2020 Toronto Int. Film Fest Diary: Entry 3 - National Pride

by C.J. Prince

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday September 17, 2020

While TIFF has had to cut down its programming by a hefty amount this year, it's typically a vast festival. Last year it had 245 features comprising their official selection, and this is after they made steps to reduce the size of their yearly line-up. A line-up of that size means TIFF has the advantage of taking on many forms for different moviegoers, whether it's through their different programs (one for avant-garde films, one for genre titles, one for big Hollywood premieres, and so on) or choosing your own path (TIFF's website lets you filter its selection by options including country, genre, and theme/interest). Yet TIFF has a long-time problem of defining itself as a showcase for cinema from its own country.

Granted, this is not entirely TIFF's fault. Minus a few titles here and there, Canadian films have struggled to break out internationally for a long time and even the international platform TIFF offers hasn't always been much help. The last decade saw them break away from separating out Canadian films (at one point there was a program dedicated only to first-time Canadian directors) and blending them into the general programs, a sensible strategy but one that hasn't seen a lot of results. Maybe they should be doing more but I don't know how much they can tip the scales here. Even Canadians have no interest in watching Canadian cinema, signaling an issue that stretches beyond the boundaries of this single event.

So as a Canadian myself, I try to check out a handful of the films from my country every year (it's typically a mixed bag). TIFF's Discovery program is reserved for up-and-coming directors, and in a typical year, there would be plenty of features from Canadian directors to choose from. This year, the only true Canadian film in the line-up is Tracey Deer's "Beans," which dramatizes a family's experience through the 1990 Oka Crisis in Quebec. It was a major story at the time, with Mohawk protestors barricading sacred land from being torn down to make way for a golf course. It led to an armed standoff that lasted for nearly 3 months, and a reaction across the country that highlighted the virulent racism Canadians have toward the country's Indigenous population.

As well-intentioned as "Beans" may be, there is a lot to unpack with Deer's film that can't really be done within the confines of a film festival round-up. Deer lived through the Oka crisis herself and takes inspiration from her own experiences to show the 12-year-old title character (Kiawentiio) coming of age as she befriends an older, rebellious teen (Paulina Alexis) during the standoff who brings out her rebellious side. While more light should be shone on dark parts of Canada's history like the Oka Crisis, Deer writes and directs her film as a collection of hoary cliches and unnatural dialogue that feel like an unintended parody of award-baiting prestige titles. While watching "Beans" I kept asking myself who exactly this film was made for, and if this approach is the right one to the subject matter. After all, cliches can be a comfort for the status quo, and in confronting the trauma inflicted upon generations of Indigenous people from colonialism and racism, there's no point of trying to make a bitter pill go down easily.

A scene from "Violation." Photo credit: Courtesy of ONE PLUS ONE

Over in the Midnight Madness section, Madeleine Sims-Fewer & Dusty Mancinelli's "Violation" tackles the thorny subgenre of rape-revenge movies. It follows a woman (Sims-Fewer) experiencing a psychological breakdown after being sexually assaulted by her sister's husband (Jesse LaVercombe), leading to a violent and questionable retribution. The title applies to more than just the incident itself though, as Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli highlight the many ways one's trust can be violated and bring a person down a path of no return.

There's no doubt that "Violation" wants to provoke viewers, but I didn't get much out of the film's efforts. A lot of that comes down to poor structuring, with the film hopping back-and-forth through time at the same location so the incident and aftermath run almost parallel to each other. It doesn't prove to be that effective and winds up killing any sense of development for Sims-Fewer's character, making it hard to chart her trajectory from devastation to methodically executing her plan of revenge. There also isn't much nuance to Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer's film, whether it's the screenplay's question of the punishment fitting the crime or the aesthetics being lifted almost entirely from Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist." Committed performances by Sims-Fewer and LaVercombe can only do so much to help what amounts to a swing and a miss.

Once again, a mixed bag this year for Canadian cinema although it isn't all bad (see my thoughts on Bruce LaBruce's "Saint-Narcisse" from earlier in the festival). I decided to switch things up for my third film with "Spring Blossom," the debut feature by French writer/director Suzanne Lindon. A selection at this year's (canceled) Cannes Festival, the film will likely be singled out for Lindon writing the script at 15-years-old and directing it at 20 (an impressive fact made less impressive upon learning her parents are French actors Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain). Lindon also stars as Suzanne, a 16-year-old high schooler who develops a crush on a 35-year-old actor (Arnaud Valois) she passes by on her way to school every day. They end up getting to know each other, but the undeniable tension between them makes Suzanne question what kind of mess she's gotten herself into.

"Spring Blossom" is a film as fleeting as the relationship at the center of it, wrapping things up in less than 75 minutes and doing it with enough aplomb to make it a pleasant experience despite the age gap. Some of Lindon's choices range from simplistic (like the feelings of alienation shared between to the two leads) to misguided (injections of surrealism through dance sequences), which critics could chalk up to either rookie mistakes for a debut or just being young. But she and Valois are both great together, and her confidence in walking the fine line she draws for herself gives the film a real spark of energy. What Lindon lacks in some areas can be made up for by her specificity and willingness to take risks, making "Spring Blossom" a flawed but promising first feature.