shelter, Monsieur Lazhar, The Skin I Live In and The Bengali Detective. On top of that, family commitments meant that I missed the closing gala film Take That Waltz along with three of my must-see picks for the festival -- Le Havre, El Bulli and The Salt of Life. Still, CIFF 2011 was another great festival experience highlighted by the outstanding Mavericks competition.

Oh Canadian weather

CIFF has always taken place place in the final week of September and usually spilled over into the first few days of October. As a result, my memories of the fall season have always been associated with CIFF because my waiting in line for films has gone hand in hand with a chill tinged air. However, remarkably last year the weather during the first week of the festival was summer like thereby making the walks in between the cinemas pleasant and fun. Incredibly, this time around the first weekend of the festival (Sept 23 - 25) featured temperatures in the range of 29-30 deg C thereby meaning some of the warmest summer weather of the year took place in the fall. If this summer like weather occurs during the festival next year, then it will certainly be further proof of the changing weather pattern.