A veteran photojournalist on the Toronto arts and entertainment scene, Julian Bynoe is a Toronto-based cartoonist, artist and arts blogger. From 1996 to 2014, he was the arts/entertainment editor for the street publication The Outreach Connection, and has had articles featured in Realms Magazine, among others.

EDITION #15 - WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 15-21, 2014

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2014 REVIEWS

Part 2 of 2-part series

Timbuktu

Before the rise of jihadist groups like Boko Haram of Nigeria and the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq grabbed the headline news, the brief conquest by similar groups in northern Mali back in 2012 with their own brand of shari’a law garnered somewhat minor attention, but was underestimated on the influence it could perpetrate. Such is the focus of Timbuktu, a semi-fictionalized account of those events from Mauritanian master Abderrahmane Sissako that won acclaim at its Cannes premiere this year after a seven-year silence from feature filmmaking, is as deep and equally disturbing on how far things can get unchecked in any social order.

During its siege of the ancient city of Mali, the citizens of Timbuktu try to lead some kind of daily living, even as the jihadists under their leader Abu Hassan enforces everything from restricting the simple things like playing un-Islamic music and soccer matches via through their morality policing the streets that at times, seem more like Keystone Kops than vigorous vigilance.

Quiet tensions erupt from the frustrated women over their “lack” of modest dress and enforced marriages that even a young foot soldiers feel unconvinced over the purpose they’re fighting over, until a dispute between easy-going Tuareg herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) and a local fisherman comes to a boil, threatening the split the community in half and its fragile peace, such as it is.

Sissako’s camera shots and Sofiane El Fani’s cinematography is an eyeful and expressive as done in the gradually-building plot as written by Sissako and Kessan Tall avoiding any attempt to black-and-white the topic, be it the semi-thuggish patrollers crashing a private get-together of musicians or the open defiance of eccentric feamle village idiot, tightly knit under the director’s control.

For a bunch of non-professional actors, the cast pulls off a highly-polished job at it from the town imam gently being the voice of reason with underlying boldness to Ahmed playing Kidane as a humble pragmatism willing to accept his fate under the jihadists’ kangaroo courts as much as he worries over the destiny waiting for his young daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed).

A mesmerising and powerful work, Timbuktu is the director’s finest to date swept under an emotional score underlined by Amine Bouhafa, of not-too far away real life dramas happening halfway around the world of people looking to maintain their dignity under pressing circumstances.

Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait

If there’s any documentary chronicling the ongoing Syrian Revolution that’s more harrowing than Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait out there now, directors Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan probably don’t have anything to worry about from the 1,001 videos by 1,001 documentarians from all sides of the conflict shot over 1,001 days (or 3 ½ years of the war) show a telling testimony of an Arab state reaping the ugly whirlwind of the Arab Spring movement that’s already claimed 191,369 lives (UN estimate, April 2014) and counting which such force.

Basically, the doc is two films in one: the first by exiled director Mohammed editing the history of the revolution from the initially peaceful marches against (and for) the Assad regime to the slaughter that followed; and of Bedirxan, a young Syrian Kurdish activist capturing her own account during the Siege of Homs that you won’t see on any nightly network news, let alone YouTube.

Between these two, Mohammed gives what we’ve already have knowledge about the fight for all its pixelated, blurred graphicness of bloodied corpses of protestors and rebels, uncensored videos of demonstrators being tortured by the loyalist army along with his personal narrative tinged with guilt of covering the revolution from the safe haven of Paris. Bedirxan shows the same things, only from a ground point-of-view of people trying to survive under constant fire. From children doing the best the way kids do, particularly one boy, Omar, whose personality is sweetly infectious while playing in the torn-up streets of Homs to the ignored victims of any war: pets abandoned in the chaos. It’s hard not to feel pity of a mewing kitten badly scorched from a bombing campaign or one cat with a look of madness etched on its face that it doesn’t even flinch from a nearby explosion.

Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait isn’t easy watching of what is now dubbed “the first YouTube war” of the Syrian Revolution for all its heartbreaking moments and the blind compliancy of the world watching it from the sidelines, leaving one to question if the human equation can ever be found amongst such inhumanity.

Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet

The Tango sequence scene "On Marriage" from Khalil Girban's The Prophet, done by French animator Joann Sfar.

Don’t expect the 2-D animated anthology feature Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet to cater to the Disney or DreamWorks crowd that aren’t prepared to find intelligent dialogue and melodrama based on the Lebanese poet’s 1923 masterwork fantastically voiced by some rather big names, co-produced by Salma Hayek-Pinault and directed by The Lion King’s Roger Allers, leaning towards the realms of philosophy and fantasy.

The mute and imaginative eight-year old Almitra (Quvenzhané Wallis) spends her days running wild in the marketplace of a fictional Middle-Eastern city-state still traumatized by her father’s death two years ago, is a problematic headache for the townsfolk and her harried single mother Kamila (Hayek-Pinault) who yearns for her daughter to speak again.

Being the government employment of dissent poet Mustafa (Liam Neeson) as his housekeeper under seven years of house arrest by the dictatorial Pasha (Frank Langella) and under guard of semi-hapless Halim (John Krasinski), he is suddenly released and is allowed to leave for a one-way ship back home. Beloved by the people – and feared by the authorities – by his teachings, he’s escorted to the harbour by the gruff Sergeant (Alfred Molina) but not before dispensing his life observations en route and befriending Almitra, who will become his unexpected salvation in keeping his words alive.

The animation is truly sumptuous and a work of art itself, helped by several well-known animators filling in the philosophically abstract segments by the likes of Bill Plympton, Marjane Satrapi, Tomm Moore, Nina Paley, Mohammed Saeed Harib and Joann Sfar (her tango-based piece is a highlight), among others; to give it the enlightened balance and lessons it teaches. Neeson graciously voices the good-natured Mustafa who’s soul carries the film with ease; Molina and Krasinski provide the comic relief, but give the animators credit for using body language and movement for Almitra as the central character and underrated heroine until Wallis finally gets to say her lines.

Won’t interest the younger kiddies way too much – unless they’re members of Mensa – as The Prophet is more the art-house crowd, animation buffs and readers familiar with Gibran’s work, yet kudos should be given to writer/director Allers for making such an accessible adaptation full of magical and spiritual gravitas. Hell, it makes me want to pick up the book myself.

May Allah Bless France!

Done in a docudrama fashion, the autobiographical May Allah Bless France! by popular African-French hip-hop star Abd al Malik gets behind the camera for a first-timer is pretty good that is almost reminiscent of early Spike Lee in the mannerism it takes hold of its street-smart edge that doesn’t come out of France that often.

Based on his own memoirs of the same title of growing up in the late 1980s in the tough Neuhof quartier of Strasbourg, Régis (Marc Zinga) of Congolese descent is a gifted student of philosophy and literature with a bright future ahead of him, whenever he’s not hanging out with his hoodlum buddies Mike (Mickaël Nagenraft), Samir (Larouci Didi) and Rachid (Abdelmajid Barja) pick-pocketing old ladies’ purses, ducking the police and dealing drugs, all dreaming of cutting a demo with their hip-hop group. Trying not to get sucked further into the nadir of crime and violence, he tries to find solace with his music and on-off Franco-Arab sweetheart Nawel (Sabrina Ouazani), as well as converting to Islam and taking the name Abd al Malik with uncertain results in which way to go.

Thinking it as being some kind of French 8 Mile with brains, Al-Malik presents a harsh reality of youth angst and inner-city disparity hanging over him and his peers of minorities that despite being born and raised in the French metropole, they’re still regarded as outsiders like their parents and grandparents were, much like the groundbreaking film La Haine addressed over two decades ago.

Zinga plays the young al Malik with great conviction on trying to stay straight yet looking to achieve his goals by any means necessary as a taunt balancing act and taking the long transition from boy to manhood; as does the rest of the cast keeping up with the director’s screenplay and done all in black-and-white film to bring out the characteristics of ghetto life is as universal as anything.

Granted, it does tend to veer into territory covered in the African-American hood films from the 1990s at times, but May Allah Bless France! makes several differences in the construct with little clichés involved on al Malik’s flow, range and personal story does tend to be watchable.

The Imitation Game

Choosing the British World War II spy film The Imitation Game for the TIFF 2014 People’s Choice Award is a fair one, given that it fully credits an unsung hero his overdue and for contributing to present-day technology about the untold story of Cambridge mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Turing, a brilliant numbers prodigy with a flair for arrogance and droll wit, joins the war effort in offering his services to break the super-secret Nazi German Enigma encryption machine and its messages at the outbreak of hostilities mostly as a challenge since it would have taken, in theory, about 20 million years to find out how Hitler’s forces moved around Europe all from such a complex device.

Much to the consternation of his fellow colleagues involved led by rival Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), spit-and-polish Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) and MI6 liaison Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), Turing comes up with his own revolutionary device to decipher the Enigma, a proto-computer he dubs “Christopher” after a boarding school chum (Jack Bannon) – and first gay love – with the additional help of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a woman he finds as his equal in the two years his team spends in building the machine at the Bletchley Park base, learning about the meaning of sacrifice in wartime for the common good and assured victory.

Norweigan director Morten Tyldum's (Headhunters) first English feature handles the material in a well-paced mode and the exceptional script penned by Graham Moore and maudlin cinematography of Óscar Faura, as more of a relationship study of all parties involved and dirty little secrets, military and personal, allowing a human prescient seep in and layering actual and replicated historical footage adds interest instead of being a standard in such a film.

Cumberbatch is excellent as Turing grappling with all the secrecy involved and his sexuality, which became a downfall for him of sorts in a postwar charge for indecency and court-ordered “cure” therapy which led to his 1951 suicide at 41, almost becoming near-forgotten figure in science and his role in ending the war (he was given a posthumous royal pardon in 2013) that should earn him some accolades; Knightley is a sharp choice playing a numbers cruncher and caring figure in Turing’s life; Strong is aptly intimidating as the cagey spymaster and while Rory Kinnear’s role as a determined if understanding Manchester police detective assigned to Turing’s indecency case is a minor one, it’s a important cog to the storyline in flashbacks from beginning to end.

It’s good to see Turing’s efforts and life finally making it to the big screen and getting full acknowledgement in The Imitation Game’s clever amalgamation of a espionage thriller, relationship drama and mini-biopic rolled into one.

Future Projections

South Korean art collective Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries – a.k.a. Young-Hae Chang and Marc Voge – brought their brash, provocative text visuals for the fest-commissioned SOME GRAPHIC SEX, HEAVY DRINKING, BLOODY VIOLENCE, AND DIRTY LANGUAGE: SEVEN ONE-MINUTE FEATURE-LIKE FILMS ABOUT SEOUL at TIFF Lightbox in the HD QuickTime videos certainly didn’t play down its intentions or ferocity in holding a mirror to society in general and not just South Korea’s.

Through English typeface of Monaco and enjoyably tinny jazz background music, the videos give a basic “day in the life of” everyday Seoul ranging from a young man getting disrespectful to a elderly passenger on its subway line; an erotically-charged tête-à-tête involving a visiting French chef during a “critique” of the local cuisine; a vainglorious patient seeing a plastic surgeon to conform to Western beauty standards to what’s running through the sarcastic mind of an educated prospective at a job interview for a major company, all in a continuous loop.

Funny and stinging satire, SOME GRAPHIC SEX has a way of showing up the rigidness of Korean society while poking at the younger set who have very little regard for traditional norms and morals by taking up Western behaviours and attitudes that is often the curse of urban centres as they become more populous daily and the search for self-identity among such a crowded populace, is apparent in this piece.

Scenes from Lynn Marsh's video installation, Anna and The Tower

In Anna and The Tower at the westside Scrap Metal Gallery (11 Dublin Street East) tucked away within its suburban environs, perhaps matching the isolationism in Toronto-based video artist Lynn Marsh’s 20-minute looping installation on connection, or lack thereof.

Shot on location at Magdeburg-Cochstedt International Airport near Berlin, the three-channel video short looks at the eponymous young air traffic controller viewing out the vastness and idleness of a barely-used airstrip, once a Soviet airbase during the Cold War shut down after its post-1989 retreat and reopened in 2010; stating out airliner script calls in German and English but watching mostly sky and runway of imaginary landings and take-offs around a misty countryside.

The piece makes one wonder on why have an airport that’s more of a white elephant in maintaining an underused global facility (think Montréal’s Mirabel, now a cargo airport) depicted here as Marsh’s camera eye takes an avant-garde stance on the human condition at its lowest when viewing its unbearable silence that almost screams at you in volumes.

###

Anna and The Tower continues through September 20; Daily 12-5 p.m., FREE. For information, call 416-588-2442 or scrapmetalgallery.com.

Festival Summary

TIFF 2014 can mark itself up as one of its better one in film selections and events, especially with newcomer programmes Festival Street for trying to be even more inclusive to the general public and decent time-killer for fest goers for a three-day pedestrian shindig along the King West district; and Short Cuts International in allowing filmgoers to get a chance to see a worldly grab of smaller fares that usually gets ignored.

My fest highlight regarding the films to pay attention to are features The Dead Lands, Timbuktu, Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet and The Imitation Game; shorts A Single Life, Tricycle Thief, Eye & Mermaid and Light; and art installation SOME GRAPHIC SEX, HEAVY DRINKING, BLOODY VIOLENCE, AND DIRTY LANGUAGE: SEVEN ONE-MINUTE FEATURE-LIKE FILMS ABOUT SEOUL.

Low points go to a lack of films to fill the TIFF Kids roster and not enough Future Projections projects to see compared to previous years, but the main bummer was having to empty the September 14 People’s Choice screening of The Imitation Game early into the film due to a false fire alarm (a first!), delaying the show for about 12 minutes before the all-clear and another eight minutes to pick up where it left off due to getting back to original seating where some refused to adhere to, but thanks to the diligent fest volunteers it was able to continue without too many hitches.

About an estimated 400,000 tickets were sold at TIFF, making it another financially successful festival. So now the programmers are already gearing up for the big milestone year as TIFF turns 40 in 2015. Can’t wait to see if any decent surprises are in store!