Personal, powerful, palatable: Mick Robertson rediscovers our fondness for food

U of T student premieres her short film Eating is a Very Tender Thing at TIFF Next Wave

Personal, powerful, palatable: Mick Robertson rediscovers our fondness for food

Michaela Robertson’s favourite time to eat is in the middle of the night. She likes to stand with the fridge open and about four different containers of leftovers strewn around her. She told me, with a chuckle in her voice, that she gets this from her father.

Eating is a very tender thing. It’s how we stay connected to our bodies, and, often, how we tell other people that we love them. That’s exactly what Robertson set out to document, with cinematographer Isaac Roberts and a set of DV camcorders.

As a part of the Battle of the Scores competition, an event that opened the TIFF Next Wave Festival, three filmmakers each created a silent film. Following this, six musicians performed original scores inspired by these films live at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on February 14.

Robertson’s three-minute silent film depicts her close family and friends eating their favourite foods, how and where they like to eat them. “The idea was to make it a love letter to eating,” she told me in a Skype interview — a fittingly grainy form of communication for talking about Robertson’s film, which she designed to look like a wedding video. Robertson was sitting in front of her childhood bunk beds with a smile on her face as she told me about all of the sparkling ideas that had shaped her project. 

The Varsity: Can you tell me a little bit about your film?

Micaela Robertson: My project is called Eating is a Very Tender Thing, and it was inspired by this passage from a play called Concord Floral by Jordan Tannahill, in which there’s this girl who talks about how she’s always felt like an outsider. And so she’s talking about how, at the cafeteria, she always felt comfortable, because in her mind, what she says is, “eating is a very tender thing. When we were apes we would all stand around and guard each other as we ate, because it’s the time when we’re most vulnerable,” and so I always really liked that. 

And so, when the opportunity came around, when I saw the posting for [the festival], I got excited at the prospect of being able to buy all of these people I cared about a meal, and then was hoping that I would be able to capture them eating the way that they love to eat, on camera, capturing them eating as comfortably as possible. And so, basically what my film ended up being is three minutes of over a dozen people eating some of their favourite meals the way that they love to eat them the most.

TV: If the film as a whole was a type of food, what would it be? 

MR: There’s one shot in it of a friend of mine eating a full brunch, but in bed. He’s eating takeout brunch, so it’s way too much to be eating while you’re sitting in bed, but he’s in bed in his pajamas. That’s the tone of the film. Or, honestly, noodles because [that’s] the image that I was really keen on trying to get at some point in the film. When I pitched it to TIFF Next Wave and Insomniac [Film Festival], I was like, “I want to have a film that has a shot of a big noodle going into someone’s mouth and slapping their mouth. I need some messy noodle eating.” I feel like messy noodle eating maybe encapsulates the film. 

TV: It sounds like there’s a lot of warmth in it, but there’s also a sort of a carefree aspect to it. Is that what you mean by the messy noodles? 

MR: The cinematographer for the film — his name is Isaac Roberts — used these old DV camcorders to shoot the entirety of the film, which gives it this feeling of [looking] almost like a wedding video. It looks sort of romantic in the way that it looks like it maybe wasn’t necessarily meant to be produced and shown at TIFF. It looks like it was meant to be shown on a TV screen to other loved ones. So, I think that that’s where the messiness comes in, because it’s shot in standard definition, which is so messy compared to the glory of HD. But it’s just the right tone for this film. It wouldn’t have worked, I think, if it was shot on a DSLR or anything like that.

TV: Would you describe your relationship with food as something that’s a bit romantic?

MR: This year, the Battle of the Scores falls on Valentine’s Day. So, the pitch had to be about romance. And so I think that my relationship with food is probably one of the most intimate relationships I’ve ever experienced. When I engage in that relationship it is just for me; it’s for nobody else. It makes me feel all sorts of ways, and I think that because the way that I love to eat is alone in the middle of the night, the only thing that surpasses the intimacy of those moments has been finding a romantic partner who also loves to eat like I do — in the middle of the night. All of a sudden, I’m comfortable doing this super personal thing with another person. And in that regard, I think it’s a highly romantic thing. 

TV: Were there ever any discussions, undertones, or thoughts about body image involved in the film? 

MR: I was conscious of how eating is related to body image as I was dealing with the participants. And so, before the participants were officially signed onto the project, they all filled out a survey outlining very necessary things that I said I explicitly needed to know about, like food allergies. But there were also areas in the survey in which I encouraged them, that if they wanted, they could share with me things that I might need to know in order to make this more comfortable with them.

I did make a conscious decision for this film not to be about body image, but in a way, to me, that makes it about body image in a certain regard.

My eating habits are insane — like, loving to eat until you’re really, really full right before you fall asleep is not good for someone’s body image, but nevertheless, it’s something that I love to do, and I do try to eat as healthily as possible. Therefore, I wanted to enjoy the fact that I really love to eat, and make a film that was about really loving to eat. Which, in a way, because of the way that it doesn’t give time to talk about the dark underbelly of [eating], it kind of is talking about it. It’s about trying to dismiss those dark thoughts in the form of a film. Like, it’s okay to love to eat late at night. It’s okay. So, that was the idea, to make it a love letter to eating, to highlight all the positives of it, rather than focusing on the negatives.

TV: How did you try to capture the different cultural approaches to eating communally? 

MR: It was more personal. Although, the thing that ended up happening was that there ended up being a focus on eating individually. That’s not a complete throughline in the film. There’s a couple of siblings eating together, actually. So, although that sounds like there’s a lot of people who eat communally together in the film, there’s actually way more people who eat by themselves. I think I was more interested in what people do when they’re alone and enjoying eating, just because I know that I have my own rituals that I perform when I’m eating alone.

Of course, a lot of that ended up being people watching TV, which is interesting in and of itself, but I did try to encourage some of the participants who I felt particularly comfortable with to try to engage in something that wasn’t watching TV. My friend Michael for example did a series where he photographed all these people eating brunch in his apartment. Right where his kitchen table is, there’s a skylight above, so all of this natural light floods in, and so for him, we kind of did this artificial thing where we got him to sit where his participants would have sat, and he just kind of sat and ate quietly.

With regard to cultural aspects of eating, communally or non-communally, that was the goal of the survey, to make it so that if people wanted to include culturally specific rituals around food or culturally specific food, they could, but that they also didn’t feel like they had to perform that for me. The goal was to acknowledge that food and culture go hand in hand, but the ultimate goal was for the participants to feel comfortable, and to feel seen as they appear most normally, or be seen as they would most typically be, or would want to be seen. And I really hope that everyone felt comfortable with that.

TV: There’s a growing culture of watching Netflix while you eat, or getting home late from a long day of work and eating. It’s sort of the ritual and system that we’ve built up, as opposed to some cultures in which it’s extremely important that you eat together. So, how did you diversify the film in terms of cultural expectations and individual behaviour?

MR: I tried to make sure that the age range was wide in the film. That being said, it ended up largely being people who are in their twenties. However, I think there’s something to be said about how people in their twenties are most often alone, because you’re not living necessarily with your family anymore, and you also might not have your own family set up yet. 

So, I think there’s a lot of normalcy in the people who are in their twenties eating by themselves. There’s also a lot of them eating in bed, which I feel is very typical because apartments are small. And, you know, usually, the dining space is a communal living area, so you’d rather eat in your bed. That said, the siblings we filmed eating together — both groups of siblings were substantially younger than I am, they were all under the age of 20. So, under the age of 20, people tend to still be living at home, and therefore be eating with their siblings.

Then, with my dad, he’s captured eating alone, but we faked that one a little bit because we had to tell my family to leave him alone so we could capture him as he would normally be once we’re all in bed.

Robertson’s film highlights the importance of cultivating a love of self through meditating upon what we put in our bodies, as well as using food as a vehicle to express our feelings to others. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

TIFF 2019: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Two Varsity writers are mesmerized by Céline Sciamma’s stunning feature film

TIFF 2019: <em>Portrait of a Lady on Fire</em>

Right before the screening of Portrait of a Lady on Fire began, director Céline Sciamma did two things. First, she commended the décor of the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre, which has vines and bushels of fake shrubbery completely covering its ceiling, and second, she expressed her nerves at the buzz her movie had been generating. Leaning casually against the podium, she emphasized the relationship between such a grand, ornate theatre and her movie — a movie which was relatively small and didn’t have any big actors, though it may very well produce them  — and commented on the fact that though this discrepancy was incredibly humbling, it was also very stressful.

Her stress, however, proved to be unfounded, as once the screen faded to black and the final credits rolled, everyone in the multi-tiered balconies shot up to give Sciamma and her cast a roaring ovation. Two hours of movie played in between her first appearance on stage and her second. Two hours of a movie where the delicate strings that connect lovers and friends are frayed and pulled at, though never completely severed.

The film begins with a brush stroke: a thick brush swipes dark paint on a canvas and we find ourselves observing a group of young girls being instructed in portraiture by a dark-haired woman, posed rigidly but confidently, in the middle of their circle. While she poses, she calls out orders, and we find out that she is not a mere model with timely anatomical advice, she is a painter herself. As for the painting that is cast aside behind her, well, that one is called “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” And so our journey begins, jumping back a couple of years in time to the murky waters between France and Italy, to the end of the eighteenth century.

For Héloise, Marianne is an opportunity for freedom: a companion with whom her mother would finally allow her to leave the house. It takes Marianne a little bit longer to see Héloise in the same light, but before long, Marianne notes freedom in her nature: someone who doesn’t hold her tongue and who doesn’t embellish the truth. Both women have imprisonment and freedom that the other doesn’t, and so they fit together like puzzle pieces, making up for what the other lacks.

Sciamma’s film is a dissertation on what binds us to societal roles and what binds us to ourselves, questioning whether we can ever find a happy grey area between the two — if we can join the two otherwise separate circles into a Venn diagram. Imprisoned people believe they are free until they get a taste of what freedom actually feels like, and this is the case for Marianna and Héloise.

As they begin to discover and explore their newfound freedoms, they begin a romantic relationship, one that has a looming expiration date which promises a startlingly short lifespan. But the two women don’t try to evade their ending; they instead feel confident that they’ve established a bond strong enough for memory alone to sustain it once they’ve separated.

From the very beginning, Sciamma subverts expectations. Where there should be melodrama there is humour; where there should be pain there is laughter. But as such, where there should be love there is disappointment. These subversions begin as fun moments — instead of being upset at a big reveal, the characters begin to banter about the nature of art and art criticism — but eventually descend into moments of pain born out of helplessness.

However, this was the case for women in this time period. After all, Sciamma’s film is as much about women as it is about art or romance or memory. There are only five characters with substantial speaking roles, and all of them are women. Women of different social statuses and ones navigating different stages of life. These experiences — grief, motherhood, business, homosexual love — are written and filmed in a lens unique to women. Portrait of a Lady on Fire focuses on all types of relationships between women: platonic, romantic, and subservient.

There is a new canon of contemporary gay movies shaping up out of the past decade and a half, movies focusing on a uniquely individual facet of gay love, through race, gender, religion, and period in time. Stylistically, Portrait of a Lady on Fire doesn’t do enough to separate itself from the likes of Brokeback Mountain, Moonlight, Call Me by Your Name, and God’s Own Country — not that being considered part of this group is a negative thing. Unlike last year’s The Favourite, it is gentle in its delivery, with thoughtful dialogue, gorgeous landscapes, and limited music.

You don’t come out this movie feeling that you’ve just witnessed one of the greatest cinematic love stories of this century. Instead you come out focused on the women and their individual journeys. The audience focuses on how they interact with one another when not pressured by the judgemental gaze of others, and how they behave when they have moments of absolute freedom, though few and sparse.

Céline Sciamma makes a movie where she coils women’s freedoms and imprisonments so that, if you are not paying enough attention, it seems like both are parts of the same vine. She doesn’t explicitly outline what freedom and imprisonment are for her characters, and as such we leave the theatre feeling that not only that we must ponder the partition ourselves, but that the characters are continuing on with their lives, mulling over the same dilemma that we are.

That is to say, Sciamma welcomes the audience as she does her characters. She unites everyone no matter their point in life, or what they had to do to get there, so that we all meet at the same point in the end. It isn’t a moment of clarity, but rather, one of unity.

Why TIFF matters

At their core, film festivals are a platform for small, independent film makers

Why TIFF matters

There are approximately 3,000 film festivals every year, with the most renowned being the Sundance, Cannes, Berlinale, Hong Kong International Film Festivals, and of course, our very own Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Every September, the City of Toronto hosts a 10-day event — with a plethora of actors, directors, and writers coming to the festival to discuss their art. Alongside the other international festivals, TIFF provides a platform for the films that do not fulfil the formulaic patterns of American studios like Hollywood.

Over the last 10 years, the cost of producing and promoting films has skyrocketed — meaning that independent creators are reliant on film festivals to exhibit and promote their work.

Film festivals enable artists to share their art without the monetary constraints. However, it is ironic that festivals, by upholding their curatorial responsibilities toward arts and culture, have evolved into a multi-million-dollar industry.

The relationship between large film companies and film festivals is often finely balanced between complementary and uneasy. This is because the lifeline of the festivals is the celebrities who star in the films. The celebrities attract media coverage, which in turn results in sponsors and funding.

This means that the already unstable relationship between art and business — which defines the whole film industry — is particularly strained at film festivals.

Unlike blockbusters — where their success is controlled by funding and release strategies — indie films are largely dependent on the reactions of festival directors, the response of the audience, and how much sleep critics can grab in between the midnight and 8:00 am screenings.

Living in Toronto, we have the privilege of an international film festival right on our doorstep. The festival even occurs before the semester is in full swing, so we truly have an abundance of time to amble along King Street West and enjoy the culture that is the driving force behind one of the world’s leading film festivals.

Breaking through barriers

The Breakthrough Film Festival showcases films made by women, for everyone

Breaking through barriers

Why do female filmmakers make up only nine per cent of directors in 2015’s 250 highest grossing films? Because the film world is “comprised of 91 per cent men,” quips Maya Annik from The Gaze podcast. Breakthroughs Film Festival, Canada’s only festival dedicated to showcasing short films by new-generation female filmmakers, seeks to address this disparity. Its fifth annual festival, which ran June 10–11 at the Royal Cinema on College Street, featured 17 films from nine countries, including Canada.

“We’re trying to get far more of a balance compared to what has already existed,” says Gabor Pertic, Breakthroughs’ executive director and longtime programmer for TIFF and Hot Docs. “And it’s not only about saying, ‘hey everyone, here are a bunch of young female filmmakers and here are their films,’ but, ‘here is the world, this is what the world’s stories are, this is what these young emerging talents are able to showcase, and we can all benefit from that.’”

The first night of the festival started with the premiere of Stalingrado, a drama set in the beautiful countryside of northwestern Spain. Director Anyora Sanchez brings together an unlikely cast of characters — a rugged Spanish shepherd, an elegant Russian woman with whom he is in love, and his mother — to explore, with tender humour and sincerity, the challenges of a relationship that threatens cultural norms.

Emilie Mannering’s Star takes an honest look at Canadian culture’s pervasive hypermasculinity through the eyes of teenage boys living in Montreal. The film opens with a selfie video using Snapchat or Vine, and its shakiness draws the audience right into the heart of their hectic world. Here, they watch street fights online, write rap music, and struggle to find ways to connect with their peers or stand up for their beliefs. It’s a captivating portrait, right up to its haunting end.  

Childhood visits to Pakistan inspired Canadian filmmaker and photographer Zinnia Naqvi to return to her family’s roots and make a film out of a pre-existing photography project. Seaview is a visually striking exploration of identity, cultural differences, and artistic integrity.  

2016 Breakthroughs Jury Prize winner Edmond ended the evening on a reflective note. The animated short, written and directed by Nina Gantz, follows a young man embarking on a retrospective journey at a critical point in his life. The childlike spirit evoked by puppetry contrasts the bizarre, often troubling behaviours Edmond relives as he ponders his current desires. Gantz’s creative scene transitions lend the work a surreal tone.

Saturday night featured two other award-winners: Sunday Lunch, by French filmmaker Céline Devaux, won the Audience Choice Award for its portrayal of “a lunchtime gathering with family, complete with generational dysfunction and plenty of wine,” while Ryerson film studies graduate Jasmin Mozaffari received Jury’s Honourable Mention for Wave, which follows a man who has experienced a great loss and finds himself “struggling with his personal demons and anguish while having to maintain responsibilities he may not be ready to take on.”

The quality of Breakthroughs’ films shows that the lack of female representation in the film industry is not due to a lack of talent. On having a film festival devoted to women filmmakers, Zinnia Naqvi says, “It’s nice to have this platform; to be together and have that community.”