Toronto International Film Festival 2013–Part 2

12 Years a Slave and other films

This is the second of a series of articles devoted to the recent Toronto film festival (September 5-15). Part 1 was posted September 20.

One of the most prominently featured and commented upon films at the 2013 Toronto film festival was 12 Years a Slave from British director Steve McQueen. The movie is based on the 1853 book of the same title by Solomon Northup (born in 1808), a free black man who lived in Saratoga Springs, New York, before he was kidnapped in Washington, DC in 1841 and sold into slavery. He was eventually rescued in 1853.

McQueen’s film opens with Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) living happily with his wife and children as a musician and a respected citizen in New York state. When his wife is away one time, Solomon falls into the hands of slave traffickers, and the movie proceeds quickly to the most graphic presentation of the barbarity of slavery.

A slave auctioneer (Paul Giamatti) sadistically displays his naked human goods, including Solomon, before wealthy clients who prod the slaves as if they were livestock. Transported to New Orleans by ship, Solomon first becomes the property of William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Baptist preacher, the least violent of Solomon’s eventual masters. In order to survive, Solomon must hide the fact that he is educated, since the slave owners, vastly outnumbered by the slaves, above all fear the rebellious spirit that literacy and culture might impart to the savagely oppressed black population.

Unspeakable (and nearly unwatchable) cruelty is meted out to Solomon and the other slaves by the merciless John Tibeats (Paul Dano). Solomon is then sold to the “slave-breaker,” the psychotic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). The movie’s drama crescendos, as McQueen admits in an interview, toward the whipping of Epps’ female slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), an interminable, lurid sequence. The intervention of a pro-abolitionist Canadian carpenter (Brad Pitt), alters Solomon’s fate.

Director McQueen is known for his “brutal” and “unflinching” style. His first feature movie, Hunger (2008), depicts the hunger strike led by Irish republican Bobby Sands in a Northern Irish prison. This was followed by Shame (2011) about a New York City “sex addict.” Both previous films employ McQueen’s signature gratuitousness.

Likewise, with a deafening soundtrack and visually suffocating camera work, 12 Years a Slave goes from one hideous detail to another, with an eye towards maximum exploitation of each episode. McQueen speaks about this in an interview with Indiewire.

Asked why he lingered on difficult moments, the director replied: “I’m a filmmaker, so I always think: When is the breaking point? Sometimes you’ve got to go beyond the breaking point, and then you catch it. When is long enough? It’s one of those things you have to look at, walk away, and go home and find out what it is. It’s sometimes beyond the breaking point, because you go through that barrier of the pain of this person. In the book, Solomon is hanging [from a rope] all day… So I wanted somehow for the audience to sort of experience that, for a fraction, as much as I could.”

This conception of the artist, as someone who subjects his audience to suffering, is distinctly postmodernist and distinctly false. It is an evasion of the artist’s central responsibility, which is not to inflict a given experience, but to arrive at its truth. Unfortunately, those two undertakings are confused by many artists today, not only filmmakers.

Although his work is not as malicious or pyromaniacal as Quentin Tarantino’s, in Django Unchained, for example, McQueen has a good deal in common with the latter, who openly presents himself as a sadist: “I think the role of a filmmaker can very well be as a sadistic relationship to the audience’s masochist. I’ve always really believed that the audience needs to be tortured, all right, and the torture is not so bad. It’s a lot better than being glazed over. It’s a lot better than being bored and have images just glaze over you.”

There are repercussions to McQueen’s unmediated, non-contextualized approach. The logic of the film is spelled out by the (perhaps wishful) warning in the right-wing British Daily Mail “that the film has already made many Americans uneasy about their past. Some are even suggesting it could threaten to reignite the racial tensions that are always simmering below the surface of American society.” Whatever McQueen’s intentions, and there is no need to believe them entirely innocent, his presentation encourages racial and identity politics.

In his narrative, Northup took a different approach. First of all, he dedicates his work to “Harriet Beecher Stowe [the author of the recently published antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin], whose name, throughout the world, is identified with the great reform.” He then quotes from William Cowper’s poem “The Task” (1785), which argues that “Such dupes are men to custom…that even servitude, the worst of ills…is kept and guarded as a sacred thing” and asks whether it can “bear the shock of rational discussion, that a man…should be a despot absolute”?

Northup proceeds to explain that “I can speak of Slavery only so far as it came under my own observation—only so far as I have known and experienced it in my own person. My object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages and fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage.”

A comment by the University of North Carolina’s Patrick E. Horn speaks to the book’s objective style and content: “The second half of Northup’s narrative is chiefly devoted to describing life on a cotton plantation. He provides detailed descriptions of the processes of planting, cultivating, and picking cotton, character sketches of his fellow slaves, and gradations of punishment for various offenses. As he was periodically hired out to sugar plantations as well, Northup describes the methods of planting, harvesting, and processing the cane in similar detail. Though his account reveals the misery and despair of field slaves, like many other slave narratives, it also reflects the wry humor with which Northup endured his situation.

“For example, in describing the meager rations allotted for each week’s subsistence, he quips that ‘no slave of [Edwin Epps’s] is ever likely to suffer from the gout, superinduced by excessive high living.’ Likewise, he begins his description of slave huts by stating that ‘the softest couches in the world are not to be found in the log mansion of the slave.’ Ironic metaphors and understatements such as these render Northup’s account all the more compelling, leavening the extent of his degradation with a wry and persistent sense of humor.”

It goes without saying that this element is missing from McQueen’s film. More importantly, any understanding of slavery as a historical phenomenon is absent, despite the occasional reference to slaves as property. Slavery was not simply the sum total of beatings and whippings—as real as they were and as much as they were an integral part of the institution.

The chattel slave system in the US and elsewhere was bound up with the global development of capitalism. As we have noted before, Marx pointed to slavery’s place in history in Capital, “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.” These “idyllic proceedings,” he explained, were key moments in the primitive accumulation of capital.

Horrifying conditions also existed in the industrial towns and cities of England, for example, where children, according to a contemporary commentator, “were harassed to the brink of death by excess of labour...were flogged, fettered and tortured in the most exquisite refinement of cruelty; …they were in many cases starved to the bone while flogged to their work and...even in some instances...were driven to commit suicide” (cited in Capital). In the same work, responding to an exposure of the horrific conditions of the slaves in the American South, Marx observed, “For slave-trade read labour-market, for Kentucky and Virginia, [read] Ireland and the agricultural districts of England, Scotland, and Wales, for Africa, [read] Germany.” Entire generations were killed off in factories, workshops and mines. The life expectancy of a working-class man in Manchester in 1840 was 17.

What is the message and thrust of McQueen’s film? Whatever he is seeking to accomplish, the content and tone of the film make clear that his version of 12 Years a Slave is not oriented toward a struggle against present-day forms of oppression—and that is the most severe criticism one could offer.

The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman, directed by Ralph Fiennes, sets out to treat the relationship between 45-year-old Charles Dickens, then at the height of his fame in the late 1850s, and his 18-year-old mistress Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones), an actress who became for a time, his muse and passion. Despite his unsatisfying marriage to Catherine (Joanna Scanlan)—who has borne Dickens 10 children—career considerations dictate that Ellen (later Nelly) will lead an “invisible” life.

Fiennes, who made his film directing debut with the acclaimed Coriolanus in 2010, “felt moved by this woman and her secret past...holding a past relationship inside her, which has marked her forever, and of which she was unable to speak.” The story is based on the 1990 biography of Ternan by Claire Tomalin.

A dark, brooding piece, the film is a fairly trite and superficial rendering of an episode in the life of one of the greatest and most popular writers of all time, who has enlightened and entertained readers for generations. In the movie, Dickens plays second fiddle to the always sullen Ellen, upon whose face the camera forever loiters.

The production notes tell us that Dickens was “a brilliant amateur actor—a man more emotionally coherent on the page or on stage, than in life.” Well, first of all, why should we take the filmmakers’ word for it? Once again, we are being subjected to ahistorical sanctimony. The film’s not-too-subtle subtext is its disapproval of Dickens’ treatment of his wife and mistress, ignoring him as a product of his era and social circumstances.

Frankly, the author’s dedication to presenting life in his novels is a thousand times more important and enduring than his imputed peccadilloes. Who set up these middle class critics as the arbiters of morality extending back into history? What have they got to boast about? It should be noted that the movie was scripted by Abi Morgan, who wrote the shameful tribute to Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady. Ironically, Thatcher, of course, is the politician who more than any other is identified with the return of conditions of social misery to Britain that might be termed “Dickensian.”

Hi-Ho Mistahey! is the latest documentary by Alanis Obomsawin, a member of the Abenaki First Nation, who has made a number of films about First Nations people in Canada. In 2009, the school in the Northern Ontario Cree village of Attawapiskat was demolished, 30 years after a diesel fuel leak contaminated the land on which it sat.

Obomsawin’s film focuses on the campaign lead by the remarkable 14-year-old Shannen Koostachin to have a real school replace substandard portable buildings. After Shannen’s untimely death, the movement attracted national attention, lobbying for improved educational opportunities for First Nations youth. Aboriginal people in Canada suffer from unemployment, poverty and its attendant ills in staggering and appalling numbers.

While the stories of Shannen’s family and other members of the distressed community are full of heart, the film’s politics endorse working within the system, in this case, through the New Democratic Party. After endless governmental neglect, the guitar playing, storytelling NDP MP Charlie Angus stepped into the breach. He is prominently on display in the movie, which culminates with six students flying to Geneva in February 2012 to deliver a message to a UN committee. Shortly afterward a motion for Aboriginal children, introduced by Angus, was passed in the House of Commons. The film’s production notes admit that “many other communities still don’t have safe and welcoming schools.”

Australian filmmaker Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road is a thriller set in an outback town, whose lead character Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) is an Aboriginal cop determined to solve the murder of a teenage Aboriginal girl. Swan is neither accepted by the white-dominated police force, nor the police-hating Aboriginal community. The movie is relatively lightweight, entertaining fare that also stars veteran Australian actors Hugo Weaving and Jack Thompson.

The latest film by American director Kelly Reichardt is Night Moves, about eco-terrorism. Set in Oregon, it is the story of three radical environmentalists who plot and execute the blowing up of a hydroelectric dam, with unplanned, fatal consequences. The trio are Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a former Marine, Dena (Dakota Fanning), who works in a New Age spa and their leader, the militant Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), a member of an organic farm community. The movie’s production notes describe it as “a tale of suspense and a meditation on the consequences of political extremism.”

Night Moves might be more aptly labeled some ramblings on the delusions of a political delinquency that has long since passed its prime. Reichardt claims to have drawn inspiration from “Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, members of the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, Earth First!, the Earth Liberation Front, the would-be Portland Christmas tree bomber, a kid who burned down a McDonald’s in his hometown—to the fictional character of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.” Is eco-terrorism really the most pressing problem in contemporary America? In fact, its practitioners are either sitting in jail or have long ago made their peace with the powers that be.

Reichardt’s previous work includes Meek’s Cutoff (2010), about an ill-fated wagon train in the Pacific Northwest in 1845. That film has no definable start or finish, and while Reichardt brings to it her characteristically minimalist approach, Meek’s Cutoff lacks the concrete social detail that made her Wendy and Lucy (2008), starring Michelle Williams, a moving and wrenching work. Night Moves fails to elicit any such sympathy for its largely clueless, disoriented characters.

Italian director Alessio Cremonini falls into line with imperialist propaganda on Syria with Border, about two young Muslim women, who learn that a family member has deserted the Syrian Army to join the opposition Free Syrian Army. In order to survive they must make their way to Turkey. Their journey involves dealing with a sleazy shabiha, a mercenary tool of the government, and encountering members of the rebel force, depicted as a kindly, humanitarian group of saviors, rather than an element of the right-wing, US-backed Islamist militias. Speaking for an entire social layer, TIFF’s director and CEO Piers Handling, in his film catalogue description, presents Border as a “powerful account of contemporary Syria.”

To be continued