Following a drastically reduced virtual edition in 2020, the Toronto International Film Festival’s Wavelengths program for experimental and artists’ cinema returns this year with a more robust lineup of features and shorts. Presented both in cinemas and online throughout Canada, the section, which opens with Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman’s ambitious afro-cyber musical Neptune Frost, brings together a cross-section of highlights from the year’s festival circuit, a number of which fell under the radar of critics.
Among these is Rhayne Vermette’s Ste. Anne, in which a woman (played by Vermette) returns to the titular small Manitoban town to reconnect with her daughter after an unspecified absence. Working in 16mm and in collaboration with members of her native Métis community, Vermette constructs a dreamlike atmosphere from just a few aesthetic elements and a threadbare narrative built around a series of intimate encounters and elisions that render even the most dramatic moments strangely surreal. With quietly accumulating force, the film contrasts the idea of home with the realities of belonging in a place you no longer recognize.
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Structured around letters from an unseen protagonist to her estranged lover, Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing follows several years of student protests in India against the country’s burgeoning fascist movement. Read in voiceover, the letters tell of the couple’s separation due to caste differences, as well as of the woman’s time studying at the Film and Television Institute of India, where strikes erupted in 2015 over the appointment of former TV actor Gajendra Chauhan, a Hindu nationalist, as university chairman. Pairing documentary footage of these and other demonstrations with newspaper clippings, TV news reports, and more convivial scenes of student life (including two mesmerizing dance sequences), the film is both a moving epistolary romance and a vivid essay on revolutionary youth and the politics of image-making.
Traditionally regarded as the heart of Wavelengths, this year’s short film lineup comprises only one program, but it’s among the strongest I’ve seen encountered in my ten years covering the festival. Nicolás Pereda’s Dear Chantal is a beguiling imagined correspondence with legendary Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman about an apartment rental in Coyoacán. Vika Kirchenbauer takes a similar first-person approach to The Capacity for Adequate Anger, an essayistic reflection on the contradictions of working within the art world that combines scenes from children’s TV with both found and original still imagery, transporting the viewer from the home of Kirchenbauer’s grandmother in Germany to Hameau de la Reine, Marie Antoinette’s fully functional fairy tale village in Northern France. South Korea’s Jeju Island provides the setting for Minjung Kim’s “The red filter is withdrawn.”, a striking work that applies the painting-within-a-painting conceit of René Magritte’s “La Condition Humaine” series to images of coastal caves. Accompanied by text from a 1968 performance-lecture by Hollis Frampton, it’s a meditation on colonialism that doubles as an acute investigation of form.
If Kim’s film represents a breakthrough, the remaining shorts find masters working at the height of their powers. With Polycephaly in D, Michael Robinson brings his pop-archivist sensibility into conversation with the current moment. Suffused with existential dread that taps directly into pandemic-era anxieties, the film tells a story of two telepaths through a montage of found footage of natural and manmade disasters, both real and fictional. In its most inspired sequence, scenes from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the 1976 remake of King Kong, and the 1984 action-adventure comedy Romancing the Stone are intertwined into a weirdly romantic vision of the apocalypse.
Peter Tscherkassky’s Train Again reflects a very different kind of filmic armageddon. The third entry in the Austrian veteran’s “Rushes Series,” it’s both an homage to the filmmaker’s late friend Kurt Kren’s 37/78 Tree Again (1978) and an exhilarating look at one of cinema’s oldest and most enduring motifs. From L’Arrivée d’un train en garxfe de La Ciotat (1896) to Unstoppable (2010), Tscherkassky subjects more than a century of movie trains to his superimposition and montage techniques. As the sounds of chugging pistons, screeching brakes, and trilling air whistles battle with the familiar whir of a film projector, the black-and-white images cycle in recurrent patterns of crisscrossing movement across each 35mm frame. Moving through eras as swiftly as it does genres — at one point, Tscherkassky links locomotive movement to Danny Torrance riding his tricycle through the halls of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining —Train Again collapses film history into a combustible spectacle of pure sound and fury.