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by David D'Arcy
September 16, 2013 12:47 PM
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What The Experimental Films at TIFF Tell Us About the Future of Film

"The King's Body."

History in Wavelengths was so broadly evoked and discussed that it felt as present as cinematic allusion – itself a historical statement.

The conversation between the past and the present was evident in "O Corpo de Afonso" ("The King's Body") by Joao Pedro Rodrigues of Portugal. Body builders – could we get more literal? -  remove their clothes against backgrounds reminiscent of those used by the photographer Rijneke Dykstra, known for her full-length pictures of subjects (not wearing much) at the beach, or for deceptive pictures of criminal youth.

The director asks these youths about history. Only one, a teacher almost twice the age of most of them, can answer a question about a king of Portugal. Only one, the same man, can tell why Spain still has a king, while Portugal does not. So much for the Golden Age, but would the men of any other country do better? That golden finish is further tarnished when the young men take turns describing the tattoos and scars on their bodies – in front of what look like Baroque wood carvings.

We hear the legend that the first Portuguese man was the issue of a whore and a Galician. Don't look too closely at that era's heroes, it's implied, since they would have been guys of this sort. Fassbinder and Genet, who arrived at this insight long before, would have loved it.

Let's not forget that Portugal was the last and poorest colonial holdout in the 1970's, back in Fassbinder’s day. Had these young men been of military age then, they would have fought the wars to retain territories conquered by Portugal's kings. Portugal lost those battles.

Africa was that battleground, and Senegal is where Mati Diop filmed "A Thousand Suns" (Mille Soleils), a look back at the 1973 classic "Touki Bouki," directed by her uncle, Djibril Diop Mambety, by way of a walk through Dakar and far beyond. What a walk it is, with the actor of that 1972 film, Magaye Niang, herding cattle then as now. His peregrination takes us through the noisy streets filled with motorcycles decorated with cow horns (an homage to "Touki Bouki"), into a noisier slaughterhouse where he brings his cows (a sequence reminiscent of the work of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard), and eventually to the snows of Alaska.  Realism of the streets blends with nostalgia, culminating in scenes in the frozen North – a hallucinatory journey that adds its images to Senegal's many tales of emigration. 

A fantasy? In "Nefandus," translatable as abominable or execrable, Carlos Motta follows a small canoe down a river in Colombia named for a conquistador, as he and a speaker of the local Kogi language meditate for 13 minutes on the European Conquest and sex – the conquerors imposed strict rules for sex, as for everything else, on the local population that they scorned as execrable and enslaved. In this revery about escaping from civilized sex, the serene river, surrounded by thick forest, could not be more a more feminine symbol. The mode of propulsion of the boat is a long pole. The propelling emotion is a tremendous sense of loss.

The landscape in "Bann," by Nina Koenemann, is a street and the sheer façade of an office building, in whose shadows employees stand to smoke. The smokers are relegated by repressive laws to a public place where their challenge is to remain private, to be invisible. Think of images from Jafar Panahi's "The Circle," in which women banished by their families work as prostitutes in the public streets, hiding from the police. In "Bann," shot with a surveillance camera aesthetic, it's implied that to smoke is to be a fugitive, a presumed criminal. (As a former smoker and an asthmatic, I agree in this one case with the repressive state. These smokers are indeed guilty of committing a crime, against themselves, with a legal product.) That said, Koenemann finds a persuasive metaphor for the opposing view.

This year's marathon award in Wavelengths must go to Wang Bing, whose "'Til Madness Do Us Part" is a four-hour distillation of everyday experiences in a mental asylum in China. The palette is mostly grey on grey, the place doesn't conform to any standard of Western cleanliness (honored more in the breach in plenty of American institutions) -- yet we observe a camaraderie among the patients, who don’t seem to mind the camera.  The filmmaker is paying more attention to them than anyone working in that institution.

There's tenderness among the patients whom Wang Bing visits. Not that the internees want to be there -- the title suggests a lifetime commitment --  but life is better in the asylum than it was in "The Ditch," Wang Bing's grim 2010 drama about a prison in the desert in the 1960’s which consisted of a communal trench.

"'Til Madness Do Us Part" takes us to what the French used to call the oubliette, the place where souls are sent to be forgotten, many by their families. The internees call out for doctors, as Wang Bing films down long corridors that end in frames of metal bars, the symbol of a passage without an exit. Yet there's some hope in this place of hopelessness. Aware that they are here for the long term, the patients make attachments (as happens in all prisons), as we see them cleaning and caressing each other. Is this the solidarity of the forgotten lumpenproletariat?  Like Frederick Wiseman, represented at TIFF by his own four-hour "At Berkeley" this year, Wang Bing takes a long, deliberate look at his subject. He finds a society among those whom society excluded. 

Is he practicing cinema? Sociology? Anthropology? As in so many of films in Wavelengths, Wang Bing takes on multiple tasks. 

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