The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a documentary about a killer whale who lives up to the title, a short-film programme, and an absorbing portrait of a Kung Fu school that moulds fighters and citizens alike.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
If all you had to go by were their onscreen counterparts, you’d think killer whales led innocuous lives. (The star of the 1977 cult thriller Orca excepted.) Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish says otherwise, using a methodically charted, disconcerting psychological profile of a whale named Tilikum, one of SeaWorld’s prized captives despite his staggering body count: two human trainers and one wayward visitor.
Blackfish is a slick production, which is a drawback in the sense that it practically forces the film to check off a laundry list of documentary tropes—talking head interviews, ironic uses of archival footage, cheeky animated infographics—to little effect in the opening reel. As Cowperthwaite sheds these stylistic quirks, though, the film becomes an absorbing probe into the ghastly living conditions of the killer whales forced to perform in marine amusement parks. More improbably, it becomes something of a horror movie about its star’s decidedly nasty temperament.
Cowperthwaite’s uncompromising stance against captivity will no doubt radicalize a few SeaWorld enthusiasts. But it’s her sensitivity to the emotional life of her subject, and her bold characterization of Tilikum as a psychopath bred by a horrific environment, that sets Blackfish apart from other activist documentaries, and puts it in the same league as Werner Herzog’s mesmerizing Grizzly Man, still the gold standard for tough films about ambiguous animals.
Shorts That Are Not Pants
Carlton Cinema (20 Carlton Street)
With the exception of the Toronto International Film Festival’s stacked programmes, short films don’t get a lot of play in Toronto, especially since last summer’s announcement that the Worldwide Short Film Festival would go on indefinite hiatus. Whether it’s because of a lack of audience interest (it isn’t a form that lends itself to marketing, given the low commercial stakes) or a dearth of exhibition opportunities, the short film has become something of an endangered species, a directorial calling card that’s sometimes appended to feature-length films, but that is rarely given much attention on its own. Local film blogger and programmer James McNally’s quarterly series Shorts That Are Not Pants hopes to change that by presenting curated screenings of new and well-received shorts at Carlton Cinema.
This summer’s edition is characteristically varied. Charting themes for a shorts programme is a fool’s errand, but in general McNally’s selections highlight the conceptual daring of shorts filmmakers who use the form’s brevity to riff on a big idea or two. Among the best on the roster this time around is Jessica Joy Wise’s Your Place or Mine, which follows a pair of newly-acquainted strangers as they fumble into a one-night stand, and the seemingly endless possible outcomes that follow from it. Those what-if scenarios are fairly standard, but the film’s sexual frankness and naturalism is refreshing.
Another highlight is Father, an experimental animated production about parenthood and abandonment. The film, produced by a Bulgarian film collective, is structured as a series of conversations between jilted children and their absent fathers, played out against a shifting mass of animated tableaux, some of them surreal, and others resembling the minimalist black and white of Mad Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy comic strip. The dialogue’s a bit heavy handed, but the images, particularly the streaks of blue that creep through each segment, are striking.
Directed by Inigo Westmeier
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
“You need rules in a family and laws in a country,” an instructor explains in Inigo Westmeier’s Dragon Girls. The film is an uncommonly rich look at the lives of three female pupils at the Shaolin Tagou Kung Fu school in China, which houses over 20,000 students. Following the instructor’s deliberate interweaving of family and nation, Westmeier considers how the Kung Fu institution functions simultaneously as a school, an orphanage, and a training ground, both in filial loyalty and nationalist self-discipline.
The film’s relative brevity keeps it from reaching the depth of fellow observational documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s examinations of the complex workings of large systems as disparate as ballet companies and hospitals, but you’d be hard-pressed to think of anything Westmeier has left out. The most absorbing parts of the documentary consider how the girls are encouraged to swallow their emotional responses to the harshness of their surroundings. Over and over, we hear the students recite prescriptions against crying, which often come across as the internalized dogma of an institution that trains its adherents to think of every abuse as an opportunity for character formation. This is fascinating stuff, beautifully and fluidly lensed by Westmeier, a seasoned director of photography making good on his talents in this feature debut.