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Wavelengths at Toronto 2012: The Big Experimental Tent

Wavelengths at Toronto 2012: The Big Experimental Tent

Efficiency was one force behind the amalgamation of the Visions and Wavelengths sections of the Toronto International Film Festival into one Wavelengths section this year.

To the public it doesn’t necessarily feel efficient. Even the most organized of filmgoers won’t see everything in Wavelengths, which has become the big tent for experimental work at TIFF.

Another goal was to broaden conversation about a broad range of cinema. Given the crowds and enthusiasm at screenings, that’s happening.

Most festivals would love the problem of too much experimental cinema for eager audiences to see in too little time. (Far too little time, also for any critic to take it all in.) In Wavelengths, TIFF isn’t enforcing premiere-ism and excluding work that already made its debut somewhere else. Monitoring, as it does, a wide range of work that pushes at the boundaries of feature film form and content, Wavelengths programs work already seen at other festivals and shows films that will travel on the festival circuit for at least a year, if not more.  Why not?  Not everyone travels to watch films for a living.

If one feature stands out as the figurehead of Wavelengths, it is “Tabu,” by critic turned auteur Miguel Gomes, which salutes F. W. Murnau’s classic of the same title and ranges from colonial Africa to a Portugal in decline.  Sure to appear on ten best lists from adventurous critics, it premiered at the Berlinale. For most of the TIFF audience, which wasn’t in Berlin, the Toronto screenings will be a revelation.

Showing the best of the best in experimental work inevitably involves exploring the overlap between film and another expansive category, art. This year, that overlap extends to archaeological work, even architecture. We said it was a big tent.

Among the archaeological works in the program are spectral videos by Francesca Woodman, the potter Betty Woodman’s late daughter, who took her own life at the age of 22 in 1981. In black and white, the images add to the Woodman biography that haunted her work when she was alive, and still does today. All the more haunting, among Woodman’s explorations of nude portraiture and self-portraiture, is the silhouette of her body behind trace paper, on which she writes Francesca, and then tears the paper apart. Creative destruction once again. Throughout the videos, made between 1975 and 1979, Woodman seems to be conversing with a notion of the ideal female form represented by classical sculpture. In another moment, Woodman enters the shot, in the corner of a room, removes a coat to reveal herself nude, with knee socks – echoing The Models by Georges Seurat at the Barnes Foundation. She begins white-washing herself from a bucket.   The grainy videotape monochrome and natural light take you back to the early days of photography.  You can’t help but feel nostalgic for thse days of promise before a life was cut short.

More archaeology comes in Perret in France and Algeria, Heinz Emigholz’s mute tour of buildings designed by the French architect Auguste Perret (1874-1954), often called the king of concrete. The discovery here is Perret’s cathedral in Oran, Algeria – now a library inside a sprawling carapace– built in reinforced concrete and covered with decorative motifs. Perret would cover other versions of traditional sacred forms with machine age decoration for decades. As Emigholz leads us silently through the grand visions and the minute details of Perret’s constructions, often done in collaboration with his brother, Gustave, we see sources that date back to Gothic styles, and abstract patterns that seem to look ahead to those of Jean Nouvel in the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.

Another far different ode to the Arab world in Wavelengths comes in “The Lebanese Rocket Society,” in which Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige excavate a secret – the space rocket program that Lebanese researchers developed in the 1960’s. An archival scrapbook of testimony, images, documents and footage that expands and refines its improbable tale like the telling of Scheherazade, the documentary challenges the notion that technology has its source in the “superior” minds and institutions of the West.   

As Hadjithomas and Joreige leave you with this meditation on the uneven penetration of modernism, “Walker” by Tsai Ming Liang (which played at Cannes) takes a parallel journey, made by a monk who walks silently through the loud streets of Hong Kong, sometimes gleaming, sometimes gritty. Like Heinz Emigholz, who views the buildings of Auguste Perret as newer construction elbows alongside them, Walker meditates on cityscapes that are often invisible to those who pass through.  

Part of what Wavelengths achieved this year was to bring new work by filmmakers who, while young, are already veterans in the experimental side of the independent scene. Normally, it’s risky to take on Shakespeare, although doing it in a foreign language can get you far enough away from the original to  justify appropriating the Bard. That’s part of what Matias Pineiro does with “Viola,” extending his meditation on women’s roles in Shakespeare’s comedies to “Twelfth Night.” Pineiro gets closer rather than more distant, with his three actresses, part of a team that he’s worked with in the past, speaking lines from the play with such a combination of finesse and naturalism that you’re listening to the sound rather than the sense of the writing. The film absorbs you in an aural experience, and you hope to return for another viewing to take in the rest.

Paired with “Viola” was “Birds,” by Gabriel Abrantes. Shot in Haiti, a place that seasoned relief workers are avoiding these days, the 17-minute project shifts from a conversation in the shade of woods – a special site, since Haiti is one of the world’s most deforested places – to a performance of “The Birds” by Aristophanes in costumes of stunning color that will alter the prevailing stigma of Haiti as a place of squalor and starvation. Like Matias Pineiro, Abrantes is returning to the classics, but dressing them up and reconfiguring them with improbable energy.  By coincidence, Mr. Pip by Andrew Amberton, also at TIFF, includes 19th century costumes in “tropical” colors conjured up by the reveries of a character in Bougainville, halfway around the world, who is swoons after her first experiences with Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations.” It’s surprising how similar the palettes are.  The tent keeps getting bigger.

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