2001 Toronto International Film Festival
by Randi Spires
A pall fell over the 2001 Toronto Film Festival, as it did almost everywhere after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Out of respect for the dead festival personnel stopped all activities on that tragic day. The screenings resumed on September 12 but all parties and festive gatherings were cancelled for the rest of the week.
These were moral and political choices. The screenings continued because after every disaster, life and art must go on. Life itself is a primary value and art is important because, among other things, it can reassure us we are not alone, put our lives in broader context, uplift the spirit and make us laugh.
The choices facing the people of the Toronto International Film Festival pale in comparison with those facing individuals living in Nazi Germany or under other totalitarian regimes. As Hungarian born director Istvan Szabo demonstrates in his latest film, ‘Taking Sides,’ things are rarely as black and while as they first appear.
The film explores the life of Wilhelm Furtwangler, music director of the Berlin Philharmonic and one of the best conductors in the world. When Hitler came to power in 1933 he decided to remain with the Berlin orchestra rather than escape to the United States. He remained in his position till the end of the war. He never joined the Nazi party, refused to give the Nazi salute and never considered himself to be a collaborator, even though he played for Hitler more than once. In his own mind he believed he was doing two important things: preserving the best of German high culture and buttressing the spirits of a depression and war weary population. At the same time he couldn’t escape knowledge of the race-based injustices of his society as the Jewish members of his orchestra were forcibly dismissed. Yet he persisted in his belief that he had staked out an honourable position.
The film takes place after the war. The Americans have occupied West Berlin and the Nuremberg Trials are in process. An American Major, played by Harvey Keitel, is given the task of investigating Furtwangler. He tries to be fair but his attitude is coloured by the orders given to him by his superior - basically to ‘get’ Furtwangler - and by his own experiences liberating the concentration camps.
Being the head of such a major orchestra, Furtwangler was an obvious target of investigation. But the Americans came in with an agenda of their own and didn’t investigate matters as thoroughly as they should have. If they had they would have examined the actions not only of Furtwangler but also of men such as Herbert von Karajan who actually did collaborate and suffered little for it.
Not mentioned in the film is that at the same time as they were prosecuting suspected collaborators, such as Furtwangler, the American government was facilitating the entry into the U.S.. Werner von Braun and other Nazis whom they deemed useful in ‘the fight against the new enemy,’ the Soviet Union. How quickly alliances change.
Compared with the members of the Berlin Philharmonic, Steve Arnold, the character played by Keitel, is a cultural barbarian. He doesn’t seem particularly inclined towards literature or art and knows virtually nothing about classical music, preferring the then popular music of big bands. He may be seen as a low brow but in the decades since the war jazz has achieved intellectual respect and academic validation. Perspectives change.
‘Taking sides’ doesn’t give us any firm answers but leaves us with a whole barrel of messy questions, particularly, important in our own troubled times.
Warrior of Light
Talk about 180-degree turns. Hamburg director Monika Treut (seduction: The Cruel Woman; My Father is Coming) has turned her attention from the margins of human sexual experience to those on the margins of life itself - the street kids of Brazil. Her latest film, a documentary entitled ‘Warrior of Light’ explores the life and work of Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, an award-winning artist and writer turned guardian of and advocate of many of Brazils millions of street children. These kids, most of whom are black, struggle for bare survival by begging, stealing and performing sexual and other services. They get no education, no love or positive attention from the adults around them and have little to look forward to except more of the same. Many are HIV positive from the sexual activity and drug use, which is rampant in the drug cartel, controlled neighbourhoods where they live. Local merchants consider them a nuisance and squads of official or private police frequently murder them even as they sleep.
It was one of those incidents, the 1993 killing of 8 children by military police that sparked the ire of Bezerra de Mello and led to the formation of her ‘Children of Light Foundation’. The organization not only feeds and clothes many children but also provides emotional sustenance - hugs and other reassurances for them.
Bezarra de Mello doesn’t just do fund-raising and administrative work; she jumps into the thick of things. She says you have to learn to be non-judgemental and embrace the kids even if they are dirty and smelly. One must understand that their sexual precociousness is a result of their environment (what is one to expect when an entire family sleeps in one bed), not some moral flaw.
For the first time many of these children finally receive some medical attention and education. They are encouraged to develop academic and practical skills that will lead to a future off the streets and out of the slums.
One of the most astonishing and welcome aspects of the Children of Light Foundation’s education program is the development of courses meant to increase black self-esteem. Most of these children know they are the descendants of former slaves. Surprisingly they often have no idea their ancestors were once free people who commanded an entire continent before being kidnapped and enslaved by mercenaries. This knowledge tells them that if they were once free and mighty then they can be so again.
Despite working long hours with and for the street kids Bezerra de Mello still finds time to sculpt and relax by riding her beloved horse. She and her wealthy, and supportive husband have an active social life in their two grand beautifully decorated houses, with the help of servants, of course. Still, she notes, some of her upper class contemporaries will have nothing to do with her because of the antipathy they have toward the children Bererra de Mello cares so much about. For her it is a small price to pay.
The Children of Light Foundation will not alter Brazil’s culture of political corruption, it won’t make the political and structural changes needed to prevent new street kids from arriving on the scene or to erase the poverty a good 30 per cent of the countries population lives in. It won’t eliminate the racism that is endemic in a nation that seems not to have fully confronted its slave-owning past. But it’s a start, and for those individuals she is able to reach, it’s a godsend. All journeys, remember, begin with the first step.
Speaking of street kids, Malunde, a first feature written and directed by Stefanie Sycholt, follows the fortunes of Wonderboy, a youngster living on the streets of Johannesburg. Apartheid may have been dismantled but the "New Africa" hasn’t produced anything but hope for this child. He’s a glue-sniffing street-smart schemer who is forced to make a few changes when he confronts some drug dealers hauling his friend away. Further motivation to leave is provided by a letter sent to him by his mother long ago asking him to come home to Cape Town. How he ended up on the streets of Johannesburg is a long story.
With the instincts of a hard scrabble survivor and a child yearning for parental affection, he attaches himself to Kobus a working class Afrikaner for whom the New Africa means unemployment and impoverishment. His inability to pay child support to his former wife has sad consequences later on. He is also a former soldier proud of his time in the service and of the medal he won. Now he is trying to scrape by selling Rainbow Wax to small stores in the countryside, without much success. Kobos at first tries to lose Wonderboy but the kid keeps finding him. Eventually Wonderboy’s street smarts prove to be Kobos’ economic salvation. And, hey, who knows if the same wax can’t be successfully used on your furniture, your hair and your shoes. This is a road movie where the journey forges bonds between two former South African opponents. Kobus undergoes his own private truth and reconciliation commission as he re-evaluates his past activities. Although serious in theme the film is also filled with fun and humour. In one delightful scene Kobos and Wonderboy stop at a fair where Wonderboy wins a prize by managing to catch and ride an ostrich. It looked like so much fun I briefly thought of setting up my own southern Ontario ostrich riding emporium.
Sycholt’s decision to flesh out her ideas via the road movie, buddy movie skeleton was a good choice. Malunde bodes as well for her future work as the film does for the success of the New South Africa.
A child as a catalyst for an Adult’s transformation is also the theme of Mostly Martha by director Sandra Nettelbeck. Nettelbeck is one of four first time German speaking women directors to be featured in this festival. Of the three that I saw hers is the most accomplished, although not the most controversial. That honour belongs to Jessica Hausner’s Lovely Rita which will be discussed along with other Austrian films in the next issue.
The Epinominous Martha is a chef in an upscale hamburg restaurant. All her identity and passions are funnelled through her work. She lives alone in a roomy apartment and has virtually no personal life. When her sister dies in an auto accident Martha takes on the care of her young niece, Lina. Adjustments will have to be made on both sides, of course.
Lina resists warming up to her aunt. She keeps saying she wants to go home, meaning go back to the way things were before her mother died. She also refuses to eat much and frequently skips school. It’s all part of her mourning process.
Martha, meanwhile, has to alter her routine, taking the child to and from school, arranging childcare when she works late shifts and so on. Their relationship seems to be at a stalemate.
Change comes when Martha’s employer hires another sous-chef, an Italian named Mario. At first Martha is competitive and hostile towards him. Things start to warm-up when she discovers how good he is with Lina. Partly it’s his warm nature but he also represents to Lina the father she has never known. Her biological father is also Italian, probably a guest worker who had an affair with her mother. She has dreams that he will come for her and make life normal again. Meanwhile Martha has developed a bit of a social life with Mario. At one point he shoos her out of her own apartment kitchen, then serves up a gourmet dinner. After the meal Martha goes into the kitchen, takes a look around and starts hyperventilating. Yes she’s upset that she’s beginning to feel something for Mario but she is likely also disturbed by the unholy mess the kitchen is in. I suppose this is meant to represent the idea that life is a messy process but the image rings true on a more mundane level. Several women I know whose husbands/boyfriends are gourmet cooks have testified that they (the men) leave their workspace in a, well, an unholy mess, prompting the women to ask questions like "How did that pesto get on the ceiling?"
When Lina’s father, whom they previously contacted by mail, shows up and takes Lina with him to Italy we sense a custody battle is brewing.
Mostly Martha is about Martha’s personal acceptance of the need to reach out and connect with others and her acceptance, as a German, of people such as Mario who are culturally very different from her. It is a lesson - accepting the differences among us - all the peoples of the world would do well to learn.
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