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.

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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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