The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a lyrical profile of Columbus, Mississippi, a look at third-trimester abortion doctors and patients, and Alan Zweig’s case for why life is worth living.
The Island of St. Matthews
Directed by Kevin Jerome Everson
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
A celebrated visual artist whose work across video, sculpture, and photography has found an international audience at various festivals, museums, and galleries, Kevin Jerome Everson tells stories about memory and place. The Island of St. Matthews, his newest feature and the centrepiece of a mid-career retrospective at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, turns to his hometown: Columbus, Mississippi. The film offers a series of powerful 16mm snapshots of the community of Westport, a scrappy coalition of survivors who weathered a devastating flood in the spring of 1973.
Everson’s exploration of Columbus combines ethnography and lyrical portraiture, alternating between static shots of rising water levels at the dam, residents’ descriptions of what was lost in the flood, and an evocative recurring image of a man waterskiing along the length of the island. Some of these sequences are admittedly trying, their duration pushing us to the limits of the average attention span, but much of the film is moving, recalling the poetic, equally location-rooted vignettes of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. More than a narrative film, Everson has crafted a memento of a specific terrain and way of life.
As part of TIFF Cinematheque’s ongoing Free Screen series, which is devoted to avant-garde and experimental film and video, Everson will be on hand to introduce Friday’s screening of The Island of St. Matthews, as well as Thursday’s programme of his short films about contemporary African American life.
Directed by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
When George Tiller was murdered in 2009, he left behind only a handful of doctors willing to provide third-trimester abortions for women in the United States. After Tiller is an intimate consideration of their lives and work in the face of mounting protests and threats of violence, as well as a closer look at the women who count on their services.
If the film occasionally reads as a conventional advocacy documentary despite its objective observation of the daily lives of the doctors, it’s for good reason: since the midterm elections of 2010, abortion laws have become more draconian in key U.S. states, and third-trimester abortions in particular have been the subject of fierce, largely irrational debates steered by extremists. In toning down the rhetoric to allow everyone from the administrators to the concerned counsellors to the patients to express themselves in their own words, as the camera fixes on their often trembling hands and nervously shuffling feet, filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson have taken a refreshingly calm route to the subject, even if the result is not particularly cinematic.
The argument that the film ultimately advances is that no philosophical debates about abortion should leave out the women experiencing it. Despite its often maudlin score and romanticized view of the doctors who make this their life’s work, After Tiller is a quietly radical and valuable project.
15 Reasons to Live
Directed by Alan Zweig
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
Inspired by Ray Robertson’s essay collection Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live, Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig’s 15 Reasons to Live offers a series of vignettes about why life is worth prolonging despite its inherent trials. As the high concept would suggest, this approach yields something of a mixed bag—stories range from the deeply poignant (a novelist must retrain himself to read after a stroke) to the mawkish (a couple tries to rescue a whale and captures the attempt on home video), but Zweig’s characteristic warm embrace of his subjects and grouchy-cum-friendly narration make it an amiable ramble all the same.
One wonders at times whether the source text doesn’t hurt the film’s structure more than it helps. That’s especially true in Zweig’s profile of local activist Adam Nobody, whose injuries and detainment at the hands of police during Toronto’s G-20 summit are a bit cryptically introduced as “humour.” But the best portraits, including one that involves Zweig’s sweet reminiscences about Toronto film staple Tracy Wright and another that focuses on an elementary school student who openly resisted the religious dogma of her institution, have an uncommon depth and generosity to them that makes up for such hiccups.