The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a documentary about an all-woman Turkish theatre group, a tough look at Indonesia’s violent past, and an absurdist take on a computer programming conference.
Directed by Pelin Esmer
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
On the international scene, Turkish cinema tends to be associated with male heavyweights like Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Since the 1990s, though, there has been an alternative current of politically engaged independent filmmaking by women, many of them at the forefront of what’s often called the New Turkish Cinema. Pelin Esmer is one of the movement’s luminaries, a documentarian whose work critically examines taboo issues in contemporary Turkish society and overturns patriarchal assumptions about women’s roles within it.
Esmer’s first feature, The Play, is a good example of that rebel spirit. A freewheeling portrait of nine women who work in the fields of their mountain village in southern Turkey, the film follows the women as they prepare to put on a play that dramatizes their lives. Spearheaded by a women’s rights group and directed by a playwright who, like Esmer, hopes to workshop some of the charged but unspoken issues in everyday Turkish life, the play allows the women to articulate social problems for which they otherwise lack the words. The result is something like a salon, where the women are enabled to assert themselves and assume new identities in the process. One even boldly finds inspiration for her male character in her own austere upbringing as a girl made to do traditionally male work.
The Play has value both as a sociological profile of women’s labour and creative expression in a predominantly patriarchal culture and also as a well-constructed film. Beautifully shot in an unobtrusive fashion and crisply edited, it’s an energetic look at the process behind community theatre and a keenly observed essay on how the medium of performance art can draw out powerful confessions from those who might otherwise stay silent.
The Play screens on the closing night of “Rebel Yell,” TIFF’s retrospective on New Turkish Cinema by women. Tuesday’s programme also focuses on documentary filmmaking, and will feature a series of shorts about gender and Turkish iconography.
The Act of Killing
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
It’s been nearly 30 years since Claude Lanzmann directed Shoah, his landmark nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust, which is comprised of present-day interviews with survivors, second-hand witnesses, and perpetrators. In light of the countless television specials about the Holocaust that followed, most of them spent panning and zooming over archival photos of atrocities, Lanzmann’s decision to dispense with historical mementos and make his own archive at the scene seems even more radical now than it did at the time. At last, it’s found an odd companion piece in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing.
Oppenheimer’s film treats the mass murder of Communists, intellectuals, and ethnic Chinese in mid-1960s Indonesia—unpunished crimes committed by killing squads sponsored by the U.S. and British-backed government. What sets Oppenheimer’s approach apart from other portraits of genocide is his bold decision to focus not on the survivors, who are no longer around to give an account of their experiences, but on the murderers, who have not only avoided prosecution but have been held up as heroes by the still-reigning government. Oppenheimer grants a measure of storytelling control to one such trio of boastful gangsters, encouraging them to reenact their most heinous murders. Noticing the men’s fondness for American popular culture, he also invites them to stage those scenes in tribute to the Hollywood gangster pictures and musicals that ostensibly inspired them.
That’s a risky concept, and Oppenheimer’s brazenness gets the better of him at times. He has a habit of letting interviews run just long enough that the gangsters say something absurd and psychotic in an otherwise banal conversation, then cutting away to another scene, creating an uncomfortably jokey rhythm that feels borrowed from John Oliver’s exposés on The Daily Show. All the same, this is a powerful, complex, and wholly necessary film—an antidote to the creatively bereft documentaries that package atrocities in the most mundane fashion. Its outrage is palpable, and contagious.
Directed by Andrew Bujalski
The Royal (608 College Street)
Andrew Bujalski made his mark nearly 10 years ago as the progenitor of a talky, low-fi genre a lot of people like to call mumblecore. Even so, nothing on his impressive C.V. quite prepares us for the singular joys of Computer Chess. A strange, heady, and often hilarious period piece about a beehive of 1980s tech geniuses at a programming conference in a shoddy hotel, it might be the first film that feels as though it were directed and displayed on a closed-circuit camera loop.
Shot in black and white on analog video cameras that were already out of fashion by the ’80s—a first for Bujalski, who, unlike the majority of his mumblecore brethren, prefers to shoot on film—the opening is a work of comic anthropology. It introduces us to the programmer tribe, a bunch of smart young men (and one woman) who shirk eye contact but spout theory with aplomb. In a mostly nonprofessional cast of over two dozen, Bujalski generally gravitates to a delirious ringmaster (played by film critic Gerald Peary). Another central figure is a young Cal Tech savant (Patrick Reister), whose unlikely and eventually stunted maturation is all the more touching for being so underplayed.
There’s a meandering sort of charm to how the film follows and drops these players on a whim, pausing along the way for cracked insights like, “War is death; hell is pain; chess is victory.” But it’s the surreal last act that puts Computer Chess over the top. The closing moments feel like the haunted autobiography of one of the enormous computers the programmers tenderly lug down halls on trolleys: the sound fluctuates, the video splits in two, and the image switches, without warning, to film stock, pulsing with colour. Some will find this formal code-switching irritating rather than interesting, but for whatever it’s worth, it’s foreshadowed early on, when one of the programmers looks on a battle between his fellow man and a chess programme and admits, “My money’s on the computer.”