The Workers Cup

Poster for The Workers Cup

The Workers Cup (Director: Adam Sobel): When Qatar was awar­ded the 2022 World Cup, there were aud­ible gasps in the room. A gulf state with no dis­cern­ible foot­ball cul­ture or his­tory, it seemed to win simply by vir­tue of its con­sid­er­able oil wealth. Since there was no exist­ing infra­struc­ture for an event of this mag­nitude, soon dozens of com­pan­ies were on the ground, plan­ning and bid­ding on the myriad of con­struc­tion pro­jects that would pre­pare Qatar for its moment in the global sport­ing spot­light. Director Adam Sobel has lived in Qatar for many years, work­ing as a journ­al­ist. He was inter­ested in telling the stor­ies of the migrant work­ers who come from all over the world in search of a bet­ter life for them­selves and for their fam­il­ies back home. But he found that in his reports for main­stream media, there was only time and atten­tion for a very simple nar­rat­ive, that of the work­ers as hap­less vic­tims of an exploit­at­ive labour sys­tem. He wanted to dig deeper.

When the organ­iz­ing com­mit­tee of the World Cup announced they’d be organ­iz­ing a foot­ball tour­na­ment for work­ers in 2014, Sobel saw his chance. 24 com­pany teams were chosen to com­pete and Sobel embed­ded him­self with the team from Gulf Contracting Company (GCC). We see how the work­ers are housed in camps far from the city of Doha and their work sites. They are bussed to and from work, but have no oppor­tun­it­ies to leave the camp oth­er­wise. Their food and lodging is provided, but the envir­on­ment very much feels like a prison to them. Workers from dif­fer­ent parts of the world (Kenya, Ghana, Nepal, India) are segreg­ated from each other and most feel quite lonely. The tour­na­ment is a rare chance for them to mix with other nation­al­it­ies and even to social­ize with work­ers and man­agers from very dif­fer­ent levels of the cor­por­ate hier­archy.

Watching the play­ers carve out moments of joy away from their jobs is truly bit­ter­sweet. Captain Kenneth was lured to Qatar by assur­ances from his agent that work­ing con­struc­tion would lead to a chance to play foot­ball for a pro­fes­sional team. Realizing those prom­ises were noth­ing but lies, Kenneth put his head down and resigned him­self to long days of hard work. But being chosen cap­tain of the GCC squad reawakens his love for the game, and reveals an inspir­ing and shrewd leader. After the team’s first win, he corners the chair­man of the cor­por­a­tion and prac­tic­ally demands more train­ing time for the squad. Nepalese Padam cel­eb­rates every goal with his new­found African friends, but also dis­cov­ers that the line between teas­ing and racism can be razor thin. Kenyan Paul talks about women con­stantly, and yearns to leave the camp to go on a date.

Though both play­ers and man­agers know that the tour­na­ment is a PR exer­cise and a way for their com­pan­ies to attract pos­it­ive press and recruit more work­ers, they can’t help but get caught up in the spirit of team­work and com­pet­i­tion, and the film does a good job of immers­ing the audi­ence in that atmo­sphere as well. We fol­low the team’s pro­gress through the tour­na­ment and share in the play­ers’ joys and dis­ap­point­ments on and off the field. In the pro­cess, nation­al­it­ies and jobs mat­ter a little bit less. Near the end of the film, there’s an abso­lutely remark­able moment when Sebastian, a man with a com­fort­able (though still not luc­rat­ive) pos­i­tion in man­age­ment, gives a jaw-drop­ping speech in the locker room to the play­ers. It’s an example of what doc­u­ment­ary is cap­able of, the abil­ity to cap­ture unpre­dict­able emo­tions in real-time, and per­haps life-chan­ging epi­phanies, too.

Though I’ve always been aware of the cor­rup­tion and exploit­a­tion behind large-scale sport­ing events, The Workers Cup does an excel­lent job of human­iz­ing the people (at all levels) caught up in this infernal machine.

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Becoming Bond

Poster for Becoming Bond

Becoming Bond (Director: Josh Greenbaum): James Bond is one of the most endur­ing char­ac­ters in film, and we’re used to see­ing a new actor take on the role every few years. But back in 1968, Sean Connery WAS Bond, and the thought of any­one try­ing to replace him was almost unthink­able. When his replace­ment turned out to be a male model and former car mech­anic from Australia, with no pre­vi­ous act­ing exper­i­ence, expect­a­tions weren’t very high. And then when new Bond George Lazenby didn’t return after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the hunt was on again.

Josh Greenbaum’s film allows George Lazenby, now in his mid-70s, to tell his own story of his rise from obscur­ity, brush with fame and wealth, and ulti­mate rejec­tion of the Bond mantle. Using re-enact­ments to liven up what’s essen­tially a sit-down inter­view, the film has the feel of a tall tale, with col­our­ful details per­haps embel­lished a little in Lazenby’s memory. He recalls his child­hood and his fail­ure to gradu­ate from high school with a tinge of regret. But the ever resource­ful Lazenby spins his job as a car mech­anic into a more glam­or­ous and luc­rat­ive one actu­ally selling cars. It’s here where he meets the beau­ti­ful Belinda, the woman who will turn out to be the great love of his life. He also meets a pho­to­grapher who encour­ages him to start mod­el­ling, a pro­fes­sion the rugged Lazenby had no idea exis­ted.

After George wins Belinda’s heart, her dis­ap­prov­ing father sends her away to England, and Lazenby soon fol­lows. As he tries to rekindle the rela­tion­ship, he takes up car sales and mod­el­ling again and achieves his first taste of fame. The story of how he actu­ally gets the role of Bond is nearly unbe­liev­able, but it’s an enter­tain­ing tale. Things don’t go as smoothly with Belinda, and the present day Lazenby shows real regret at let­ting her get away. Lazenby’s tales of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll do grow a bit tire­some, and you’re just on the verge of being fed up with him when he recounts how he turned down a con­tract for six more Bond films and a mil­lion-dol­lar bonus. There’s more to the old play­boy than meets the eye.

Lazenby doesn’t elab­or­ate too much on the course of his life post-Bond but you get the sense he’s been happy. He might regret a few of his choices, but over­all he emerges as someone admir­able for choos­ing his own way instead of the easy path that was offered to him.

Unfortunately, as a film, Becoming Bond wear­ies the viewer with its con­stant wink­ing tone and end­less re-enact­ments. There’s almost an ele­ment of Austin Powers par­ody­ing of the times, and there’s a dearth of archival mater­ial that would have given this some much-needed depth. One egre­gious example is an inter­view Lazenby did on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Instead of licens­ing the actual foot­age, the film­maker uses actor Dana Carvey to imper­son­ate Carson and it gives the whole thing a car­ni­valesque feel. Maybe Greenbaum was try­ing to con­vey Lazenby’s dis­com­fort with the trap­pings of fame, but it comes across as an attempt to milk the epis­ode for cheap laughs. It’s a prob­lem that afflicts the whole film. Lazenby’s story is inter­est­ing and evokes pathos, but try­ing to make it more enter­tain­ing ends up mak­ing it feel shal­low.

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Am Ende der Wald (Where the Woods End)

Am Ende der Wald (Where the Woods End) - Poster

Director Felix Ahrens won a Silver Medal at the Student Academy Awards for this taut mini-thriller. In just 30 minutes, Am Ende der Wald (Where the Woods End) man­ages to cre­ate an unbear­able situ­ation for its prot­ag­on­ist, young police officer Elke. While on patrol with her part­ner near the German-Czech bor­der, she pur­sues a young man into the woods after a routine pullover. In a moment of panic, she shoots and kills him. The after­math is quietly dev­ast­at­ing as she struggles with oppos­ing feel­ings of guilt and jus­ti­fic­a­tion. She’s con­vinced the man and his accom­plice must have been meth deal­ers or smug­glers, but they find no evid­ence to prove it. In des­per­a­tion, she takes her own infant son along as she vis­its the man’s fam­ily in the Czech Republic. Her rising guilt and panic col­lide in a bril­liant cli­max that leaves the audi­ence breath­less.

Am Ende der Wald (Where the Woods End) - Still

As Elke, Henrike von Kuick com­bines a sense of inno­cence with deep exhaus­tion. Her pier­cing blue eyes look haunted as she car­ries the bur­den of her actions. The cine­ma­to­graphy is both sweep­ing and intim­ate, and the director’s sense of pacing is pre­cise. I sus­pect it won’t be long before the award-win­ning Ahrens is dir­ect­ing fea­ture-length thrillers.

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2016 TIFF CAST Awards Announcement

For the fifth year in a row, I’ve com­piled a spe­cial edi­tion of the CAST Awards, just based on what people saw dur­ing the Toronto International Film Festival. Here are the CAST Top 10 based on the votes of 24 sub­mit­ted bal­lots. Voters ranked up to 10 films on their bal­lot from top to bot­tom, with first choices receiv­ing 10 points, second choices 9, etc. The Points column lists the total score for each film, Mentions indic­ates how many voters included it in their Top Ten, Average is the aver­age point score, and Firsts shows how many voters chose it as their favour­ite TIFF film.

In the case of points ties, the film with the higher num­ber of first-place votes is lis­ted first, then by highest aver­age score. Because our sample size is quite small, these “rank­ings” don’t actu­ally mean much, but I thought it would give a good idea of what this par­tic­u­lar group of fest­ival­go­ers enjoyed this year. I’m curi­ous to see how many of these show up in our reg­u­lar year-end CAST bal­lot and how they do.

Moonlight - Barry Jenkins
La La Land - Damien ChazelleToni Erdmann - Maren Ade
Manchester by the Sea - Kenneth LonerganPaterson - Jim JarmuschCertain Women - Kelly Reichardt
Colossal - Nacho VigalondoNocturnal Animals - Tom FordPersonal Shopper - Olivier AssayasThe Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki - Juho Kuosmanen

FILM TITLE
POINTS
MENTIONS
AVERAGE
FIRSTS
1. Moonlight 104 12 8.67 7
2. La La Land 75 9 8.33 4
3. Toni Erdmann 72 10 7.2 2
4.Manchester By The Sea 57 8 7.1 1
5. Paterson 37 5 7.4 0
6. Certain Women 37 6 6.2 9
7. Colossal 34 4 8.5 2
8. Nocturnal Animals 33 4 8.25 1
9. Personal Shopper 32 6 5.3 0
10. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki 31 4 7.8 0

Participants:

Here is a PDF (106K) with each person’s bal­lot and the full col­lated res­ults, with a few more inter­est­ing stats included.

And for those still read­ing, here is my final TIFF CAST bal­lot. I saw a total of 12 films this year:

My TIFF CAST Ballot

  1. Moonlight
  2. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki
  3. The Giant
  4. Blue Jay
  5. Into the Inferno
  6. Planetarium
  7. Things to Come
  8. ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail
  9. Orphan
  10. Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee
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TIFF 2016 Preview: Things to Come

Poster for Things to Come

I’ve made no secret of my love for the films of Mia Hansen-Løve. She’s made some amaz­ing com­ing-of-age stor­ies that explore more than just the usual one or two emo­tions. Although I have yet to see her pre­vi­ous film Eden, I was excited to hear that her new one, Things to Come, will be screen­ing at TIFF this year. Even more excit­ing is that she’s work­ing with Isabelle Huppert, who just keeps get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter. In fact, dur­ing this morning’s first batch of announce­ments, I heard Huppert’s name three times, so it’s great that she’s work­ing so much, and that almost guar­an­tees that she’ll be in Toronto for a good part of the fest­ival. And just for con­trast, can you think of a North American female actor who, at the age of 63, still com­mands as much respect as Isabelle Huppert? Ah well, that’s why I love TIFF.

Still from Things to Come

Still from Things to Come

Huppert plays Nathalie, a pro­fessor of philo­sophy whose life takes a huge turn when, in quick suc­ces­sion, her mother dies and her hus­band leaves her. I’d be lying if I said this doesn’t res­on­ate with the recent course of my own life. As she struggles with her new­found “free­dom,” she must essen­tially pass through a period of self-exam­in­a­tion and rein­vent her­self. I’m excited by the pro­spect of see­ing an intel­li­gent film about this sort of emo­tional and exist­en­tial tur­moil. I’m includ­ing an altern­ate poster that I like bet­ter below. I like the idea of the pic­ture frame and of Nathalie look­ing off into the dis­tance.

Alternate poster for Things to Come

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