Overlooked: Mean Streets

Overlooked: Mean Streets

Overlooked: <i>Mean Streets</i>

The first time that I heard about Mean Streets, I didn’t even recognize it as a Martin Scorsese film, despite loving his later works. Often regarded as a crime movie, Mean Streets is that and so much more.

From the rawness of its characters, to its plot and setting, Mean Streets was an instant classic. Shot almost completely in Los Angeles, the film brings the murky, diabolical glow of Little Italy, New York to life through the God-fearing Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and the suicidal and reckless Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro). At its core, Mean Streets is Scorsese’s tribute to his city. It’s a tale of friendship, love, religion, but most of all, it’s a tale of New York.

Although Keitel and De Niro are now stalwarts of Hollywood, when this movie was filming, they were relatively unknown. We see De Niro especially unshackled by the gravitas of his later roles such as Taxi Driver. In Mean Streets, he often improvised his lines and really brought the rogue Johnny to life — and we love him for it, even though he is the problem that pushes the narrative forward.

The handheld, shaky cinematography further immerses the audience in the gritty world of low-level Italian mafia. A staple in his later works — Goodfellas and Raging Bull, to name a couple — Scorsese’s minimalist yet innovative camera techniques really come through in the famous pool table fight scene. Equal parts hilarious and violent, he strapped a camera to Keitel’s head to demonstrate his intoxicated state.

In a way, the lower budget paved the way for the film’s distinctive style, as the majority of the budget was spent on the soundtrack, with music composed by The Ronettes, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones.

Scorsese’s sharp script and sharper directing encapsulate his view of the world in a grand, two-hour long gangster epic that shouldn’t be buried in the stacks of time, but celebrated as a work of art that inspired thousands of filmmakers and told a story about the great city of New York.

Overlooked: Love Jones

Representation is important: Love Jones is the first Black romcom that feels more indie than commercial

Overlooked: <i>Love Jones</i>

I am a hopeless romantic. I love watching love, hearing about love, and reading about love.

My favourite type of romantic content are romantic dramas with heavy dialogue: movies that not only explore love, but the human condition in a meaningful way. From Before Sunrise to Under the Tuscan Sun, I can revel forever.

One such movie that is underrated is Love Jones, which follows the story of Darius Lovehall, played by Larenz Tate, and Nina Mosley, played by Nia Long. Nina is a photographer who has just left a long-term relationship with a neglectful boyfriend, while Darius is a poet and a hopeless romantic.

They meet at a nightclub where Darius is performing poetry and, unbeknownst to Nina, he dedicates a poem to her. From there, a relationship begins to bloom.

Although the premise is simple, the film is monumental.

While movies such as The Wood and The Best Man do explore the love lives of Black people, Love Jones is absolutely the first popular Black film that truly feels more indie than commercial.

Unlike the heavy dialogue, artistic shots, and meditation on the lives of twenty-somethings living in a big city in Before Sunrise, Love Jones has no big scenes or dramatic arcs.

Instead, this film is about love in all stages.

It demonstrates the ebb and flow of two people who love each other but struggle to be on the same page. They want to love and to know what love is, but they are torn by their professional pursuits. Watching this as a teenager, I did not understand the beauty of the film. I thought it was just about two people who couldn’t make up their minds.

But after rewatching it in my twenties, my perspective shifted. It’s now painfully familiar.

On top of that, the film has an incredible soundtrack with Lauryn Hill, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane. If you really like that jazz club episode from The Proud Family or enjoy a beautifully filmed romantic drama, this film is for you.

TIFF 2018: Volunteering at one of the world’s largest film festivals

Volunteering allows you to learn about and support smaller independent films

TIFF 2018: Volunteering at one of the world’s largest film festivals

Sunday, September 16 marked the final day of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) — or, in other words, the final day that I could compulsively stalk any human person with a reputable IMDb page who was in the Toronto area while not appearing to be a complete psychopath.

This year, I had the pleasure of volunteering alongside TIFF’s remarkable staff, where I was granted behind the scenes, 3D, and high-definition access to one of the world’s largest and most prestigious film festivals.

You’re probably wondering how I, a small, doe-eyed liberal arts student from rural Ontario got the opportunity to work at an event with such high stakes.

It began when I heard that TIFF was looking for another batch of eager volunteers. As an aspiring filmmaker, actor, and director, I knew that I needed to play a part in this year’s festival.

Like every other millennial that had applied, I had stars in my eyes as I dreamed of meeting internationally renowned celebrities. Whether it was icon and multi-Academy Award winner Meryl Streep or heartthrob Timothée Chalamet, having the chance to meet any star would be a mission accomplished.

That being said, during volunteer training, we were told with utter transparency that ‘stargazing’ was strictly prohibited, and so, in a matter of seconds, they had shattered all my hopes and dreams.

As I sat in my room, digesting this information, I contemplated just forgetting about it all. Was it worth it to volunteer and not have the chance to meet celebrities?

In that moment, I had to think of what was best for me. I yearned for a signal from someone, from something. Then I recalled a famous lyric from pop queen Ariana Grande: “I’m so into you, I can barely breathe,” she whispered to me. I knew that she didn’t write “Into You” so I could just quit on this whole thing. I had to do it for her, but more importantly, for me.

After attending orientation, picking up my badge and t-shirt, and signing up for my shifts, I was officially a TIFF volunteer. I was ecstatic. At this point, my mentality was to enter the festival with high hopes and the willingness to learn more about the organization, and to support the smaller, independent films that were premiering.

If you were lucky, you could work in the cinemas and view the films. I was working at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, which is a multi-screen venue, meaning that there were lots of opportunities for me to see a plethora of films that I would never have had the opportunity to see outside of TIFF.

On one of my earlier shifts, I was assigned to Cinema 4, where I viewed Bi Gan’s experimental Chinese film, Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

On my final shift, I had the pleasure of watching Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, which I can confidently say is my favourite film of the year, and cinematically one of my all-time favourites.

Sandwiched between these shifts is a day I will never forget.

This year at TIFF, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s A Star is Born premiered. Not only was their film premiering on the same day that I was working, but they were also promoting it at a press conference on the same morning that I was in the venue.

Even with this knowledge burning in the back of my mind, I never thought anything of it, until a TIFF staff member approached me. “You and you, follow me.”  I was the chosen one. But for what?

We were told that we would be scanning press tickets for the conference, meaning that I would have a chance of seeing Lady Gaga, my gay icon and the forever love of my life.

At that moment, my 10-year-old self and my current self let out an internal scream. This is what I had been waiting for: the chance to meet the multifaceted, legendary songstress and activist who produced all of my favourite songs as an impressionable queer boy.

After learning how to operate our scanning devices, my friend and I headed downstairs to the gallery where the conference was being held.

My role model of so many years would be standing in the same room as me.

Breathing the same air as me.

I had to stay calm.

After anxiously waiting, another staff member with two volunteers caught my eye and sternly marched over to me. I was expecting to get a time check for when Lady Gaga would arrive, or the okay to start scanning press tickets, but instead, I was told to return back to my previous job.

I was quite disturbed by this request and I let it show on my face. However, I am not confrontational, so I silently cursed the boy who replaced me and returned to my station.

As the day went on, I forgot about the incident and, to my surprise, thoroughly enjoyed the rest of my shift. Near the end of the day though, I overheard a conversation between two other volunteers: “I don’t really get the hype about Lady Gaga anyway.”

“Okay,” I thought, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but how does one disregard her stellar performance in A Star is Born?”

I turned around to see who dared criticize my idol it was that volunteer who had replaced me earlier in the day.

I am a firm believer in good karma, and I know that, at some point in my life, I will be graced by Lady Gaga’s presence.

The best of TIFF 2018

Highlights from one of Toronto’s most famous yearly experiences

The best of TIFF 2018

In a city as massive and complex as Toronto, it’s hard for most people to choose one defining annual event. But for me — and admittedly, my cinephilia makes me biased — it’s always the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

The world-famous film festival, now 42 years old, boasted a typically jaw-dropping lineup this year. I had the pleasure of seeing a variety of movies, including inevitable Oscar favourites, future cult classics, and even two very memorable films with close-ups of semen.

Those were 10 hectic days, but below are some of the highlights of 2018’s TIFF.

For awards season followers: If Beale Street Could Talk

Barry Jenkins has returned, his name omnipresent a few years ago with the breakthrough release Moonlight. His previous feature was confident, passionate, and mature. Yet as If Beale Street Could Talk proves, Jenkins’ Best Picture-winning work was just him finding his footing. His newest effort is a sensational ensemble drama, full of rich emotion and an endless barrage of breathtaking performances.

This is not merely some awards-hungry prestige picture; Jenkins has created a unique and bold human drama. With endless sincerity, his camera drifts through a lush and tender colour palette as Nicholas Britell’s string-heavy score washes over us. If Beale Street Could Talk is an earnest and important work from a filmmaker destined to be recalled as one of our era’s greats.

For sci-fi fanatics: High Life

At 72, there are few filmmakers who have performed with the consistency and genius of French auteur Claire Denis. She’s worked with a variety of gifted performers in a vast array of genres, from postcolonial dramas — Chocolat, for instance — to one of the most emotionally distressing horror films I’ve seen: Trouble Every Day.

Her latest movie continues to amaze audiences. High Life follows Monte (Robert Pattinson), a solitary man raising his daughter on an abandoned spaceship, hopelessly alienated from any civilization. What proceeds is a frenzy of ethical and metaphysical questions, with a finale of literally cosmic proportions. Told with ethereal beauty and haunting imagery, High Life is a worthy addition to the filmography of one of cinema’s most original artists.

For arthouse addicts: Ash Is Purest White

Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White is a lengthy, genre-switching, and emotional epic. It tries its hand as a crime film, an action, and a comedy, but ultimately settles for something a little more delicate and difficult to grasp.

The movie follows a woman who, after spending five years in prison for protecting her lover — a violent crime boss — struggles to readjust into a supposedly ‘free world.’ Spearheaded by a show-stopping performance from Zhao Tao, Ash Is Purest White questions our relationship with time and memory.

For Eurodrama enthusiasts: Transit

The textures, landscapes, and characters from Christian Petzold’s latest film, Transit, all seem familiar. On the surface, there is nothing earthshattering about its tale of a man’s attempt to escape fascism in Europe via migration. Yet Petzold’s handling of temporal relations is quietly innovative. Adapted from Anna Seghers’ 1942 novel Transit Visa, the film sets the narrative in a contemporary setting without changing any of the time-specific details from the source material.

The result is a movie that blends eras into one narrative. Is it the past? The present? A near future? The device is effective at pointing out the cyclical nature of time in a critique of the seemingly undying presence of fascism. Unfortunately, Transit’s subtlety may prevent some from detecting its creativity. This is definitely one of the year’s most expertly-crafted dramas.

For mystery lovers: Burning

Burning, Lee Chang-dong’s latest movie, is a slow-simmer mystery — a film where all answers are obscured behind dense layers of mist. Based off of Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” the adaptation follows a love triangle turned haywire when sinister intentions come into the mix.

Drenched in melancholic moods and set against bleak landscapes, Burning is a lonesome ambient-fuelled nightmare. Admittedly, the narrative buildup requires dedication and patience. However, once the jigsaw pieces are spread across the table, Burning’s energy drives it to a thrilling finale.

It’s an unconventional and slow-paced thriller, certain to satisfy fans of Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta or George Sluizer’s The VanishingBurning is an investment, but one that pays off in subsequent days of reflection.

For horror fiends: In Fabric

Like a giallo fever dream merged with a psychosexual extravaganza, Peter Strickland’s In Fabric had me in stitches. Likely the most bizarre addition to this year’s Midnight Madness lineup, the movie weaves together a tapestry of characters whose lives take a horrifying turn when they come into contact with a murderous dress.

Between its eerie department store to its evil washing machines, I was frequently in a state of delightful hysteria. Unfortunately, some of the movie’s genius is squandered in a second half that resorts to redundancies, only to recapture its mojo in the final minutes, climaxing in an unforgettable frenzy of cinematic madness.

For documentary devotees: Monrovia, Indiana

For 50 years, Frederick Wiseman has ventured around the world, exploring various settings ­— some renowned, some only remarkable for their lack of distinction. Monrovia, Indiana has him venturing right into the abyss: a nest of Trump supporters.

Remarkably, none of the subjects in this film seem to discuss politics. Instead, they simply drift through their daily routines. Wiseman’s camera captures the minute details of this lifestyle, from graphic surgery in a veterinarian’s office to peculiar mattress sales.

Wiseman’s films have always been about honestly summarizing his own experience of the space he studied, and here, he excels with flying colours.

For tearjerker admirers: An Elephant Sitting Still

After Hu Bo completed An Elephant Sitting Still, his first and only feature, Bo ended his life. I mention this because such a detail feels inseparable from the movie itself. Every scene revolves around a sense of disillusionment with existence; there’s a constant anguish for the entire four-hour runtime.

The spectre of death haunts every moment.

With its desaturated colours, An Elephant Sitting Still is a bleak and intimate epic. Certainly one of the festival’s most challenging movies and a colossal and rewarding achievement.

Beneath all of the grey layers of desperation is a sliver of beauty. This movie is the product of a rare and unique artistic voice.

For crime connoisseurs: Birds of Passage

With his new film, Ciro Guerra trades in the psychedelic atmosphere of Embrace of the Serpent for a grittier and more narrative-driven feature. The product is like a more spiritual Scarface. Both movies are bullet-ridden epics depicting how greed and excess trigger calamities.

Guerra is an immensely talented filmmaker, managing to hit the conventional milestones of crime film, while injecting it with a singular energy. Simultaneously beautiful and brutal, Birds of Passage is a superb Colombian gangster tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

For experimentalism experts: Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Word of Long Day’s Journey into Night’s unconventional structure has been circulating since its premiere at Cannes. To summarize: the film drops its opening title card 70 minutes in before switching to an hour-long 3D tracking shot for the remainder of the runtime.

Yet the film, Bi Gan’s sophomore feature, is more than just an awe-inspiring technical achievement. It’s also a tender and melancholic portrait of a man’s attempt to resurrect the past. Gan’s tender compositions toy with neo-noir tropes in a Tarkovsky-esque rumination on love.

In my opinion, this is the most beautiful and likely the greatest film that I saw at the festival; every frame sings like a celebration of the cinematic medium. It’s the perfect summation of what TIFF is all about.

TIFF 2018: Prosecuting Evil

Biopic of chief Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz also a tribute to the power of international law

TIFF 2018: <i> Prosecuting Evil </i>

Content warning: graphic descriptions of the Holocaust.

Ninety-eight-year-old Ben Ferencz is the last surviving prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials. It’s been over 70 years since he condemned the Nazis in front of the entire world, but even today, his face lights up as he repeats, by memory, a line from his submissions at trial: “The case we present is a plea of humanity to law.”

Directed by Barry Avrich, Prosecuting Evil combines Ferencz’s firsthand accounts, primary source footage, and statements from human rights experts around the world. The film is a jarring reminder of the horror that can flow out of cavernous international divisions, and of the need to universally condemn hatred across jurisdictions.   

Born in Transylvania to a Hungarian Jewish family, Ferencz immigrated to the United States when he was young to escape antisemitic persecution. When war broke out, Ferencz was a young law student at Harvard who wanted nothing more than to find a way to sabotage the Germans. Ferencz enlisted in the army and spent the months following December 1945 visiting newly liberated concentration camps and collecting evidence.

Ferencz knew at the time that there would eventually be a trial, but he could not have imagined that he would be the one to lead it. He was only 27 years old when he took on the role of chief prosecutor in the Einsatzgruppen trial: footage shows him baby-faced and fiercely determined, feet firmly planted on a stack of books so he could address the court without peering over the lectern. That young lawyer achieved the remarkable feat of looking evil in the eye: in front of the whole world, he demanded that Nazi Germany answer for its crimes. 

Nuremberg was a series of trials unlike any other. For the first time in history at such a scale, the proceedings sent a powerful message to the world that war crimes would be punished, and that evil could be prosecuted, even in times of war. Fortunately for the prosecution, there were mountains of documentary evidence, chillingly meticulous records of when, where, and how Holocaust victims had been murdered. And Nuremberg was after everyone, from the Nazi party leaders and senior officers, to the doctors who performed grotesque medical experiments, to the lawyers and judges who sullied the courts and the rule of law.

Prosecuting Evil is remarkable for allowing Ferencz to tell this story in his own words. Though his conviction for human rights and justice has never wavered, he retains complicated feelings about his time at Nuremberg to this day. Ferencz testifies to the devastatingly difficult work of visiting concentration camps and looking survivors in the eyes. To keep himself sane, he put up a mental screen and repeatedly told himself that what he was seeing was not real. Instead of calling for the death penalty, Ferencz had advocated for life in prison, but four of the defendants were hanged. These men slaughtered his people, but he still finds it alienating to be responsible for their deaths.

Hatred is an insidious force, and though Nuremberg provided some accountability, it did not lead to remorse. It is likely that the Nuremberg defendants honestly believed they were not guilty of wrongdoing; in their eyes, every murderous order they followed meant being one step closer to saving the Reich. When guilty verdicts were handed down, Nazis were marched to the prisons and the gallows with no words of apology. Hopeful for signs of closure, Ferencz visited one convicted defendant prior to his execution — only to hear, spat through the slats in the prison door, that the world would one day suffer for putting an end to the Nazi project.

By juxtaposing Ferencz’ storytelling with primary documentary footage from the Holocaust, Avrich gives the audience a small snapshot into what, as Ferencz puts it, is “incomprehensible to a natural human mind.” Viewers see the Holocaust as what it was: armies of Nazi soldiers pledging allegiance through extermination, gas chambers and tall towers of human bones, people dragged out of their homes and shot in the streets, and human beings with shaved heads and protruding ribcages, waiting for death.

In this way, the film is a testament to the power of documentary evidence in shaping the public conscience. No one can truly understand genocide without experiencing it firsthand. In a world that remains incredibly divided by conflict, it’s all the more important that film and storytelling bring former atrocities out of the shadows of history. 

As a complement to media, international law remains, at the least, a powerful communicative tool to respond to mass-scale tragedies. The horrors of World War II shocked the world into putting human rights instruments on the map. The dial in many parts of the world today moves toward isolationism, but we know all too well that Nuremberg did not put an end to international crimes. Remembering the Holocaust, and remembering Ferencz, can preserve what is left of our commitment to humanity.

“War will make mass murderers out of otherwise decent people.” Ferencz has seen it again and again over the course of his 98 years, and the only way out, he says, is law.

TIFF 2018: The soundtracks

My favourite four musical moments from this year’s movies

TIFF 2018: The soundtracks

If you’ve been anywhere downtown in the last two weeks, you probably have noticed that TIFF season was upon us. Whether you’re interested in seeing the films, volunteering, or on the lookout for celebs, many U of T students find themselves involved. This year, I decided to up my own festival game, seeing 25 movies.

Music is undoubtedly a key element to film, whether it is the score providing support for what’s on screen or a memorable soundtrack moment being forever tied to the scene in which it’s played. The broad range of films at TIFF have an array of musical moments, and I’ve created a small playlist to recognize some of the best that I’ve seen.

Song: “Trying” by Bully

Film: Her Smell

The TIFF film that’s stuck in my mind the most this year is Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell, in which Elisabeth Moss plays the frontwoman of ’90s all-female punk rock band Something She. Providing the music for the fictional band is Alicia Bognanno of the band Bully. The Nashville band has garnered acclaim for their music, which mixes an indie and punk rock sound with emotional rawness and directness.

Something She has a few louder songs throughout the film, but they really stand out when Moss’ character Becky Something performs acoustically; the lyrics and arrangements really show Bognanno’s and Moss’ talents. Bully’s song “Trying,” from their 2015 album Feels Like, is a good mix of both.

Song: “Windowlicker” by Aphex Twin

Film: Climax

Gaspar Noé’s film is about a French dance troupe in the mid-1990s, who get together to rehearse and then party. But when a bowl of sangria that the group has been drinking from throughout the entire night turns out to have been spiked, the night quickly descends into paranoia, despair, and a show of humans at their lowest. Before that happens, however, the film is a joyous showcase of people expressing themselves in the way they know best, through dance.

The movie is scored by an assortment of French house songs, which play almost constantly throughout the film.

One of the most recognizable songs is intelligent dance music classic “Windowlicker,” by electronic musician Aphex Twin. In this sequence, we see the film’s main character, played by Sofia Boutella, stumble through hallways, affected by whatever was in the sangria. The song is quintessentially weird, and its bizarre rhythms fit perfectly with Boutella’s physical performance.

Song: “Chandelier” by Sia

Film: Vox Lux

One of the joys of heavy TIFF-going is being able to see the many filmmakers’ different views on contemporary life, and Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux feels like the most modern and reflective of the current world. The film touches on school shootings, pop stardom, media image, a loss of innocence in culture, internet terrorist groups, and art’s relation to trauma.

The film features a bizarre pairing behind its music: pop star turned experimental artist Scott Walker, and indie pop singer turned pop star Sia. Sia’s “Chandelier” is a song that well represents the chaos and catharsis in the film and has already cemented itself as one of the best pop hits of the decade.

Song: “The Shallow” by Lady Gaga

Film: A Star Is Born

Arguably, no film has dominated TIFF conversation as much as Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born remake. Having two major celebrities both take on different jobs from what they are known for in a big-budget and ambitious film is exciting. The film boasts a great trailer, but there are 27 seconds of it that stand out from the rest. I will admit that I did not see this film, and the song featured has not been released yet, but it is worth noting as possibly the defining song of the festival.

Immediately, the viewer is struck by Lady Gaga’s vocals, which are more emotional than most songs or movies this year, without even using words. The song has become somewhat of a Twitter meme, and it shows how it has captured people’s hearts before, during, and presumably after the festival. We’re far from the shallows now.

TIFF 2018: Manto

The biographical film, set in Partition-era India, is a timely exploration of free speech, belonging, and truth, relevant to a global audience

TIFF 2018: <i> Manto </i>

When I discovered that Manto would have its North American premiere at TIFF, I knew that it would be nothing short of a profound viewing experience.

The film features actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who always puts in unbelievably believable performances  and he does so again as the Urdu-language writer, Saadat Hasan Manto. It is the second feature film directed by Nandita Das, who has frequently played central roles in Indian stories with global resonance.

Just as Das’ first feature film, Firaaq, tells the stories of the aftermath of the sectarian violence during the 2002 Gujarat riots, Manto brings us to the violence of Indian independence and Partition through the experiences of storywriter Manto.

Free speech

Manto’s literature focuses on prostitution. Throughout the film, his identity as a storywriter is defined by the challenges brought onto him by court. While his portrayal of women as strong, sexual, and resistant subjects is appreciated by some as demonstrating empathy toward women, he is accused in court of being obscene and antagonistic toward the moral standards of society, despite its tacit complicity in allowing access to prostitution.

Manto’s position is simple: “If you cannot bear my stories, it is because we live in unbearable times.”

Analyzing Manto’s battles in court is essential if we are to understand the importance of free speech and, crucially, its distinction from the contemporary ‘free speech’ movements that campuses across North America grapple with.

The exercise of free speech does not occur in a vacuum; it cannot be divorced from the social context and power relations in which it is produced. Manto’s humanization of women is a direct challenge to the conservative, colonial, and patriarchal society in which he exists. The state’s attempt to silence him is an abrogation of free speech, inhibiting societal progress and threatening stagnation. Meanwhile, today’s champions of free speech defend an oppressive order, and so, in claiming that they are being silenced, they fail to understand social context and power relations.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui portrays Pakistani writer, playwright, and author Saadat Hasan Manto. PHOTO COURTESY of TIFF

Belonging

In 1946, prior to Partition, Manto was an integral part of Bombay’s secular, progressive arts and literature scene. However, as Hindu-Muslim sectarian violence intensifies, he becomes increasingly conscious of his identity as a Muslim and feels compelled to move to Lahore, Pakistan, a safe space for Muslims.

Manto leaves behind his cherished city, as well as the graves of his father, mother, and firstborn son. While one of Manto’s stories portrays the exchange of lunatics between India and Pakistan, it reveals that the real madness is in the Partition itself. After all, the artificial construction of borders, justified by the perceived difference between Hindus and Muslims, suddenly turns centuries-long neighbours against one another.

Manto is Pakistani by virtue of being Muslim, and yet belongs more to the land known as India by virtue of his upbringing, family, and career. For Manto, the Partition of India causes a partition of his own self.

When humanity comes second to identity, the result is inevitable: mass migration, genocide, and violence. The formation of rigid identities stands in contrast to the reality that we are so much more than any singular category; we are, in fact, multiple identities.

I am of Bangladeshi origin, which means that in a previous era, I would have been considered East Pakistani, and before that, Indian. The creation of these modern identities, for some, is a source of pride. To me, it is a constant othering that has haunted the Indian subcontinent for the last 71 years  I lost a grandfather due to the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war.

As Islamic fundamentalism and Hindu nationalism play increasingly dangerous roles in South Asia, an ahistorical worship of artificial differences promises to reproduce the trauma of Partition, over and over again.

The irony that India’s independence coincided with Partition problematizes the meaning of freedom — in Manto’s words, “Either everyone’s life matters, or no one’s does.”

Identifying and seeking to rectify unequal power dynamics in the context of identity politics is not, in itself, identity politics — it is a rejection of colonialism.

A film about truth

Das’ film is about free speech and belonging but, fundamentally, it is about truth. She captures this by blurring the lines between the story of Manto, and Manto’s stories. Manto’s fiction was, in a sense, reality. It reflected his truth; it was what he saw in his society.

Partition was based on a fiction that Hindus and Muslims are fundamentally different; the truth is that complex individuals should not be essentialized into one singular identity. Instead, we should be skeptical about simplistic narratives that define belonging. The role of intellectuals, journalists, and artists is to expose reality for what it is, especially when it challenges oppressive power structures.

The truth is that nothing should come before our humanity.

TIFF 2018: The Great Darkened Days

Nothing flows naturally in Maxime Giroux’s latest effort

TIFF 2018: <i> The Great Darkened Days </i>

The Great Darkened Days opens up with a The Great Dictator quote — initially delivered by Charlie Chaplin in the ’40s — now offered to us by Philippe, our main character, as he competes in a Chaplin impersonation competition.

Phillipe is a draft-dodger and a Chaplin impersonator; he is from Montréal and he misses his mother. This is all we learn about our protagonist during a film that spans over an hour and a half.

Québécois director Maxime Giroux’s latest film is a lurid fever dream that attempts to explore — and ultimately condemn — capitalism and the American Dream. Giroux constructs a world where humans are sold as pets and considered a commodity; where well-dressed salesmen randomly show up in the middle of the desert peddling cigarettes; where the cars are from the ’50s, the clothes are from the ’30s, and the music is from the ’90s.

There is a war going on, we are told, but we don’t know which one. We don’t know where we are or what time period it is. All we are offered is a cast of bizarre characters acting out bizarre things.

On a technical level, The Great Darkened Days is near flawless. Sara Mishara’s cinematography — shot in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, the common ratio of film in the ’30s — captures Nevada’s snow-capped mountain ranges and dusty deserts beautifully.

The score, arranged by Olivier Alary, is brooding and atmospheric, achieving a sense of ominous urgency that the plot and story ultimately do not deliver on. The performances are good as well, especially those by Sarah Gadon, who plays an evil woman, and Reda Kateb, who plays a sympathetic villain.

Unfortunately, the film begins to falter 20 minutes in, when the audience begins to realize that the story will be nothing more than a collection of abstract tableaus and vignettes haphazardly sewn together, like in a cheap quilt.

Some of the scenes come off as trying too hard to be disturbing, others as trying too hard to be profound — nothing flows naturally in Giroux’s effort. In the few moments that characters interact with one another, chemistry is all but absent.

The message of capitalist powers overpowering and commodifying every aspect of our lives also comes off as tired and surface-level. Giroux doesn’t put much weight into his allegory. Nothing hits close to home, nothing feels personal.

The Great Darkened Days lacks humanity. There is no bite, no nastiness, and no seduction in a movie that should have plenty of it all. In a Q&A session following my screening at TIFF, on the topic of abstract and absurd cinema, Giroux light-heartedly remarked that “everything has to be explained. I hate that.”

Maybe it’s for the best that we don’t delve deeper into this effort.