The Toronto International Film Festival bills the selections in its Wavelengths section as “films that expand our notions of cinema.” But it’s the program itself that’s growing. Once considered a sidebar to TIFF’s annual smorgasbord of narrative feature films, Wavelengths, which screens experimental and avant-garde shorts and features from Canada and around the world, has become for many dedicated cinephiles the festival’s main event, an eclectic showcase for works that simply don’t look, sound or feel like anything else on offer.
Andréa Picard is Wavelengths’ lead programmer and the driving force behind its recent momentum, which has seen it subsume one now-defunct sister section (Visions) while giving another a run for its money in the auteur-department: New works by such internationally renowned figures as Jean-Marie Straub (Un Conte de Michel Montaigne) and Tsai Ming-liang (Stray Dogs) could just as easily be filed under “Masters.”
“There were four shorts programs in my first year,” says Picard, a University of Toronto graduate who came to TIFF in 2006. “In comparison, there are 21 programs this year. The audience has steadily grown since [the program’s] inception, which has been exceedingly encouraging and has allowed us to take greater risks, to experiment and to grow. Wavelengths’ success is owed to its artists, and to the public and critics who have supported it over the years.”
That three-pronged support system is why Wavelengths has found its feet as arguably TIFF’s sturdiest free-standing program. Where some of the festival’s other sections betray a sense of compromise – a dubious Gala here, a not-so-Special Presentation there – Wavelengths doesn’t indulge in noblesse oblige. Picard’s achievement is twofold: Not only has she carved out a space for work that wouldn’t be caught dead on a red carpet, she’s also encouraged other programmers to move out of their comfort zones and join her out on the festival’s margins.
A case in point: This year, Wavelengths’ lineup includes A Field in England, the fourth feature by the rabidly adored British cult director Ben Wheatley. A surreal vision of the English Civil War that stridently refuses to commit to a single tone or genre, it’s the sort of cinematic whatsit that’s impossible to categorize.
Like A Field in England, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness is the work of an Englishman named Ben (Rivers), who’s teamed up with an American namesake (Ben Russell) to craft a sort of avant-garde choose-your-own adventure story where a nameless protagonist finds himself living out multiple lives in different European locations (including a stint in a black metal band). At the same time, Wavelengths is also a safe haven for films with a more serene velocity. In Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana, a stationary camera observes the passengers in an elevated cable car heading to and from a Nepalese sacred site – the film unfolds as a series of stolen moments of grace.
The mixture of charming and challenging is one of Wavelengths’ most compelling contradictions; another is that a section so wide open to progressively-minded cinema also manages to kick things old-school. At a time when “film festival” is really means a series of movies mostly presented via digital cinema package (DCP), Picard and her team remain committed to more ancient methods.
“This year, we’re presenting a feature on 35 mm, which is aptly titled La Ultima Pelicula (The Last Film),” says Picard. “It’s a raucous, satirical take on celluloid’s demise.” She also points out that many of Wavelengths’ shorts will be shown on 16 mm and 35 mm, including Portuguese master Miguel Gomes’s sublime Redemption, which skilfully weaves together several varieties of found footage (including home movies) into a luxuriously thick visual tapestry overlaid by a quartet of poetic voice-overs. Oblique yet emotional, compact yet expansive, it’s easily one of the best films at TIFF.
Redemption is blissfully brief (26 minutes), while a few other Wavelengths titles are more epic in scale: Three Interpretation Exercises, Romanian master Cristi Puiu’s stripped down record of a French actor’s workshop, clocks in at nearly three hours, while the Chinese documentary ’Til Madness Do Us Part, about a far-flung, rundown mental hospital, runs just shy of four.
Nowhere else in TIFF is this sort of play with attention span – with pieces running from seven minutes to 227 – remotely tenable or encouraged. “Great cinema doesn’t adhere to standardization,” says Picard. She’s right, and yet more of it seems to come under Wavelengths’ stamp.