Toronto International Film Festival 2009: Part Three

In his third installment, Stuart reviews the hotly anticipated adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a great documentary on Daniel Ellsberg, and new films from Todd Solondz (yuck) and Werner Herzog (yuck, but in a good way).

Life During Wartime (dir. Todd Solondz, 2009)

Todd Solondz' new movie often feels like it is little more than a mash-up of his previous films. It even opens with a scene that is lifted almost wholesale from Happiness (1998). And, just like they did in virtually everything he has done before, pedophiles and other "perverts", unhappy middle class white people, sexually confused children, and a generally mocking tone abound. At his best, Solondz is a real auteur, a singular observer of an alienated America, of an America filled with weirdos and lonely souls, longing for comfort and finding little. Certainly, the characters he explores in his latest represent some of the darkest he has yet drawn up: an incestuous father fresh out of jail (Ciarán Hinds), a lonely drug-addicted mother (a startlingly good Allison Janney), a curious and desperate dork of a kid (Dylan Riley Snyder), a pathetic barfly searching for escape through sex (a startling Charlotte Rampling), and a mousy woman (Shirley Henderson) who’s haunted by the men she has driven to suicide (Michael K. Williams, Paul Reubens). But, at his worst, Solondz relies on mockery, poking fun at these unfortunate characters without ever allowing us to fall in love with them. With each passing minute in this frightening little film, one finds oneself disliking the characters more and more, and finding the script to be uninterested in changing our view. This has the bizarre effect of leaving little reason for us to try to make sense of their predicaments, or to empathize with their despair. Throughout, the ostensible theme of forgiveness runs through everything like a bulldozer: can we forgive a terrorist, or a pedophile? Should we? And even if we do, can we/should we ever forget? Solondz may be a lot of things, but he is never subtle. This should have been enough to work with, but he muddies the waters with a hamfisted attempt to connect this "forgive and forget" theme to the issue of US troop withdrawal from Iraq, confusingly suggesting that if you do a bad thing and then steal away ("cut and run") you make things worse. Well, maybe. But, really?

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (dir. Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, 2009)

"It wasn't that we were on the wrong side – we were the wrong side." Thus was the conclusion reached by Daniel Ellsberg, the man who famously leaked classified documents to the media in 1971, a move which led, fairly precipitously, to Watergate and the eventual resignation of Nixon. This singular act of bravery – he would face well over 100 years in prison for this crime – was designed to alert the public to the myriad ways they had been manipulated into giving up their blood and treasure for nearly two decades in Vietnam. Why was he surprised when so few people seemed to want to know what he was telling them? The American war in Vietnam was indeed a travesty, and had no historical justification – this was, more than anything else, what the Pentagon Papers would expose. But, even in the face of the evidence that the American presence in this impoverished country was never about democracy, never about freedom, never about self-determination, the majority of Americans didn't seem to care. They would re-elect Nixon a few months later in the biggest landslide in American history. The parallels between this story and the present American war in Iraq – a war which has perhaps even less going for it in the way of justification – are obvious and striking. This documentary, which is narrated by Ellsberg himself, and featuring a wide array of reasoned commentators – goes a long way toward demonstrating just how little Americans have learned in the decades since that debacle in Indochina. The willingness of the American people to follow their leaders into a one-sided conflict with an unthreatening sovereign nation is just as apparent today as it was in the '60s. Perhaps the only difference is that today, we had hundreds of Daniel Ellsbergs, and we paid them even less mind. The U.S. is still in Iraq, still fighting and killing, and it's been almost four years since we've known for certain that the whole thing was based on carefully orchestrated lies. This straightforward, no frills documentary should be seen as widely as possible.

The Road (dir. John Hillcoat, 2009)

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is one of the best books I’ve read in a decade – a shockingly violent yet blazingly beautiful novel about love and humanity in a land that seems to have abandoned both concepts. Alternately touching and horrifying in its evocative portrayal of a stark, post-apocalyptic world, McCarthy’s novel is a difficult, but deeply rewarding study of a father and son struggling to wade through a landscape in which there is no such thing as “living”, only surviving. But, while this made for an astonishing reading experience, wow, does it ever make for an extremely uncomfortable film. Though it is faithful to the book in every major way (save one: the constant rain of ashes isn’t here), this is one of those great books that should never have been made into a movie, no matter how exact the transfer from page to screen. Virtually unrelenting in its bleakness, and rife with set pieces (especially those involving cannibalism and/or suicide lessons) that don’t offer much in the way of reward upon their viewing, John Hillcoat’s direction is perhaps too shatteringly true to the tone of the book. Viggo Mortensen is excellent (as always, right?) as the father and Kodi Smit-McPhee is heartbreaking as the boy, which is good news because the film is basically just them. Charlize Theron is largely wasted in a thankless role as the mother (who, like in the book, is a mere abstraction, a fading memory rather than a flesh-and-blood character), and Robert Duvall is wonderful as a very McCarthy-esque wise old man (think of Barry Corbin’s turn in No Country For Old Men). As most of us in the Press and Industry screening were aware, this film was completed as early as this time last year, which has of course led to rampant speculation as to the problem. But, since the movie is likely to be seen by most people as a near faultless adaptation, a virtually perfect transfer of the book onto the screen, my guess is that the reason it’s been sitting on the shelf for so long was economy-related. Who, in the midst of last fall’s economic splatterfest, wanted to sit down for two hours of searing, unremitting nightmare? Are we even ready yet?

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (dir. Werner Herzog, 2009)

Werner Herzog, one of cinema's most exciting auteurs, is also one of its most exasperating. Armed with an astute eye for detail, a fascination with oddballs and outliers, and the critical mind of a philosopher, Herzog is at his best when seeking out subjects tangled up in contradiction. And, in the awkwardly titled The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, one of two films he has in this festival, contradiction abounds. His subject is a superb Nicholas Cage as the titular antihero, adrift in a post-Katrina wasteland of crime, drugs, and despair, as he attempts to break an horrific case whilst stumblingly stoned on everything from heroin to coke to crack. (Though reminiscent of the Harvey Keitel film of the early '90s, by the way, this is no remake – apparently the franchise-suggesting title was a “studio decision”.) With Cage flanked by his girlfriend (a luminous Eva Mendes) and a partner who seems worse off than even he (a bloated Val Kilmer), and chasing down a drug kingpin (rapper Xzibit), this is Herzog's most star-studded event movie. And yet it is in every way an art house film, opening with an establishing shot of a snake sliding through black floodwater, returning throughout to shaky hand held shots of iguanas, and demonstrating a general disdain for the rhythm and grammar of conventional film. I loved it. But, I can also enumerate at least a few instances of nonsensical plot developments, confusing dialogue, and downright unlikely events. In the hands of most directors, these would indicate a bad movie – somehow, Herzog's trick is to convince us that every one of these things was done for a reason. In the press notes, he literally dares "academics" to attack his work, taunting them as “losers”. Maybe that's how he won us over: Intimidation?

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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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