Monday, February 8, 2016

Closing Night at the Toledo International Film Festival: Amazing films and some questions

Koichi and Ryo in I Wish, played wonderfully by two real-life brothers.

What I love about International Film Festivals is the opportunity to see movies from around the world made by directors from different countries exploring life events, new viewpoints, or social and geopolitical issues in different cultural contexts. Such films offer both a sense of place and universal themes.  Sense of place is critical. They might be Indies (independent films), documentaries, dramas, fact or fiction or a mix of both, and also a mix of genres, like the fabulous four films that opened the 2016 Toledo International Film Festival (TIFF): Timbukto, Dancing in Jaffa, Gabrielle, Instructions not Included.  

These four films, so different from one another but each beautifully crafted, gave us a glimpse into the human dilemmas, profound challenges, daily struggles, and the loves, hopes and fears of people living in the African Sahara near Mali and Mauritania, in Israel, partly in Mexico, and in Quebec, Canada.  They were rooted in a strong sense of place and at the same time showed us the connective power of universal human emotions that transcends differences. These films took us on cultural journeys, helped us explore new worlds, opened doors into the human condition of our global family.

The third and final night of the film festival featured I Wish (2011), directed by Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, a lovely film about the bewildering complexities of family life in modern Japan, and White God (2015), by Hungarian filmmaker Kornel Mandruczo, a noir film about extreme cruelty to animals and the  revenge of a pack of dogs that takes place mostly on the streets of Budapest.  I Wish hit the mark of  the Toledo International Film Festival's purpose, but I'm not sure about White God.

I Wish is about loss and hope, the loss of family unity when parents separate and the hope young children have for reuniting. Koichi, a sweet and energetic 12 year old, and his younger brother Ryu, enchanting and irrepressible, are now living apart, Koichi with his mother and grandparents in Kagoshimi, near the Sakurjima volcano, and Ryu with his father in far away Oksaka.

For Koichi, the active volcano is ever-present and, in his eyes, ever-ominous.  He can't understand why the townspeople are so nonchalant about it, as if it wasn't really there. The volcano could, afterall, erupt at any moment, covering the town in lava and ash and causing everyone to run.  "I don't get it," he says.

Actually, there are lots of things about grown-ups' behavior that Koichi doesn't
get. Understandably. Yes, we can see it. The movie follows Koichi, Ryu and their friends as they try to figure it out.  It's the time of the new "bullet" trains in Japan that can connect far away cities faster than ever, and connect families, too. When Koichi hears that two trains passing each other at high speeds create a magical energy field that makes wishes come true, he hatches a scheme for his brother and their friends to meet at that very place.

We share Koichi's high hopes, as well as his subsequent doubts. Will the wishes he, Ryu and their friends shout at the passing trains, explosive and powerful, come true?  It's like the volcano down the street that no one talks about, and the one he draws--red, black and dramatic--and posts on the wall of his room. A volcano of emotions. Will it explode, blow its top?

We sense after the scene with the passing trains that reality has started to set in and mute Koichi's wish. He's not sure.  He wonders. He might chose "the world" over family.  Life's like the volcano. You never know what will happen, when it might erupt. Maybe Koichi's wish will continue to simmer below the surface, but thankfully it seems that nothing will diminish his energetic spirit and his positive attitude toward life. It's the same with Ryu, who watches with delight as his vegetable garden sprouts from seeds he planted.

The last film of the festival, White God, filled me with mixed emotions. It's an amazing movie, but is it right for the TIFF? In this horror movie, Lili, a talented young trumpet player whose parents are divorced, looks desperately for her lost dog Hagen after her unfeeling father, a slaughterhouse inspector of all things, forces the dog out of  their car and then speeds off.  Like the opening scene showing in every gory detail the evisceration of a dead cow, guts are spilled and blood is running down the streets of Budapest.  The music of Wagner's Tannhauser, which Lili's high school orchestra is practicing under the direction of a dictatorial conductor, adds to the gloomy images and sense of impending doom.

Against this bleak backdrop, noir to the bone, Hagen tries to find Lili while she is also searching for him. They both fail. Lili slides into despair and worse, and the dog Hagen falls victim to such unspeakable extreme cruelty that he comes to lead a pack of dogs in a canine revolt againt their human abusers. The dogs, threatened by overly-enthusiastic dog catchers who take pleasure in capturing them and delivering them to their deaths, will have their revenge.

The subtext of this film is obviously the Nazi and Soviet terrorism that once ruled over Hungary.  The dog catchers are like Gestapo terrorists. The holding places where these mixed-breed dogs end up are like concentration camps. We feel like we're in Auschwitz. Old ladies act like the purported babushkas of Soviet times who spied on their neighbors and reported to the KGB.  Adults are not to be trusted, acting like "white gods" who rule and abuse without conscience. In this film, a "White God" is further embodied in a vicious dogfighting trainer who violently conditions dogs to become mad beasts in a subculture of survival of the meanest and most vicious. It happens to Hagen.  I can see why one reviewer called the film "a Hungarian revenge fantasy."

But for me the revenge fantasy focuses too long and in too much excruciating gory detail on the most vicious behavior toward animals that I have ever witnessed, to the point I couldn't take it and needed to come up for air.  A graphic step-by-step guide on how to torture a dog and turn him into a raving maniac fighting machine, or for that matter how to torture a human being and turn him into a monster, is more than I can bear.

Mandruczo's film takes place in Budapest, one of my favorite cities, but it really doesn't matter so much. The Budapest we see from these harmed and hunted dogs' point of view, through their eyes, is a nightmare landscape of subhuman terrorism, torture and cruelty. The Parliament, St. Stephens Basilica, the grand Opera house and other familiar sights, the Danube River and the beautiful bridges, are merely dark shadowy illusions in the dogs' struggle for survival and revenge.

This nightmare of unmitigated cruelty, filmed with extreme realism at the eye-level of the dogs, every bloody detail, an amazing work of art, actually could have taken place anywhere, in any country, in any city, in Toledo, Ohio, itself. The sense of place, glimpses into Hungarian culture and traditions, the experiences and views of ordinary people in a distinctive cultural context, are absent, not relevant to the greater moral purpose of this movie. This is why I wish another film had ended the 2016 festival, a film that continued our journey into diverse cultures and helped us understand them.  Should I stand at a place where two trains speed past each other and shout my wish? I think Koichi would ask me to think about it!

Of course I want to emphasize that my view in no way detracts from the outstanding work of the TIFF, its organizers, workers and volunteers, its generous sponsors and community partners.  I am a huge fan.  This was a fantastic event in a wonderful venue. I look forward to next year's International Film Festival, and I welcome other points of view.
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