You’d think that having done Toronto for six years now that I’d have it all figured out. But somehow I forgot what five-film days are like and scheduled three of them in a row. Not smart by me. So I wake up this morning tired. No, exhausted. Yet the first movie is one of the more acclaimed films to come out of Cannes. How can I pass that up? So I roll out of bed for a 9 a.m. screening. Somewhere the scheduling gods are chuckling.
In a more miserable world, the movie would stink, but not this time. Hunger earns its praise with a strong, unusual narrative and striking directorial choices. The movie is about Bobby Sands’s hunger strike in 1981 when he was imprisoned for crimes he committed with the Irish Republican Army. Interestingly, though, Sands is rarely onscreen for the first third of the movie. Instead, director Steve McQueen (no, not that Steve McQueen) focuses on a British prison guard, then two other I.R.A. prisoners. In this way, he conveys what a horrible situation this is for prisoners and guards alike.
This also removes every pitfall over which bio-pics often stumble. This isn’t hagiography. It’s also not an attempt to encapsulate all of Sands’s life or even find great inspiration in his deeds. Instead, it’s a capsule of the bitter conflict between the I.R.A. prisoners, who demanded political status and the rights that went with that, and the British government, who considered them terrorists and refused to give in. And by focusing exclusively on the prison, McQueen shows how those two positions created a cycle of violence that had ramifications well beyond those cells.
Even that description, though, sounds more conventional than the movie is, as McQueen plays with narrative form in fascinating ways. The movie opens with what seems like 30 minutes of almost no dialogue. But Hunger's centerpiece is a long take of a rapid-fire conversation between Sands and his priest over the coming hunger strike. At times, the movie is incredibly violent, as the prisoners rebel against their conditions and the guards beat them back. But then the film can quiet down to a whisper.
A more experienced director might’ve struggled to make things more consistent, but McQueen focuses on what works best for each scene, each shot. So if that means a long static take of a guard cleaning up urine is what’s required, then that’s what McQueen chooses. Or it could be an incredible montage blast of prisoners destroying their cells. But no matter what McQueen picks, it’s usually right (the symbolic use of flying birds is an unfortunate misstep). Hunger won’t be for everyone, with its violence and abandonment of traditional storytelling, but it was worth getting out of bed for.
The sun is shining brilliantly when I walk out of the theater with Candace and her boyfriend Tim. I met Candace several years ago when she came to TIFF, so we have a wonderful chat as we walk down Queen Street and then up Yonge, catching up on the few movies they’ve been able to see and their recent trip to New York. That walk is so nice I decide to just keep strolling up Yonge to the Green Mango, where I have a wonderful lunch of mango chicken. Tasty.
I have the rest of the afternoon off, so I continue to wander around downtown and finally make my way back to the hotel for some writing and relaxation.
The evening brings two films. The first is Tulpan, from the country of Kazakhstan. Like many films from the hinterlands of Asia, it’s a combination of ethnography and fiction. Focusing on a young man named Asa and his sister’s family, the film shows how their family survives on the steppes herding sheep, goats, and camels.
I enjoyed the documentary elements quite a bit, especially when animals were involved. Watching people herd a huge flock of sheep or help a ewe give birth will always fascinate this city boy. But Asa’s story is not as captivating, as he tries to convince the off-screen Tulpan, an apparently beautiful girl, to marry him. The acting is awkward in places, and the camerawork involves a lot of quick pans and movement that I found disorienting and unnecessary.
There were also many elements that were simply annoying. When a girl sings a song for the first time, it’s quite nice, and it’s positively beautiful when her mother sings it at night. But when the girl sings it in an off-key voice for the seventh or eighth time, I wondered what her family or I had done to deserve this. And Asa’s best friend is supposed to be comic relief, but he’s neither. As I mentioned in Day 3, I have a lot of grace for small-budget movies from faraway places, but Tulpan tested my patience a couple too many times.
Rounding out this three-program day are two movies in the Wavelengths series. I have neither the experience nor the vocabulary to even describe Jennifer Reeves’s When It Was Blue and Vanessa O’Neill’s Suspension, much less analyze them. What I do know is that both were beautiful and engrossing. Suspension uses color and black-and-white versions of the same image to create a color palette and texture that reminded me of a Mark Rothko painting. The much longer When It Was Blue utilizes a dual projection system and layering within each roll of film to create dense patterns of nature scenes. Suspension is pure image, while Blue touches on the theme of the environment. Oh, and When It Was Blue also had an amazing soundtrack, including live accompaniment by Icelandic musician Skuli Sverisson. That was awesome. Unfortunately, that’s all I feel qualified to say.
Well, we’re halfway through the fest, both in terms of days and movies seen. Tomorrow is another light one, with only three films, but they include my most anticipated movie of the week.