Saturday, May 14, 2011

Searching for Identity: Sashar Zarif Dance Theatre

Katherine Duncanson, Sashar Zarif, Viv Moore, Marie-Josée Chartier, Sylvie Bouchard (Photo: Mahla Ghasempour)
The lights dim, the theatre fills with darkness, smoke and the sound of a hollow wind banging a door against its frame. A figure emerges from the shadows, moving slowly into view. With his hand he touches his open mouth before pushing the hand forward, palm-up, as if offering up to the audience the words he softly sings under his breath. With this simple gesture, Toronto dancer and choreographer Sashar Zarif sets the stage for his Solos of My Life, presented in conjunction with Toronto independent dance producer Danceworks whose three-performance run at Harbourfront’s Enwave Theatre in Toronto ends tonight. The title is misleading as the hour-long piece isn’t a solo, but more a series of danced vignettes performed with (in alphabetical order) Sylvie Bouchard, Marie-Josée Chartier, Katherine Duncanson and Viv Moore, women meant to embody the people he has known, loved, maybe even feared in his life: dance as memoir.

Sashar Zarif (Photo: Mahla Ghasempour)
Story-telling in dance has a long tradition, with mime and song often used to give meaning to the wordless art of the body. In telling his personal history, basically a narrative exploring his forced migration from his Persian homeland and the subsequent search for identity, Zarif goes further, employing a self-created form of gestural language that pulls from ancient Indian dance traditions as well as from the modern dance: Think deep-seated second-position plies meshed with percussive Kathak-inspired foot stomps and dancing eyes. Add bum-jumps, crab-crawls and sky-writing and you get the point. Almost.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Meek’s Cutoff: Life With the Dull Bits Left In

Meek's Cutoff
Director Alfred Hitchcock once said famously that “drama is life with the dull bits left out.” But American filmmaker Kelly Reichardt seems determined to prove him wrong as her movies take the exact opposite tack. Not only does she leave in the ‘dull bits,’ her films, such as Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), could be said to be mainly composed of those elements. Watching her films always reminds me of that old chestnut that movies are supposed to be ‘moving pictures,’ which is something her movies rarely do. Her latest opus, the quasi-western Meek’s Cutoff, demonstrates more of her same ‘qualities’ of inertia and somnolence.

Set in the Oregon territory of 1845, Meek’s Cutoff, which is loosely based on fact, centres on a band of would be homesteaders, three couples, one with a child, and their guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who have gotten dangerously lost in the forbidding desert. Running low on supplies, and more ominously, on water, they’ve begun to suspect that Meek doesn’t really know where he’s going and must make a fateful decision: should they head out in a different direction or stick with their guide and, thus possibly die with him, as well? When they capture an Indian (Ron Rondeaux), of the Cayuse tribe, a new possibility presents itself. Maybe, just maybe, their captive can lead them to water and safety. But since they can’t communicate with him – none speak his language, nor he theirs – they don’t know what to do or whom to trust: Meek – who is virulently hostile to the Cayuse – or the Indian. (He’s not given any other name in the credits but that one.) 

Bruce Greenwood in Meek's Cutoff
That in a nutshell is the whole story of Meek’s Cutoff, which is not focused so much on whether the prospective settlers will survive their ordeal than it is on the specifics of their dire situation, as they begin to fracture into different camps. Whether you’ll find any of this compelling may be a matter of (artistic) temperament, but I would argue that Reichardt manages to wring all the tension and, yes drama, out of her story, which is written by her long time collaborator, Jonathan Raymond, reducing her tale to, well, not much of interest at all.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Facts of Fiction: A Story That Gratifies America

Novelist Harper Lee in 2010
Despite receiving a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in March, Nelle Harper Lee has continued as something of a recluse since publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. Her 1960 instant bestseller was among the earliest in the annals of American literature to tackle the issue of racism. The popular movie that came out two years later, adapted by Horton Foote and starring Gregory Peck, signified a daring entertainment in an era still plagued by widespread intolerance.

There’s a chance to learn more about the publicity-shy writer in Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird, a documentary that will be released theatrically in New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans on May 13. The timing is intended to mark the 50th anniversary of the book’s Pulitzer Prize, awarded during the same month in 1961. The title of this film refers to a mysterious and reclusive male character in the novel, set during the 1930s in Lee’s native Monroeville, Alabama. Although almost consistently avoiding media attention for five decades, she did once tell Oprah Winfrey, “I’m really Boo.” But the author also modeled Scout, the little protagonist whose single father is a principled defense attorney, on her own small-town upbringing. Her mother Frances Cunningham Finch Lee died in 1951, which left lawyer Amasa Coleman Lee to raise his children alone.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Chutzpa of Igal Hecht

Filmmaker Igal Hecht
I first encountered Canadian documentary filmmaker Igal Hecht when he submitted a film to the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF) where I was Director of Programming. We rejected that movie but he kept trying until one of his films was finally accepted to the festival a few years later in 2003. What struck me then was both his equanimity in the face of rejection and his determination to persevere in getting one of his movies taken by us, a somewhat unusual reaction in an industry where so many local filmmakers automatically assumed their movies would get into the TJFF just because they were from Toronto and who occasionally threw a fit when they weren’t.

Eight years on, since his first appearance at the TJFF, and after I left the festival in 2004, Hecht has continued to place a film in almost every edition of the event, as well as having a movie accepted, for the last two years, in the prestigious Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival. He’s only 33 years old but the Israeli-born Hecht has already directed and produced over 30 documentaries, and more significantly explored subject matter that no one else has thought of or dared to examine.  His latest film, The Hilltops, which premiered at Hot Docs and shows at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival today (May 11), is indicative of his provocative work. His company moniker, Chutzpa Productions is an apt one.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Screwball Noir: Criterion's DVD Release of Jonathan Demme's Something Wild (1986)

Of all the contemporary American directors, Jonathan Demme embodies most the open spirit of possibility. His best films, from the early Citizen's Band (1977) and Melvin and Howard (1980) to the more recent Rachel Getting Married (2008), are inclusive quests into the binding promises held dear in the founding ideals of his country; a country filled not just with its known inhabitants, but also the unknown, the dispossessed, even the forgotten. Demme's America includes chance meetings between perceived nobodies like Melvin Dummar and legends such as Howard Hughes. For him, eccentrics and straights walk the same roads and breathe the same air. The libidinous pleasures of pop celebrated in the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense (1984), or the wistful embracing of roads travelled and roots claimed in Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006), are for Jonathan Demme all about keeping faith with his most cherished democratic principles. But if staying true to those democratic principles leads Demme to boldly erase the preconceived judgments made on rich and poor, black and white, good and bad, they also inspire him to further erase the boundaries imposed on storytelling by refusing to adhere to strictly defined genre rules. There was no better Jonathan Demme picture to accomplish this task than Something Wild (1986).

Monday, May 9, 2011

Buzzwords and Mantras: Mehrdad Baghai & James Quigley's As One

There are two types of business books: the kind you have on your shelf and use for reference (usually boring, but look big and important when displayed) and the Malcolm Gladwell kind. Like most common readers, I prefer Gladwell’s style. Generally, you can read his books from start to finish, easily following the fluid narrative. As One: Individual Action, Collective Power, written by Mehrdad Baghai and James Quigley, is a hybrid. The authors are prominent businessmen and their motive for writing appears to be increasing personal and professional eminence. So why would the common reader want to read this book?

Since business books are essentially corporate self-help books, I try to harvest what I can from them to apply to my own life. As One is particularly dense with information on how our society is shaped and how our relationships evolve. We collaborate on a daily basis with co-workers, friends, family, and even complete strangers through social media. When tasked to lead the collaboration, our default method of leadership reveals a lot about us.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Making it Real II: Wrapping Up Hot Docs 2011

Hot Docs 2011 wraps up today having given the award of the Best Canadian feature to Julia Invanova's Family Portrait in Black and White which examines a ramshackle house in the Ukraine where matriarch Olga Nenya is raising 16 abandoned mixed-race children. While I didn't get a chance to catch that picture, there were a number of other fascinating projects that provided some inspiration for writing about them.

But one of the trickier aspects I've discovered over the years for viewing documentaries is retaining your critical perspective. While that's relatively easy to do when watching dramatic films (since they are fiction), it's more difficult when watching a movie that purports to be depicting reality. You try to trust that the director, in using their subjective voice, is open to the possibilities of being surprised by their subject; or perhaps, even have their mind changed during the process of shooting their picture. But what about the audience? Does it wish to have its mind changed? Do critics for that matter? In that sense, the onus on the reviewer to be clearheaded is even greater.You also have to be reasonably well-informed to know whether the filmmaker is honestly seeking the truth behind their chosen subject, or whether there is a whole other purpose at work. The role of the critic then becomes quite substantial because the easiest thing for a documentary director to do is to pander to the established views of his/her audience. Telling people what to think is a lot less complicated than showing people how to think. It also fits more snugly into the marketing end of motion pictures which today has become so much more pervasive in shaping public opinion (and making critics seem irrelevant).