The true highlight of Toronto International Film Festival every year is the Wavelengths program, an expertly curated selection of the most boundary-pushing cinema from around the world. Led in particular by the programming vision of Andréa Picard, also known for her contributions to Cinema Scope since its inception, it acts as its own mini-festival of sorts. We were lucky enough to receive a personal preview of this year’s exciting looking batch of films from her.
Can you talk about some of the pairings; for example Blake Williams’ Prototype with Erkki Kurenneimi’s Florence or Denis Côté’s A Skin So Soft with Kazik Radwanski’s Scaffold?
I’ve always tried to curate the program as much as possible. There are infinite possibilities out there and sometimes I’m not even looking for a theme, but a theme will emerge. Sometimes things lend themselves to make a really great programme. In the case of Blake Williams’ first feature Prototype, which is a 3D work, it’s very abstract but it also has a chronology and it deals with proto-cinema and sort of cinematic devices in some ways. I think there’s probably references to Godard’s Numero Deux in its split-screen and then he sort of shoots off different monitors that look like windows onto the world. Erkki Kurenneimi, he was sort of a master futurologist filmmaker and electronic music composer. He passed away earlier this year so there’s been a lot of tributes to him and there’s a Finnish distributor that’s started carrying his body of work. But he was very influential and he’s influenced other Finnish filmmakers, especially avant-garde filmmakers who I’ve shown before in the program.
So I took a look at some of these works and Florence is just this really amazing film that’s sort of a travelogue where he goes to attend a music conference and it’s got these kind of hippie summer of love images but matched over his trip on a train through the alps, but what he did was re-filmed over the film stock again and there are these superimpositions and then he added a electronic score to it. Blake’s film is all about these proto-cinema devices as well so when I saw the two, which was probably within a three week period, they immediately spoke to each other in terms of technology and chronology, because Blake’s film is also a travelogue and they’re both tied to their own personal histories and professions as well. So that was sort of a natural pairing because one is really short and why not round out the programme for the audience with another discovery. Also with Wavelengths, we like to include one or two historical films to speak to the contemporary films as well.
In the case of Denis Côté and Kaz’s films, they’re two of Canada’s most talented filmmakers, and although they’re quite different, one’s fiction and one’s documentary, Denis’ is about bodybuilders in Quebec and very much about bodies, so there’s the rigour and the regimes, the upkeep of their physique. Whereas Kaz’s film is about bodies and construction workers in Canada, but the way that he frames it is everything is shot through the scaffold. I don’t want to give it away too much but it does become about bodies as well and gestures and points of view where bodies are cut off. So both programmes are about men at work. Men working and their point of view and our point of view of the body and the work that they do. So those were two that were also a natural pairing.
The other one I’m very excited about is called Beyond the One which is paired with Strangely Ordinary this Devotion. Beyond the One is a brand new film that hasn’t showed yet, it’s a world premiere directed by Anna Marziano and she’s an Italian artist living in Berlin, I’ve shown two of her previous short films before. She studied in France and she mainly works with celluloid, so this was filmed on 16mm and Super8. She’s been working on it for a number of years and it’s a sort of mysterious essay film that deals with love, with coupledom and how the nuclear family doesn’t really exist anymore and maintaining bonds of love after people die. There are these really abstract passages with testimonies from people in relationships, touching on issues like domestic violence and radical forms of intimacy, desire and longing, it’s a really beautiful meditative work. We’ve paired it up with a film that’s very different in tone but similar in themes. Strangely Ordinary this Devotion is a collaborative project between two women and it includes their daily lives together in raising a child. It includes them maintaining clear desire and intimacy while raising a baby and it’s quite graphic, it reveals a lot about their relationship even though parts of it are scripted. You’re witnessing a relationship and you’re in it. So those two films together deal with similar topics about being alone and being together.
The first shorts programme is titled Appetite for Destruction, is that title particularly relevant to now?
You mean Guns ’N Roses? [laughs] For sure, you can’t look at the news and not feel like the world’s falling apart. Everything is just depressing, alarmist, out of control. We have leaders who are destroying the world, our environment is being destroyed and I think that we’re perhaps destroying ourselves with our use of technology. I think it’s exceedingly relevant actually.
There’s a note that Anne Charlotte Robinson’s [Pixillation] film launched the second programme. With the shorts programmes do you ever make a particular film a centre that inspires the other programming?
It’s a real big puzzle piece. We get so many submissions and to make sense of hundreds of films is difficult but obviously really strong work rises to the top. The challenge becomes putting them together in a way that’s meaningful but allowing a lot of breathing room for each film to be resonant on their own because they were obviously made individually and then to have a cumulative effect through the programme.
It’s always been a priority of mine to include some historical work. There’s not a lot of space for it and you do have the cinematheque programme that is there for that as well but I think all really good festivals include some historical work in dialogue with the contemporary work.
I’m a big fan of Anne Charlotte Robinson and the Harvard Film Archive has been restoring her entire body of work and they hold the collection. I’ve just noticed that given what we were just talking about, the grander politics of life being out of control, that there are a lot of filmmakers countering that with really localized stories, portraits or testimonies. I think just listening to individuals becomes very important in the world today and that’s the way we can foster empathy in a world that’s become so noisy and superficial. So Anne Charlotte Robinson was a filmmaker in the Boston area who was afflicted with a mental illness and in order to deal with that as a sort of self-preservation she made self-portraits and her big project was a five-year diary which actually took much longer. But this is a really brand new short that just premiered at the Documenta, which is a big arts manifestation in Athens. It’s a very short three-minute work of just her face that doubles and it’s disarming because she looks at you in a very intense way. It’s a perfect way to open up a programme that’s about portraiture and testimony or localized films that are extracted from the grander politics in a way.
This year’s Straub/Huillet retrospective at the Lightbox drew surprisingly high attendance and seemed to show that there’s an audience for challenging cinema in Toronto. Was that and other Lightbox programming a good primer for this year’s Wavelengths?
Absolutely, I mean a number of those Straub/Huillet films I’d shown in Wavelengths over the years and James Quandt has been programming their films for a long time. One of the films in the retrospective I’d even shown last year as one of the restorations. There always has been a dialogue between the cinematheque programming and the Wavelengths programming. In fact Wavelengths was started by the director of the Cinematheque Ontario seventeen years ago, so Wavelengths grew out of cinematheque programming and it very much has the same ethos and it’s why I put so much emphasis on history. Also experimental film has been very important to the cinematheque as well like in the section called The Free Screen which used to be every Wednesday and for free would screen experimental film. We’ve re-branded that section and it’s curated by Chris Kennedy who’s a local filmmaker and also the executive director of Lyft, so that takes place at the Lightbox and it’s actually called Wavelengths.
Two films in the program, Jeanette and The Nothing Factory seem to be genre-hybrids, in that case the genre being the musical. Is that a trend you’ve noticed?
I don’t think it’s a La La Land effect, I think that filmmakers have always explored sort of radical ways of dealing with older topics or topics that have been in cinema for a long time, and Bruno Dumont was in the process. I mean Bruno Dumont’s career has changed radically, he started off as a very Bresson-ian filmmaker and in the last number of years he’s discovered television with Petit Quinquin, which was also a pseudo-comedy, then last year’s Ma Loute was a full-blown comedy and also a parody of the upper bourgeois-life. But then Jeannette is completely radical, I mean it’s a musical made with an 8-year old and it’s based on two Peguy texts about Joan of Arc, and that’s sort of an enshrined story in French history. And to be so radical in its undertaking shows an evolution on a filmmaker’s part in a really dramatic way, and it’s a really fascinating career. To say a film is category-defying is cliche, but there really hasn’t been a film like this. There’s a ton of Joan of Arc films, it’s kind of a genre itself. From Bresson to Carl Dreyer and Rivette there’s been a number of amazing Joan of Arc films. But this film is all-sung and it’s really abstracted in its landscape, and he always shoots in the north of France so that’s very Dumont-ian. But he uses this score by the French electronic artist Igorrr which has a heavy metal bent to it, and basically Bruno is equating religious ecstasy with head-banging. So it’s funny, really anarchic and inventive. I don’t think it would be a response to any trend I just think it’s a trend he’s following and he realized he made a certain amount of films and at a given point in time decided he was going to try something new, which is exceedingly courageous on his part.
The Nothing Factory has also been compared to something like Arabian Nights by Miguel Gomes, which we showed a couple of years ago and was a direct response to the austerity measures in Portugal and austerity in Europe in general. It’s still going through a very difficult time and there’s very few resources for art-making, and filmmakers have responded by making really incredible works of art. It’s not a huge country with a lot of money but their national cinema I think is one of the best. This film is definitely a mix, it’s shape-shifting. It’s about men in a factory and the factory is about to become obsolete and sold so they’re trying to put up a collective effort to have a musical arrangement and a rock and roll band. It’s a very furious topic but it’s dealt with in a very anarchic way. I think filmmakers are looking at a new way to grapple with the politics of today so it’s not didactic and doesn’t hit you over the head, it’s really inventive and makes you think about different things while also being entertaining to a certain degree.
Are there any particular films by lesser know filmmakers that you would like to highlight?
The thing about Wavelengths, why I enjoy doing it so much, is because it’s really a combination of unknown filmmakers and new talents. I’m really fond of Cocote by Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias, it just won a prize at the Locarno film festival. And I showed his previous film two or three years ago. He’s from the Dominican Republic and it’s somewhat based on Bolano’s book 2666. It deals with religion and religious fervour in the Dominican Republic, and that’s a national cinema I don’t know much about to be honest, we don’t see many films from there each year. So to see this film which makes such a strong statement and also Nelson is such a wonderful guest, he’s going to come and I’m sure give one of the best Q&A’s, he’s so passionate about what he does and passionate about having local stories. The film is a mix of video and Super 16 and even if you just look at the trailer, visually it’s super stunning.
I would also mention Narimane Mari’s Le fort des fous which is a three-part film. Narimane Mari was in Toronto last at the Images Festival, where she showed her feature Bloody Beans. She’s an Algerian/French artist who lives in Marseille and she’s very much a political artist who deals with the history of colonialism, particularly with the French and Algeria. This one continues that work and grounds it in a localized continuation and this sort of cycle of colonialism in Europe. It’s told in these three parts where she has these re-enactments of legionnaires who are taking part in the colonialism of Algeria and then it ends up in Greece with activists and riots because she’s basically showing us that’s what’s happening today. So both these are manifestos in certain ways to use a loaded word, but she’s also cunning and very energetic so I’m excited about the films but I’m also very excited about the guests and having them engage with the audiences.
TIFF 2017 runs from September 7-17. See more about the Wavelengths program on their site.