Friday, November 29, 2013

Vancouver International Film Festival 2013: Part Six


Based upon the true tale of a nine-year-old girl in the Philippines who was impregnated by her own father, Termitaria balances a sensationalist premise with a dispassionate approach. Director Joseph Israel Laban has a background in journalism, and it shows in the film’s probing exploration of each character’s psychology, as well as the unfussy, patient style. Under his steady hand, what could easily have been a simple melodrama turns into something more unsettling. One can see how forgiving the father’s past transgressions put him into a position to abuse his daughter, yet forgiveness remains the only way to move past this tragedy. Both parents each cling to easy rationalizations to move past what has happened, but victimized Krista (Barbara Miguel) is devoid of any illusions. The anger written on the child’s face at the end—Miguel’s bruising performance is incredible—is all the more terrible for its lack of resolution. Awful as the crime itself may be, the real horror lies in contemplating life in its aftermath.

The Missing Picture 

Rithy Panh grapples with the challenges of depicting atrocity in The Missing Picture, a deeply affecting personal account of his childhood under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Given the short supply of footage from this period in Cambodian history, Panh is forced to re-create his memories with little clay figurines, who bear witness as stoic stand-ins for the legions silenced by the regime. Yet they cannot mask the countless absences that pervade this film; this is a history book with pages ripped from the spine, where what is missing speaks as eloquently as what remains. The director recounts a litany of losses, from his brother’s disappearance to his father’s slow death by starvation (he preferred death to the indignities promised by the Khmer). Panh himself survived while carrying out the dead at a hospital, and he still carries those people with him years later—no mound of dirt is ever high enough to cover a mass grave. Wracked with survivor’s guilt, he’s torn between his fear of reliving this painful past and his duty to create a record of people and events that have all but vanished from the historical record. Poetic and pained, the film is equal parts requiem, apology and act of defiance.


Beneath the art-house gloss, GriGris is pure B-grade noir, complete with two-bit hustlers, double-crossing crooks and even a gold-hearted hooker. Writer-director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun dredges up these familiar tropes to examine lower-class life and smuggling in Chad, but the film is at its most vibrant when it ventures onto the dance floor with GriGris (Souleymane Démé). Otherwise, everything progresses the way these things do, with betrayal and heartbreak and dumb mistakes by wannabe criminals and petty thugs. Even with the paint-by-numbers plot, the film feels sloppy: GriGris is driven to crime to pay for the medical expenses of his father-in-law, who goes from sitting around at his photography studio one moment to wheezing on his death-bed the next. Still, the film does take a curious and compelling turn once it leaves the city behind for a remote African village. It’s not uncommon for a film noir to climax with a journey from the sleaze of the city to the Edenic promise of the country, but the contrast between urban and rural remains particularly sharp in underdeveloped Africa. And the film ends in a way few classic noirs ever would—as a left-field paean to girl power, where the strength of women offers salvation, instead of doom, for the man.

Camille Claudel 1915 

Can a performance be too good for a film? Camille Claudel 1915 offers an instructive example. As the titular sculptress unjustly committed to an insane asylum, Juliette Binoche is fragile, defiant, bitter—and about 10 feet taller than anyone else in the film. The rest of the cast barely registers, save perhaps Jean-Luc Vincent as Paul Claudel, Camille’s pious brother. No wonder Bruno Dumont leans so heavily on the clash between rebellious sister and priggish brother. The alternative is sitting back and letting Binoche rage against the other inmates and attendants, all of whom watch her with the same awed expression as the audience. Still, there’s something fascinating in how Dumont attempts to pare his filmmaking down to its most simple and direct form. The film is not about religious hypocrisy or patriarchal repression, however tempting it may be to read it on those terms. At the same time, the narrative, such as it is, has been undercut by history. Camille’s fate is written before the film even begins, and the only real question is whether or not she will learn to love her cage. All that remains is grace, or possibly madness. In Dumont’s world, there is little difference between the two.

Fifi Howls From Happiness 

Fifi Howls From Happiness documents the final days of Bahman Mohassess, a radical gay Iranian artist playing out his dotage in a cluttered hotel apartment in Rome. As a subject, he’s witty and combative, punctuating each bon mot with his inimitable phlegmatic, shuddering cackle. Filmmaker Mitra Farahani has crafted a sensitive and keen character study: call it a portrait of the artist as a cantankerous old coot. Never happier than when he’s pissing people off, Mohassess unsurprisingly faced a great deal of censorship in his homeland for his outspoken views (his fondness for covering his work in giant penises may have also played a factor). Recalling a request to destroy one of his sculptures, he retorts, “I am not Medea and I do not eat my own children.” Yet that is precisely what he does, crowing about the many works he has destroyed for his own private reasons. This is a man who flaunts his contradictions: he seems indifferent to posterity, but he’s not above using the film to build up his own legend. His entire life—and death, for that matter—seems one monumental act of will, and that spirit of defiance represents his artistry better than any gallery show. His work remains vital precisely because of his willingness to destroy it. Only the living can die.

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