Color, grey, black and white: Notes from the 37th Montreal World Film Festival

6 Sep

I know that reading other people’s reviews of obscure art films may not be the most gripping reading, but I need to do justice to some of the films I saw at this year’s Montreal World Film Festival. I’ve been going roughly every other year since 1995 at least for part of the Festival – my record for most films viewed in one week is 19 – and this year I managed to attend for four days. To their credit, they show many non-commercial films from a wide range of countries, and lots of documentaries, and tickets now cost C$7. I have seen some of the most memorable films of my life there over the years, including Postmen in the Mountains, The May Lady, Children of the Pyre, The Way to the West, Love Letter, In the Navel of the Sea, Siberia Mon Amour, and others I still can’t find online references to, and others which are memorable in every way except the title. (I’ll update this later as I find more links.)

In any case, this year I saw eight films, of which four were particularly memorable, including three documentaries. Here are a few profiles of the most memorable films.

    Cidade Cinza (Grey City)

This breathtaking film from Brazil depicts the work of half a dozen street and graffiti artists in painting colorful murals around the city. Color is the operative word here. Their spraypainting utilizes bright, rainbow colors as a means of breathing life into an otherwise drab and stultifying megacity. At the same time, the film follows the work of a crew of city officials – one of them a former graffiti artists – as they roam the city painting over the murals with grey paint. They decide – or so they claim – not to paint over the artistic ones, but the film opens with the painting over of a massive mural and its restoration by the artists, with the blessing (literally!) of the city.

Cidade Cinze (Grey City) is one of the greatest depictions of the artistic process I have ever seen on film. The images of the artists at work is fluid and dynamic, interspersed with interviews and clips of their work elsewhere around the city, and around the world as they achieve greater recognition. Their struggle to inject color into the city is nothing less than the struggle to inject art (and life!) into a neoliberal economic system that demands utility and cost-effectiveness over the freedom of expression.

Why is grey the color of the new city, the new state, urban life as we have come to know it? The aerial shots of the rapidly built city that open the film could just as easily be Dhaka or any number of other megacities in which natural green has been replaced by the color of cement. (As an aside, the mayor of Kolkata decided to make Kolkata “the blue city” – her favorite color – and created a public works project to paint everything blue, including tree trunks, which were poisoned by the paints.) The larger aesthetic issue is why a top-down approach to color – and the designation of uniform colors – is the objective of the state. What is the state trying to achieve by driving color out of our lives? Lately there has been a response, through the vibrant street art of the hip-hop movement, and also in the rainbow symbolism of LGBTQ movements worldwide as well as the most recent struggle to protect parks in Istanbul from being turned into shopping malls.

The film also raises the question of aesthetic judgments and who gets to make them. Everyone is indeed a critic. The city over-painters make judgments on the spot about which murals are too artistic to be covered over and which ones are considered pollution. At the same time, a central question of our time is who owns the walls – whether private property or public space. I have long wondered why graffiti is considered offensive to the eyes and something to be covered, while more and more public space is turned over to advertising, whose only message is consumption. Yet there is never any state-sanctioned effort to paint over billboards or ads on buses (sometimes taking up the sides of entire buses).

But above all there is the pure delight of the artists themselves, the way they express feeling alive with a spray can in their hands. There is also the question of whether the practice of art is a worthwhile occupation, as clearly in our economy it is not seen as such. Again, the struggle of a global economic system of efficiency is to marginalize aesthetic expression as a hobby and to destroy opportunities to make a profession out of being creative, practicing the arts, and teaching them. All of these questions are raised in this profound film.

And yet I would be remiss if I did not also point out how extraordinarily beautiful this film is visually. The editing, the cinematography, and even the animation, make viewing this an exuberant experience. Documentaries about art can be visually enlivening, and this film does its subject justice. It is a work of visual art just like the murals it depicts. The filmmakers not only get inside the heads and hands of the creators, but treat our eyes as well. The camera never stops, the editing and montage work are brilliant. And the use of color, appropriately enough, serves as a weapon, and a challenge to all of us to live our lives and make even our ugliest surroundings beautiful.


The greatest fiction film I saw at the festival this year was (ironically, given my previous description) in black-and-white, a Korean film called Jiseul. Its use of black and white spans all the way from purely white screens to purely black, and every shade and combination in between. Its amazing and stylized cinematography, while referencing the silver-light quality of Kurosawa especially, creates a new language within the constrained cultural palette of the black/white spectrum. That in itself makes the film a stunning display of technique, not to mention the composition and remarkably original mise-en-scène by director O Muel with unforgettable tableaux of villagers nestled within a cave, two soldiers conversing in a lengthy dialogue sequence while suspended upside-down, a smoky house-to-house search for suspects, and more.

The upside-town sequence is a metaphor for the film itself, as it turns commonly advanced assumptions of heroes and villains in the Korean War upside down. The story is based on episodes after the Jeju Island uprisings of 1948, when the U.S. military gave the command that every Korean living outside the Korean peninsula itself could be considered a communist sympathizer and shot on sight as a result of local uprisings against the Korean government, unless they came forward and registered. While according to the film the U.S. continues to deny its involvement, as many as thirty thousand Jeju islanders are now estimated to have been killed – two years before the start of the formal conflict – and two-thirds of the villages on that island permanently destroyed. The film depicts the struggle of about thirty villagers to escape the slaughter by hiding in caves for two months, and at the same time, shows the range of South Korean soldiers from those who sadistically supported a military approach to pacification and tortured those soldiers who wouldn’t follow along, to those who considered desertion and refused to kill civilians. The would-be deserters and alleged communist sympathizers emerge as the heroes of this film – now supported by a more open South Korean government – in ways that would have been inconceivable thirty years ago. This indicates there has been a re-examination of the Korean War, at least on the Southern side, over the past few years, while such a reconsideration has yet to take place in the U.S., even after all this time.

Apparently, I learned later, the actors portraying the military speak in standard Korean, while the local actors playing the villages speak in the Jeju dialect. The title represents the local dialect word for “potato,” the main subsistence of the refugees during that time and a central metaphor for the film. I also read that the local actors were non-professionals, but I had no idea. I can’t wait to see it again, because the broad cast of characters and intertwined episodes makes following what happens to each character complicated, whereas I’m sure on a second viewing, more of its storylines would become clearer. (Also the five section headings, which cry out for a better English translation – not to mention the burning paper inscriptions at the very end.) Overall, though, this is an incredible war film about refugees and survivors, and I hope it gets attention and added to many lists of great films about life during wartime.


Also remarkable was a slice-of-life documentary about the Gypsy tradition of Flamenco dance and music in Barcelona, called Bajarí,. Focusing around two outstanding performers, a young woman visiting Spain from Mexico, and her 5-year-old prodigy nephew, the film captures great examples of Flamenco dance and the accompanying music. The director, Eva Vila, has framed compelling long takes of flamenco dance, concentrating on the feet, and other isolated body parts rather than try to capture the entire body. Daring composition and long sequences that depict the spirit of the dancers are hallmarks of this distinctively shot and ultimately thrilling film. And it’s not all dance and music, as wonderful as that is. One of the most compelling sequences concerns the purchase and design of a new pair of dance shoes, but I won’t say more.

Like many great works of art it raises as many questions as it answers. In this case, even with the background on flamenco it provides, there are so many issues the audience walks away wanting to know about, not least a little more background about the Gypsies of Barcelona, and how two of the greatest dancers ended up moving to Mexico. I can’t say what is flamenco necessarily, after watching this film, nor what its role is within the Gypsy community itself. But its vibrancy, traditionality, health, power, all that is celebrated throughout. My heart was racing during the entire screening.

One linguistic note. While I know in Eastern Europe the term “Gypsy” is shunned and replaced now with the term “Roma” or “Romany,” the Castilian word “gitano” seems to be used here mostly, and the subtitles still carry on that unfortunate tradition of not capitalizing (in English) the word “gypsy.” Why this should still be allowed to pass unchallenged remains perplexing. But I have chosen to use the English term “Gypsy” here because that is what is used in the film.

    My Way to Olympia

Because of my interest in the Olympics, I was one of only a few people at the screening of the film My Way to Olympia, which the director, Niko von Glasow, jokes at the end he wanted to call “Triumph of the Will, Part 2” but it would require a copyright battle with Hitler. Von Glasow is kind of a German Michael Moore, a documentarian who occupies center stage in his own film, right down to the baseball cap, but one difference is von Glasow was born with the birth defects characteristic of mothers who took thalidomide when they were pregnant. Despite having no interest in sports, he decides to make a film profiling 4 Paralympics individual athletes and one Paralympics team. He uses his own disability, and social skills (awkward or adept?) as a way of opening up a discussion about disability with these athletes and asking daring questions that would be taboo for anyone else.

In doing so, his difficult questions and editor’s ear for the significant quote fill this film with insight after insight, about the nature of sport, humanity (in its perseverance as well as cruelty), and even the idea of winning. “The biggest disabilities are invisible,” says one coach, “the psychological traits pushing [people] or holding them back.” When von Glasow protests that he hates sports, Greg Polychronidis, a brilliant Greek bocce player with muscular dystrophy counters, “Sports are one of the best things in the world we live in. Many more things are worse.” Von Glasow: “But the Paralympics are expensive.” The bocce player responds, “But much more is spent on weapons.” Game, set, match.

Von Glasow asks Polychronidis if he fears his coming further incapacitation and death. He doesn’t, but his full-time caretaker admits to being frightened himself about what will happen to his friend. With echoes of the Lou Gehrig Story, Polychronidis – mostly paralyzed from the neck down and using a motorized wheelchair, he pitches the balls by means of a head set with a small extension arm – continues, “You may be the poorest, but if you find what you live for you will be happier than everyone. I consider myself lucky being one of the best in the world in something.” This is a film about winners and the importance of winning, in all of its multiple dimensions, about learning to stretch the abilities you do have to the extent you can achieve precision, speed, teamwork, a different kind of beauty.

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