TORONTO 2001: Cruel Stories of Youth; Japan and Iran's Troubled Teens
by Anthony Kaufman/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/ 09.08.01) -- This year's official festival trailer, a surrealist affair reminiscent of the paintings of Rene Magritte and directed by Montreal-born filmmaker Barry Avrich, offers a man in bowler hat traversing the manicured, digital green hedges of a lawn. As he sits on a park bench before the computer-generated deep blue sea, a moving strip of celluloid floats above him in Moebius-style curves, turning in on itself to form an infinite reel of film. And that's sort of what it felt like on the first full day of screenings on Friday in Toronto: an endless back-to-back experience of movie-watching, which began yesterday morning for many indie players with Shunji Iwai's world premiere film, "All About Lily Chou Chou" (see review), showing up next at the New York Film Festival in September.
Attendees at the 9 A.M. press and industry screening of "Chou Chou," still buoyant for the first day show, included a slew of arthouse reps shaking hands as if it were a family reunion. Strand Releasing, IDP, First Look, Winstar, and Lot 47 were all there, along with Magnolia Pictures exec Eamonn Bowles. While several walk-outs marred Iwai's innovative visions, "Chou Chou" set the tone for a number of other Japanese films in the festival that focus on disaffected youth, "Harmful Insect," Akihiko Shiota's North American premiere (screening later in the festival) and "Blue Spring," a Discovery Section entry which also world premiered on Friday.
Directed by second-time feature director Toyoda Toshiaki, "Blue Spring" goes one step further than "Lily Lily Chou" in its efforts to depict teen nihilism. Set in a bleak boys high school littered with graffiti and dangerous students (a screaming teacher is shown fleeing the school in an early scene), the band of youth spend more time dangling off the rooftops and torturing their fellow students than looking at textbooks. After one particularly gruesome revenge scene with a graphic image of feces, a couple of audience members escaped, as well. Despite bloody murders in the bathroom stalls and a sense of total amorality, Toshiaki's tone remains, amazingly, light. A couple of viewers couldn't stop giggling behind me; whether it was the film or some inside joke, we'll never know -- either way, the film creates a world of completeness, sometimes giddy, sometimes sad. Like "Lily Chou Chou," it is also aided by a particularly clever score, hard and soft music side by side.
In addition to this Japanese pair, there was no shortage of troubled teens in the first full day of the fest: "Adrift" (Netherlands), "Maya" (India/USA), "Hi, Tereska" (Poland) and to no one's surprise, a couple of Iranian films. What has become a staple of Iranian cinema -- kids in crisis ("The White Balloon," "Children of Heaven") -- appears to have received an additional subplot at this year's Toronto festival, as reflected by Abolfazl Jalili's "Delbaran" and Majid Majidi's similarly titled "Baran": the plight of Afghanistan refugees. (A title card at the beginning of "Baran" announces an exodus of some 1.4 million Afghanistan who have fled the country.)
"Delbaran," which premiered on Thursday night to a packed house, is the sort of rigorous Iranian cinema that critics have gushed over in recent years. Like last year's notable Shooting Gallery release, "A Time for Drunken Horses," "Delbaran" pits a young man against innumerable obstacles. A series of exquisitely composed shots introduce us to Kaim, a 14-year-old Afghani refugee who left his home because of civil strife. Kaim works for an Iranian man at an isolated gas station in the middle of nowhere; while the film exudes a sense of beauty in the everyday, Kaim's plight is anything but pretty. An experienced director, Jalili has made several films and won multiple international awards (most recently, his 1998 film "Dance of Dust" won a Silver Leopard at Locarno). With the Shooting Gallery Film Series absent from the distribution scene, it will be interesting to see what company might step up to the plate to take on such exacting cinema.
A decade ago, Miramax might have considered a film like "Delbaran," but they have already staked their claim on another Iranian filmmaker, Majid Majidi, director of "Children of Heaven" and "The Color of Heaven," whose vision of teens and immigrants is a little less subtle and more conventional than Jalili's. "Baran," which won the top prize at the Montreal World Film Festival last weekend (Majidi's third such victory), is set in a bleak construction site in Teheran where Lateef, a hapless, hot-headed teenager, serves tea and meals to the workers. When he is replaced by a mysterious new worker covered in a shroud, Lateef tries to take revenge with petty tactics (wrecking the kitchen, throwing cement mix) until he realizes the employee is a young Afghan girl. Smitten, Lateef tries to save her from abusive co-workers and eventually, city inspectors out to rid the workplace of illegal immigrants.
Apparently a step back from the sentimentality of his earlier works, "Baran" is nevertheless a lot more hackneyed than "Delbaran." Majidi's filming technique, often masterful in its use of frame, still falls prey to occasions of forced slow motion, unnecessary tracking close-ups, and swelling music. A more accessible film than "Delbaran," no doubt, and with Majidi's already sanctioned name attached, the film ought to have its following in the U.S. when it's released. But as of Friday, a Miramax spokesperson told indieWIRE that there is no official release date for "Baran."
The company is certainly busy through the end of this year with a number of other titles screening in Toronto: Todd Field's astounding Sundance favorite "In the Bedroom," everyone's favorite by Jean Pierre Jeunet, "Amelie," Leon Ichaso's "Pinero," and Peter Chelsom's "Serendipity." As for the rest of their arthouse slate represented here, from "Baran" to Cannes winner "The Son's Room," "Italian for Beginners" and "Birthday Girl," the movies may end in theaters on their own in 2002, or in the pending Miramax World Cinema Series, a program like the Shooting Gallery's Film Series, which will cycle a package of films in theaters throughout the States. With such a series to program, it wouldn't be surprising if Miramax made some acquisitions out of Toronto or Venice, which closes tonight (Saturday).
Meanwhile, at Friday's end, the acquisitions community came out again in droves for two more screenings: the North American premieres of two of the more talked-about U.S. American indies at the fest: Rose Troche's "The Safety of Objects" and Jill Sprecher's "13 Conversations About One Thing."