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.
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.
For the second year running, I’ve compiled a special edition of the CAST Awards, just based on what people saw during Hot Docs. Here are the CAST Top 10 based on the votes of 14 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 Hot Docs 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.
Girls Don’t Fly (Director: Monika Grassl): When British expat Jonathan Porter appears onscreen for the first time wearing a t-shirt that says “I AM NOT A WHITE MAN,” you know you’re in for a bumpy flight. You see, Jonathan is the stereotypical white man and a cringeworthy reminder of Britain’s colonial past. Porter runs an NGO in Ghana that purports to train young women to be pilots. Along with his Ghanaian wife, Patricia, he tries to instil a very Western style of discipline and organization in his students, mostly girls from rural backgrounds. Although director Grassl introduces the girls by name with her title cards, Porter’s program assigns each one a number and forbids them from using their own names (or speaking any other language than English). What starts off looking like discipline very quickly begins to look like abuse and degradation.
These young women are used to listening to white men tell them what to do. Even though Ghana achieved its independence from Britain in 1957, there is still a sense that white people should be respected and even obeyed. That sad situation is what allows a creep like Jonathan Porter to thrive. His wife Patricia, a former student, gained her pilot’s licence on her own merits and is a strong woman, but she clearly has hitched her wagon to Jonathan’s scheme and believes in his methods. In one scene, she muses that maybe Ghana achieved its independence too soon, and that they still have a lot to learn from their former colonial masters. Instead of encouraging her students to think for themselves, she becomes an enabler of Jonathan’s most misogynistic traits. He shouts at the girls, he tells them to smile, he dishes out meaningless punishments, and after weeks at the school, nobody’s seen the inside of a plane. Instead, he puts them to work mowing the grass on the runway, or assembling trinkets in the metal shop. The program is four years long, though he tells the camera that in Europe it would probably be two. He claims to be an African and yet he has no respect for the Ghanaian culture and actually tells the girls their names would confuse outsiders. The girls have names like Esther and Lydia.
Speaking of Lydia, she’s been turned into a sort of prize. As a result of an infection after an insect bite, her arm is shrivelled and has limited range of movement. But her determination to fly has turned her into one of the earlier classes star pupils. She says she’s been there 3.5 years and is almost ready to gain her licence, but she must have more surgery in Germany on her arm. Porter’s NGO has paid for the surgery and pays all the “tuition” and accommodation costs for the girls, although they appear to gain nothing from the experience. Lydia is used shamelessly in the NGO’s materials to keep the donations pouring in from around the world. She is incredibly charismatic and the newer girls love her, but after a while, the students confide to the filmmaker that they’re unhappy. Esther is one of the better students and she takes a leadership role in their brewing revolt.
Girls Don’t Fly turns the feel-good story of charitable organizations helping the less fortunate on its ear. When culturally insensitive and just plain nasty people like Jonathan Porter can support themselves “teaching” while their students get no closer to their dreams, something is wrong. When he can actively discourage them from going back to traditional schooling to continue his program, something must be done. Although Grassl’s film effectively turns over a rock and finds nasty things wriggling, one has to wonder how many other NGOs are operating in a similar fashion.
On behalf of the other members of the CAST junta, I’m very pleased to announce the results of the 6th edition of the CAST Awards. I received 41 completed ballots from film lovers in the Greater Toronto Area. Here are the CAST Top 25 voted from among all films that had a theatrical or festival release in Toronto during 2015. 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, the Mentions column indicates the number of ballots it appeared on, and the First column indicates the total number of voters who chose the film as their top choice. We are very proud of the group of critics we’ve gathered, even though I’ve described us elsewhere as “a ragtag group of semi-professional film bloggers, podcasters, tweeters and Lightbox lobby loiterers.” 170 different films (including at least two short films) received at least one mention this year.
I’m also very happy that the CASTcast returned this year. Listen as I try to wrangle Dave Voigt, Ryan McNeil, Hillary Butler, Jorge Ignacio Castillo, Corey Pierce, Norm McGlashan, and Heidy Morales as we talk about the year in film. Bob Turnbull turns in a cameo as the very generous bartender, too.
And for those still reading, here is my very own CAST ballot, with my top ten from 2015.
UPDATE (Friday January 15, 2016): Congratulations to Patrick and his team, the film has just been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short. Good luck!
Patrick Vollrath’s 30-minute film drops us into the life of Michael Baumgartner, divorced father of 8-year-old Lea. As the film begins, he’s anxiously waiting to pick her up for his regular visit. His anxiety doesn’t end when she happily greets him, however. And his refusal to even meet the eyes of his ex-wife let us know that something is up. As he takes Lea to a toy store to choose anything she wants, and then to a photo booth where he encourages her to pose for some “neutral” photos after the silly ones, we realize he’s planning to take her away. As it begins to dawn on Lea that something’s not right with Daddy, the film subtly shifts to her perspective.
Alles wird gut is something spoken to the young girl twice in the film, and in each case, we share her skepticism. Vollrath’s film is gripping from start to finish, with fantastic performances from the two leads. Simon Schwarz ably portrays the desperation of a father terrified of losing his connection with his daughter, but especially noteworthy is young Julia Pointner in her very first film role. She carries the film in the ironic position of the voice of reason. Watching her reach a state of near-catatonia as her parents engage in a literal tug-of-war for her is heartbreaking on many levels. The handheld cinematography also adds to the sense of immediacy.
Vollrath won a Student Academy Award this year for the film and Alles wird gut has been collecting other prizes on its festival run. If you get a chance to see this remarkable short film, don’t miss it!
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