A Morning with Brett Story - Hot Docs Filmmakers Series

What a way to end the Hot Docs Filmmakers Series with Brett Story. Linda Barnard, as majestic as always, led the discussion on our final week together. Director of LAND OF DESTINY and A PRISON IN 12 LANDSCAPES.

Brett Story. Where do I begin? Brett proves that hard work, determination, and willpower are enough to produce the awe-inspiring and lyrical documentaries that she has been able to create in such a short period of time.

"I started in public radio," she said, admitting that film school was always in the back of her mind but never became a reality. And what might surprise you is that she admitted that there was never a gender distinction at the radio. Everyone was encouraged to learn the technology and master each skill. She honed in on her recording, editing, and interviewing skills here.

She later pursued a PhD in Geography, which she said really contributed to her ability to research and fund her projects!

"My greatest asset (or at least I think so) is that I am a listener." Brett insists on letting the interview flow organically, making sure the subject is comfortable and the people around him or her are okay with her filming. 

What she learned early in the career is that cinema is a language that is more than just interview.

And Brett Story not only talks the talk, but walks it too! In a short clip from A PRISON IN 12 LANDSCAPES that was played during the session, this was beautiful evident. A man who was released from prison plays chess in Washington Park for money. The scene opens with a wide establishing shot of the older man playing a younger boy. The next shot is a medium close-up, focusing on the quick action on the chess board. Then a cut to what could have been a jarring shot of the subjects face up-close, talking about his life. Then two quick cuts of the subjects face and the boys face as they concentrate and continue to play the game.

Why is this so brilliant and lyrical? Shot choice, patience, and pacing. These three things that take people years to learn and master are evident in this young woman's early films (#BossLady). What this scene does is set the mood, concentrates on the action, and then asks WHY. So what? We see that the game of chess is a fast paced mental game - which is why the final shots rest on the faces and not the chess board itself. The extreme close-up would not work for many other filmmakers. It is quite jarring. But makes sense in this vignette. We get to see into the soul of this man and it feels so intimate that for a split second we are there in Washington Park. That is the so what - connecting with someone that has been labelled in society as a "criminal". We look past the label and see!

Linda Barnard said that "Brett Story is socially engaged, but visually driven."

Brett truly captures what I think people tend to forget: documentary is an art! There is a poetic non-linear aspect to her work that allows her to see the big ideas and focus on minute details. She isn't afraid to offer sequences that are associative. It just means that the audience is invited to make connections themselves.

And her role is to allow people to enter into a space at different angles. 

"That is the beauty for me. The afterlife of a documentary." - Brett Story.

She said,

"it isn't enough to have two ideas, you need a third. For something to become a piece of cinema it needs part three."

Brett Story sought out a female cinematographer for 12 LANDSCAPES because she needed someone who was patient, quiet, and a good listener. While many cinematographers who are male possess those qualities, she said she had a few bad experiences and had her authority as director challenged too much.

The take away, especially in documentary, is that you have to surround yourself with people who believe in what you are doing. 

A truly inspiring lady that made me want to get up and push and work even harder! Thank you Hot Docs, Linda Barnard, and Brett for a wonderful morning together!

- Jenn

A Morning with Rama Rau - Hot Docs Filmmaker Series

Hot Docs, you are spoiling me WAY too much. Patricia Rozema - Alethea Arnaquq-Baril - Christina Jennings - and now Rama Rau!

Rama directed THE REHTEAH PARSONS STORY, MARKET, and most recently LEAGUE OF EXOTIQUE DANCERS.

Hearing her talk was electrifying. She was honest, decisive, and human like the rest of us struggling filmmakers.

"You get as much as you put into a film" - she said.

I'd never thought of it that way, but it makes total sense. As a filmmaker you have to find a balance between keeping distance from your story and also being passionate about it.

My favourite thing Rama said is that their is "no manual." And THAT'S something they don't teach you in film school. Each story demands a different kind of treatment.

What's her secret? Rama admitted that they way she is able to get so close with her subjects and foster a trusting relationship is by giving half herself. This is the part where she mixes her passion and distance together. She said, "it isn't about money. It's just what I am genuinely interested in doing."

Then she laughed and said to all us filmmakers in the audience, "honestly if you can do something else, do it..."

How does she connect with a story? This part was my favourite. She said, "the story puts a hook in me and pulls me. I want to do this for the audience."

She really emphasizes this back and forth energy that is transferring between her and the subjects and then her and the audience. It was never about "me". It was always WE.

Part of making a successful film is making the themes universal. You have to first ask yourself, is there one specific thing in my story that I can make speak to people?

Finally, the honesty came out. She talked about being a women, being brown, and being a director. Her first look into the film industry was being on Bollywood sets in Mumbai. She said you really have to act like a man to be respected (unfortunately). Coming to Canada, though, afforded her the opportunity to tell the kind of stories she was longing for: those with female protagonists.

"You learn failure."

That is one lesson I will carry with me moving forward in my own career. Thank you again Hot Docs for bringing this inspiring bad ass woman to the theatre for a talk.

If I had known about Patricia, Alethea, Christina, or Rama growing up, I think I would have jumped at being a filmmaker much quicker. Four amazing role models, successful in their own way.

Looking forward to all of their amazing next projects!

- Jenn

A Morning with Patricia Rozema - Hot Docs Filmmakers Series

A friend of mine pointed me in the direction to a new and amazing filmmakers series at Hot Docs. She was most excited to see Patricia Rozema, and I instantly signed up - feeling her excitement and mine grow! The series is moderated by Linda Barnard, a journalist / writer who previously championed another series focusing on gender. 

Meeting and hearing Patricia Rozema was like eating a perfectly cooked Creme Brulee. Everything she said was liquid gold. She was eloquent, spicy, and just a bit fantastic.

Patricia shared her philosophies as a director and I was so inspired by her wisdom:

PATRICIA ROZEMA

"art defines the human condition. So far, we have only defined the male condition" 
"there has to be intent behind the images"
 "I want to make people feel less alone. That's what drives me"

In discussing I'VE HEARD THE MERMAIDS SINGING, Linda asked Patricia how she came to write about the main character as she was so real and relatable. Was this person real and drawn from her own experiences?

Patricia answered that "character is story. If you know them, you know what they will do." This is how she wrote about Polly. "I knew she was out of fashion, and took the street car and liked film." BUT Patricia didn't want the film to be too self-reflexive (a film about a filmmaker making film) - so Polly became a photographer, and had Walter-Mitty-esque experiences through developing the negatives of the each photo.

ON MUSIC

One of the most compelling aspects of a Rozema film is the music. The dynamism in INTO THE FOREST coupled with the growing anxiety and Eva's dance practice to a metronome creates a sensual and gripping experience for the audience.

"people underestimate how powerful music is"
"it is important to find the right level of vibration with your composer"
"music is the art at which all other arts aspire"

ON FICTION

Patricia shared insightful tips about story and arc. She said, "fiction is always examining morality." There is a tension and release - which she believes is the key principle of beauty. The tightness and expansiveness of breath. Finally, the choices the characters make are always moral

To find the heart of the story, you have to understand the push and pull in the universe. There is art even in the things that are not seen.

Patricia concluded with a wonderful thought, that the best images are the ones that are written. Coming from such a talented scriptwriter and director, I was truly inspired by this amazing Canadian filmmaker! Until the next series...

- Jenn

A Day with Ricardo Acosta

Two weekends ago I had the privilege to spend the day with a small group of editors and Ricardo Acosta.

Ricardo Acosta was born in Cuba and moved to Canada to pursue his passions for storytelling and art.

"I was born into an ideology and punished by an ideology" - Ricardo

He is one of the few who are born with the gift of storytelling. He shared detailed philosophies with us and screened his feature length documentary, Marmato.

BUY HERE.

"Every story at the beginning is a beautiful Pandora's Box" - Ricardo

The biggest lesson he said all editors need to understand is the power of an event. Looking at the macro details, and figuring out how to deal with that event in context. Further, then understanding how the events affect the bigger picture.

Marmato is a great example of a team that is both creatively and technically strong. Mark Grieco, the DOP, is passionate, patient, and dedicated to immersing himself in the culture of the people he is capturing in order to do justice to the story. Mark took time to understand the rituals of the people before he turned the camera on.

In one instance, Ricardo stated that Mark stood for 10 hours straight capturing a meeting with the miners and corporate company taking over the mountain. This made Ricardo's life as an editor much easier because the footage contained a certain richness.

EDITING

Editing is invisible. The audience does not understand how a movie is affecting them, but they feel something emotionally. The emotion conveyed from the edit moves them through the story. The technique behind creating this effect comes with patience. Ricardo recalled one time when his friend visited and took a look at the timeline: "This is neurotic, where are the shots?" Ricardo laughed and did a sweeping motion with his hand: "here!"

After consulting with the director on story, it is time to determine characters and imagery to support transitions. When you are creating character profiles in documentary editing, it is important to treat each person with respect. 

"I am not a judge, I am a facilitator" - Ricardo

This type of editing creates a full story, untampered with strong opinion and empowers the viewer to make choices about the situation. 

Editing is about finding poetry. Ricardo used a lot of imagery as transitions in Marmato to convey mood and prepare the viewer for the next chain of events. The figure of Jesus in the clouds stands in stark contrast to the vultures on a tin roof spraying out their wings. This, he calls, is the power of identifying metaphor. Assign images a role and keep this consistent throughout. Remember the goal is to keep the seems invisible.

Have fun with the footage, enhance it if it supports the story: "I'm not against anything if it feels right!" - Ricardo. The power of impressionistic montage to deliver emotion is one technique Ricardo uses.

"create embroidery in between scene" - Ricardo

Some story issues can only be embraced by text. Others, music. Sound mixing is the last ritual of editing. 

"Sound is what is happening outside the frame. That is its three dimensional quality. I have to feel how a story sounds." - Ricardo

The class finished with some final powerful words. Ricardo insisted that everything is drama, everything is life! You have to build something from the inside out. Never dilute the power of your tools!

A truly wonderful and gifted individual. Ricardo is a philosopher, a mover of emotions and words, a storyteller, and a editor to look to. Thank you CCE for allowing us to take this seminar.

- Jenn

An Hour with Jia Jhang-Ke | TIFF Festival 2015

One of my favourite directors coming out of undergrad was Jia Jhang-Ke. Having watched and written about The World (2000), I was fascinated by his ability to capture human emotion by isolating characters in digitally and architecturally distinct spaces. 

When I looked at the programming this year for the TIFF 2015, I was flabbergasted when I saw his name appear. I wooped for joy. Loudly.

Jia Jhang-Ke and Cameron Bailey at TIFF 2015, Glenn Gould Studio, CBC, Toronto.

Jia was mesmerizing. Cameron Bailey was present to stir the conversation forward. Jia was calm, collected, and intelligent. He started by talking about his time in film school. China was changing socially, and people where struggling to understand themselves in this unsure environment. What really caught his attention is that people were NOT making films that reflected this movement.

Inspired by Hou Hao Hien (Chungking Express) and Vittorio Di Sica (Bicycle Thieves), Jia set out to capture a sense of beauty in realism. He described The Bicycle Thieves as

"[a film whose] visual moments are moving. [Moments we find] in every day life. [They are] both real and poetic." - Jia Jhang-Ke

They then discussed one of the major themes that runs through most of his films: alienation. Jia says that "loneliness is a big part of human nature." The Chinese culture before the social movement was group based. The shift to the individual is a strange moment. The struggle of the individual to create one's own self. The search for the self is often a lonely process.

This theme is captured in a very auteuristic style, if you will, one that we can see building over time in Jia's canon of films. Using mostly long takes, a certain sense of romanticism, and adding in fantasy / sci-fi elements to the story. With the advance of technology, devices are introduced into the narrative as a way to break up the plot. There is something futuristic about his films, poignantly heightened in The World. Not only do devices play a role in the internal plot, but also with the external world of the director. The advance of digital technology, Jia mentioned, is that he is able to achieve the look he wants with new equipment. The long take becomes economically viable.

The World (2004)

The World (2004)

Both the cinematographer, Nelson Lik-wai Yu, and Jia share the same desire to find beauty in everyday life. Having made every film together since 1998 and carrying this aesthetic forward.

Jia ended the conversation by saying that he and others have "responsibility as film artists." His focus is portraying change in people over time.

This is one experience that shall stay with me throughout life. Having heard him speak and being a long standing fan of his work, Jia's eye and directing sensibility stand top notch for me.

- Jenn

Angry Indian Goddesses: A Film for the Ages

Looking through the schedule before TIFF 2015, is daunting, to say the least. I found this pattern though when I read the descriptions and potentially checked out the trailer. If I felt some sort of connection to the story - like an energy coming off the page asking me to go to this screening - then it made my comprehensive agenda and I endeavoured to see it.

The greatest energy I received is from Pan Nalim's Angry Indian Goddesses (2015). A tale about a group of modern women in India all faced with issues of femininity. From gay marriage, to divorce, to being respected in the work place, being a mother, and finding happiness in life, this movie is truly packed to the brim.

"this is not a film, it is a platform of truths for various women" - Su (Sandhya Mridul), TIFF 2015

Within the first ten minutes, the whole theatre was shouting "YEAA" at the screen, as the girls fought back against gender stigmas and stood up for themselves in their daily lives. Onto my analysis:

1. This film took me to many places. A city, a rural and beautiful country side, a home, and an exciting night life. What struck me so much about this film is how modern it was. It did away with stereotypes and actually addressed real issues that are facing women today in India - not 50 years ago. There is a lack of male presence in this film, making the women strong protagonists on screen. Therefore this film took me through a truly unique and female perspective.

2. How did this film make me feel? WOW. I think the easier question is what emotion did I NOT feel. This was a rollercoaster ride. I was shouting for them, then I was feeling anxious for them, I was with them in the club dancing, and then I was vengeful and frankly sobbing by the end. These women, only bonded by their individual friendship with Frieda (Sarah Jane Dias), navigate their way through one wild week together on the coast of Goa. It is their friend's mysterious bachelorette party, of which, non of the women have seen her "fiance." The film is riddled with a powerful undercurrent, and it is electric. When the story takes a dark turn - and I mean stomach clenching, white knuckle, breathless turn - how do these women rectify the situation? How does the community stand together against bureaucracy, and how do we as audience members resolve the horrible events on screen? 

3. How did this film educated me? Well I learned a lot about women on the other side of the world who face very similar issues that women here in Canada face. There is pressure to marry and pressure to have a family. I also learned that women in India face completely different issues: issue of rape and how frequently it happens (one every minute of the day), pressures on women to stay home and be a mother versus having a career of their own too, arranged marriage, what it means to be successful / a failure, and finally that India has not made it legal for homosexuals to marry. All these issues, complex matters, were addressed cinematically and truthfully in the film. The actors on stage after said that most of the acting was in fact improvised and real emotions all the women felt during each scene. Sometimes the director would give each women individual different instructions and put them all together in the scene and film the one take. That take showed real emotions as the women and their characters navigate through a complex and cruel world. The end, however, showed me something truly powerful and emotional: when the whole community stood up together, collectively as one, they were standing up for a cause greater than their village. It is something the world as a whole needs to do to protect its people and offer everyone equal opportunity.

4. Was the film fun? OF COURSE! It was not always focused on serious social issues. There were exciting friendship moments and heart warming moments as the characters began to change and accept themselves, their surroundings, their situations, and the need for change. When Su discovers her daughters loneliness and talent for drawing, when Frieda rescues Lakshmi and hires her back, when Jo inspires Mad to continue her work and creates a viral video of her singing. Indeed, Jo's character transcends the entire film, living on after her cruel death. Her beauty, charm, and wisdom becomes something of an ideology. Something worth fighting for. Something worth killing for. It is here that the film is so brilliant and delivers such an intense and engaging life TRUTH.

5. The transformative experience is prevalent throughout the narrative. And again I return to Jo's character as the catalyst: she convinces Lakshmi to end her bitter vengeance against the killer of her brother and to live life to the fullest everyday without hate; the group of traditional friends accept Frieda's love and marriage to Nargis, a socialist and protester; Jo films Mad singing one night and posts the video on youtube. This turns out to be the biggest break ever for Mad and propels her once meagre singing career into the spotlight and what we can only assume as success: Jo shows Nu a different side to her daughter, bringing mother and daughter closer together and tightening their familial bond: Jo talks to Pammy about fulfilling her entrepreneurial dreams as a business owner, against her husband's wishes and family desires. What Jo proves is that one moment of positive enforcement, one conversation that is meaningful is enough to enact change. And this change is strengthened through community. Coming together as one to fight for a just cause.

"I hope society grows up, and society will be equal in all possible ways" - Lakshmi (Rajshri Deshpande)

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE go see this film. You will not be left unfulfilled. It is truly a turn of the century film. A female centred cast, a cast riddled with improvisations and real emotions captured eloquently on camera, a film that discusses REAL social issues that need to be addressed now. There is no turning back after seeing Angry Indian Goddesses.

"it was just us laid bare" - Mad (Anushka Manchanda)

READ MORE HERE:

 

The Strand: TIFF review

FACEBOOK: Angry Indian Goddesses

OFFICIAL TIFF FESTIVAL: Angry Indian Goddesses

- Jenn

Beeba Boys, A Contemporary Toronto Gangster Film

Set and filmed in contemporary Toronto, Deepa Mehta's newest feature film Beeba Boys is a smash hit. It had its World Premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.

Some of her earlier films, Water, Earth, Fire, and Bollywood Hollywood, have placed her securely in Canada's canon of filmmakers. This feature however, is a bit different.

In an interview, Deepa was asked why she wanted to suddenly create a gangster themed film. Her reply: "I just want to create something that is bad ass."

Let's take a look at in greater detail:

1. Where does this film take us? Well it is actually a very familiar landscape. Toronto. Today. But there is something unique and cinematic about its approach. The contemporary film uses floating steadicam movements to tell the story. Its ideologies are presented using clashing images: vibrant suits of the gang members set against simple shaded backdrops, violent dialogue and beautiful scenery, city life (penthouse) and suburbia, gang loyalty and family love. 

2. How did the film make me feel? I was completed glued to my seat. I bought into the filmic world instantly and was taken on a whirlwind journey. Emotionally, there was some sympathy and admiration for the gang members, almost sadness when they died. Deepa's attention to detail, while drawing on a contemporary and clean aesthetic, was a pleasure to behold. 

3. How did this help me understand the world a little better? It was another window into a world very different from my own yet only next door and within reach. Deepa's subject matter always touches on her culture (Indian). Therefore, the film was a breath of fresh air because it features few male or female white leads. Further, it presents strong and intelligent men and women of colour. More films of this nature should be main stream to prove how diversity on screen can be equally successful at telling a compelling story. The main figures who are white were presented as empty caricatures. It's about time someone fought back against the prejudice on screen. Thank you Deepa for showcasing different perspectives and cultures.

4. Did it deliver fun and surprises? SURE. It was a gangster film. Maybe we all secretly wish we could evade the law like those characters on screen and live a high-risk life. Reckless behaviour, clubbing, romancing, brotherhood and sisterhood. Wealth, riches, and respect!

5. Was there a transformative experience? I think the film did a great job at delivering on the gangster genre. It set up a network of brotherhood. It contrasted this with several emotion scenes: several romances and family drama. Then, the main hero/villain has a moment of clarity and strays from his path of gangster-hood to do the right thing and dies for it. Therefore it met my fullest expectations.

A must see movie that is hitting theatres very shortly. And of course I got to see the whole cast at the Women in Film and Television gala night. Quite a handsome group!

- Jenn

The Toronto International Film Festival 2015

The city was alive last week with the International Toronto Film Festival.

King street was a buzzin' from University to John street. The Hyatt was full of industry delegates and filmmakers from all over the world.

Here I found a home amongst other cinephiles - dare I say cinefilles

From entertainment, to networking, dining out, and watching a selection of 300 hundred, it's no wonder why Cameron Bailey loves his job so much:

"I invite everybody to 300 birthday parties and show movies" - Cameron Bailey, Twitter.

As an industry member, I was fortunate enough to witness keynote speakers from across the creative spectrum: 

  1. Justin Benson (Director, Producer, & Filmmaker) and Aaron Moorhead (Writer, Producer, & Filmmaker), the creators of SPRING (2014)
  2. Stephen Frears, director of THE PROGRAM (2015)
  3. Jia Zhang-ke, director of Mountains May Depart (2015)
  4. Bianca Goodloe, legal concierge - state of financing and co-production
  5. Nicolas Chartier, producer of A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS (2015)
  6. Michael Moore, director of WHERE TO INVADE NEXT (2015)
  7. Barbara Twist (Art House Convergence), Mark Fishkin (California Film Institute), and John Vanco (IFC, NY)
  8. UPFRONT: Uncovering Unconscious Bias - Gender Issues
  9. David Garrett
  10. Phil Hunt (Producer), *thinks that MUFF is "brilliant"
  11. Asif Kapadia, director of AMY (2015)
  12. Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, directors of THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING (2015)

Stay tuned the next few weeks where I will be highlighting the major speakers and my most memorable moments.

The movies were spectacular. At least the select few I was able to see (12). ANGRY INDIAN GODDESS shook the ground and wrenched out my heart. A movie everyone needs to see. LEGEND, a gritty tale based on the true story of the gangster Kray twins, East Enders in 1960s London. One close to home, BEEBA BOYS by the brilliant Deepa Mehta, also had be rivetted to my seat!

An unforgettable time with the best people!

- Jenn


A Night with Noah Bingham, The Secret Trial 5

In my final week Bootcamp Producer course with the DOC Institute, Toronto, I had the privilege to hear the story of Noah Bingham's extraordinary journey.

Noah Bingham is the producer of The Secret Trial 5, a documentary that had its festival premiere at Hot Docs 2014 and a theatre premiere the following year.

A quick snippet of the synopsis from the website:

"Imagine spending years in prison without being charged with a crime or knowing exactly what you're accused of. A film about the human impact of the “War on Terror,” The Secret Trial 5 is a sobering examination of the Canadian government’s use of security certificates, a Kafkaesque tool that allows for indefinite detention without charges, based on evidence not revealed to the accused or their lawyers ... Through the experience of the detainees and their families, the film raises poignant questions about the balance between security and liberty."

The journey started in 2009. Noah's school friend Amar Wala, director & producer, had just finished creating a short film about one of the families described above. The film was called The Good Son

Both were so excited by the intense story and were interested in developing the idea into a feature length doc. The project began with a "lean production" and an "out-of-their-pocket funding" model.

Both wanted to pitch to a broadcaster to source traditional funding for their feature. They were rejected and never back. Not willing to give up, they sourced other methods to raise money. This propelled them to create a kickstarter / crowdfunding campaign. The first campaign, largely supported by friends and family, raised enough for them to continue production and pay for the website and promo video. Noah Bingham showed us the video on their first crowd funding campaign and I was immediately pulled into the story and awed by the creativity and way the story was told. 

Production continued. Two years later, Noah and Amar launched another crowdfunding campaign. After building a community of followers and interested activists, this campaign grew to be very successful and they were able to pitch their idea at Hot Docs with the Cuban Hat. While not winning the final votes, they won over the industry and created enthusiasm.

This led to contacts which led to money being invested into their film. They got an office space, editing suite and continue the film into post.

Still no broadcaster and no solid investor that would have otherwise made their lives a lot easier. However, Noah did remark how grateful he was to have been allowed to see the full process from start to finish due to budget constraints, because everyone was wearing multiple hats.  

Three years into production, Arts Council Toronto came in and offered funding. Noah and the team headed to DOC Ignite (2013) and reached their goal, receiving more funding and reaching new audiences.

With a film in post and needing monetary support, Noah approached Telefilm Micro Budget. They were able to apply because

  1. Amar had only been out of school for three years, and
  2. they planned on carrying out a hybrid distribution strategy:
  • both in theatres and digitally online.

With the film done, The Secret Trial 5 became a Hot Docs 2014 Festival Selection and sold out all three nights. They successfully completed a deal with Blue Ice Docs, a distributor. The film was a greater hit in the festival than it was in theatres at the Bloor Cinema. There are no monetary assets given to the filmmakers at the Bloor.

Noah wanted to create an even greater buz and expand their thriving online community further. They launched a third successful crowdfunding campaign. This gave Noah and Amar enough to travel around the country touring their movie.

You can check out their movie online here, for one small payment of $9.00.

This story proved to me that through hard work, commitment, and dedication, you really can bring your ideas to life with support and creativity. 

Congratulations Noah, Amar, and the rest of the team! This is one story I will never forget and look forward to diving head first into your film.

Click HERE to purchase the film online.

- Jenn

A Night with Nickolas De Pencier: DOC Masters' Series Class

One of the many organizations I have joined this year is the Documentary Organization of Canada. I came across this gem at Hot Docs Film Festival 2015.

DOC offers programming to emerging film professionals for a variety of roles.

Technicolour studio

This month's masters series class was on cinematography and lead by Nickolas De Pencier. He is known for his TIFF success, Watermark (2013). 

Nickolas graduated from school with a BA' in English Lit. and Art History. Growing up as a photographer who developed b / w photos from film, he carried this love over to working on set in a variety of roles. 

Laughing to himself, he says he never chose film as a career. Especially not documentary. He started working on feature film sets for drama and fiction. From PA'ing to grip, he tried out every role to get a good sense of the entire process.

"Start small and be excited about everything" - Nickolas.

On his spare time, he worked on dance films. His roommate at the time knew a group of dancers and Nickolas developed his cinematographic eye through fun experimentation.

After deciding that fiction film was not a long term career for him, he jumped ship to documentary filmmaking. Not only did he change subject matter, but he made the leap from film to digital.

My favourite part about De Pencier's talk was his philosophies, some of which I will share with you below:

"Rare link between subject and what you are reporting"
"Authentic subject = unobtrusive cameraman"
"Use what is there, the mechanics of production. The smaller the better"
"creatively owning camera is better"
"Ask yourself what can this camera do..."
"ethics of DOC filmmaking: good practice leading to stronger material"
"there is a difference between an authentic relationship in film and an expose film"

He then shared two of his personal mantras that I shall carry forward with me for life:

"never move until it improves on stillness"
"something human is more dear to me than all the world"

Nickolas ended his talk by addressing questions from the audience, one of which asked about the future of DOC filmmaking in terms of finding funding. He suggested that the current model of sponsorship may change in five years. Most DOC full length films attract a niche audience, meaning it is hard to make a solid living off of it. He has, though, and is living proof. Perhaps that generation is dying out slowly but it is good to see someone who is able to make it while still inhabiting the outskirts of the filmmaking industry. Further, as a filmmaking you might have to weigh in whether your sponsor has the same agenda as you or is looking to improve business through product placement and ads. This can affect the authenticity of your film and whether your film receives funding or not. It is always a delicate line to balance on.

Thank you DOC for such a great evening spent at Technicolour (Toronto) and the chance to play around with top gear sponsored by Vistek.

- Jenn

Horrifying, Thoughtful & Atmospheric - It Follows Review

There has been a spate of horror remakes in recent years, adding more realistic gore and pointless backstories to films like Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween. And there have been even more low-budget gore flicks pouring into VOD distributors. They leave my poor heart wanting more.

Thankfully, writer-director David Robert Mitchell has come to my rescue with an atmospheric and thoughtful horror film, It Follows. Director David Robert Mitchell pays homage to the horror greats. Maika Monroe, as Jay, tries to outrun and outwit her supernatural foe, alongside her Scoobies, Keir Gilchrist as Paul, Olivia Luccardi as Yara, Lili Sepe as Kelly, Jake Weary as Jeff, and Daniel Zovatto as Greg, the resident greasy hunk. Float away with me to a land of fear and beauty as I review It Follows (2014)!

  1. Where does this film take us? It Follows exists in a dreamy, nostalgic time-space. The colours are muted pastel, the score is reminiscent of 70s/80s horror music, there are black and white movies playing on an old TV, but there is also a futuristic e-reader and a lack of slang. It is not past, present, or future. It is timeless.
  2. How did this film make us feel? The film has many wide shots with long takes, the audience is constantly monitoring the image, looking for the being that haunts the characters. You are never at ease. There are very few cheap scares. By relying on sustained tension, moments of panic and violence are granted even more emotional force. I alternated between feeling tension, fear, and joy. When I left the theatre I was emotionally rattled, and continued to look around myself, through windows, past lights, as I had done while I watched the film. The cinematography was extremely effective.
  3. What issues does this film tackle? One of the more obvious themes that It Follows tackles is that of sexually transmitted disease. The deadly curse that haunts Jay is passed on after penetrative sex is completed for the man. No homosexual or non-penetrative sex is depicted, so this might be a specifically hetero affliction. The curse plagues the most recent person to have sex with the previously cursed person. I have heard it remarked by some that it can also be interpreted as PTSD from rape or sexual abuse. An unnamed, unseen thing haunting you, something incomprehensible to your loved ones, something that isolates you, that penetrates your every thought, and makes every space you inhabit unsafe. Others interpret it as the threat of adulthood, or mortality. The film’s young adults are hanging out at the end of summer, clinging to one another and their childhood pastimes of floating in pools and sleepovers. Parents are obscured or appear as violent apparitions, we are firmly in a world of youth and vulnerability. But, the threat of adulthood is forever looming, forever threatening to tear the kids apart, and all they can do is run and cling to one another. Adulthood slowly creeps up on everyone, no matter how fast you run, how far you drive, or how many people you sleep with.
  4. Was it fun? Oh man, this film was so fun. It is beautiful, well-paced, and is reminiscent of some of my favourite horror films including Cat People (1942), Halloween (1978), with a little bit of a Buffy (1997) or Scooby Doo (1969) mixed in for good measure. The nostalgia is not only in the production design and sound design, it’s in every element. I get the warm and fuzzies from the Cat People influenced pool confrontation as much as I get it from thinking about lazy summer days.
  5. Was it transformative? The film was not transformative, it did not change my worldview, but it does make me hopeful that a more thoughtful indie horror trend will emerge. Enough hack ‘em, slash ‘ems! Keep me guessing! Keep me fearful!

It Follows is a horror pleasure and I really recommend it. Pair it with The Shining (1980) to maintain that atmosphere and suspense.

- Andrea

The Importance of Memory - Woman in Gold

An elegant and highly emotional film graced theatres last week: Woman in Gold. Starring Helen Mirren (Miriam), Ryan Reynolds, and Daniel Gruhl, Simon Curtis takes us on a sweeping journey of a holocaust victim's life after WWII. It is based off of the true story of Maria Altman's quest to retrieve her aunt's portrait, Adele Bloch-Bauer, from Austria. The film champions justice, for once, and Maria is able to safely bring her family heirlooms back to America and in the hands of what has grown to be her home.

  1. Where did this film take me? The film appears to be a melodrama on the surface, plunging us full tilt into a family history shared by two very different people. Yet they share more and more in common as the film progresses. The film opens with two critical scenes. There is a vibrant flashback to the painter, Kimft, creating the portrait of Adele in Austria. with a funeral scene on a bright-blue-sky day in L.A.. We are immediately introduced to Maria Altman, a small business owner in her 80s and the sister to the deceased. Maria tells her friend that there is some unfinished family business she needs to attend to. The consoling friend puts Maria in contact with her grandson, Randol (lawyer). He is a not-so successful lawyer, a bit of a clutz, but an excellent and compassionate communicator. After Randol and Maria meet, we begin to see flashbacks of a past that Maria is trying to come to terms with. There is an elegant beauty in the flashback images. They are rich in both colour and culture. Maria's family in the past shares the same values as Randol's young family: determination, hard work, and sacrifice for the children. The melodrama expands outwards though, and America takes on a paternal role. America is the safe haven for refugees during WWII escaping their motherland. The motherland is represented as a complex and problematic sphere, atypical of the usual patriotic and comforting images of home, Woman in Gold challenges the notion of "home", "native" and "country" ideals. Images of the past seep into the present tense as Maria struggles to come to terms with her painful memories. Randol's own Jewish family history strongly increases his desire to win the case when he remembers the death of his grandparents at a concentration camp. 
  2. How did I feel? This film was a flurry of emotions. The rollercoaster ride was smooth, though, calling attention to some seriously awesome editing skills. The pacing was flawless and had me feeling all the right emotions at the right times. Important information was slowly revealed throughout the film, keeping my attention constantly focused on the events. Telling the story like a melodrama also had me passionately rooting for the main characters. I felt the frustrations, the challenges, and, for once, felt like cheering at the end of the film. There were never any tasteless moments. The unique perspective allowed me to engage with the protagonist, even if I do not share that same history. Maria was a wronged citizen of Austria. Neither her religion nor origin mattered in the narrative. She was positioned in such a way that shook up the Austrian government, who would have rather singled her out as a wronged Jewish woman than a wronged citizen of Austria.  Therefore, the fight for justice extended beyond Maria and beyond Randol. She had the gumption to fight a bureaucratic art restoration movement and take her motherland to court.
  3. What issues were addressed? I think there are several key issues that this movie highlights very eloquently. The first and foremost being the importance of memory. As Maria pointed out to Randol, "Young people are likely to forget. That is why I remember." Like Randol, we the audience (or the younger persons watching the film) are not from that generation that experienced WWII. Therefore, our journey and responsibility is to learn and remember and pass down the history to the next generation. Maria is ready to give up when she realizes how long the trial might take. She finds peace in letting the events slip away out of her control. Randol sweeps in with his young and excited blood to stir the pot and fight the good fight. A generation that was wronged comes together with a generation that has the capacity to pave a brighter future for the next generations. In this, our emotional journey is Randols. Another important issue is that of ownership, and the rights to owning property / things. The art restoration movement in Austria sought to return art that was misplaced / stolen during WWII to its rightful owners. Yet it went against this by championing the wants of the country over the rights of its people. The painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer is a symbol for Austria and an important memento for the gallery. By removing it, Maria is thus affecting the "whole" population. She justifies her cause wisely, stating that "while the world sees this as a beautiful painting made of gold sheets, she sees a picture of her aunt." Further to this, while she is able to refer to the portrait as Adele, Austria calls it The Woman in Gold; continuing the Nazi practice of attempting to erase the history of Jewish ancestry in Europe. The art restoration project becomes a pseudo-natzi-ism for Maria, denying her of her family's rights as Austrians, and the law-binding agreement of her Uncle's will. While I can argue that here is yet again another story about "America" coming to the rescue, there is nothing wrong with the sweet victory she receives at the end of her long awaited trial with the help of the American Justice system. 
  4. The biggest surprise for me was seeing Ryan Reynolds play a serious character. He was, of course, allowed his funny moments, but they heightened the film instead of making the drama cheesy. His awkward encounters with Maria and his blunders in the courtroom really added to his character. I felt emotionally on board with his plight. Helen Mirren was as delightful as always. Slightly snobbish but with the right amount of maternal affection. She was a great representation of a lost generation finding its voice again. The ending titles were also a favourite part. They disclosed the information about the real Maria Altman and how that opened up opportunities for other art cases like hers. 
  5. Is there a transformative experience? Yes. More so for Randol than Maria. Maria is able to find peace in her heart knowing that justice was served. She brought her ancestry and history back to the forefront of society by forcing the world to remember and admit the wrong. Randol, having not fully understood the importance of his past, is given the chance to avenge his grandparent's horrifying deaths by helping Maria succeed. He squeezes the lemons that life has given him (sort of speak) and drinks the rewording juice. 

Overall, I believe that this film is an extremely beautiful portrayal of intelligence out-weighing money and political power. The right things in this film are emphasized - memory, symbolism and art, ownership and rights, war justice, and self-identity - and justice is served. 

- Jenn

Violence for Everyone - Kingsman The Secret Service

This week, I am featuring Andrea Ziedenberg again. Clink here to read her earlier post. We both watched Kingsman separately and we're just dying to review it. Here are her thoughts:

Kingsman (2015) invigorated me. After watching it I immediately wanted to watch it again and create a tumblr devoted to the character Gazelle (Sofia Boutella).

Directed by Matthew Vaughn and starring Taron Egerton as ‘Eggsy’ Unwin, Colin Firth as Harry Hart, Sophie Cookson as Roxy, Michael Caine as Arthur, Samuel L Jackson as Valentine, and the star, for me, was professional break-dancer Sofia Boutella as the knife-legged Gazelle.

Vaughn takes us through the spy movie motions but punches it up with giddy gore and winking asides.

  1. Where does this film take us? It takes us into a fantasy England, where humans are capable of amazing feats, super villains and aristocrats control the fate of the world, and heads explode in colourful puffs.
  2. How did this film make us feel? This film made me feel positively giddy, because of its well-coordinated violence and its silly humour. The kinetic action sequences are long and well designed. The best example is a Church massacre scored to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird. Colin Firth’s Hart slaughters a pack of racist bigots in a chaotic ballet of impaling crosses and gun shots. The camera swirls around the church with action taking place in the foreground, in the background, and everywhere in between. It is truly exhilarating. I really can’t emphasize how amazing it was to see cartoonish gore in a spy film. Gazelle, Valentine’s henchman, has razor sharp legs and she cuts a man in two with them. In two! Her fight sequences were a thing of beauty. I appreciated the violence the most, but the humour was just as entertaining. The humour pokes fun at spy movie tropes or turns them on their head. For instance, the villainous Valentine cannot handle seeing blood or violence, and a princess offers not a kiss, but anal sex to the hero when he saves the world. Cheeky.
  3. What issues does this film tackle? Some have criticized the film for being too right wing, for its criticism of government interference and portraying environmentalists as insane. But I am easy to please and can forgive it these sins because of its excellent action sequences. The film also takes a stab at class issues. Eggsy, coming from a working class background, with the sneakers and accent to match, versus the old world aristocracy of the Kingsman, personified by Michael Caine and Colin Firth. In the end, the working class background gives you street smarts and heart, and aristocracy gives you nice suits and cool gadgets. A marriage between the two seems to work out best. Hence, Eggsy becomes a suited up suave gentleman, but one who can think on his feet. Power still rests in the hands of the elite, but at least they have somewhat diversified their ranks. Another issue in the film is masculinity. I love that Eggsy is a more sensitive chap than your average super spy (he saves a puppy!) and he strikes up a mutually beneficial friendship with spy Roxy. My biggest bone to pick with the film was the fact that they did not give Roxy a Kingsman suit, especially since she wins the spot over Eggsy, and that they did not allow her to take part in the final violent showdown between Eggsy, Gazelle, and Valentine. My second biggest issue was the first scene where the Kingsman are supposed to kill a Muslim. It smacks off the white man’s burden and is just plain old fashioned racism to have these white knights saving the world from brown and black adversaries. In IMDB, he is listed as the first character and referred to as "terrorist." Come on Great Britain...
  4. Was it fun? Hells yes! This movie is fun from start to finish. Fun is the whole point of the film, it’s a rollercoaster ride for entertainment only.
  5. Was it transformative? Hells no. This film is just a popcorn flick. Maybe it was transformative in that it made me want to learn how to do breakdancing stunts like Gazelle! Or it could be argued that it was transformative to the spy genre, in that it gave us a gorier and more tongue in cheek iteration of the same old tropes. Maybe the next James Bond will be more a of romp and less of a slog?

Overall, the film was a hoot and I highly recommend it when you want some fun escapist fare. Perhaps pair it with a Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)! You won’t be disappointed!

- Andrea

Cinderella: Characters or Caricatures

I was enchanted last night at Cineplex with the new 2015 Cinderella. Let's not for a moment take this film too seriously. But Disney had a few tricks up its sleeve that I think are important to take down.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Lily James (plays Cinderella, known for role in Downton Abbey), Richard Madden (plays the prince, known as Rob Stark on GoT), Cate Blanchett (plays the stepmother), and Helena-Bonam Carter (plays fairy godmother).

Disney takes us on a journey through Cinderella and her mice companions with a few modern twists.

1. Where does this film take us? To a mystical enchanted world where mice understand little girls, Princes fall in love with chambermaids, and fairy godmothers turn lizards into chauffeurs. A world with depth and reasoning. We finally get to hear the side of the evil step mother and the side of the Prince. The aesthetic is enchanting, almost Tim Burton meets British romance. Perhaps too over the top for Jane Austen, but perfectly acceptable for this film.

2. How did this film make us feel? First, I left feeling happy. I literally hummed and waltzed out of the theatre. But then I realized something else as I was discussing it with a friend. Now, I'd like to talk about two key emotions: neutrality and frustration. There are three important mourning scenes for the three deaths in the film. A Disney film actually shows three characters dying. BUT, this film being of course and instrument of instruction as well as entertainment, teaches young children to have courage through the bad times and enjoy the good times as they come. Cinderella has her dad as comfort during her mother's early death and the mice for comfort while she mourns for her father alone. This is an important and strange emotion for young children and it is important to show strength and courage. Both the men and women in the movie are encouraged to cry and say "I love you." Therefore, Disney does away with its usual hyper-masculine figures like the Prince and introduces a more realistic and personable character. The Prince is even named Kit, not just "prince." While I felt a strong pull to comfort both Ella and Kit, I also knew they would overcome the death and move forward in life, carrying their important familiar education forward: have courage and be kind. My only slight let down is the way Cinderella confronts her Stepmother. I was hoping for more confrontation, not just a pardon at the end. It is as bad to over react in these situations as it is to under react, to say nothing and let the abuse continue. Not everyone can hold out and wait for prince charming to come cantering through the forest one day. Something to work on Disney?

3. There are two characters that were expanded upon which lead me to understand their worlds a lot better: Kit (Prince) and the Stepmother. Kit is a young apprentice with humour and a propensity to be a good ruling monarch. He is loyal to his father but stubborn in his ideals. He doesn't let class or position in life rule his feelings. All are equal, regardless of birth. This we can see in the final marriage proposal scene when Ella says, "If the shoe fits will you take me as I am? As a young country girl?" To which the Prince replies, "Will you take me as I am? An apprentice Monarch named Kit?" When Kit's father is dying in bed, Disney does not instruct the Prince to be strong and to save his tears. He let's them go freely, and lies on his dads chest like a child. I did not see this as emasculating or even childish. It was simply a display of strong love and emotions. This is important for Disney to break away from its usual male portrayals. And what did we learn about the stepmother? Well, she was once a young innocent beauty and in love. She was unlucky in the marriage with the birth of her half-wit daughters and the death of her husband. Her debt was insurmountable and she needed to re-marry again to save her family. In some ways, she has much courage. She risked her happiness to marry another man to keep the family afloat. Cinderella's presence was an all too shocking reminder of her earlier life and her inability to return to happiness. While we may still dislike her, we understand her actions and therefore understand Cinderella's easy pardon at the end. We are left to question, if this was Cinderella and her mother, would the mother not have done the same for Cinderella? Fought for her to win the heart of the prince to give CInderella a better life?

4. This film is full of fun and fewer surprises. The humour is a nice break from the cheesy romance tale and keeps us grounded in this mystical land. Helena-Bonam Carter plays an imperfect fairy godmother who seems to be a bit out of practice but lucks out anyways. This scene was entirely a wonderful surprise. The costuming and set design for the golden coach and lizard and duck drivers was very humorous. The one serious moment that actually was another delightful surprise was when Cinderella and the Prince meet for the first time in the woods. This was a greatly added piece of narrative that shapes the rest of the story. The Prince playfully declares she has interrupted his hunt, and she declares back, "What has that stag ever done to you." The Prince asks, "Are you friends with the stag?" She replies, "No, just an acquaintance. We met momentarily before. He looked me in my eyes and I saw him." The Prince ponders this with a smile, "It is the royal hunt, we always hunt a stag." Cinderella closes the conversation with a helpful tidbit of advice that pushes the Prince's narrative forward, "Just because you have always done so, does not mean you should be doing it at all." In this way, it is as if the once very limited caricatures in Disney have finally broken free and become full bodied characters. Disney is attempting to remodel its mode of communications to younger audiences by providing role models with depth and feeling and who embody non-gendered emotions.

5. A transformative experience? Don't make me giggle. Of course Cinderella transforms herself visually to attend the ball. But she does not change WHO she is inside. Her clothing and hair are mere accessory. We see this theme applied to the two step sisters, who look rather dashing, but remain immature little girls without any thought or wit. Therefore it is not the appearance of success that marks a person, but their actions and words. This is an important lesson for younger audiences growing up in a world riddled with consumerist fantasies. Unfortunately Cinderella still reaffirms that marriage is the only way OUT for Ella, which we know today is not the case. But we can take that with a grain of salt (okay maybe 100 grains of salt). In some ways we can think of this story at its baseline to be very modern: A country wench without name or fortune is destined to do housework her whole life. She is the embodied stay-at-home mother or even the butler. The Prince allows her to escape her toils. We cannot assume Ella forgets herself and becomes lazy being with the Prince. Her good habits and kind character transcend wealth and class. Her good behaviour landed her a prize, an escape from a life is horrible and meaningless to one with meaning and love. I feel like this plotline is riddled with cyclical issues that are trying to justify themselves through Cinderella's good character. BUT in many ways, Disney is trying to break free of its usual notions and to that I give it much credit.

Never mind what they call her, she asks us to love her for who she is. To be the best version of ourselves at all times. This is a great message for a rather cheesy romantic film. Bibbidy bobbidy BOO!

- Jenn

X Company - Canadian TV and Historical Dramas

I have been just bursting to write this blog since last Monday. I was invited to the premiere screening of X Company at TIFF. It was hosted by the Writers Guild of Canada and they asked us to hold off any media release until the show had featured on CBC February 18th, 2015 at 9:00pm (Toronto time).

Well now I can tell you about the two amazing people who are the brains behind this Canadian operation: Stephanie Morgenstern and Mark Ellis. Both were the creators of Flashpoint, the hit FBI series that ran for four successful seasons. Stephanie and Mark have figured out a way and continue to create top Canadian content without losing the quality of their vision due to budget restraints: a co-production with the US.

Stephanie told us at the premiere that it wasn't as if they presented an idea at its earliest formation - undeveloped and in need of a lot of work. They walked into CBS network with a finished script and Canadian support and said look at what we have, you should be a part of it!

X Company is a historical drama based loosely off of Camp X during WWII. Camp X is North America's first secret services base and is located in Whitby / Oshawa (my ole' stomping ground). Figures such as Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, and Hamish Pelham Burn entered through these training grounds. Even women served as lethal spies! Most perished at the hands of the Gestapo, but not before they did some serious damage to the Nazi moral.

I say based loosely because Mark Ellis made it quite clear that no real historical people are going to show up in the show. Only events as they happened historically are going to be retold through a group of 5 fictional characters: Aurora (Quebecois and fluent in German), Alfred (someone with perfect memory due to an intense case of synesthesia), Neil (whole family died in the Blitz in England), Harry (Engineer student who likes explosives), and Tom (Ad man, good at propaganda and deception). All with unique gifts and none formerly a part of any army / secret service. 

I think my favourite comment that Stephanie and Mark made that evening was that they were proud to be Canadian. Canada is not a "stepping stone to L.A. There is a pool of world class talent that exists at [our] fingertips" - said a passionate Stephanie. This made me so proud to be Canadian at that moment and witness a new CBC show that is sure to be a success.

The pilot is packed with action, adventure, heart pumping thriller moments, romance, and a unique look at different personalities who have to work together. There are twists at every corner and at times when we want to hate the antagonists (Nazis - DUH) Mark and Stephanie humanize them with little comments here and there, "I wanted to go to Med-school but I had to serve in the army first." 

Mark and Stephanie closed the evening off with some inspiring words. They said write what interests you. Don't follow market fads because by the time your show comes to fruition, that trend has long since passed. Their idea was an ongoing interest for ten years before it became a reality. This really put my own goals and aspirations into perspective.

To Mark and Stephanie and all the production / post production / distribution / broadcasters involved in X Company, I am "happy to learn to know you" over the next few months.

- Jenn

NEXT WEEK'S BLOG: Other Canadian Co-Productions

"... The hit Canada show, Vikings, is also a co-production: Canada - Take 5 Productions - and Ireland ... This also happened a few years back with another CBC show, Titanic: Blood and Steel. Take 5 Productions and Temple Street are leading the production world in Canadian ..."

Selma in Review before the Oscars

I am really excited to share this blog with everyone. I was fortunate to have guest blogger, Alessia Iani (Ba, and MA graduate), contribute this week right before the oscars. She watched Selma in theatres and has written a very in depth analysis below. It sent chills up my spine. 

Selma is an historical drama that recounts the events that occurred in the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, in particular those events surrounding Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign to secure voting rights for Black Americans, and the march from Selma to Montgomery (both cities in the state of Alabama) in March of 1965.

Directed by Ava DuVernay and co-written by DuVernay and Paul Webb, Selma, which was released in theatres in December of 2014, is currently nominated for two 2015 Oscars: best picture and best original song (for "Glory" written by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn, performed by John Legend and Common).

  1. Where does the film take the viewer? The acting in Selma is absolutely on-point; the all-star cast, featuring David Oyelowo [Lee Daniel's The Butler (2013), and A Most Violent Year (2015)], Carmen Ejogo [The Purge: Anarchy (2014), and Zero Hour (2015)], Tom Wilkinson (The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)], Lorraine Toussaint [Orange is the New Black (TV, 2014)], Giovanni Ribisi, Oprah Winfrey, and Common, to name a few, share great chemistry, effectively transporting us into the tumultuous times their characters inhabited. Because the acting is so very flawless, as a viewer, I felt unable to look away, unable to not connect with this film. We are taken right into the tense atmosphere of the mid 1960s: we glimpse political tensions between President Lyndon B. Johnson (Wilkinson), Martin Luther King Jr. (Oyelowo), and the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace (Roth), the individual obstacles faced by black Americans like Annie Lee Cooper (Winfrey), the involvement in the civil rights movement of organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the work of key individuals like Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), Diane Nash (Thompson), and James Orange (Dorsey), and the ongoing racial tensions / prejudice / violence between white and black Americans. The set design and costuming are the ribbons that tie together this historical drama, and despite some reviewers' criticism regarding the historical accuracy of certain character depictions, the characters / environments / circumstances shown work together cohesively to weave a story that pulls you deep into its beautiful and perturbing heart.
  2. What feelings does the film conjure? When I ventured out on a blustery Saturday evening to watch Selma, I did not expect to go home feeling simultaneously angered and hopeful. I was definitely not ready to find myself involuntarily weeping throughout the film. I did not notice I have been crying until the film ended. I was not alone: two young women seated next to me were trying very hard to contain their sobs, to no avail, and a group of middle aged men sitting at the front fumbled around for tissues only 20 minutes into the film. For all intents and purposes, this film was an emotional rollercoaster. I wavered between being uplifted and angered. I experienced feelings of intense frustration when faced with all the actions of racist white Americans. I felt joy and sorrow. The most powerful and unexpected response to the film was a feeling of familiarity. I felt this sense of familiarity during each of the riot scenes, in particular the first scene wherein police prevent peaceful protesters (sans King) from crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge out of Selma, onward to Montgomery, showering them with tear gas and brutally beating them down. This familiarity I can clearly trace to the countless times in the last six months when I have viewed media images in print / online of Ferguson riots, and peaceful protests across America in solidarity with Mike Brown and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
  3. Issues discussed? From the outset of the film we are shown the complex manifestation of various kinds of violence: systemic, physical, etc. We see prejudice and restrictions imposed on Black Americans. The first violent act we witness comes directly after the opening scene, which takes place in 1964, and shows King receiving his nobel peace prize: four black American girls walking down the stairs of a church are killed in a sudden explosion. Oyelowo's portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. is as careful and nuanced as the depictions of violence and prejudice: Most importantly, King is human - this is not a caricature. We do not only glimpse the vigour and passion with which King fought for the civil rights of black Americans, but the powerful emotional and psychological struggles he went through to bring his dream to fruition. He was deeply aware of the hurt he sometimes caused to those around him. The issues of race, human rights, and what constitutes political and social progress are approached carefully, though the film does play on our emotions to sway us to believe in the central characters - both the antagonists' and protagonists' values. It is a film that asks us to witness the past, and in doing so, consider what we are witnessing in our present moment. How far have we come from 1960? How much work is left to do?
  4. Are there surprises? Having studied the civil rights movement, we know what to expect: violence, reconciliation, and disappointment. However, the film gives us these situations and evokes emotion at unexpected times. This is done through careful cinematic direction: close-ups on faces and hands, on bodies rising and falling. The film captured moments of domestic joy and sorrow, a mix of anguish and terror during the riots, pure hatred in the faces of white folks, King's emotional struggle, Coretta King's difficulties in continuing to support a cause that greatly affected the man she loves, and fiery looks between President and King, activists Hosea Williams and John Lewis. When we revel in feelings a film conjures during its fleeting moments, it forces us to think again about a particular interaction or relationship or setting. That is the best surprise: one that requires attentiveness and careful interpretation.
  5. Transformative experience? For me, the centrepiece of the film, by which I mean not only the climax and turning point, but the most powerful moment, is the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, and King's speech at Jackson's funeral. "Who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson?" proclaims King in a resolute and heartbroken tone. His answer is grim: we are all responsible. Brutally beaten by police, Jackson's death pushes the activists to complete the march to Montgomery. This transformation for the characters left alive is necessary for the action to continue. But how do we react? With anger and sadness, to be sure, I personally found myself unable to shake feelings of familiarity. And this is the heart of the film: Mike Brown, shot and killed in Ferguson by Officer Darren Wilson on August 9th, 2014 IS Jimmie Jackson. HOW many black women and black men have been our Jimmie Lee Jacksons? Too many. If this film transforms us, it is because it brings us further into awareness of our current moment. A time when the vestiges of racial inequality and prejudiced ideologies and the attendant violence that comes along with these is being exposed and criticized. What we choose to do with this realization is up to us.

- Alessia

Widescreen Thriller: A Most Violent Year

Let us continue the tradition of using Ted Hope's five criteria when it comes to cinema: what five things do we want from cinema? This past week, I had the privilege to watch A Most Violent Year (2015), starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, and many others. Written and Directed by J. C. Chandor.

  1. Where did this film take me? To 1980s New York New York. This year is actually recorded to be the most violent year the state has yet to see. From the rich suburbs of the wealthy, to the dockside industrial slums of those battling the American dream. We are delivered the film through the CEO's vision. He is an immigrant chasing after the prolific American dream. His wife, from a rough NY neighbourhood with a notorious father, equally an outcast. Together, though, they are a powerful couple. Perhaps I can expand on this point and explain HOW J.C. Chandor took me back to this historical moment. Let us first talk about the first five minutes of the film as the credits are rolling. Perhaps one of the most interesting film introductions I have seen in a while. Delivered in a widescreen format, the footage feels stretched and condensed at the same time. However, you never miss a moment. The film begins with what we can assume is the protagonist. We see him running through a quiet suburban neighbourhood. The music is not inviting but it is also not unpleasant. It says, "WAIT, don't get caught up by the beautiful imagery. All is NOT well." The steadycam replicates the point-of-view of the runner, immediately pointing us to see what he sees, therefore indicating that the main perspective will be filtered through Abel. It is Abel Morales' (Oscar Isaac) story. The next character is introduced in a two shot sequence, first a medium wide shot and then a medium close up. This camera work tells us, "OKAY, don't forget this secondary character. He is indeed important." Back to the runner, he is now in an industrial landscape, headed towards a dockside. An oil barge offloads its product into a truck. Cut back to the runner. We understand he is somehow related to this action. His attire - sweatpants and a hoodie - do not disclose his position in the oil company just yet. He is still running. We as the audience ask if he is training for a marathon? Why run so long? Only after do we realize he is training himself to keep up with whatever is thrown across his path. All these actions takes place within the first five to ten minutes. We learn so much about the film because of the camera work and how it compliments the action. We get a sense of who is important and what the story is going to be about. It is brilliant.
  2. How did I feel during the film and after the film? There is an immediate quietness about the film that I am unable to explain. It was an uncomfortable quiet. The kind that has you waiting tensely for something to happen. The film never felt slow though, mostly because we understand the time frame of the story: thirty days. Thirty days to close the agreement on the land he purchased. Forty percent upfront and the remainder at the end of the thirty days. Each day is thus accounted for and keeps us and the characters on the same level. Therefore the stillness and unsureness are a combination of things. This film, in many ways, replicates that feeling in Steven Spielberg's Duel (TV special). Throughout the entire car and truck chase, viewers have the need and desire to see who the truck driver is. Not because we particularly care for him, but because we are purposely prevented from seeing him by the camera / director - thus creating desire. The death of the truck driver heightens the disavowal and leaves a burning disappointment - desire unfulfilled. Similarly, Abel spends thirty intense days trying to find out who is robbing his trucks and who tried to enter his house with a gun. He eventually chases one thief down. Abel asks him twice, "WHO ARE YOU WORKING FOR?" This is a major thrilling moment and we the audience are sitting at the edge of our seats waiting to hear a name spoken. Then the disavowal takes place. The man replies, "I don't work for anyone." Abel is no closer to the truth and we feel his disappointment most profoundly. The evil lurking in the background is undetectable. It only exists through the radio broadcast system as an effect. The cause - le raison d'etre - lies out in the filmic world in a secret untouchable form. We are unsure what the purposes are, although we can surmise that it is most likely financially driven. The ending received a lot of negative attention apparently after the first few screenings. The composer was worried that people would disapprove of Abel's actions and write him off as a cold money hungry CEO. Yet, I felt the complete opposite. I felt proud to have been on his side. I will expand further down. 
  3. What issues were discussed and how? Issues of immigration, generation, family, and business blended together and rose up in contrast to the american dream. In this dystopia the action unfolds and the characters have to carve their name in stone with their fingernails. There are four stories playing simultaneously: Abel's quest for dominance in the oil industry, Anna's fierce and loyal passion to see her husband succeed by any means necessary, Julian's hungry desire to one day be Abel, and Lawrence's tired and never ending bureaucratic desk job. Abel has to secure his deal with a Jewish family that owns a prime piece of property on the waterfront. Old money sells their family owned site to new money - to a self made man. Two generations of immigrants are immediately introduced.  The third generation comes in the form of Abel's antagonist: Julian. While Abel adopts American culture, Julian fights in limbo - Abel asks him several times to speak in English. Julian is in many ways a younger version of Abel. The difference lies in the paths each choose. Abel's philosophy about taking the path that is MOST right stands in stark contrast to that of Julian's fearful, cowardly approach. Guns are seen as cowards' weapons. Abel refuses to let his workers arm themselves for fear it will intensify the problem even further. Julian's fear backfires when he is unable to own up to his actions. His American dream is unsustainable. We can even draw quick similarities with the characters in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing (1989). Abel is like Mookie. Julian is like Pino. Sometimes the path that is most right seems at first morally tainted. Yet Mookie saved Sal's life by distracting the angry crowd with destroying his pizza joint instead. Abel is unable to save Julian, but promises to care for his family. His success, and we are never given any reason to doubt the sincerity of Abel's character, is attributed to his choice of taking "the path that is most right."
  4. Surprises? DUH. Jessica Chastain's character, Anna. She is a very complicated character. How many complicated female characters have we seen recently at the box office? She is the gangster her husband refuses to be. She is the hard shell that is able to kill the deer her husband cannot. She steals from him and then returns the money in order to save the family. She is the book keeper. Yet, she is never given credit for her work. It is clear Abel loves his wife and family. It is clear he has strict moral beliefs and follows them as much as possible. Yet, when does he ever truly acknowledge his wife's help? He forgives her time and time again for her erratic behaviour. He coaches her to take the right course and to dispel her gangster tendencies. She works for him and takes care of the family. We see a nanny only once acting as a babysitter, indicating her true devotion to her children. She attends all the social functions with her husband as a strong supporter. She risks threatening a cop who has interrupted her 10-year old birthday party, "my husband is not who you think he is. He is an honest man. If you disrespect him, he will make it his mission to ruin your life. And this was very disrespectful." She is the chilling - fiery ego Abel refuses to be. They compliment each other perfectly. She says what he is thinking and she does what he wishes he could do. Together they are an unstoppable force.
  5. The transformative experience: who is transformed in the end? As an audience member, I believe I felt the most affected by the experiences on screen. I felt the elation of Abel's victory, the fiery passion behind Anna's success in managing her husband's affairs, and the silence of Julian's death and world. During the post production phase, the composer was worried that people would walk away thinking that Abel is a cold hearted money hungry CEO. He cared little for Julian's death, saving the hole in his oil barrel first. The song at the end is supposed to guide the audience emotionally to steer clear from these complicated feelings. I did not think of Abel as anything other than an honest and hard working man. Abel's ability to pay off the remainder of the property value is in large due to how his company behaves for thirty days and how they conduct themselves during all the robberies and violence. The stress of losing everything he had worked hard for was apparent every day. How can you argue with that level of simplicity? Yet, as a CEO with many employees, he makes time to visit Julian in hospital and pay for his expenses. He makes time to visit the new trainees. He takes time to make sure anyone who got hurt on his clock was taken care of. The most shocking scene is when his youngest daughter discovers the gun and cocks it playfully. Anna has to slowly approach and take it out of her hand. Abel takes in the seriousness of the situation: it is one thing to hurt his employees and another to threaten his family. He faces his competitors fiercely but fairly, he asks for what is his and no more, "you owe me $213,000." Abel presupposes Mookie's charisma and courage, and always does the right thing.

In conclusion, A Most Violent Year was an awe inspiring experience. Coupled with an amazing cast, a superb sound score, and the widescreen aspect ratio, I highly recommend viewing this artwork in cinema before it passes away.

- Jenn

What do WE want from cinema: Inherent Vice

I had a really unique movie going experience last week. At 9:20pm on a Tuesday night, I trekked alone to Cineplex Odeon Varsity Theatres at 55 Bloor Street, Toronto, for a VIP screening of Inherent Vice (2015). Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, adapted by Thomas Pynchon's novel, this is by far one of the most interesting films I have got to see this year.

Before I go into my analysis, though, I came across this intriguing and perfectly applicable article from the website Hope in Film: The Five Crucial Things We Want From Movies. Written by Ted Hope, this article suggests the following list.

  1. Take me somewhere I have never been
  2. Make me feel
  3. Help me understand this issue / world a little better
  4. Deliver fun and surprises
  5. A transformative experience

With this as our backbone, let us now take a look at Inherent Vice through these five filters / criteria.

  1. Inherent Vice takes place in south California during the transition between the 60s and 70s. On the outset, this town seems to have three kinds of people: hippies, gangsters, and law-enforcers. However, by mid movie, the types have become so muddled that by the end each character is neither him nor herself and are a mish-mash of everyone. A bit like The Beatles song I am the Walrus "I am he as you are he and you are me and we are all together." Yet no one in the film is together. Relationships are never whole, and people are as much present off screen as they are on screen, making the loose episodic plot structure more hippie-ish, if you will. 
  2. WOW. How did I feel? Where do I begin? First, let's talk about the voiceover narration. Can we even call it ironic? It is a bit Godardian in the best way, calling attention to the story's realities as unrealities. The pumping action of private investigator Doc Sportello is highly undercut by the mellow female voice, taking your heartbeat down four notches into a normal rhythmic speed. She calls attention to the fading past, the psychedelic 60s slowly evaporating. All that California was is embodied in Doc. And he is hated every moment for it. He is the dinosaur of the south. A T-rex hunting for the truth of the golden fang. What feelings can we say the film conveys? There is this uncomfortable sense of unknowingness - a paranoia that slowly seeps into your bones and makes you fidget in your seat. There is repetition, creating a cyclical feeling that adds to the claustrophobic environment. If you were asked to loosely sketch Doc's world, could you do it? Do we know where all the puzzle pieces fit? I felt hazie leaving the theatre, as if a smokey cloud had settled around me head. A sudden second-high. There was also humour - in an unchecked and unbalanced way. We laughed without restraint but not because we were set up to laugh or forced to. It felt more real somehow.
  3. I had not read Thomas Pynchon's novel before watching the film in theatre, and believe this might have filled in any loose gaps my brain is still trying to solve. I do not know much about the early 70s to justify the films explanation. Yet, taking it for what it is and disregarding (momentarily) its time in history, what did I take away? What statement is the film making - and even if it is NOT making a statement, that is in itself a statement - and how is it resolved? I think Doc justifies his good character at the end. He is able to reunite a family together and saves a father (Owen Wilson) from being further involved in a network of cocaine dealers. Sure the family is unromantic in the best way - and the parents are the least prototypic of their kind - but there is a sense of charm seeing the two hug at the end. The set, setting, costumes, and soundtrack created a quintessential aura, what I would think would be an accurate 70s mise-en-scene for this film. 
  4. The greatest surprise was the dialogue. The dialogue between characters differs greatly: legal and proper jargon from his girlfriend downtown (Reese Witherspoon), the slow drawl of his drug friend pretending to be dead (Owen Wilson), and the strange and often perverted comments from Lieutenant Bigfoot (Josh Brolin). Actions often contradict the characters verbal intent. Bigfoot angrily refers to Doc as the hippie, yet storms his house at the end of the film and eats a lot of weed sitting out on the table. Deputy Penny Kimball, a serious woman of the law, is caught smoking weed with Doc and having a jolly good time. The humour is dry and the banter delivered in a hyper serious manner to the point of being at the cusp of hilarious: "woohoo, look at the greedy little hippie." "Bring a  bar of soap and you can clean my feet tonight." "Ew. I can bring you pizza though." "There is a swastika symbol on that man's face." "No there isn't. That is an ancient Hindu symbol meaning ALL IS WELL." Do these characters know they are funny or do they take themselves seriously? 
  5. Transformative: Ted suggests that this can be for either the viewers or the characters on screen. Still unsure as to how Doc is feeling - probably rather groovy for saving the day (?) - I definitely felt transformed. My opinion about romance, life, beach-house living, the 70s, and the radical 60s has definitely been intensified and caught my interest. This film told the story in a whole new way. The experience was unique and something I am sure to never feel again. Even when I go see the film for a second time, I am sure to feel slightly different. I think in an era when originality is rare and films have become almost colloquial communication tools, it is definitely hard to find that new angle. As my favourite dead poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, commented on in his poem "Kubla Khan," the public will scorn this type of artistic creation. They will stomp and spit and refuse entry into their narrow perspective. Bret Easton Ellis shares this perspective in his article Novelist and Screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis Talks Paul Anderson's Inherent Vice.

"Anderson’s epic vision of Southern California in movie after movie is one of modern cinema’s key accomplishments — the scope is a marvel. But the audience for Inherent Vice is not going to be rapturously discussing it this Christmas — the harsh words I heard behind me as I left the screening last week have been echoed all over the place when I ask people who have seen it what they thought, and the pre-release take-down of it around L.A. is surprising to me [...]" - Bret Easton Ellis

I understand where this assumption is coming from and find it so sad. I suppose everyone is entitled to their opinions - and there are always going to be those films that are landmarks and only become so in a new generation of understanding - and hopefully open-mindedness. I say HOORAH for Anderson and all the performances in the film. A job well done. A film highly original and intriguing. Thank you for making my Tuesday night so groovy!

- Jenn

Toronto's Film Resources

I'm a film tourist. I'll be the first to admit it. I'm scared to take the plunge and make my own film. However I am utterly engrossed in film culture. I read the magazines, I follow the twitters and I join the clubs. Film culture can be enjoyed by filmmakers and film lovers alike. They are great avenues for making new friends, networking, and discovering new work that you may enjoy. I'm lucky to live in Toronto which is home to a flourishing film culture.

Here are some of my top 5 film communities and resource providers in the T dot!

  1. TIFF | Toronto International FIlm Festival

Let's start with the most well-known. TIFF is much more than just a glamorous festival, it is a Film Reference Library, an exhibition of the creme-de-la-creme of international cinema, a champion of Canadian features and shorts, a host to innovative exhibitions and rife with programming for adults and children alike. Becoming a member at TIFF gives you a discount on screenings and early access to TIFF tickets. The actual festival has a great variety of films and events, from red carpet Hollywood premieres to a Canadian shorts program.

      2.   WIFT - T | Women in Film and Television - Toronto

I love WIFT-T. Don't let the name scare you boys, men can join as an associate member. WIFT-T offers a lot of programming, development and mentorship opportunities that are organized by experienced cohorts. Not only do they have formal mentorships, like the Ubisoft Toronto Producer Mentorship, they also encourage mentorship between members in their member zone. I love the focus on women, of building skillsets and making friends!

      3.   MUFF society | Monthly Underground Female Film Society

MUFF is in its formative period. The Monthly Underground Female Film Society, run by the charismatic Siârn Melton, focuses on female film community, films by women, and films about women. Currently it's a fun film screening hosted by the Royal where you can meet like-minded people and participate in photo booths and good fun, but it will likely grow soon!

      4.   LIFT | Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto

LIFT is a fantastic nonprofit, offering affordable courses, gear rental, panels and script reading sessions for members. Courses range from using a bolex to doing your income tax. Many events are free, including the Screenwriter's Circle and the Lift Out Loud screenplay reading series, which anyone can attend. LIFT is great for community building and a great gear resources. Go LIFT!

       5.   Hot Docs

Hot Docs is North America's largest documentary festival. For professionals, it has the Hot Docs Forum, which has pre-selected candidates pitch their projects to major broadcasters and distributors from all over the world, conferences regarding co-productions, kickstarter sessions, and Rent-an-Expert Meetings. For the casual film lover it provides a great volunteering opportunity and the chance to see remarkable documentaries from around the world!

I hope you found something useful and interesting to you within this list! Join! Meet! Have fun!

Until next time,

Andrea 

Fantastical: One More Time With Feeling Mr. Fox

This is about a movie that has been out for a while now but comes from one of my favourite directors, Wes Anderson. His first children's movie, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, came out in 2009. I only realized after the fact that this director created The Royal Tenenbaums, another favourite of mine. I had felt that same joy I had during The Tenenbaums as I did in Mr. Fox. Then a wondrous friend connected the two together and I became instantly an auteur fan. For indeed, Wes Anderson is an auteur.

Mr. Fox is a film about self realization. Each character is a wild animal with a unique personality. The narrative blooms into a story about individual discovery and character development. All the animals at times fight domesticity. They are bound my moral code. The conflict arises when Mr. Fox breaks from the mold, upsetting the entire community structure.

Mrs. Fox asks why Mr. Fox robbed Boggis, Bunce, & Beans. He reluctantly admits, "I am a wild animal." We know he is a fox from the beginning, even if he wears a domesticated suit and lives in a domesticated "human" environment. He hunts chickens, inhales his food savagely, and lives in a burrow.

Ash knows he is different but doesn't want to admit it. He wants everyone to see that he is an athlete. He has to convince his dad and mom that he has what it takes to uphold the family name. He is able to change Mr. Fox's opinion during the Kristofferson rescue. Mr. Fox says "you are an athlete. Here put on this bandit hat." What Ash originally lacked was the authorial voice (Mr. Fox) to authenticate his character. Ash had to believe he was an athlete before he could become one. 

The action is predicated on the characters discovering who they are and finding the words to describe their characters (or in the case of Kylie, he decides to express himself in gestures at the end). Mr. Fox intelligently refers to each of his community friends by their Latin name: vulpes vulpes, meles meles, lepus europaeus, etc. This is the major signifying moment in the film. They become wild animals with distinctive characteristics. Okay, maybe not the pyrotechnics and blowing up things (cough Badger). The characters are both familiar and unfamiliar. They are wild but tame. They cohabitate and think individually.

The brilliant banter between characters and the all to familiar voices behind the puppets gives this Roald Dahl classic new breath and meaning. Truly a brilliant film filled with brilliant sounds:

Mr. Fox: Pete's Song

Everything in the miniature world seems believable. In The Wes Anderson Collection, a book by Matt Zoller Seitz, Wes talks about using Rahl Dahl's actual house as a model for Mr. Fox's tree home, bringing the outside non-fictional world into the fictional world itself - linking author and character together. 

The major narrative conflicts are tired neatly together at the end, the pinnacle moment being a silent encounter between a lone Wolf and the Fox rescue team.

A brilliant film. In case I didn't say it before.

- Jenn