The 23rd Toronto International Film Festival: Part 3

[Films reviewed below include: Killer ; 2000 seen by ; Life on Earth ; Book of Life ; The Hole ; Trans ; Pecker ; Autumn tale]

Darezhan Omirbaev is a filmmaker from Kazakhstan and one of the few from the former USSR who seems to have kept his wits about him. Whatever his political or philosophical outlook, he regards the current situation with a relatively clear eye.

Omirbaev, born in 1958 in the village of Uyuk in the Djambol region of Kazakhstan, graduated with a degree in applied mathematics in 1980 and worked as a professor, programmer and eventually a film editor at the Kazakhfilm Studio. He attended the Institute of Higher Cinema Studies (VGIK) in Moscow and for a number of years wrote criticism for the magazine New Film. He made his first feature film, Kairat, in 1991. I thought Cardiogram (1995), the story of a young shepherd boy sent to Almaty--the Kazakh capital--for treatment of his heart disease, one of the strongest works at the 1996 San Francisco film festival.

In Killer Marat is employed as a driver for Professor Kassimov, a mathematician and social commentator. A radio interviewer asks Kassimov in the film's opening sequence, 'Is it difficult being a scientist these days?' The professor himself wonders, 'What is the use of science when all adults live off commerce?'

Marat is driving his wife back from the maternity hospital with their new baby, in his employer's car, when he rear-ends a Mercedes in front of him. How can he pay for the repair of the two cars? He visits his sister and learns that all her money has been ripped off in some shady financial operation. The owner of the Mercedes comes to Marat's house with two thugs; they give him a beating. Through a friend, a bartender at a tacky nightclub, he makes contact with a loan shark. At night he dreams about throwing himself off a roof.

He pays for the repairs with dollars borrowed from the loan shark--at 1 percent interest a day. At the repair shop the Mercedes owner explains, 'Violence is the only thing people understand these days,' and offers to shake hands. Returning to his workplace, he discovers that it has been closed down, the building turned over to a bank and that the professor has killed himself.

How is he going to repay the loan shark? He borrows an additional sum from the man, and travels to Germany where he buys a car, planning to resell it in Almaty. On his way back through Russia the new car is stolen by thugs.

He visits the home of the loan shark, one of the nouveau riche. Now he owes more than $10,000 and has no way to pay it back, not even a low-paying job. The man gets on the phone with his daughter in the US. She is not entirely happy, apparently. 'Nobody comes back from the US these days,' he chides her. 'How can you be bored over there?'

On top of everything, Marat's baby becomes sick and needs special treatment. The loan shark, through the bartender, makes Marat an offer: his debts will be wiped out, plus he'll earn a respectable fee, if he murders a journalist who wrote an article 'about a factory they want to privatize.' After only a brief mental struggle, Marat accepts the assignment and carries it out. To cover their tracks, the gangsters kill him too.

This chilling film hints at the terrible conditions in the former Soviet Union. Omirbaev's primary concern seems to be with the moral state of the population. Desperate economic conditions do not automatically lead to violence and murder. Why is Marat so easily persuaded to carry out the murder of a man who has done nothing to him? In the murder scene the intended victim begins a conversation with the young man about the autumn weather; the journalist's child is with him. One thinks, 'Ah, Marat is not going to be able to carry this out, he is going to have second thoughts.' But he performs the shooting with little difficulty. I think this is the filmmaker's point.

In his radio interview the professor remarks that moral problems are not produced in six months. With that, Omirbaev is presumably asserting that not only the new Kazakhstan, but the old one, is to blame for the present ethical breakdown. That seems fair enough and a subject worth following up on. One expects to hear more from Omirbaev, who makes thoughtful and meditative films, somewhat self-consciously in the style of French master Robert Bresson.

2000 seen by...

A number of films at the festival were commissioned as fictional responses to the dawn of the new millennium, under the general title 2000 seen by... One of those is Life on Earth, an attractive work directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, a Mauritanian filmmaker who lives in France. In the semidocumentary film he returns to visit his father in Sokolo, a village in Mali, one of the poorest countries of the world, on the eve of the new century.

There are reports about the millennial celebrations in Paris over the radio, but this is a town where technology, except for the radio, has barely reached the twentieth century. Scenes of efforts to make phone calls at the town's post office recur in the film. When Sissako tries to telephone Paris, he is told, 'It's hard to reach people. It's a matter of luck.' He bicycles around; he meets a girl, Nana. A photographer takes her picture with ancient equipment. 'I didn't know she was so sad.' Everyone is sad in Sokolo, there are so many problems. 'This is death, not life.' Sissako's film quotes the poet Aimé Cesairé and the radical writer Frantz Fanon, neither of whose works seem able to take the measure of present-day African misery. 'May the new year bring much less hardship, if only for the children,' says the filmmaker. The work is lovely, if a little plaintive, but it's not clear how the future will be an improvement on the present.

Book of Life, part of the same collection, did not do much to improve my opinion of Hal Hartley, the American filmmaker. In his short film, set on December 31, 1999, Jesus (Martin Donovan) arrives at Kennedy Airport in New York City with his assistant, Magdalena (P.J. Harvey). Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan) is hanging out in expensive bars, looking for souls. And so forth.... While Sissako and the others have something to say, whether one agrees with it or not, Hartley is looking to show off.

Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang's The Hole, also in this series, is set in the last week of the twentieth century. It is raining in Taipei, Taiwan's capital, without let-up. A mysterious disease, that reduces human beings to imitating the behavior of cockroaches, has reached epidemic proportions. Entire sections of Taipei have been quarantined. Those who remain are warned that garbage collection will stop and that the water supply will soon be cut off. In a dismal apartment building, public housing, a man and a woman are among those who have decided to stay. He lives in the apartment directly above her. A plumber, trying to fix a leak, makes a sizable hole in his floor. The man becomes interested in watching the woman, who stockpiles toilet paper. She has her own fantasies; she dreams of being the star of song-and-dance numbers. In the end, the woman comes down with the strange illness. Can anything save her?

Tsai is one of Taiwan's prominent directors ( Rebels of the Neon God, Vive l'Amour! and The River), a talented artist. He describes himself as having 'no optimistic thoughts about the future. I think the world environment has been destroyed in the twentieth century, particularly in Asia. Whether I am in Taiwan or in the country of my birth, Malaysia, I feel the situation is critical. If you live in Taiwan, you naturally feel pessimistic.'

The film bears this all out. Stylish and nearly devoid of dialogue, it is unrelentingly bleak, with the exception of the musical numbers that take place in the female character's imagination. Even as the only residents, or only survivors, the two characters have hardly anything to say to each other. They certainly don't appear ready to offer any resistance to the all-powerful, invisible authorities. 'The biggest hope,' says Tsai, 'is that there will be someone who will extend a hand and offer a cup of water.'

I spoke to Tsai in 1994 about Vive l'Amour! In a new conversation, the director indicated that he thought the world's problems, including the growing social polarization, resulted from too much civilization, too much progress. The Taiwanese have made some of the most beautiful films over the past decade or more, but I think they are running up against a series of complex (and inevitable) aesthetic and historical-social problems, none of which can be solved within the framework of a national outlook. A central political question that hovers over any intellectual work in Taiwan must be the nature of the Chinese regime. Naturally, if one believes that the social alternatives reduce themselves to the circumstances presently existing in China (falsely identified, in one way or another, with 'socialism' or 'communism,' or as their consequence) or in Taiwan (soulless, force-fed Western-style capitalism), one would tend to be gloomy. The absence of any perceived alternative clearly contributes to what Tsai takes to be the population's passivity. Is there an alternative? [See David Walsh's interview with Tsai Ming-liang]

Trans and Pecker

Trans is a small American film that at least deserves a mention. This first feature by Julian L. Goldberger is about a teenage boy who escapes from a juvenile detention center in southwest Florida. The world is obviously a difficult place for this kid, and the film is sympathetic to that problem.

Trans is unusual for two reasons. First, at a time when most of official America is trying to figure out how to lock people up, this is a film that legitimizes the desire for freedom, an elementary but largely discredited sentiment. For that reason alone the film seems to be swimming against the current. Second, it is relatively unusual in the US for a filmmaker to bring together a certain poetic vision with a glimpse of social reality. Let's see if the filmmaker does anything interesting in the future.

We already know what John Waters is capable of, but Pecker is a useful reminder. In early films, such as Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974), the Baltimore native exhibited a genuine, if deliberately tasteless and grotesque, intuition about certain aspects of lower-middle-class and working class life. He seemed to have lost the edge to his work in such slight efforts as Hairspray (1988) and Cry-Baby (1990).

Pecker is something of a return to form. Edward Furlong plays the title character, so nicknamed because ... he pecks at his food. He likes to take photographs of his peculiar family, friends and neighbors in Baltimore. 'Everything always looks good through here,' he cheerfully explains. One day a gallery owner from New York City sees some of his work and offers him an exhibit. He becomes the toast of the town, 'a humane Diane Arbus.' Even photographer Cindy Sherman shows up at the gallery. Baltimore's misery is transmuted into (money-making) art in New York.

But success brings no happiness. On the contrary, everything falls apart as Pecker enters the spotlight. He loses his best friend (a shoplifter) and his girlfriend (a laundromat manager), and his family doesn't even like him very much anymore. After declaring, 'I hate modern photography,' Pecker sets out to make his life 'like it used to be.' Since 'art's everywhere' he sets up his own gallery in his father's nearly bankrupt bar and forces all the critics to come to him. Instead of pictures of Baltimore lowlifes on the walls of an expensive New York City gallery, he exhibits photos of the New York critics and their hangers-on in a dive in Baltimore, much to their initial discomfort. Everyone is reconciled, however, and, in the end, one of the New York sophisticates offers a toast to 'The end of irony!'

In fact, Waters can't entirely resist irony and condescension, but I think his film has some bite to it.

Rohmer's latest film

Autumn tale, directed by Eric Rohmer, is the last in his cycle of seasonal tales. Rohmer has been making astute, precise films about the moral and emotional dilemmas of the French middle class, and something more than that, for nearly 40 years.

Rohmer's stories are generally intricate and intriguing. Magali, an unattached winemaker in her forties, is at the center of his most recent work. Her son's new girlfriend, Rosine, and her own best friend, Isabelle, both set out to match her up with an interesting man. The younger woman pushes Magali toward a somewhat callow philosophy professor she had an affair with while a student. Isabelle takes a more perilous, but rewarding route. She places a personal ad in the newspaper and arranges a lunch date with Gerald, one of the men who responds. After determining his suitability over the course of several encounters, Isabelle breaks the news to him that she is simply an (unsolicited) envoy for another woman. Astonished and more than a little put out, he nonetheless agrees to pursue the relationship with the absent woman.

Both Rosine and Isabelle bring their respective suitors to Magali's attention at the wedding of Isabelle's daughter. The professor is clearly not suitable ('Men who like young girls, do it all their life'), and, through a misadventure, Magali assumes that Gerald is Isabelle's lover. In the end, things seem to sort themselves out, presumably through the wisdom associated with the autumn of one's life.

I remain in favor of the best of Rohmer's film, despite their occasionally irritating quality. Immaculately written, elegantly acted (Marie Rivière as Isabelle and Alain Libolt as Gerald in particular), extraordinarily graceful, his films are civilized entertainment. And that is not the worst thing, by any means.


  • Part 1: A comment on the 1998 Toronto International Film Festival
  • Part 2:
    Dr. Akagi ; Dance of Dust ; Flowers of Shanghai
  • Part 4:
    The Apple ; The Silence ; The Terrorist ; My Name is Joe ; Eternity and a Day
  • An interview with the director, Santosh Sivan, and leading actress, Ayesha Dharkar, of The Terrorist
  • See Also:
    On what should the new cinema be based?
    [17 June 1996]