In the wee hours of Sunday morning, Jamie Lee Curtis summed up the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
Addressing the packed audience at Toronto’s historic Elgin Theatre gathered to see director David Gordon Green’s much-anticipated, late-blooming sequel to John Carpenter’s seminal slasher-horror classic Halloween, Curtis offered her take on her latest face-off against unstoppable serial killer/avatar-of-evil-itself Michael Myers: “It’s a film about trauma.”
Trauma, it seems, is a reoccurring theme at TIFF 2018. There’s the trauma of the past (Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War, Wang Bing’s Dead Souls), the trauma of the present (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9, George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give), and the trauma of the past projected onto the present (Christian Petzold’s Transit).
And the festival seems dedicated to working through trauma off-screen as well, with Saturday’s Share Her Journey rally drawing an impressive crowd, there to support opportunities for women and other marginalized voices in the film industry. It is a response not only to the industry-rattling realities of the #MeToo movement, and the exposure of widespread and systemic sexual abuse in Hollywood, but to a world that seems, of late, to be bowing perceptibly away from justice.
On the very first day of this year’s festival, someone asked me if TIFF felt different, as a result of these earnest and important initiatives. I told her I didn’t really know. For one thing, the festival had just started. For another, I spend the bulk of my day sitting in the dark watching movies, and very little time (read: basically none) hobnobbing with industry elites. And maybe most importantly: as a man, I remain both oblivious to and tacitly complicit in the play of gendered power dynamics in both the film industry and film culture more broadly, which are now being restructured, however slowly.
That said: TIFF feels undoubtedly good this year. Not necessarily in an evaluative way, like, “This was a really good festival!” But in an aspirational, moral way. The festival seems determined to spearhead certain changes in the industry, both through more obvious initiatives such as Share Her Journey and the commitment to 5050x2020 pledge (which “strives for better gender representation and transparency by the year 2020”), but through programming. Titles such as the police-shooting drama The Hate U Give, Moore’s big ticket anti-Trump doc, and Joel Edgerton’s gay conversion therapy drama Boy Erased are positioned to present TIFF as a film festival firmly on the right side of history.
There’s a trickle-down effect, too. Contemporary social issues are at the fore of even the festival’s smaller programs. (As a brief digression: One of the weird tradeoffs with TIFF is that it boasts a mammoth array of titles, yet ballasts its prestige with big-ticket, star-studded releases, resulting in about three-quarter of the films that play the festival being pretty much entirely ignored.) For a more minor-key example of a film that deals explicitly (and tenderly) with realities of the present moment, seek out Stupid Young Heart by Oscar-nominated Finnish filmmaker Selma Vilhunen.
The film tells the story of an awkward teen boy named Lenni (Jere Ristseppä), attempting to manage the surprise pregnancy of his on-again, off-again girlfriend Kiira (Rosa Honkonen) and the demands of a seductive, powerful white nationalist leader seeking to indoctrinate local youth.
“We wanted to understand this phenomenon,” says Vilhunen, sitting in an airy boardroom a few blocks from the festival’s hub. “We didn’t want to just simply condemn racism. I mean, obviously we do [condemn racism]. But we wanted to understand the real people who have, for their reasons, done racist acts or have racist thoughts. We wanted to take the risk of understanding a racist person.”
Stupid Young Heart resonates because it feels so particular. It is about one boy, in one Scandinavian city, torn between the intoxicating in-group allure of self-serving nationalism, and the much harder work of accepting responsibility by practising genuine compassion. It is rarely moralizing; it's the sort of film that feels important precisely because it doesn’t make a big show of broadcasting that importance. (Another brief digression: the Finns, of late, have a knack for such stories; Aki Kaurismäki’s refugee dramedy The Other Side of Hope was likely the best film I saw at TIFF’s 2017 instalment.) It’s a good film that is also a Good Film.
TIFF 2018’s abounding goodness has its negative consequences. Where, I asked a friend a few days into the festival, are all the “problematic” movies? The closest TIFF offers is the latest from French provocateur Gaspar Noé (whose various cinematic incitements have always struck me as needling and ultimately hollow) and Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book, with its decidedly un-P.C. exploration/sanctification of “joyous Arabia.”
Conspicuously absent from the festival are titles such as Lars von Trier’s serial killer drama The House That Jack Built, and S. Craig Zahler’s Mel Gibson-starring racist cop movie Dragged Across the Concrete. Both filmmakers have enjoyed a degree of pedigree at TIFF. I recall a man in front of me at the 2009 TIFF premiere of von Trier’s Antichrist convulsing into a seizure during a sequence in which Willem Dafoe’s genitals are mutilated. I also recall thrilling to coldly brutal violence of Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99, which screened last year in the Midnight Madness programme.
Both von Trier and Zahler’s new films have been railed against and lambasted, be it for their gendered violence or their (perceived) egregious politics – Trier’s earlier this year at Cannes and Zahler’s more recently when it bowed in Venice. Beyond the manner in which such assaults only serve to juice interest around a movie (in much the same way that any kid was enticed by a parental advisory sticker on a nü-metal CD), I feel that such controversial, even wholly unpleasant material is essential, especially in the context of a film festival targeting people who attend to the medium with a heightened level of seriousness and a more ravenous curiosity.
It’s a valiant thing to address the problems of the day and inspire hopeful solutions. It’s noble and inspiring to work toward the good. But it’s just as valuable to explore that same world as it is, in all its misery and despair and abjection. Seen another way, David Gordon Greene’s Halloween isn’t merely about “trauma” in some contemporary, opportunistic, topical, ripped-from-today’s-headlines way. It’s about the eternal condition of trauma itself; the violence and evil that lumbers on, sequel after sequel, generation after generation.
Not necessarily the stuff of glamorous red carpet galas and audience awards, sure. But it’d be nice for a festival consumed with well-meaning efforts to be righteous, valiant and good to carve out a little space for the despondent and despairing. The first step to drumming up anything like meaningful hope, after all, is recognizing the condition of our hopelessness.