I spend a lot of time thinking, researching and writing about culture, creativity, technology, business and global economics. It gets very abstract, to say the least.
As much as I enjoy that work, I need to get out of the strategic stratosphere and into the here and now of cultural experience to recharge my soul and my work. After a week in the desert feeding on the cacophony of creative collision that is Burning Man, I return to Toronto in time for the Toronto International Film Festival.
My favourite film of the festival so far, Eytan Fox’s The Bubble tells a classic Romeo & Juliet story in a highly politicized context. Tel Aviv indie slacker Noam meets Palestinian boy Ashraf at a checkpoint while fulfilling his army reserve duty. Ashraf drops into “the bubble” of Tel Aviv, where modern cosmopolitan life continues amidst a sea of violence and chaos. They are star-crossed lovers in post-9/11 Israel and Palestine, and as the story unfolds towards its inevitable conclusion, it explores the nuances of life in a bubble made ultimately impossible by the intractable political reality at the front lines of interminable conflict. It does so without becoming didactic or taking an overt political stance and is ultimately sympathetic to the individuals embedded in the forces of historic struggle. With a beautiful score by Israeli pop star Ivri Lider, The Bubble is both romantic and painful, funny, charming and heart-warming while ultimately unsentimental. This film was rejected from recent European festivals due to the recent war in southern Lebanon and a boycott of Israeli films. That was a mistake, as this is exactly the kind of film that can engage opposing sides in much needed dialogue. Banning cultural expression is no solution to political conflict.
A first feature for Spanish director Daniel SÃ¡nchez ArÃ©valo, DarkBlueAlmostBlack tells the story of a young man seemingly trapped by socio-economic status, circumstances and family obligation but ultimately separated from the life he desires by his own fear. It is a light-hearted and charmingly written film, with some great performances. Antonio del la Torre (who also appears in Almodovar’s latest Volver) is particularly good as the brother who arrives home from prison with plans for his own future. ArÃ©valo in the end argues that embracing our limits is, ironically, the beginning of our journey to overcome them.
Bamako is a bold, innovative film from Mali director Abderrahmane Sissako, and it uniquely takes on globalization from the perspective of African society through the device of a trial against the World Bank and IMF that takes place in a small village. An audacious undertaking, Sissako is successful at presenting the complex issues surrounding the structural adjustment policies of global economic institutions and their impact on the life chances of individuals and developing world societies. The writing is intelligent, articulate and passionate and the delivery by the mix of actors and non-actors that take part in the trial is invigorating, refreshingly absent the sloganeering of western armchair activists. See it if you can.
A documentary by Montreal-born Mohammed Naqvi that features the story of Mukhtar Mai, a woman struggling for justice in her native Pakistan after being the victim of gang rape. She is raped as punishment for a crime her brother is alleged to have committed against a woman of the powerful Mastoi clan in her village, in the tradition of “honour for honour” . Mukhtar finds the strength to raise her voice and finds the resources to bring justice for herself and ultimately for future generations of girls in her village. She draws international media attention, which brings pressure on the Pakistan government, and uses her fame to raise money for schools, roads and a planned hospital. Education is presented as the ultimate solution to empowering future generations of women. Mukhtar Mai is doubtlessly an inspiring figure of strength, and a hero to many. The film, however, would probably have been better served by delving into the Mastoi clan’s original allegations and perspective and the socio-cultural context. The Mastois, and the government, are often depicted as duplicitous and comically idiotic which plays to the audience’s sentiments but ultimately glosses over deeper questions worth exploring.
Rounding out the last of my very serious issues films, Lake of Fire is a documentary that explores the issue of the abortion debate in America in an intense, and graphic, way. Tony Kaye, director of the remarkable American History X, explores the issue unflinchingly with the keen eye of an outsider and ultimately does not take a stand. As Kaye described in the Q&A, both sides are right. However, the violent anti-abortion extremists of the religious right are exposed without sympathy, and I was drawn to make mental connections to religious extremism in general and terrorism in the current global context. There were a number of interesting observations by those that work under threat of violence in clinics. A woman observed that the overwhelmingly single middle-aged angry male Christians that haunt their front door seem to get voyeuristic pleasure from watching women they know have had sex as they enter the clinic. Interesting political questions are asked, like why the religious right does not take as active a stance on the right to life of the born as for the unborn. Should they not be for universal early childhood healthcare, reducing poverty and family violence? Kaye is a true auteur, who took 20 years to make this film, which he still considers to be unfinished.