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Film TIFF 2018: Day 2 shows how marathon films like the 8.5-hour Dead Souls are an exercise in endurance

A production still from Dead Souls.

A 507-minute movie poses a particular set of challenges for a festival-goer.

For a start, seeing one 8½-hour movie effectively means not seeing three to four other films of a more manageable, conventional length. For another, there’s the pesky matter of staying engaged for so long a time, with the body running up against age-old foes such as boredom, drowsiness and the pressing need to urinate. Also: one’s butt is likely to get a little sore sitting in a cinema seat for such an extended duration.

Yet such substantial perils to one’s time and butt can yield considerable rewards. (And this is beyond maximizing the value of your TIFF ticket, from about $0.15 per minute of entertainment to a much more economical $0.035.) Take one of TIFF 2018’s marathon titles, Dead Souls, which screens in the festivals ever-revered experimental Wavelengths section and clocks in at 507 whole minutes.

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The Globe’s guide to TIFF 2018 movies

Introduced at a Friday morning (turned afternoon, turned early evening) public screening as “the Shoah of China,” a reference to the late Claude Lanzmann’s nine-plus-hour holocaust documentary, Dead Souls excavates the too-secret history of 20th century Chinese forced-labour camps, focusing on the especially unforgiving Mingshui encampment deep in the Gobi desert.

Like Lanzmann’s film, Dead Souls is notable for its use of lengthy, testimonial-style interviews, in which survivors of the camp (and, later, their surviving relatives) discuss their experience in detail that ranges from the banal to the astonishing. They get into everything, from problems with constipation to the manner in which the bodies of “rightists” (those believed to be undermining the legitimacy of Chairman Mao’s Community Party) were tended to and disposed of.

“The long films this year seem more conspicuous because there are a few of them,” explains veteran Wavelengths programmer Andréa Picard. “And they are really long.” In addition to Dead Souls, this year’s Wavelengths program also boasts Argentine director Mariano Llinas’s La Flor, which runs nearly 14 hours. Picard says such lengthy films are part of a larger trend in art-house cinema toward unconventional and defiantly uncommercial running times, also signalled by “medium-length” features clocking in around 45 minutes to an hour.

Like the extended fluid takes apparent in TIFF titles such as Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and James Bennings’s L. COHEN, longer-duration films cast a particular spell on susceptible viewers. “Duration works over the audience in both a soothing and challenging way,” Picard says. “We are not as accustomed to contemplation as we once were. But it is so good for our soul.”

In the case of Dead Souls, the effect is considerably more challenging (and even frustrating) than soothing. The film doesn’t just give, per the cliché, a “voice to the voiceless,” it showcases the many, many voices who can testify to the horror of the camps. China essentially weeded out political enemies (real or imagined) through a protracted process of forced starvation.

For hours and hours, we hear stories of pathetically small food rations, of workers given the task of farming on alkali-spoiled land, of bodies wasted away, and of letters home to family asking for little more than a bread roll. (Naturally, all mail in and out of such camps was monitored, and prisoners were thus forced to insist on being just fine, all things considered.)

These stories are all, more or less, variations on a theme. Even after about the three-hour mark, they seem repetitive. But then that is, I imagine, precisely the point. As soon as the vexed, horrified, annoyed viewer begins thinking, “OK, I get it!” Dead Souls snaps back, “No you don’t.” The film’s frustrations are productive. The film aims to give testimony to how bad things were in Mingshui, yes. But it also provides a glimpse of the experience: of being trapped, of being ground into routine, of (as the film’s interview subjects repeatedly put it) “living alongside death.”

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Beyond being startling and vital, films such as Dead Souls offer something like a badge of honour for a certain stripe of movie-goer. They’re endurance tests, working to separate the serious-minded and severe cinephile from the more casual, Joe Popcorn movie buff. (One could turn a tidy profit outside such screenings selling T-shirts that say: “I saw Lav Diaz’s 593-minute epic Evolution of a Filipino Family and all I got was this lousy T-shirt and also transcendence.”)

As Picard puts it, such experiences can offer “boast-worthy” fodder for post-screening cocktail parties. “Cinephiles are obsessed with lists,” she says, “and are often exhaustive and competitive in their viewing. But, ultimately, I think a great film is a great film and intelligent and astute viewers know this and will watch short, feature and epic lengths films for their love of cinema.”

So while engaging with some of world cinema’s most challenging and boundary-pushing films strictly for the sake of some in-crowd merit badge may be a bit misguided and cynical, some hard-won bragging rights may nonetheless go a long way to easing an atrophied rear end.

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