The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a bracing self-portrait of a relationship gone sour, a collection of lyrical short films adapting a Polish immigrant poet, and a family drama in the Canadian arctic.
i hate myself :)
Directed by Joanna Arnow
Camera Bar (1028 Queen Street West)
“It’s very difficult to watch this,” Joanna Arnow’s mother complains late in i hate myself :), Arnow’s strange, searing, and often hysterically funny confessional, tracking a year in her relationship with confrontational poet James Kepple. In one of the film’s more ingenious metafictional gambits, her mother is referring to none other than a rough and clearly incomplete edit of the film we’re watching, as she’s attempting to walk out of a scene that obviously made the final cut. That unusual blend of formal play and lacerating self-critique is typical of Arnow’s method, which is to turn the carefully selected material of her life into the stuff of a squirm-inducing and seemingly intimate self-portrait that never lets us forget that there’s a filmmaker behind the camera, moulding as much as documenting her life.
The basic conceit of the film is that it’s a referendum on whether or not Arnow ought to stay involved with the aloof James, a white Texan provocateur (or maybe just a jerk) who performs a toxic, racially-tinged routine at a largely African-American performance space in Harlem, and who is about as delicate in his dealings with Arnow. But from the first, we’re made to feel skeptical about that thesis—“We know who the primary character is,” her mother snorts when pitched on the idea—and to realize it’s a cover for a more interesting examination of a filmmaker’s engagement with both her onscreen and offscreen identities.
In the end, Arnow’s mother is right: i hate myself :) is a difficult watch, its frank disclosures of Arnow’s sexual misadventures as invasive and uncomfortable as anything we’ve seen in some time. But it’s an unfailingly interesting one, neatly encapsulated by the surreal moment when we get a glimpse of a microphone pack at the hip of the postcoital filmmaker-slash-performer, who is at once creator and subject.
Directed by Sofia Bohdanowicz
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
“We are all immigrants to this place even if we were born here,” Margaret Atwood wrote of Canada in her afterword to The Journals of Susanna Moodie, an observation translated and imbued with understated beauty by the short films of Sofia Bohdanowicz. Bohdanowicz’s screening series Last Poems animates the filmmaker’s generational history of migration and settlement by adapting the poetry of her great-grandmother, Zofia Bohdanowiczowa, who came to Toronto from Poland in the 1960s, and grieving her grandmother, whose presence haunts the spaces she’s left behind.
The first thing one notices about Bohdanowicz’s films is her keen eye for detail, from the artfully displayed storefronts of Dundas Street, narrated by an elderly immigrant woman attempting to adjust to her newly urban surroundings, to the inventory of gardening gloves, notes, and abandoned household items that populate Modlitwa, Wieczór, and Dalsza Modlitwa, a trilogy devoted to the filmmaker’s grandmother, profiled at work in her home in the first film and treated as a haunting absence in the final two. Wieczór especially is a stunning achievement, matching the imagistic riches of the other instalments with a haunting score that pairs Rodgers and Hammerstein with a niggling scraping sound. Even more than by their personal resonance and emotional depth, one is impressed by the films’ carefully wrought design, evident in everything from the deliberate pacing to the assured use of onscreen text.
The series is rounded out by the titular short, a delicate coda that documents Bohdanowicz’s trip to Iceland and fleeting bond with Toby, a fellow filmmaker and German hostel-mate who hopes to shoot a music video as Bohdanowicz documents the countryside. Gorgeous as it is, in a primal sort of way, the frosty environment proves unyielding to both filmmakers’ quixotic goals.
The shorts are presented by The Consulate General of the Republic of Poland.
Directed by Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Since she started working with the Arnait Video collective in Igloolik in 1991, Marie-Hélène Cousineau has shot and set two feature films in the Canadian Arctic—2008’s historical epic in miniature Before Tomorrow, and now Uvanga, which returns to the setting but profiles it in the present day. Co-directed, as was its predecessor, by actress Madeline Ivalu, Uvanga tells the story of 14-year-old Tomas (Lukasi Forrest) and his mother Anna (Marianne Farley), who decamp for the tightly-knit Northern community where Anna long ago had an affair with Tomas’s recently deceased Inuk father, whom the child never knew.
Uvanga never quite advances beyond its shopworn premise, which seems indebted to any number of Canadian films about teenagers finding their cultural origins and recovering a recently lost past and the family that comes with it. Yet there is an undeniable anthropological and political interest in Cousineau and Ivalu’s focus on cataloguing the faces and voices of a community that is rarely put on film and rarely invited to demonstrate its traditions and values. Despite the familiarity of the plot, this is also an aesthetic accomplishment, which makes fine use of the environment in striking panoramas and generates a small amount of suspense in the later scenes between two varying and intercut accounts of what really happened to Tomas’s father.