Festiville at TIFF: Part 2—Experiments, Loners, and Virtual Festivaling

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Longtime TIFF locals Jonathan and Lise go virtual at their beloved Toronto International Film Festival, taking in Aloners, Earwig, “I’m doing a thing” cinema and more.

Even as a seventeen year old budding film fan living in downtown Toronto, I wasn’t aware of The Festival of Festivals back in 1976, when Bill Marshall, Dusty Cohl, and Henk Van der Kolk decided it might be a good idea to start something for the people, rather than just press and industry. But as the ’80 dawned, a couple of my roommates began to volunteer. Their compensation was free screenings, and they could bring some friends (like me) along.  

I had never been to a film festival, and suddenly I was seeing the likes of Roger Donaldson’s evocative junkyard drama Smash Palace, The Coen Brothers’ comedically dark debut Blood Simple, Terrence Malick’s windswept Days of Heaven, and Nadia Tass’s hilariously bonkers debut, Malcolm. These were films like none I’d ever seen. TIFF had started to make a name for itself by this point, and you could feel that Toronto was abuzz with excitement and that the world was watching.

I met Lise back in ’99, ostensibly over our shared love of film. I remember our first TIFF screening together, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. It was screening at The Elgin, a resplendent historic stage theatre that I think I’d been in once before to see a performance of Cats. When the lights went down, it didn’t matter where I was; I was watching a tiny masterpiece from a virtually unknown auteur. This was The Festival of Festivals. This was TIFF.

As the years rolled on TIFF became more than the films for us. As any TIFFer will tell you, if you want decent seats, you really have to line up 60 to 90 minutes ahead. That gives you lots of time to get to know your neighbours in line. Inevitably conversations are struck, you gush about or pan what you’ve seen, and you make a fleeting friend with whom you exchange your love of films.

And then there was Letterboxd. Lise made a Letterboxd In Toronto TIFF list. Soon, there were conversations starting about what Letterboxders wanted to see. Then came the meet-ups, with members from Toronto, from outside Toronto, a friend from Vancouver, and then friends from New York, California, Texas, Norway, and UK. In 2016, at our annual meetup, a waitress came to our table and asked “are you the Letterboxd people?” and explained that some people in New Zealand wanted to buy us a round. Thanks for the beers, Letterboxd! 

We did always opine, though, that it would be great if we could do part of the festival at our basement home theatre. Well, be careful what you wish for. While in-person theatre screenings were available this year, Lise and I, and most of our TIFF and Letterboxd friends, are still not ready to return. The upside is the queues were non-existent, and we ended up seeing more TIFF films this year than ever in our last dozen years of attending. But the festival experience isn’t the same as in the Before Times. I hope the next TIFF will be in the Better Times!

And now, a round-up of Letterboxd reactions from our first batch of screenings.

The Girl and the Spider

Written and directed by Ramon Zürcher, Silvan Zürcher

You don't watch a Ramon Zürcher film, you move around and through it. You are a fly, or maybe a spider, on a wall and Zürcher's characters don’t play for you, they live in their own world, living their own lives. Ramon, and in this film his brother Silvan, bring a refreshing authenticity to storytelling… by not really telling a story. This type of “intriguing chamber drama” is always divisive, especially at festivals.

Letterboxer Ayeen Forootan gave it four stars, writing “Toing and froing in and out the frame-spaces, as if ‘floating peacefully through a dream’, The Girl and the Spider is, foremost, a choreography of glances, gestures, and bodies amid an orchestrated symphony of colors, objects, sounds, and noises.” But Paolo writes, “It’s very ‘I’m doing a thing’ cinema”. Frances, however, had other things on their mind: “Can we just pause a moment and appreciate how freakishly hot the Swiss are?”

Aloners

Written and directed by Hong Sung-eun

As an only child, much of what first time feature writer-director Hong Seong-eun had to say resonated with me. I always had good friends, but I also have always been entirely happy being alone. Aloners does not have any real detractors that I can see on Letterboxd. It seems aloneness, especially these days, is something completely relatable.

Jordan particularly related to it: “You ever see a movie that feels eerily made for you? Like every concept of the message was designed for you specifically to view? Hong Song-eun has created probably the most relatable film I’ve ever seen and touched me on such an emotional level that no film has ever done before.”

Huda’s Salon

Written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad

Proving the worth of film festivals in expanding cinematic horizons, B.M. writes of Huda’s Salon: “I've never seen a Palestinian film before so I think I was expecting less nudity and feminist humour. My bad!... I’m looking forward to watching it again.” If it didn't have an opening credit ‘based on a true story’, I would have thought the film was fiction. It’s thought-provoking, writes Corey, shedding “a necessary light on the sexual politics of violent resistance in an occupied society.” 

The cruelty on both sides of the conflict is devastating—and very balanced given Abu-Assad’s Palestinian roots; their freedom fighters were shown to be as ruthless as the Israeli secret service. In the end, it’s the common people caught in the middle, although Jeremy found it “rather stagy… The setup, involving a form of sexual extortion, is surprising, but past the novelty of this opening the film has little to offer beyond cynicism.” 

Earwig

Directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović. Written by Hadžihalilović and Geoff Cox from the novel by Brian Catling

Experimental film: it’s a love/hate relationship. I’ve always loved visual communication on another level. I’ve always hated indulgences like Big Electric Cat, which I first saw at SIGGRAPH Toronto back in the ’80s. I hated Earwig as soon as I saw it at TIFF. Given a few hours, I think these filmmakers are brave and their films deserve a watch. 

Don’t take it from me, though, when there are Letterboxd members for whom Hadžihalilović is catnip. Here’s Jakob: “​​I totally understand the low ratings on here, but this is a hundred percent my thing: a genre-agnostic, intuitive, and visually sumptuous experience that latches on without explaining why.” 

And Tomas has many thoughts on how to approach the film: “It cannot be denied that Earwig’s chiaroscuro-inflected imagery—very much a tribute to the heyday of retro arthouse horror (with winks to contemporary dabblers like Peter Strickland)—makes it easier to behold the many layers of narrative rupture that Hadžihalilović adds over time, though the limits of this are tested and retested at every corner… It is difficult, really, to find the best approach to Earwig: whether to submit to its Gothic corpuscles or to find strains of other engagement and/or resistance. Eventually, both seem one and the same in the end, for Earwig’s nightmare has its chosen destination, and we must find our foothold to get there in some fashion.”

The Forgiven

Directed by John Michael McDonagh. Written by McDonagh from the novel by Lawrence Osborne. 

Lise and I have always been outliers on big budget films. We thought that a Ralph Fiennes/Jessica Chastain picture would have some merits. No. I hoped all the way though that it was a satire. To be fair, other Letterboxd members also struggled to isolate the comedy.

“The ‘rich white people doing bad things’ narrative is becoming a genre in and of itself, but they can make for good entertainment (see Knives Out and Ready or Not for example),” writes Sara. “McDonagh’s film, however, is based on a novel of the same name by Lawrence Osborne which is described as a psychological thriller that’s ‘brooding’ and ‘compelling’... But, for the most part, it’s a hot cast of names and beautiful gowns, and not much else.”

Fiennes is singled out in many reviews for his efforts here. As Jason best sums it up, Fiennes “invests what could’ve been a one-note character with genuine complexity and depth. He has, over the years, proven himself quite adept at playing this particular kind of asshole—bitter, smart (but not as smart as he thinks he is), witty (ditto), boozy, and more than a little broken… 

“Fiennes makes the spiritual journey play and finds exactly the right, rueful note for what should be his closing scenes. Alas, McDonagh keeps going, dragging the conclusion unnecessarily to tie up loose ends.”

More from us in another instalment, soon. 

Jonathan and Lise

Pictured L—R: Huda’s Salon, Earwig, Aloners