SJIWFF: Friday Lunch Time Documentary “Web Junkie”

    Posted on: Friday, October 17th, 2014

This is not The Fog of War. Collateral damage here is familial. No one is speaking, with decades of hindsight, straight into the camera. This is not a miniseries about The Civil War or Jazz. There are no talking heads. There is no historical footage. There is no presentation of statistical analysis. There is no precedent. There is no commentary at all.

I need a hug. I need to give a hug. I need everyone to hug everyone just for a minute, while I recover from watching Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam’s singular documentation of a few months inside one of China’s internet addiction camps. I say “documentation” because “documentary” has certain ingrained associations. In this film, the work these women have done is unimaginably large but also unseeable. They worked to gain complete access to an enclosed treatment facility in (what is to them) a foreign country. This is not about them.

The world they show is so foreign, on so many levels that any commentary would have been wrong or cheap, or too narrow. Instead we are given the space to watch intimate scenes between lost and angry teenage boys and their lost and angry parents. Space to sort through which of our reactions are reactionary prejudice to this culture and this treatment, to the very idea that Internet addiction requires treatment, or that bootcamp is a valid treatment. The same space that these families and their society are being afforded (though in stark, metallic, semi-crowded and peeling spaces) in these treatment centres as they also begin to question how they have always regarded and treated each other.

Like most addictions, the roots of suffering in these families is not the drug (or World of Warcraft in this case), it is depression, anxiety, physical and mental abuse, lack of communication, lack of connection. It is acute loneliness. Through the web of judgements and discomfort and hairy questions raised by the setting and the subject matter, the absolute honesty of the parents and their sons in a series of group therapy sessions burns, like lit cigarette ash on polyester, an expanding circle of painful empathy.

The fathers admit, in even tones, to the abuse and fear they have meted out. To the mistakes they have made and the mistaken beliefs they have blindly adhered to. Then they cry, in front of everyone, sometimes silently, sometimes with loud sobs wrenched from inside them as the other parents keep passive faces but put hands on shoulders and hand pass tissues.

The boys’ admissions are equally grave. One dares his father to kill him and threatens to beat his father to death in one breath. One explains simply that he is not connecting to a computer when he goes online, he is talking to another person, someone just as lonely as he is, sitting in front of their computer.

Just as there is no commentary or judgement offered by the filmmakers, there is no conclusion. This is happening right now. There is not yet an outcome on which to reflect. The closest to closure we are allowed is a scene where the parents and the sons are all urged to hug. The arms of boys and dads are shown squeezing each other in desperate, visceral love. We are left with a long shot of one of the boys we have followed leaving the centre with his father. We watch them argue as they walk away from the barracks over who will carry the heaviest piece of baggage.

This movie is why I come to this film festival.


SJIWFF: Thursday Lunch Shorts – Mixed nuts (no peanuts!)

    Posted on: Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Well, looks like grief as a subject for film is trending. Two out of five shorts today were about dealing with a loved one dying, versus only one about romantic heartbreak and not a hint of romantic comedy anywhere to be seen [insert fist pump here]. This hour of five shorts was extremely well curated: two animated, two live action short-story style pieces, and one film-poem.

The tear jerker was thoughtfully put first so no one had to head back to work puffy-eyed. “In the Deep” by Nimisha Mukerji showed the love between a father and his daughter as she goes through the acceptance phase of her (likely) terminal illness. The best scenes were the ones where they can not help but oscillate between vexation and appreciation of each others lifestyles. The later scenes would have been stronger if this struggle-to-not-be-irritated with a loved one had been peppered throughout.

The camera work was understated and carefully executed. An opening shot of a body swimming underwater through rippling chlorine blue waves is held in our eye by the gentle rocking of the camera in the following shot where an older man sits on his sofa in a living room devoid of bright colours or underwater magic.

“Dog Sitting in Eastern Passage”  (Martha Cooley) was a surprise. The sound was part of the visual poetry of waving grass and waves rolling in. Landscapes working almost as emotions in and of themselves. These images were punctuated with written platitudes seen as shots of a journal lying in the grass. “Trust in the unexpected” “Everything you hoped for is coming true” something else about life being circular etc. What saved these from being utterly irritating, in retrospect, was the final journal entry. The denouement, filmed as it was being written, related the attempted mending of a broken heart while dog sitting in this rustling and dynamic setting, with the wonderfully un-cheesy line, “My heart – like a dog – kept bringing me your image.”

The next short, Re: Jess (Talia Alberts), Follows a young man in real time as he finds out about the death of someone important to him. The shift in his mannerisms from the overly practiced self-conscious posing as he executes a flawless brunch date to his awkward mumbling through the shock of bad news was gratifying to watch.

The other highlight of this short was a well shot scene where the film maker lets us watch the protagonist babysit. He can now start to deal with his feelings without a peer watching him. We, essentially, watch him in an unwatched state, with the baby serving to keep some emotional and physical interaction afloat to keep us engaged.

Another interesting device used was the smartphone as soundtrack. The low rumble of it vibrating in a scene in the forest is like a trumpet breaking into song. Later, the pinging of many text notifications, coming in faster and faster as word of his friend’s death spreads, is more deliberately mixed with a xylophone style pinging in the ambient music to blur the lines between the story and the atmosphere.

…and the other shorts … will have to just keep playing in my head as I must put down the laptop and pick up my toddler now… I am looking forward to seeing so many more that I will never be able to find the time to write about them. This year’s schedule is over-the-top packed. Lucky ducks us here is St John’s.

SJIWFF’s Opening Gala: Economics and Ruba Nadda’s Grief-Thriller.

    Posted on: Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

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.