Monday, September 30, 2019

2019 Calgary International Film Festival

The 20th Calgary International Film Festival ran from Sept 18-29, 2019.  This entry looks at the common themes among a few films in the World Cinema series and was originally published on the Calgary International Film Festival website.

2019 Calgary International Film Festival: World Cinema series

The 20th anniversary edition of the Calgary International Film Festival continues its goal to bring stellar films from different corners of the world. This year, there are films from countries that have never featured previously in the world cinema category: Afghanistan (THE ORPHANAGE), Guatemala (TREMORS) and Kosovo (AGA’S HOUSE). In addition, a contemporary film from Algeria (ABOU LEILA) is featured after a 17 year gap. These films have something for everyone, from action, animation, comedies, coming-of-age, crime, drama, sci-fi to films with tantalizing shades of darkness. The varied genres are layered with an equally rich scope ranging from focusing on individual cases of identity, to relationship and family stories and communities or nations on the verge of change. As a result, the films give an accurate glimpse of our world today and bravely address burning topics. In some cases, the films set in the past illustrate how we have arrived at current situations while some films use the current state of things to give a glimpse of a possible future. Each film stands on its own but a common set of themes and genres link together many of the world films in this year’s selections. Multiple films showcase individuals trying to find their voice in societies that expect them to conform. In depicting their urgent stories, quite a few films tap into the raw emotions often found in horror/thriller/crime films to convey the heightened state of anxiety and fear in our society today.

Two feature film debuts from different parts of the world highlight the emotional burden on societies in the aftermath of war/violent conflicts. Set in Algeria 1994, ABOU LEILA shows the psychological impact of a society engulfed in civil war and violence. The film digs beneath the surface and shows scars that refuse to go away and result in a drastic course of events. The film focuses on its male characters with women absent from the screen. In contrast, the female perspective of war and its emotional toll is provided by AGA’S HOUSE which never spells out the violent conflict but instead hints at it. The film removes specific time markers but it is clear that the past has had a direct influence on all the characters. Men are mostly absent from AGA’S HOUSE with the exception of 9 year-old Aga and one other male character. The boy’s presence is critical and highlights that women and children are often forced to deal with the consequences of war even though they are innocent bystanders. In their own separate ways, the two films show that even if a conflict is resolved during the lifespan of one generation, the impact is felt on future generations who are forced to deal with the consequences of events that took place before they were born.

The multigenerational impact of war also comes to mind in THE ORPHANAGE which is set in 1989 when the Soviets are on the verge of leaving Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s fate is well documented but the film takes us to the point when everything started unraveling. Director Shahrbanoo Sadat presents events in a realistic manner and that is due to the film being based on the real life events of Anwar Hashimi (he plays the orphanage supervisor in the movie). However, Sadat also smartly uses Bollywood songs to depict emotional feelings of the characters including one of the best uses of a Bollywood song by any director. Without giving away any spoilers, she uses a classic Bollywood song to pose the ultimate “what if?” question regarding the fate of Afghanistan. History has already written how events unfolded in Afghanistan but her question about an alternate and more hopeful turn of events is worth pondering.

While ABOU LEILA and THE ORPHANAGE depict the past from their respective national perspective, BACURAU and MONOS use the present to depict a stark future. BACURAU is set a few years from now while MONOS could be in our current time or take place in the future. We live in a world where a single tweet could potentially result in war and that is why the material of these two films is relevant because they depict the speed at which the fabric of society could start to unfold.

When it comes to dealing with the present, multiple films show the urgent case of individuals trying to fight for their basic rights or find their identity. Despite all the progress we have made regarding human rights, basic rights are still denied to many individuals forcing them to feel trapped, a sentiment shared by the lead characters in THE AWAKENING OF THE ANTS and TREMORS who struggle to breathe in households and societies that expect them to quietly conform. TREMORS shows how Pablo's family and community turns on him after his relationship with another man is discovered. Pablo was once loved and respected but in an instant, he finds himself distanced from everything he knew. DOLCE FINE GIORNATA also shows how respect and adoration can evaporate overnight due to the consequences of honestly speaking in today’s politically charged world. On the other hand, IT MUST BE HEAVEN shows that even silently observing the world may not be without trouble. In the film, Elia Suleiman’s mostly silent character wants to be left alone and quietly observe the absurdities of human behaviour. However, he still finds himself in hot water despite not saying anything. Of all the world films, the most radical response to conformity is provided by Tom Mercier’s spirited character of Yoav in Nadav Lapid’s SYNONYMS. Lapid’s film is unlike any Israeli film to have been made and shares its spirit with works belonging to the French New Wave. Yoav wants to change his identity in an instant and he rebels against the way of life he grew up in. For the most part, his rebellion is internal but he can only contain his emotions internally to a certain extent and it isn’t long before his emotions boil over and impact those around him. On the flip side to the expressive emotions of Yoav lies the charming polite character of Eva in THE AUGUST VIRGIN who quietly goes about trying to find her identity. Eva’s quest to find herself is universal and the lovely manner of her adventure echoes those of characters in Noah Baumbach’s films (especially FRANCES HA) or Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro’s cinema.

In trying to find their identity and voice, many of the characters in the various world films take a journey; a literal one or a metaphorical one. When it comes to a journey, one film stands above all and that is the Philippine film LAKBAYAN which translates to “journey”. There are 3 stories in LAKBAYAN with each segment involving three variations of a journey involving a different mode of transportation. This is a landmark film because it was made to celebrate the centennial anniversary of Philippines’ cinema and it brings together three masters of Filipino cinema: Lav Diaz, Brilliante Mendoza and Kidlat Tahimik. The film’s inclusion in this year’s lineup is exciting because neither director has had a film play at the festival before, not for lack of trying! Since Brilliante Mendoza won a best director award at Cannes 2009 (for KINATAY), there have been attempts by the festival to show his film. The same goes for Lav Diaz. At one point, the only way to legally see a film from Lav Diaz was to attend a select few film festivals around the world which were able to show his films, some of which were as long as 10+ hours. However, in the last few years, his films have become more readily available. In LAKBAYAN, we are treated with a glimpse of his beautiful style distilled in just over 30 minutes.

Multiple world films in this year’s Calgary International Film Festival borrow elements from conventional horror, thriller or crime genres to depict their stories. This aspect of genre usage was evident at this year’s Cannes Film Festival where directors not associated with the genre such as Corneliu Porumboiu (THE WHISTLERS), Kleber Mendonça Filho (BACURAU) showcased films with gangsters and gory killings. Even the top Cannes Prize winner PARASITE smoothly incorporated a few genres. The world films in this year’s selection range in their usage of the genre with some apparent in their depiction, such as the crime/neo-noir framework of the Malaysian film FLY BY NIGHT, while some are playful like the case of THE WHISTLERS and then there are some which are very subtle (sorry, no spoilers). The usage of genre isn’t a coincidence. Elements of horror, crime, thriller films tap into our raw emotions of fear and anxiety. If our external world is amplifying these emotions to a heightened degree, then it is not a surprise that different international films have incorporated genre within their framework to hold up a mirror to our world!

In addition to having films from well established filmmakers and directors, approximately 60% of the world cinema features in this year’s selection are either debuts or sophomore efforts. These films are by emerging voices that may not be known today but could end up being a force in years to come. An example that comes to mind is looking at Calgary Film’s Mavericks class of 2009. Damien Chazelle (FIRST MAN, LA LA LAND), Maren Ade (TONI ERDMANN) and Alexis Dos Santos (UNMADE BEDS) were present at the 2009 Calgary International Film Festival when their first or second features competed in the Mavericks competition. The three of them were not well-known back in 2009 but it is hard for these trio to go unnoticed anymore. Alexis Dos Santos’ has co-written MONOS in this year’s selection and this is a film that is rapidly picking up awards on the film festival circuit and is now Colombia’s official submission to the Oscar’s Foreign Film category. The other films from this year’s selections submitted for consideration to the Foreign Film category are IT MUST BE HEAVEN (PALESTINE), THE WHISTLERS (Romania), PARASITE (South Korea) and the documentary HONEYLAND (Republic of North Macedonia). Several countries have yet to finalize their submissions for the foreign film category which means that some of the other selections could still be submitted in consideration for next year’s Oscars.

Between the Oscar contenders, a diverse range of genres, and standout works from emerging directors and masters, the foreign films in the 20th edition of the Calgary International Film festival offer an exciting feast of films which allow audience to travel the world without leaving the comfort of this city.