The Story So Far: Wavelengths 2016


Originally published in Sight & Sound, December 2016

Wavelengths, the Toronto International Film Festival’s annual programme of “daring, visionary, and autonomous” cinema, is never in thrall to traditional components of film, but it’s generally narrative that is first to be cast aside. Even by these standards, the best of this year’s selection of Wavelengths features, shorts, and installations seemed particularly intrigued by different narrative strategies and reimagining how one might go about telling a story through moving images.

Argentinian director Matías Piñeiro has been pushing narrative in seductive new directions for nearly a decade now. His highly regarded series of Shakespeare adaptations (including Viola [2012] and The Princess of France [2014], both previous Wavelengths entries) have employed the texts as conceptual models for contemporary readings which slowly find resonance in the everyday dramas of their respective characters. As its title suggests, Piñeiro’s latest, Hermia & Helena, once again riffs on Shakespeare, though this time the material only faintly echoes its source, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Instead, he utilizes his pair of female protagonists, Camila and Carmen (Piñeiro regulars Agustina Muñoz and María Villar), to tell a tale of physical displacement and emotional miscommunication.

Unfolding fluidly between Buenos Aires and New York (this is Piñeiro’s first film made outside Argentina), the film follows Camila and Carmen as the former prepares to take the latter’s place in a Stateside theater residency program. As their roles switch, so do their relationships: Camila becomes involved with a selection of Carmen’s friends and lovers; these affairs are mirrored in flashbacks to Camila’s equally carefree former life in Argentina. Fascinated by the beauty of movement and language, Piñeiro applies the theme of translation to the fabric of his narrative, allowing his weightless, intimate style to blossom. A meticulously staged and scripted late-film confrontation between Camila and her estranged father (Dan Sallitt) is an unassumingly moving encounter that portends an exciting chapter in Piñeiro’s career.

Piñeiro is something of a veteran compared to 29 year-old compatriot Eduardo Williams. After several well regarded short films, his first feature, The Human Surge, is singular and unclassifiable. Williams’ subject is a most modern phenomenon, global interconnectedness: he tries to articulate something elemental about contact, communication, and encroaching technology. Structured in three parts, the film moves agilely from the flooded streets of Argentina to the coastal enclaves of Mozambique to the humid jungles of the Philippines.

The people we meet in these settings are less characters than collectives of anonymous civilians: in Buenos Aires we watch as an unemployed young man and his friends engage in casual sex-acts for webcam pay; in Maputo, a second group of young men concede to workaday labor following their own perfunctory attempts at self-commodification; and in the Philippines, friends meet at a watering hole rendezvous, and some go on a futile search for a cyber café. Williams films these seemingly incidental, unconnected activities through a languorous, observational lens, often trailing his subjects from a distance. He moves between episodes by way of increasingly radical devices—the most memorable finds his camera burrowing into an anthill only to emerge from the soil several thousand miles away. As each successive diversion solidifies into its own discrete drama, a more metaphysical realization takes shape: in our technocratic future, a corporeal integrity may in fact prove to be the most valuable currency of all.

The Human Surge embodies another wholly contemporary notion—cinema’s capacity to function outside the confines of a theatrical space. Like one of last year’s Wavelengths highlights, Isiah Medina’s 88:88, The Human Surge, shot on a combination of digital and Super 16mm, seems—in a manner after its characters, who spend much of the film staring into screens—to encourage a multiplicity of viewing options. Whether it ultimately plays better in a theater or on a laptop is immaterial; the suggestion that a computer screen may unlock an additional thematic dimension in the film is enough to confirm Williams’ distinctly au currant sensibility.

Similar thoughts arose during other Wavelengths titles. The Woman Who Left—which won Lav Diaz the Golden Lion in Venice—is, like all of the Filipino filmmaker’s work, an advertisement for the theatrical experience. The film—about a wrongly convicted widow out for revenge on her ex-boyfriend following a 30-year stint in prison—would not register with the same impact on anything less than a cinema, not just because of its runtime (it clocks in at a, for Diaz, succinct 226 minutes), but because of the long takes and monochromatic aesthetic.

The same might be said for the Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz, an observational documentary made up of statically composed images of tourists at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienberg, Germany. What Loznitsa’s camera captures, however, isn’t moments of sober reflection, but instead disinterested glances, nervous laughter, family photo ops, and errant selfies. Watching such egregious, disconcertingly familiar activity unfold on screen amongst a general audience only amplifies the film’s reflexive power.

Even more pronounced in their formal and site-specific conceptualizations were the otherwise very different Singularity, a five-screen installation by Albert Serra, and I Had Nowhere to Go, a first-person audiovisual memoir created by the Turner Prize-winning video artist Douglas Gordon in collaboration with Lithuanian artist-filmmaker-critic Jonas Mekas. Like Serra’s recent Cannes standout The Death of Louis XIV (also in Wavelengths), Singularity—which transformed Toronto’s 99 Sudbury Street gallery into a space of interactive interest—displays a more intimate and touching side of the Catalan director’s frequently perverse pillagings, filling its quintet of slightly askew screens with rich, almost romantic, imagery. Modeled after the domestic melodramas of R.W. Fassbinder, the roughly 12-hour film (projected simultaneously as four three-hour loops, plus a 20-minute prologue) spreads its story of sexual and industrial exploitation in a remote mining community across a variety of spatial and temporal borders. With each screen acting as an individual node in a greater fiction—spanning eras as it flirts with both surrealism and science fiction—Singularity casually liberates narrative from undue considerations of duration and linearity, granting each viewer a unique autonomy within a carefully organized environment.

A work predicated on the sensory nature of the theatrical experience, I Had Nowhere to Go consists largely of extended sequences of dark screen accompanied by the 93 year-old Mekas reading in voiceover from his memoir. The film’s few visual flourishes—glimpse of Mekas sitting before Gordon’s camera, interstitial images of natural and abstract beauty, and brief bursts of frame-filling color—are punctuated by a dynamic soundtrack ranging from ambience to explosions. It summons in the mind’s eye a vivid image of wartime struggle and exile (Mekas fled Lithuania for New York City during WWII) that words can only approximate. Alternately harrowing and humorous, Mekas’ recitation of his text is eloquent in inflection as well as valuable historical testimony; by isolating and accentuating cinema’s two primary constituents, Gordon has crafted an expressive and appropriately daring edifice through which to convey a life’s journey.

Arguably the most routinely revelatory of TIFF’s many varied programming initiatives, the annual Wavelengths shorts programme this year felt unusually unmoored. Largely made up of less proven artists, the four-evening slate—for technical issues, relocated from its traditional home at the Art Gallery of Ontario to a smaller theatre in the TIFF Bell Lightbox—was perhaps inevitably not quite as consistent as in years past. The highs, however, were typically thrilling—chief among them was Luna e Santur by Los Angeles-based artist Joshua Gen Solondz, a hypnotic piece of stroboscopic horror featuring a pair of hooded figures engaged in a kind of domestic exorcism. As each frame flickers to a disorienting rhythm, Solondz stages a kind of dance between bodies and light, playing optical tricks with the viewer’s vision as the action alternates between the sensual and sadistic.

This sort of sensory display, in which perspective must be surrendered to a certain procedural logic, reflects a longstanding tradition in the experimental sector. Other works, such as Manuela De Laborde’s silent sculptural study AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN, and Ten Mornings Ten Evenings and One Horizon, a deceptively elaborate landscape film by Tomonari Nishikawa, apply perceptual illusions to less brazen ends. And then there was Indefinite Pitch, by New York’s James N. Kienitz Wilkins, which seems to offer up tradition itself for investigation. Over a procession of black-and-white still images of Berlin, New Hampshire, Wilkins unpacks a stream-of-consciousness monologue that begins as a story of a failed movie pitch before expanding into an increasingly humorous and self-deprecating account of socio-historic curiosities and creative paralysis. What Wilkins pulls off with Indefinite Pitch (by several measures the funniest film I saw at TIFF) is more than a mere balancing act; by playfully exploiting voiceover—one of narrative cinema’s most tired devices—he manages to loosen the self-serious strictures of avant-garde filmmaking while interrogating its utility in an increasingly digitised domain.

Indefinite Pitch offhandedly raises pertinent questions about a medium continually pronounced dead by those less attuned to its finer developments. As much as any other Wavelengths title, the Argentinian director Gastón Solnicki’s new feature Kékszakállú responded with a challenging, invigorating vision of cinema’s continued vitality. Framed as a reimagining of Béla Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle, the film, which follows several young girls through episodic vignettes of adolescent intrigue, retains only a tangential relationship with its source material, characteristic of a narrative that dispenses with conventional forms of exposition in favor of abstraction. (In that sense the film would pair as well conceptually with Hermia & Helena as it would formally with Angela Schanelec’s fractured and elliptical feature The Dreamed Path, also shown in Wavelengths.)

With its static compositions and exacting dramaturgy—stark architectural designs occupy individual frames as often as bewitching illustrations of the female form—Solnicki’s film constructs an ordered yet precarious psychological space for its characters to inhabit, as seemingly unrelated events build to an appropriately operatic conclusion. Like its young subjects, standing by film’s end on the precipice of adulthood, Kékszakállú steps slowly but assuredly into uncharted territory—a gentle reminder that cinema itself is young and full of possibilities. ♦