Monday, September 29, 2008

Edmonton International Film Festival 2008: Pontypool and other things

You can tell the time has come when the leaves turn auburn and yellow on the lone tree growing amidst the concrete-grey of downtown Edmonton. When the cold wind sends the ripe odour of the sewers hustling through the downtown streets and people actually seem eager to enter the City Centre Mall, that’s how you know the Edmonton International Film Festival has returned for another year.

Our adventure through this year’s slate of films promises to be a perilous one. The risk of encountering something abominably banal is an omnipresent concern, for the important thing to remember about the Edmonton International Film Festival is that its schedule always contains at least a few wretched cast-aways that no other self-respecting film festival would dare to touch.

As you examine the schedule, you can't avoid these earnest, well-meaning “crowd-pleasers,” to use a phrase thrown about with reckless abandon in the program guide—movies about fatal disease, mental or physical handicaps, Neil Diamond tribute acts. They litter the schedule like land mines and you proceed at your own peril.

This might sound like pure snobbery, but let me give an example of one of these films that I’ve already inadvertently stumbled across this year. It was called Heroes (Wings Are Not Necessary to Fly), a Spanish documentary short about an armless techno DJ.

All of the traditional markers of a crowd-pleaser were present—blandly likable subject, inspirational tale of someone overcoming adversity, and a familiar narrative shape. But as a documentary, the film was barely competent, with a tone that ranged from innocuously dull to flat-out condescending. The interview questions, when not just embarrassingly generic, were transparently leading, reaching an absolute nadir when the film started showing people on the street being asked what is a hero. Of course, this is the incompetent’s method of telling us the armless DJ is a hero, but I think I would have preferred for the director to simply come on camera and shout this at the audience. It would have been much quicker than having to listen to all of the stock answers to that stock question. In the end, the short amounted to little more than friends and family members speaking pleasant generalities about the armless DJ. It would probably be a nice film to play at his wedding, or maybe his funeral.

Such is the dark side of EIFF’s populist mandate: pandering, amateurish junk. Fortunately, the schedule offers enough variety that these films are not the only options, but you must navigate with great care. The festival likes to suggest that it is for anyone who loves movies, which is a nice thought, but that also means it has to love the movies of the lowest common denominator.

But I’ll spare you any more of my complaints. Any festival has some sort of dross mixed in with the quality work, and if the festival isn’t in a position to be discriminating at least I am. Let us move on to the gala opener, Pontypool, Canadian director Bruce McDonald’s latest feature.


A few years ago, the festival featured The Five Obstructions, a film in which Lars von Trier challenges fellow director Jorgen Leth to remake a short film under several arbitrary constraints. The most obvious lesson of the film is that creativity is spurred by obstacles—in fact, the most difficult challenge in the film is to remake the short film without any constraints. I mention this because Pontypool is a film compelling chiefly because of the limitations it places upon itself.

The film is set in a radio station located in the basement of a small-town church. The cast features only a handful of people, although there are some anonymous extras and a few people who appear only through voice. Events unfold in a very short span of time. The film is beautifully lean in its construction.

The premise is equally simple. A disease of unknown origin breaks out, spurring people to acts of baffling violence and outbursts of indecipherable gibberish. We hear of riots, gruesome deaths, military intervention—the usual stuff for this sort of pseudo-zombie movie, in other words.

But all of this chaos occurs off-frame, told through phone calls, police reports, rumours, and hypotheses relayed through the radio station, which we never leave for the duration of the film. The three characters trapped in the station seem both at the centre of the action and curiously removed from it. The film superbly evokes the blindness that lies at the heart of any media frenzy, where we can feel connected to events while remaining completely ignorant of what is actually happening. At one point, Grant Mazzy, the radio station’s embittered DJ, says that he needs to go outside and see what is going on, despite having been conveying that information to his listeners for hours. It just doesn’t feel real, he explains.

That unreality is what makes the film so unnerving. If you see some horror-movie monstrosity, it frightens you at first, but there is also something almost comforting about its physicality. However realistic it might seem, you know that it is just a combination of fake blood, latex, and makeup. The horror is lessened as it becomes tangible. It is subject to the same laws as the rest of us, and thus reduced to our level.

In Pontypool, the horror mainly exists outside the frame and as a result retains its oppressive power. Although there are a few more traditional confrontations in the film that allow the horror to assert its physical presence, the characters are mostly helpless before the incomprehensible terrors outside their door. That said, I don’t wish to do a disservice to the film by making it seem like a grim death march; in fact, it is lively and witty, and by the end it has built itself up to such a pitch it seems almost giddy or elated, drunk on its own energy. When the screen goes black, it has all the impact of the world exploding.

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