Tag Archives: female directors

Quickening

Sheila (Arooj Azeem) is a performing arts major at university, and is finding her dance class to be a particular challenge. She won’t admit this to her (over)protective mother, Aliya (Bushra Ashir Azeem), who thinks the North American university “lifestyle” will ruin Sheila’s chances for a reputable life, compromise her Pakistani values, and basically give her the opportunity to be negatively influenced by her peers, none of whom pass Aliya’s muster. The tension between mother and daughter is somewhat soothed by Sheila’s first love. But when her juggling act between parents, school, and boyfriend ultimately fails, Sheila’s breakdown is of a peculiar sort.

Pseudocyesis: a psychosomatic state that occurs without conception and is marked by some of the physical symptoms and changes in hormonal balance of pregnancy.

Sheila believes she is pregnant. She’s not, but she’s convinced she is, and she’s certainly going to stress out like she is. How will this affect parents, school, and boyfriend? Yeah, that’s exactly what Sheila’s worried about! Poor dear.

Azeem is quite lovely as Sheila, and this coming of age story is particularly complex. Sure you might feel lulled into a sense of security by the admirable cinematography, and the gently hypnotic score, eliciting a dream-like state much like the haze of first love. But make no mistake: inside, Sheila is roiling with conflict and self-doubt. The cultural expectation of pleasing one’s parents runs deep, but Sheila also years no break free and pursue her own ambitions, even if they’re outside the traditional life her parents have envisioned for her. Azeem is able to live in the skin of a second generation immigrant, with all the pressures and expectations bottling up inside, overwhelming her in part because she can’t really express them.

Writer-director Haya Waseem makes a bold choice assembling Azeem’s real-life family to play her on-screen one, but the risk pays off with an authentic-feeling bond that transcends culture. Quickening is a wonderful film about a universal stage in a young woman’s life, layered with cultural specificity for a cathartic journey about growing up, leaving home, and always being there for family.

Quickening is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

The Mad Women’s Ball

You have to hand it to the patriarchy: they set up an entire society designed to oppress women, to deprive them of any meaning or purpose in their lives, and then they act all surprised when it drives them crazy.

Of course, Eugénie (Lou de Laâge) isn’t actually crazy, but she does speak to the dead. But even just nonconformity is reason enough to lock her up, and in the not-so-long-ago (1885), all you needed was one male relative to want to get rid of you, and a woman could be imprisoned in an insane asylum for life. Eugénie is in Salpêtrière, a Parisian asylum, where she befriends wins over a skeptical nurse, Geneviève (Mélanie Laurent). This nurse no-nonsense and scientifically inclined, but when her dead sister starts sending messages through Eugénie, even she must admit that this woman doesn’t belong here. Together, they plan Eugénie’s escape under the cover of Le bal des folles, the mad women’s ball.

Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, this film is based on real events. Salpêtrière was a real asylum that locked up women and threw away the key based on some very flimsy excuses – and any who were actually crazy were mostly driven that way by the very men who committed them. The women were subjected to barbaric experiments, abused by staff, and the film (and the book upon which it is based) exposes the misogyny inherent in medicine at the time (not all of which has been eliminated today).

Thomas Jefferson once said “The measure of society is how it treats the weakest members,” a scathing indictment of himself, a slave owner, and every psychiatric hospital ever. The Mad Woman’s Ball was indeed a real event hosted ever year, inviting Paris’ high society to come and gawk at the mentally ill, all dressed up in cast-offs and costumes.

Mélanie Laurent writes and directs a story she makes seriously cinematic and strikes a timeless chord, showing the universality of society’s most interesting women being silenced, in board meetings or at the stake, but always one way or another. At the time, women were diagnosed “hysterical” for having an opinion; today she’s called “shrill” or “feminazi” or “sjw.” Bottom line: yes, there’s a message, a grimly timely one, but it’s also just a beautiful film that’s well-acted by an asylum’s worth of talented actresses, with a story to remember.

The Mad Women’s Ball (Le bal des folles) is an official 2021 selection of TIFF.

Look for it on Amazon Prime!

Silent Night

Is TIFF the most wonderful time of the year? For a movie reviewer, it’s pretty close. Every year when the schedule gets locked down, I peruse the titles, research each film, and work up a short list of films I’d optimistically like to watch, if time was unlimited and schedules never conflicted and sleep was optional. In my trusty notebook, I write down titles, directors, actors, and a small blurb to job my memory as to what on earth I might be watching. I had “girl with ice cubes for teeth” and “quirky martial arts romance” and “Afro-sonic sci-fi musical”; for this one, I’d merely written “Keira Knightley Christmas movie.” I don’t normally love watching Christmas movies outside of December, but the chronology of film festivals is mystifying and not to be questioned.

What did I actually get?

A lovely Christmas party, actually, in which hostess Nell (Knightley) greets her friends and family for a fantastic meal, friendly reminiscence, merry making, followed by mass suicide.

It’s the end of the world, you see. That thing we keep predicting but doing nothing about. The environment collapses, sending a cloud of poison, more or less, into the world, where it is spreading death, horrible, horrible death, wherever it goes. Blood leaking out all your orifices kind of death. Not a great death. So the UK, generous to a fault, have provided their citizens with a suicide pill. Everyone’s enjoying one last Christmas with their families, and as the cloud approaches, the pill will ensure a peaceful death in the arms of loved ones instead of painful and bloody convulsions.

The movie broke my damn heart. The adults did their best to act jolly, or stoic when jolly couldn’t be produced, but the kids were confused and vulnerable. Nell and Simon (Matthew Goode) have three kids; the oldest, Art (Roman Griffin Davis) is old enough to be angry at what’s happening to him. He’s angry the adults neglected the environment until it came to this. He’s angry that his parents plan to murder him. He’s angry that he’s so helpless. I was angry too.

But mostly I was sad. Sad that we’d failed these kids, yes, but also sad that any parents had to make this choice, no choice at all really. Sad that there’s so little comfort to be had at the end of the world.

And I was a little impressed, impressed that writer-director Camille Griffin could use Christmas apocalypse to talk about privilege. Nell has the perfect old house to host her closest friends, their kids, and even semi-unwelcome plus ones (that would be Sophie, played by Lily-Rose Depp). But she’s also a citizen of a prosperous nation with efficient (enough) infrastructure. They’ve delivered a peaceful way out to its citizens – but not to everyone living within its borders. If you aren’t there legally, you’re not worth the pill that will save you needless agony. Even kids understand this inherent inequity, and if you think you can look a kid in the eye and attempt to justify it, you’ve got another thing coming. Come armed with kleenex; Silent Night sounds harmless but beneath its shiny gift wrap is scathing indictment and a death sentence for all.

Aloners

Jina (Gong Seung-yeon) is a solitary 20-something creature. She’s the top employee at a call centre where everyone is insulated by a cubicle and a set of headphones, but even when the headphones are off, Jina eats alone. Earbuds in, she walks home in her little bubble, never glancing up from her phone. She doesn’t notice or respond to anyone – not the next door neighbour, nor her father, nor the thump from a nearby apartment.

One day, Jina’s treasured solitude is pierced thoughtlessly by her boss, demanding that she train a new employee, a responsibility not normally in Jina’s purview. Once her impenetrable forcefield has been breached, it’s quickly followed by a second, more troubling violation. Her neighbour is found dead, alone in his apartment. Does this worry her? Scare her? Certainly it makes her meditate on her own death, whether she’ll be alone in the end, whether that’s the end she’d want. Does Jina truly enjoy her aloneness, or is it actually motivated by a fear of rejection, or perversely, a fear of being alone?

For her debut feature, director Hong Sung-eun tackles the concept of holojok, a Korean phenomenon encompassing the growing number of people who prefer to live alone (already a third of homes in Seoul!). Whether this is a true preference or if people have just succumbed to their antisocial tendencies and fear of alienation is more or less what Aloners tries to address.

The film is subtle, tender, and rather intimate. Jina is never judged, and she’s clearly not alone in experiencing this strange dissonance. Gong strikes the perfect balance as a woman forced out of the comfort of her shell, negotiating a world she normally avoids. There’s not much in the way of plot let alone drama or tension, but Hong holds our interest by building layers of mood, complexity of thought, and a changing atmosphere that make Jina’s world feel full, even when there’s an absence of people.

Aloners is an official selection of TIFF21.

Julia

Julia Child is part of the American holy trinity of beloved personalities, right up there with Bob Ross and Mr. Rogers.

When she and her husband moved to France for (his) work, she fell in love with the country, and especially with its food (and who could blame her?). Inspired, she resolved to learn to cook it properly, attending the famous Cordon Bleu culinary school, the only female in the class – and likely the oldest, not to mention the largest. She loved French cooking so much she wanted to make it accessible back home, to American housewives who were, at the time, swept up by food of convenience, presenting TV dinners to their families as the height of technology and efficiency. Her cookbooks, however, made delicious French food seem possible. Even more impressively, she pretty much invented the modern cooking show along the way. They didn’t have a lot of editing tools, so early shows were long single takes of her cooking a recipe all the way through. But people didn’t just watch for her recipes, they watched for her. Even non-cooks watched, enjoying her stream-of-consciousness patter, her love of butter, her appetite, her willingness to embrace mistakes and use them as teaching opportunities.

She came into this surprising and successful career late in life. Her loving husband supported her. She learned to be a businesswoman, not just a chef, learned who to trust, who to leave behind, and how to hold a grudge. Her enthusiasm for food was contagious, creating future foodies all across the country. Her legacy has influenced
American cuisine, and every cookbook author/TV chef today owes a debt to her.

You already know Julia Child is an interesting woman; let directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West remind you why she deserves to be remembered. Their documentary Julia is a tribute to her, clearly made with love and admiration. We hear from cooking greats like Ina Garten and José Andrés, but most wonderfully, we hear a lot from Julia herself, via vintage footage the directors have shrewdly crafted together to tell her story from her own point of view. As a legend and an icon, there’s no one better to tell her story, and I think she more than most would appreciate having the last word.

Julia is an official selection of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

It is scheduled to be released on November 5, 2021.

Earwig

What a strange and unusual film.

Somewhere vaguely in Europe, mid-20th century, Albert is employed to look after Mia. Mia, just a ten year old girl, us forcibly shut-in, even the apartment’s shutters stay closed, casting a gloomy, and often creepy, atmosphere over the apartment’s two solitary dwellers. Despite the isolation, the two are not close, and no affection passes between them. Mia’s teeth are made of ice cubes, and Albert’s main responsibility is to care for them, changing them several times a day, and tending to the metal appliance fixed to her face, presumably to keep her teeth from melting (?). Don’t ask me any follow-up questions because the film isn’t prepared to answer them. This just is what it is, and isn’t it weird? The phone rings, and an unseen master enquires after Mia’s wellbeing. Every day repeats in this way until one day the master tells Albert this will be his last payment; Mia is to be prepared to go outside for the first time, and ultimately to leave. This is big news, and a convenient excuse for the movie to get even stranger.

Earwig is unsettling. It sends creepers up your spine. Even when nothing major is happening, the atmosphere is so dark and foreboding, it always carries the possibility of trouble. Director Lucile Hadžihalilović is a master of suspense; she bathes us in it whether there’s reason or not, which means we’re spending the entire film trying to puzzle out the movie’s mysteries, and trying to anticipate the horrible thing that surely must be coming. She uses all of horror’s familiar visual language, but she never gives the relief that comes immediately after a jump scare. It’s never-ending dread with no catharsis.

Hadžihalilović is clearly unafraid of slow cinema. Her films, and perhaps this one in particular, are so somber and bleak and deliberate that I start to wonder if perhaps I’m having a nightmare. I understand very little of the plot but I’m haunted by her specific imagery, sometimes held so long that I have to break eye contact just in case there’s a spell being cast, or some sort of hypnotism. It really is that disturbing, discomfiting.

Hadžihalilović builds such a complete world, almost acetic except for a fixation on glass, and establishes an almost ritualized routine that it’s of course jarring when she then disturbs it.

Paul Hilton, as Albert, is full of melancholy, anguish, and anxiety. His dentistry looks like medieval torture, but if it feels half as bad as it looks, little Mia (Romane Hemelaers) doesn’t show it. She may be stoic, but I am not. This film was bad for my skin. I spend a lot of money on creams and serums and peels to keep it relatively unlined, and then a movie like this has me making my perturbed face for nearly two hours straight, sure to leave an ugly furrow between my brows. I never understood the movie, not once, not even a little, and I’m not entirely convinced I was meant to. ‘Story’ seems besides the point when it comes to a movie like Earwig, which wants to provoke, disrupt, disturb, yes, but not exactly entertain. Hadžihalilović holds power over us, and enjoys it. We are helpless in her hands.

Jagged

If you were alive in the 90s, you probably had a copy of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. If you didn’t, were you really even living? It won album of the year in 1995, was the third biggest selling album of the 90s, and remains on Rolling Stone’s list of the Greatest Albums of All Time, deservedly. It was a real departure of the time, didn’t fit into what the music industry expected from a young woman. But to the young women listening, it was the vocalization of what we’d all felt. When I first heard You Oughta Know, I related and responded to the aggression and anger in her voice, and sang along even though I was still a kid, had never “been down on” anyone in a theatre or elsewhere, but I knew the sentiment, I understood where she was coming from because I’d either been there myself or was about to be. (Male) critics of the time focused on her anger, baffled that a woman went through more than just tears and ice cream during breakups, but fans listening to the album heard a great diversity of sound and content, almost every song an anthem to someone. (Male) critics balked again when Ironic came out, more concerned with exact definitions than what the song meant, why it was beloved, why it was important enough to become her biggest single on an amazing album.

Director Alison Klayman interviews Alanis extensively, and hears from others in her entourage as well, including Taylor Hawkins, then her touring drummer, presently of Foo Fighters, who admits to using her fame to attract girls, somewhat antithetical to Morissette’s whole vibe. And Glen Ballard, her Jagged Little Pill producer and writing partner, who is still her biggest fan, still enamoured of her talent, of her turn of phrase. Generous, humble, and most surprisingly, non-jealous, here is one man who clearly always respected her as a writer, musician, and star. Shirley Manson, frontwoman of Garbage, talked about how many doors Alanis opened as a successful female singer-songwriter, without taking any credit for herself being a rebellious frontwoman force in the 90s. But mostly we hear from Alanis herself, who tells her origin story, how it felt to find fame and success as a teenager, what her writing process was like, what it was like to tour the world without actually seeing any of it. And finally, she opens up just a little about some of the rumours inspired by those famous lyrics – the bad boyfriends, the sexual abuse, the non-existent childhood.

I enjoyed the documentary because I enjoyed Jagged Little Pill, and revisiting it is to revisit my own childhood in some ways. Klayman told us not to be shy about singing along, not tht I ever would be. I should be ashamed with a voice like mine, yet I usually find an unforgivably high volume at which to shout the words (more or less). I had a sore throat the day this screened for TIFF, which felt like good news for anyone watching with me, but by the time we reached You Oughta Know, I’d already resolved to buy lozenges. Try and stop me!

Well, I’ll tell you what stopped me in the end. It was Alanis herself, who, following the film’s world premiere at TIFF, has said she’s unhappy with the film, called it ‘salacious,’ denied it was the story they’d agreed to, and refused to support it.

“I sit here now experiencing the full impact of having trusted someone who did not warrant being trusted. Not unlike many ‘stories’ and unauthorized biographies out there over the years, this one includes implications and facts that are simply not true. While there is beauty and some elements of accuracy in this/my story to be sure— I ultimately won’t be supporting someone else’s reductive take on a story much too nuanced for them to ever grasp or tell.” – Alanis Morissette

Ultimately, this is her story, and she deserves to have agency over how it is told. I respect her position and I will not be recommending this film.

Jagged is an official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival 2021.

The Other Tom

Elena ( Julia Chávez) is an exhausted single mother, working overtime to provide the necessities, constantly pleading with son Tom for peace and quiet. Tom (Israel Rodríguez Bertorelli) is not a peace and quiet kind of kid, his lack of focus an even bigger problem at school than at home. At first, the ADHD meds seem like a godsend. Tom is more focused, better behaved. But an accident makes Elena aware of some pretty significant side effects, and she ultimately decides to stop the meds.

Elena is surprised to learn that the choice to medicate her son or not may not be hers. Between the disapproving doctor who won’t consider non-medical interventions, and the school who doesn’t want to deal with an unmedicated Tom, social services are called in, and Elena’s custody is threatened.

Inevitably, a movie like this serves as an indictment of our over-prescribed culture, but The Other Tom is also a mother-son story at its heart. Tom is just a little boy struggling to fit in. He doesn’t want to be bad, but he’s restless and angry, lonesome for his estranged father. Elena struggles too, struggles to be a good mother, to be patient, to make good choices, to keep her temper in check, to shield her son from harmful labelling, to juggle the needs of her son with the state’s attempt to pathologize and tranquilize his disruptive behaviour. And if we’re being honest, struggles to bond with a troubled son whose constant disturbances weigh on her heavily.

Behavioural disorders are draining for the whole family. They interrupt the usual intimacy and trust that breeds a healthy relationship. Elena loves her son, but some days it’s hard to like him. In allowing him to be unmedicated, Elena is also confronting her own inadequacies and must learn to cope with Tom’s challenges and to reach out to him on his level. Love means accepting each other’s authentic selves, and no one in this film, or in life, is perfect.

Writer-directors Rodrigo Plá and Laura Santullo realize the importance of the central mother-son relationship, and they nurture it with strong, grounded performances by Chávez and Bertorelli, who remind us of the humanity pulsing around the essence of this issue. Overtaxed teachers, greedy big pharma, overzealous social services…they all fall away when we see Tom’s big eyes go round when another grown up dismisses him. There is no ‘other Tom.’ There’s just a kid who’s scared and confused and wants to fit in. It’s about time the grown-up figure out how to help him.

The Other Tom is an official selection of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

Night Raiders

In the near, dystopian future, a war has waged across North America, leaving destruction in its wake. A military occupation controls the land now, and its citizens. They’re forcibly removing children from their families – it’s literally illegal to have a minor at home – and putting them into State Academies where their education is strictly controlled and could easily be confused for brainwashing and propaganda.

Eleven year old Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) has survived out in the bush with her mother, a subsistance, off-grid lifestyle in order to avoid the facial-recognition drones that are always hunting children. Her mother Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) is a Cree woman who intuitively understands how important it is to keep her daughter hidden, but an accident forces them to breach the city limits for the first time in years, and eventually to separate, with Waseese falling into the hands of the Academy. Emboldened to fight back, Niska joins a group of Cree vigilantes to get her daughter back.

If you’re Canadian (or American or Australian), you might recognize the roots of this story. They are part of our shameful colonizers’ history. After stealing the land from underneath the First Nations people here, we did then snatch their kids, threatening parents with prison or worse for failure to comply, and pack them into residential schools where actual education was besides the point. Mostly the schools wanted to assimilate the kids, to stamp the ‘Indian’ right out of them, outlawing their languages and denying their cultures. Away from their parents and their communities, the children were taught to internalize racist stereotypes under the guise of ‘christian’ values. Many children were abused. Many children never returned home. Many survivors still suffer the consequences today, as do several generations of their families.

Director Danis Goulet, who is Cree-Métis herself, uses this atrocity to build a world that reflect this ugly reality. While immersed in a violent future, we are reminded of the past, Goulet finding a unique way to make the two blend seamlessly. Night Raiders is a new chapter in Canadian story-telling, one that can help inform and inspire new ways of addressing and remembering painful subjects that apply in so many of the world’s countries, founded in colonialism.

Night Raiders is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

This film contains scenes that may distress some viewers, especially those who have experienced harm, abuse, violence, and/or intergenerational trauma due to colonial practices.

Support is available 24 hours a day for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and for those who may be triggered by content dealing with residential schools, child abuse, emotional trauma, and racism. The national Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available at 1-866-925-4419.

Scarborough

A rural farming township since 1850, Scarborough became the easternmost borough of Metropolitan Toronto in 1953 but grew to be such a busy suburb it became its own city in 1983 – only to amalgamate once again in 1998 into the present City of Toronto, though it remains a distinct, fully urbanized and diverse cultural community. A popular destination for immigrants, it is home to many religious groups and places of worship. It is still the greenest place in Toronto, but it is also the poorest. More than half of residents are foreign-born, and nearly three-quarters are visible minorities. It is a neglected neighbourhood, with fewer of the city’s resources being diverted toward its infrastructure, education, etc, purposely forgotten because of race and class. This is the space in which the film Scarborough and its characters exist.

Three kids meet in a Family Literacy program in their school. Free breakfast is the biggest draw for these kids and their parents, but while there, the program’s teachers emphasize good parenting techniques and reading as a family activity. The program’s directors arrogantly presume that these children have fallen behind because of poor parenting rather than housing instability, unemployment, the demands of special-needs children, English as a second language, inadequate nutrition, racial inequalities in the education system, and other important risk factors. Social factors are outside their purview, so they are roundly ignored even when clearly an obstacle to a child’s development.

Luckily for these three friends – Bing (Liam Diaz), Sylvie (Essence Fox), and Laura (Anna Claire Beitel) – they see each other more clearly than any government agency, social worker, or teacher ever well. They’re just kids, learning to read, yes, but also learning to cope, to fit in, to survive. Bing and his mother fled abuse in the middle of the night. Laura gets shuttled between an addict mother and an angry father, and Sylvie tries not to be forgotten between her autistic brother and disabled father.

Scarborough moved me. These kids go through so much, grow up so fast, and yet all they desire is a friend and a piece of candy. Their wants are so modest that it breaks the heart to see them disappointed time and again, to see them failed by the very people meant to protect them. The film isn’t accusatory, though. That would be futile. Instead, it invests in a generation tasked with saving itself, with somehow escaping the cycle of poverty while being forced to run its gamut.

The filmmakers have done a wonderful job generating authenticity and empathy for its characters while showing them with nothing but the dignity they deserve. The casting is particularly commendable as most are non-actors and yet the kids are natural and charming despite some really tough topics.

Scarborough will sit in my heart for a while. It’s a beautiful film, both visually and spiritually, and brave for making its world premiere in the heart of Toronto itself, at the Toronto International Film Festival.