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A scene from Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy. (Courtesy of TIFF)
A scene from Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy. (Courtesy of TIFF)

Scenes from TIFF, Day 1: Come for the doc on human tragedy, stay for the free wine and tacos Add to ...

There’s a nice on-the-nose, this-is-what-the-movie-is-about line late in Maren Ade’s much-ballyhooed new film Toni Erdmann – it’s more-or-less accurately ballyhooed, even if my own personal ballyhooing may fall on the more reserved fringes; but it did make me cry real tears out of my face – where prankster papa Winfried (Peter Simonischek) waxes lite-philosophically on the meaning of life and the passage of time. “How,” he asks his daughter, “are we supposed to hang on to moments?”

Ade’s film is very much about these moments. It’s a movie so abounding in incident and sheer pleasure that it rarely affords us, the viewer, time to wonder if it really adds up to much. And that’s probably the point. Still: Winfried’s sad, ponderous question is one that hangs over me, at TIFF and in the course of my daily life. How do we properly cherish those cursory moments of contentment and warmth that life so rarely affords us? And more to the point, should we hold onto them? Do we deserve to feel any pleasure at all?

Kicking off a long week of filmgoing with a heavy doc about African genocide has a way of imposing such questions. Mahamat Saleh Haroun’s Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy (screening in TIFF’s Masters programme) looks at the harrowing aftermath of the reign of Habré, a Chadian dictator installed in 1982 with the help of Western powers, including the United States and France. Between 1982 and 1990, Habré’s regime ruled tyrannically. Sexual slavery, torture and murder (some 40,000 Chadians are estimated to have been killed under his rule) were a matter of course.

Watching people describe their abuses, mutilations and losses in the face of such historical horror, seeing real human beings praying for death, if only to be freed from physical disfigurements caused by government-sanctioned torture, is devastating. And not just in a fleeting, “Gee that was awful … where’s the coffee?!!” way. More like in a, “How am I expected to carry on with the pantomime of my own frivolous existence with this insight into the breadth of humanity’s capacity for barbarity I have just borne thirdhand witness to?” type way.

And then, there I am, 12 hours later, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, for the festival’s invite-only opening-night party. Dressed in a clean shirt and trousers I ordered on the Internet, sipping on a free chardonnay and munching on the avails of the taco bar, feeling like a low-level historical villain. Perhaps such vacillations between existential dread and gratis-cocktail-augmented rhapsodies fit with TIFF’s 2016 motto of “infinite views.” Or perhaps the boozing and schmoozing, and fussing about whether or not my shirt is “clean” and “has buttons,” is just one of the many never-ending ways in which the super-duper-privileged are further inured and calcified against the horror and violence that seems to take place so far, far away that it might as well be in an alternate universe.

In Ralitza Petrova’s unrepentantly bleak problem drama Godless, a bad guy with a crooked conscience offers another heavy lament, as if he’s crushed by the avenging heaviness of everyday life. He says something like: “I don’t want to be alive. I wake up in the morning, and I keep my eyes closed.” Then he turns around and slinks into a greasy sex party: an orgy of bloated, pockmarked flesh; a bacchanal of cheap, gaudy pleasures.

And, well, yeah. There it is. Pass the white wine and sliders. Listen to me sound sophisticated as I half, if not full-drunkenly, endorse a documentary that’s just, like, unflinching. “Uh, I’m gonna mispronounce it but, HUSS-ein Hub-RAY, A Chadian Tragedy, directed by … I dunno, some African director.”

Forget remembering the precious moments. The real trick to faking it through life is remembering how to forget the brutal ones.

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