Hu Wei (Butter Lamp)
UPDATE (January 15, 2015): Butter Lamp has been nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Live-Action Short. Best of luck to Hu Wei and the rest of his team!

One of the most impressive short films I saw during my visit to the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival last January was Hu Wei’s La lampe au beurre de yak (Butter Lamp). In fact, I wasn’t the only one impressed; the film won the Grand Prix. I was tremendously pleased, therefore, to be able to bring it to Shorts That Are Not Pants this past October. The film has scooped up a slew of other awards as well, and it seems destined to become a short film classic. Director Hu Wei graciously answered a few questions about the film recently.

Where did the idea for the film come from?

The idea has existed for a long time, but it was not until 2008 at the FIAC Paris when I saw Michael Nash’s photograph “Warsaw 1946,” that I finally decided to write the script. In this photograph, a photographer uses a backdrop with some rural scenery to mask the war ruins while shooting a portrait for a woman, in Warsaw in November of 1946. This differentiation of space presented in one photograph has really impressed me and I think that is sort of a common agreement between Western culture and Eastern. After that I finished the screenplay of Butter Lamp.

Where was the film shot?

In the Tibetan region, in Sichuan, China.

Is the film a documentary, or was some of it scripted?

This film is entirely scripted.

The use of perspective is very clever in the film – we see only what the camera lens sees. What were the reasons for this?

We are unable to perceive the complete world; not even in reality. I wish to create a relatively enclosed space in the film; every one of the backdrops represents a Utopia of some sort. I was trying to construct a “happy” atmosphere at the beginning of the film; as time goes by and each of the backdrop unfolds, and till we are brought back to the real world, the difference between the dream worlds and the reality is finally revealed.

Still from Butter Lamp

Were your Tibetan actors all nomadic, like the characters they play? Where did you find them?

The actors who appeared in the film are all local Tibetan nomads. We went into the mountains, visiting one village after another in search of the actors.

How do you feel the Tibetan nomads relate to the woman in Michael Nash’s photograph?

I think that for the Tibetans, the woman is the photograph, they are all just people who have dreams.

Did you encounter any difficulties while filming? How were they overcome?

First of all, it is a short film and in China there is no specific filming permit [available] for shorts. As a result, we had many troubles during filming because we did not have a filming permit; especially for a production team consisting of foreign members [Editor’s Note: the film was a co-production with France]. Secondly, the entire filming process was conducted on the plateau of over 4,000 meters altitude, and that created both physical and mental challenges for most of the crew members from the flatlands. And lastly we had problems communicating with the Tibetans, they were nomads and non-professional actors and that was another barrier we experienced. It was time that overcame all the difficulties.

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Company Man: The Best of Robert Altman at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Robert Altman is a director I’ve always loved and respected. I loved that he directed industrial films in his twenties, made television in his thirties, and was well into his forties before he began making feature films. He has also been described as quite a character, prone to heavy drinking and strong opinions. He was always a maverick, and despite many critical successes, he still found it a struggle to get many of his films made. I also love that he took many risks, directing films in many styles. He definitely had a few flops (Popeye, not showing in this series) and films that I personally disliked (The Company, which will be screened), but all of that made him even more human, even as his oeuvre (all of it created in the latter half of his life) makes him larger than life. If you’re looking for some reading material about Altman’s life, I thoroughly enjoyed Mitchell Zuckoff’s Altman: The Oral Biography (2010), and recommend it as a worthy companion volume to seeing the films in this series.

TIFF is bringing a wide-ranging retrospective of his work to the TIFF Bell Lightbox from August 7th-31st, and I’m excited to see some old favourites again, and to fill in a few gaps, too. Even better, kicking things off on Friday August 1st at 7pm is Altman, Toronto filmmaker Ron Mann’s new documentary on Altman’s life and work. Here are just a few highlights.

Still from M*A*S*H
M*A*S*H (1970)

It wasn’t his first feature, but M*A*S*H definitely announced Altman’s arrival and heralded a new type of filmmaking that would come to be known as the “New Hollywood.” The tragicomic lives of a group of battlefield surgeons during the Korean War came out while the war in Vietnam was in full swing, and its satire still stings today. M*A*S*H screens on Thursday August 7 at 6:30pm.

Still from McCabe and Mrs. Miller
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

Described as a “revisionist Western,” McCabe and Mrs. Miller has been on my “blind spot” list for years. I’m so glad I finally got to see it on the big screen. I’ll be posting my thoughts on the film here very soon. McCabe and Mrs. Miller will screen with an introduction from its cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond on Friday August 8 at 6:15pm.

Still from Brewster McCloud
Brewster McCloud (1970)

This story of an eccentric young man (Bud Cort) who lives in the Houston Astrodome and who wants to fly like a bird has been difficult to see over the years. I’m looking forward to catching it on 35mm. Brewster McCloud will screen on Sunday August 10 at 1:30pm.

Still from California Split
California Split (1974)

One of the only Altman films I’ve actually written about before, this features two stalwarts of ’70s cinema, Elliott Gould and George Segal as a couple of gambling buddies. It’s funny, but also darker than it first appears. Addiction’s pull is just below the surface of all the other antics. California Split screens on Thursday August 21 at 6:15pm.

There is much, much more, including screenings of The Long Goodbye (1973), Nashville (1975), The Player (1991), Short Cuts (1993), Gosford Park (2001), and his last film, A Prairie Home Companion (2006). More information on the series from the TIFF web site.

Tickets for all screenings are available through the TIFF web site or at the box office. I’ve got mine already. See you there!

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Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher

At this year’s Hot Docs, the film that undoubtedly had the biggest effect on me was Off Label. This erstwhile “issue doc” turned out to be so affecting that I literally could not write about it for months. You can read my very recently posted review of the film and maybe get a sense of why it seemed to difficult for me. My first viewing was a few weeks before the festival, but after seeing it a second time during the festival, I knew I wanted to talk to the filmmakers. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to say, but I knew that any film that left me so unsettled was doing something right. I’d been a big fan of the pair’s first feature documentary, 2009’s October Country (review) but that film’s intimacy didn’t seem to fit with what I thought would be a standard takedown of the pharmaceutical industry. So we sat down for breakfast at the Sutton Place Hotel while I threw some half-formed questions and observations their way.

[click to continue…]

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Room 237
Room 237 screens as part of the Vanguard programme. Check the festival web site for screening times and locations.

Room 237 (Director: Rodney Ascher): I’ll start with a confession. I hadn’t actually watched Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining until about two years ago. There were lots of reasons, the main of which was that I was never a real fan of “horror” films. After seeing it, of course, I discovered that The Shining is not the slasher film that I’d anticipated (and feared). Instead, it’s a dense and moody psychological thriller, and the type of film that I actually love. That being said, I may have only seen the film twice in my life.

Which makes me completely different from the motley band of nutjobs and conspiracy theorists who populate Rodney Ascher’s creepy Room 237, each of whom has probably watched the film in slo-mo dozens of times. From the man with the relatively mild theory that the film is really all about the extermination of America’s indigenous population to the guy who’s convinced that The Shining is Kubrick’s cryptic confession to filming the faked Apollo moon landings in a studio, Ascher’s “subjective documentary” turns out be at least as scary as watching Kubrick’s film itself.

Ascher wisely chooses to allow his “theorists” to only be heard in voiceover and never seen. Instead, he uses visuals from The Shining and many other films, including almost all of Kubrick’s other work. The result is deeply unsettling, especially when combined with a rather sinister score. While the various theories can often provoke guffaws of disbelief, the relentless accounting of the film’s eccentricities has an alienating effect that reinforces how weird The Shining really is.

For instance, while not convinced by one of the commentator’s convoluted geography of the hotel’s floor plan, I did become convinced that Kubrick may have purposely messed with the audience’s spatial awareness simply to heighten our sense of unease.

What Ascher’s film demonstrates most ably is the limits of auteur theory when taken to its absolute irrational end. Each of these people is convinced that not only was Kubrick aware of every tiny detail they tease out of the film, but that he alone was the visionary behind each choice. I’m aware that Kubrick may have been a bit of a control freak, but I’d be very surprised if every decision of the cinematographer, editor, production designer and even the actors sprung from the mind of the director.

In the end, while we may come out of Room 237 laughing at these “crackpots,” I’m convinced that for many of us, our next viewing of The Shining will be a lot more terrifying.

Official site of the film

As a bonus, I’m embedding another short “narrative documentary” by the same director, “the shocking, true story of the most terrifying logo of all time.”


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Fathers and Daughters: The Films of Mia Hansen-Løve at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Though I’ve only seen two of her three films, I’m tremendously excited that the smart folks at TIFF have seen fit to bring French director Mia Hansen-Løve to Toronto for a survey of her work so far. Just 31, Hansen-Løve began her career in the cinema as an actor, playing a small role in now-husband Olivier Assayas’ 1998 film Fin août, début septembre (Late August, Early September). After another collaboration, she gave up acting to become, like Assayas and a long line of other French filmmakers, a critic for influential magazine Cahiers du cinéma. But it was only when she decided to make a short film in 2004 that she discovered what she really wanted to do with her life.

Less than a decade later, she’s created a small but impressive body of work. Her films are intensely personal, and yet universal. They deal with the joys and sorrows of life, with grief and loss, and romantic yearning. Her characters feel deeply and her directorial style draws the audience into that depth. She makes documentaries of the heart. Like her husband’s films, there’s something about her work that resonated immediately with me. Come and discover an exciting young filmmaker, hopefully at just the beginning of her career.

Still from Tout est pardonné (All Is Forgiven)
Tout est pardonné (All Is Forgiven) (2007)

In her first feature, Hansen-Løve tells the story of a young woman attempting to reconnect with her long-absent father. Tout est pardonné (All Is Forgiven) will screen with an introduction from the director on Thursday August 23 at 6:30pm.

Still from Le père de mes enfants (The Father of My Children)
Le père de mes enfants (The Father of My Children) (2009)

In this 2009 feature, based on the life of a film producer influential in the director’s life, the charismatic Louis-Do de Lencquesaing juggles the demands of work and his loving family (including real-life daughter Alice) while struggling with despair. Le père de mes enfants (The Father of My Children) will screen with an introduction from Hansen-Løve on Friday August 24 at 6:15pm.

Still from Un Enfant dans la foule (A Child in the Crowd)
Un Enfant dans la foule (A Child in the Crowd) (1976)

Hansen-Løve’s “carte blanche” selection of another director’s work is this neglected classic by Gérard Blain, about a teenaged boy in the closing days of the Second World War who will do almost anything to gain the love of his distant parents. It sounds like an influence on her first film and it will be interesting to hear her introduce it. Un Enfant dans la foule (A Child in the Crowd) will screen on Friday August 24 at 9:00pm.

Still from Un amour de jeunesse (Goodbye First Love)
Un amour de jeunesse (Goodbye First Love) (2011)

Her most autobiographical work to date, this most recent feature covers a decade in the life of a young woman, from the first flush of adolescent love to the flowering of adulthood and adult relationships. Lola Creton, just 17 when the film was made, shows incredible range (and depth) in the role. Un amour de jeunesse (Goodbye First Love) screens with the director’s introduction on Saturday August 25 at 5:00pm.

More information on the series from the TIFF web site.

Tickets for all screenings are available through the TIFF web site or at the box office. I’ve got mine already. See you there!

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