A film festival is more than just a movie marathon. It is film industry and film together. This was emphasized in the speeches that kicked off the 25th St John’s Women’s International Film Festival (SJWIFF). Representatives from both private and public funders of the festival took turns at the microphone touting the positive economics of the film industry for our province and our country. And it shows.
Film is an art that has both mass appeal and art house credibility and the making of a film is like the fly the old woman swallowed: it starts a chain reaction of events getting larger and larger that moves money around, creates jobs that become careers, and rewards innovation. Want to see a forest grow from your seed money? Film is an almost literal way to get to view the results of an investment. Movie trumps powerpoint podium speech every time. Though the combination of speeches (thankfully without bullet points or piecharts or clipart) and film last night was a great kickoff to watching these movies all week.
With that context, it was interesting to see October Gale. Though I was immersed in the film itself, in the back of my skull I was also thinking about how it was made, what went in to distribution, the cost of the film and the decisions the producer, and the director-writer had to make about where to spend (and not spend) the funding they did have. These thoughts enriched, rather than distracted from, the watching experience. I will be thinking of the industry and the art as the week progresses.
Kudos to Ruba Nadda for getting the prime Opening Night spot for her film October Gale in a festival that is always a cut above. Also, an extra nod to Nadda for transmitting her gratitude and her excitement through a google chat with a slow connection. Your enthusiasm and openness came through loud and clear!
Now I will admit I was biased towards liking this film from Nadda’s brief explanation of the idea germinating from an image of a woman dealing with her grief. I find that I crave examinations of grief in popular art. Death is everywhere in art and media. But what about the aftermath of grief? That is so often left in uncomfortable silence both on screen and in life.
This film is about grief. And yet it is also a tense thriller, without compromising the atmosphere of either of those two subjects. One moment stands out as showing both the heavy endlessness of grief and the urgency of the dangers bearing down upon the two main characters. Helen (played by Patricia Clarkson) stands frozen at the threshold of her late husband’s office, unable to move as memories and his permanent (and still sudden to her) absence paralyze her. William (Scott Speedman) enters behind her, stops himself, takes a precious moment (they have very little time to prepare for a life and death showdown) to put his hand on her lower back. He leaves it there for a few beats, both reassuring her that he can see what she is going through, and tacitly asking permission to break the sacred atmosphere of this room. When he removes his hand, the kindness has been acknowledged and so too has the need of the moment, and William continues forward in great haste to search the office.
There was not a lot of dialogue but the lines were memorable. This made the quality of the sound extra disappointing as it did obscure some of the dialogue with a sort of reverb quality. Bad sound is one of the most frustrating things in watching a film. It is also, I am told, one of the hardest things to do well on a budget.
Luckily it was not bad enough to obscure what was my favourite line of the film. William is caught looking through the cupboards of Helen’s house and excuses himself by saying he was trying to find an aspirin. Helen, clearly established as a doctor by this point in the film, is holding a shotgun and says, “did I tell you to take an aspirin?”. There is a lot to love about that simple comic line, not least of which is that it is the start of the thread of connection and humour between the two main characters who are in otherwise unhumorous, and potentially polarizing, circumstances.
Tim Roth is given the second best line in the film, when, in a dark and off-kilter supporting role, his whole grim backstory is summed up when he equates optimism in life to a luxury, “…I knew if I fell, I would keep on falling.” Roth’s character, like those of Speedman and Clarkson, is also living his grief. Each of them, over the course of the film or as a part of their backstory, endure great tragedy and mete out violence in an instant of thought. These parallel actions and states are an effective and taut way to highlight their divergent characters.
With all that Nadda did not do (to the credit of the final product with its elegant and straightforward set up, its lack of any hint of sexual violence towards its female protagonist, and its absence of non-germane exposition), I was sorry to be drawn out of the movie at two points by the soundtrack. Twice, during moments that were clearly infused with sadness, a swelling of very sad instrumental music came and took over the scene and smacked me to make sure I was in the correct mood. This was in contrast to a scene near the beginning of the film, set on the lake, which used music very well as a sort of bridge to get us from one part of the story (the grief, the setting up) to the next (the suspense, the tension).
I will be going back and watching Cairo Time, also by Nadda and starring Clarkson. I will also look for Nadda’s future work.