World Cinema Report/Toronto 2003: New International Directors To Watch
by Anthony Kaufman
The 2003 festival circuit may well be remembered for its neophytes. Sure, master filmmakers are making their requisite appearances, from Lars Von Trier to John Sayles to Errol Morris, but the real surprises are coming from names new to the scene. As evidence, this year's top Venice prize went to 39-year-old first-time feature director Andrey Zyvagintsev, for "The Return" (premiering today in Toronto). The director says his film is "a mythological look at human life," about two boys reunited with a man who claims he's their father. Zyvagintsev's debut beat out the latest work from such established auteurs as Tsai Ming-Liang, Michael Winterbottom, and Takeshi Kitano for the Golden Lion in Venice. Another newcomer, Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, proved his "Amores Perros" was no one-hit wonder; his sophomore effort "21 Grams" floored festival audiences with its blistering performances from Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benecio Del Toro.
On the streets of Toronto, moviegoers and industryites haven't been this excited in months, busily jockeying to catch the latest screening of Midnight Madness genre stunners "Ong-Bak Muay: Thai Warrior" and "Switchblade Romance" by directors they've never heard of, and satisfying documentary debuts like "The Story of the Weeping Camel" and "The Revolution With Not be Televised." Next month's New York Film Festival is also marked by nearly as many emerging directors as veterans, such as Barbara Albert's "Free Radicals" and Julie Bertuccelli's "Since Otar Left" (see below) as well David Mackenzie's "Young Adam," and Faouzi Bensaidi's "A Thousand Months," all of which are also appearing in Toronto. New Korean talents (Bong Joon-ho's "Memories of Murder," Jang Jun-hwan's "Save the Green Planet") are turning critics' heads and first-time Afghani filmmaker Siddiq Barmak's Cannes competitor "Osama" created a frenzy of appreciation with the public after it's North American premiere here. Is this the year of the fledgling talent?
By no means comprehensive, here are a handful of directors to watch from all pockets of the globe, who are now showing their work in Toronto:
Barbara Albert, "Free Radicals"
"I started to read about chaos theory in the 1980s," remembers Barbara Albert, a 33-year-old Austrian director. "Suddenly, science said we can't calculate everything and we had to accept that there is no order and there's this feeling that you're walking on ice all the time." In "Free Radicals," Albert's second dramatic film (after 1999's "Nortrand"), her characters -- an ensemble of lonely particles spinning out of orbit -- live this precarious existence. "It has to do with sudden death," she confesses, "and this is a film about the fear of it." From the terrifying plane turbulence that opens the film to the repeated incidents of tragedy and unease, Albert's point of view is "sad, but moving," as she describes it, reinforced by songs like A-Ha's "Take on Me" and the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin."
Dagur Kari, "Noi Albinoi"
"Reality is pretty boring," says soft-spoken 30-year-old Dagur Kari. "But the only thing more boring is fantasy. I want to make films that are a few steps away from reality." Indeed, Kari's debut "Noi Albino," a small, affecting tale about a rebellious albino teen stranded in his Icelandic village, rides a fine line between lyrical fairytale and frostbitten tragedy. The director notes that the film's dominant object -- the whiteness of the character's surroundings and his skin -- points to both innocence and isolation. A 1999 graduate of the National Film School of Denmark, Kari is also a musician and composed the wry, melancholic soundtrack for "Noi." He is currently developing a Dogme film in Copenhagen.
Julie Bertuccelli, "Since Otar Left"
Born in 1968, Julie Bertuccelli has assisted such maverick filmmakers as Otar Iosseliani, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Bertrand Tavernier before going on to make a number of short documentaries. "My interest in fiction sprang out of a need to push my limits and find a different way of filmmaking characters," she notes. With "Since Otar Left," also playing at the New York Film Festival, she has created a contemplative family drama laced with fade outs and the sad music of Arvo Part. Remarkably patient and controlled, Bertuccelli shows a sensitivity toward her cast -- three generations of Georgian women -- living in the dilapidated capital of Tbilissi. As they struggle with the lights going out, the water going dry and the phone going dead, they find themselves lost within ever-growing lies to cope. With an eye for emotional detail, Bertuccelli's opening scene captures the conflicts between these three headstrong, vulnerable characters in just a few minutes over a piece of cake. "It was totally improvised," explains the director. "There was just a need to see the three of them together in silence, one Sunday."
Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, "James' Journey to Jerusalem"
After making two provocative, intricately structured documentaries, "Martin" and "The Inner Tour," 34-year-old Israeli filmmaker Ra'anan Alexandrowicz chose to make what he calls "an economic fairytale" for his fiction debut. The film follows James, an idealistic small-town African man who is on his way to Jerusalem for a religious pilgrimage. Arrested upon arrival, the naïve would-be pastor is forced to work as an indentured laborer. But James' entrepreneurial instincts kick in and his priorities soon shift from serving God to buying a television set. Alexandrowicz applies a light touch to much deeper issues, equating James' views about the Promised Land with the changing dreams and realities of life in Israel today. Like "No Man's Land", the filmmaker believes society's foibles are more adequately addressed within an entertaining context. "The films that communicate hard-hitting ideas best are those that are more metaphorical," he says. Alexandrowicz is joined in Toronto with another first-time Israeli-director, Nir Bergman, whose Berlin favorite "Broken Wings" is a wrenching portrait of an Israeli family's pain and unraveling. Neither film directly references the area's central conflict, but both stories show a world steeped in disillusionment and devastation.
Sue Brooks, "Japanese Story"
"Japanese Story" is the kind of movie that you have to sit through until the end. To give away the plot twist of "Japanese Story" would be criminal, but suffice it to say that in Brooks' second film (following 1997's "Road to Nhill"), she ably manages a tonal shift that saves the film from hackneyed cross-cultural love story. Initially about two very different stereotypes -- a bossy Aussie (Toni Collette) and uptight Japanese businessman (Gotaro Tsunashima) -- thrown together in the Australian desert, the film later becomes about something much more resonant: misunderstanding and remorse. Trained in camera and directing at the Australian film school, Brooks' short films "The Drovers Wife" and "Ordinary Woman" were local hits. For "Japanese Story," Brooks keeps her camera level, reserved, and stands back, giving the film over to her actors. Indeed, Collette is a magnetic, overwhelming figure, as expressive and vast as the Australian landscapes. Says Brooks, "the film is not in the dialogue; it's all in the play between the actors."