As I was about to publish this today, it was announced that Charlotte Cook would be leaving her post as Director of Programming for Hot Docs after four festivals. I want to wish her well personally and professionally, and I’m looking forward to what the next few months has in store for my favourite local film festival.
For the very first time, 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 13 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.
On behalf of the other members of the CAST junta, I’m very pleased to announce the results of the 5th edition of the CAST Awards. I received 38 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 2014. 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.” 142 different films received at least one mention this year, although 81 of those received only one mention.
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.
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.
Song of the Sea opens Friday December 19th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. See it on the biggest screen possible.
Song of the Sea (Director: Tomm Moore): As a huge fan of Tomm Moore’s previous film, The Secret of Kells, I was eagerly looking forward to seeing Song of the Sea. And I do mean seeing, since Moore’s work as an animator is grounded in a lush yet spare drawing style that is simply gorgeous to look at. And true to form, every frame of the new film is as visually stunning as a painting. What I wasn’t prepared for was how much of an emotional wallop the film packs.
Though I’m a true lover of cinema, there are times when I’m grateful that I don’t have to make my living writing about films. This is definitely one of those times. Instead of bashing out my 300 words trying to slot this into some categories (animation, family films) and perhaps musing about its potential box office numbers before moving on the next week to whatever the media firehose belches forth, I can take my time a little. I can write about this film simply because it matters to me, and I can write about it in whatever way that I can express that.
I’ll begin by pointing out that Moore and his production company, Cartoon Saloon, have been working on Song of the Sea for more than five years, on a budget a fraction of what a company like Pixar would have available. Without disparaging any other animated feature films out there, this certainly speaks to the level of craft and love for the medium that Moore and his colleagues share. Operating outside of the Hollywood industry, Cartoon Saloon is more like an Irish version of the late, great Studio Ghibli.
The film begins with a few lines from W.B. Yeats’ “The Stolen Child,” a poem which has particular meaning for me, a transplanted Irishman. I chose it to be a part of my father’s memorial service a few years ago, and I’ve always found The Waterboys’ song based on it to be incredibly moving. It’s the story of a child being lured away from “a world full of weeping” by faeries.
It’s wonderful to see Moore return to the Irish mythology which The Secret of Kells brought to life so memorably. This time it’s a story about selkies, creatures who exist as seals in the water but as humans on dry land. Sometimes they take human spouses, but these unions often end tragically when the selkies return to their true home, the sea.
On the night that young Saoirse is born, her mother Bronach disappears, leaving husband Conor the lighthouse keeper heartbroken and son Ben bitter and angry at his baby sister. As she grows up, she remains mute and Ben continues to reject her. One night she discovers a special coat and wades into the sea where she is transformed into a seal and swims happily with a group of her own kind. But when her visiting grandmother finds her washed up on shore, she takes both Saoirse and Ben to live in the city, away from the dangers of the sea and their distracted father.
Being away from the sea and her special coat weakens Saoirse and Ben begins to show more sympathy for her. As well, he quickly discovers that all of the stories about faeries and witches that his mother told him before she disappeared are true. Soon the siblings are caught up in a life and death struggle to save Saoirse’s life and to restore a whole population of faery creatures who have been turned to stone by the witch Macha.
The emotional core of the film is literally about having an emotional core. The “villain” (who is really just unable to cope with her own pain) tries to lure Ben by asking him to forget his pain and bottle up (again, quite literally) his feelings in jars. But this well-meaning coping strategy has turned all of the faeries into stone, including Macha’s beloved son, the giant Mac Lir. In her misguided desire to rescue him from heartbreak, Macha instead stole her own son’s lifeblood. There’s a very clever pairing of human and faery characters in the story as well, which makes the mythical stories much more immediate.
The message of feeling your feelings, even when they’re painful, was not lost on me. I’ve gone through more than my fair share of personal tragedies this year. I cry much more easily now. I spent more than half of the film a quivering, sniffling wreck, and it felt wonderful. Although this is a film that deserves a huge audience, in many ways it felt like Tomm Moore made it just for me. And that is the highest praise I can bestow.
The Irish Pub (Director: Alex Fegan): I was born in Ireland and although my parents brought me to Canada when I was just a toddler, I’ve been back more than a dozen times in my lifetime, and have some great memories of time spent in traditional Irish pubs. So it wasn’t too difficult to convince me to watch this new documentary about these unique places. Director Fegan takes his camera around Ireland and spends most of his time in country towns where the pubs have often done double duty as grocery stores (and in one case, even as an undertaker’s). That should give you an idea of how essential these places have been in the history of the country. Far more than just a place to drink, the pub has been at the centre of social life for the community, including the arts for which Ireland has become famous. It seems that every pub in this film is filled with storytellers and musicians. In one case, a publican became a rather well-known playwright even as his customers knew that most of the plots had been lifted almost directly from the conversations he’d overheard through the years.
The film allows many of the pub’s owners and customers to relate some of the stories that have made each one unique. In a few places, there are (largely unnecessary) subtitles. Many of the pubs are set in postcard gorgeous settings. The camera lingers lovingly on items of bric-a-brac, and on faces. It’s a leisurely-paced film with no real structure, and no grand thesis. Instead, it simply aims to document people and places that seem in danger of disappearing forever. As such, it’s a pleasant experience, although surely a bit romanticized. I’d have liked to hear how the pubs were also hives of political resistance and activism during the years of English rule. Or hear more about the pub’s relationship with that other institution of Irish life, the Catholic Church. Alcoholism and oppressive religion and economic despair are also a huge part of Irish history, and the pub could be a divisive as well as a unifying force.
That being said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy this film a lot. To hear the sort of stories told in darkened pubs in a variety of charming brogues would put a smile on anyone’s face. And you’ll meet a whole cast of charming characters, from Athy to Ballylongford, from Clonakilty to Dingle, and beyond.
Lately, I’ve been watching a reality television show called Bar Rescue, in which a brash consultant tries to “turn around” failing bars in a few days. Often he berates bar owners for not changing their decor, or not upselling customers to more expensive drinks. This film, and its namesake the traditional Irish pub, is just about the complete opposite of the new ideal for bars and pubs. But I’d argue that it’s what the Irish call “the craic” that people are looking for when they walk into a bar. This film gives that difficult to define term a bit more substance, and makes for a healthy corrective to the relentless cynicism of reality TV.