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One quick scroll through any news site is enough to tell you how engrossed the human species is in conflict—this is also reflected in popular entertainment, whether its the fiction portrayed on screens or on paper, the subject is an inevitable and unavoidable theme in world we’re living in. Much like most of popular media the subject of ‘conflict’ is explored thoroughly in Valeska Grisebach’s Western, a film that embodies the modesty and quaint charm of a backcountry pictorial, as well as the bite and rigor of real world commentary. The centerpiece for her ideas remark on the tropes of classic western but stripped of its romanticism and replaced with a more observant, worldly perspective.
In the film we follow a clan of German roughnecks to a small Bulgarian community where they setup camp and plan to make a banana republic out of the town’s unplucked resources. Western’s central metaphor, a colonial takeover, invites conflict of all sorts to erupt among the Bulgarian townsfolk and the German construction workers, but Grisebach touching on emblems of male bonding, cross-cultural dialogue and the powerful drawing forces of community, weaves from her story’s fiery pressure points—the act of trespassing, border disputes, language barrier and miscommunication—more than just a sense of ingrained animosity but an entrenched longing for communion.
Out of the chaos of the power struggle Grisebach has emerge, free from either side’s the jingoistic and ethnocentric behaviors, her own variation of the classic western’s lone drifter in Meinhard, an enigmatic but open man who wavers between two sides; with the Germans it’s out of an apathetic sense of duty and with the Bulgarians it’s an innate desire to belong.
It’s been more than half-a-century since John Ford’s last directed feature, but who would have thought that the first film to invoke his spirit of community using a western template would be a female German director? Along with Toni Erdmann, whose director Maren Ade also produced Western, it seems the recent upsurge recently putting German cinema back on the map has been entirely reliant on the voices of female visions, and the results of which have been encouraging. (Rating: 9/10)
On the topic of community, it was refreshing to find at the festival something straight from my corner of the globe (an especially undernoted corner for cinema if your name isn’t Apichatpong Weerasethakul).
The Thai-directed Bad Genius, among the festival’s and year’s most stupidly watchable capers, sort of encapsulates everything I love about heist cinema, inherent satire not devolving into the overly self-serious, commentary never straying from story or character and a hyper-focused sensibility designed to constantly engage the viewer’s attention.
The story, centering on a group of underachievers who—along with the class prodigy—devise intricate schemes to cheat on their high school exams, is purposed to lay bare the state of modern Thailand, where the laboring class can only resort to corrupt means to thrive within a corrupt system. But whether Bad Genius fully satisfies its thematic components seems almost superfluous, when the film’s main intent is submitting your senses to its will.
Bad Genius moves like a commercial, chockfull of hyper-emphasised imagery and fast cutting, its montaged sensibility give the film its desired immediacy, but the film’s polish and waxiness also suggest a cheapish, disposable commercial-like charm, as if designed to only momentarily compel viewers. It’s undeniably captivating but Bad Genius also unfurls the dangers of filmmaking religiously devoted to forward momentum, accelerating too fast to carry the weight of its moral and socioeconomic implications, it loses gravity trying to stay light on its feet. (Rating: 5/10)
Although this next movie was made in Sweden I couldn’t help but think of Canada while watching it. Our country’s notorious Indian residential schools are still a painful memory—the last one wasn’t closed until two years after I was born (1996 to be more specific) and its grave effects are still seen in the communities of Indigenous peoples’ today.
Watching Sami Blood, I was surprised to see that Sweden bore similar sins (in regards to their indigenous population), particularly their government’s implementation of Nomad schools, where the Swedish teachers back in the day practiced segregation, dehumanization and physical punishment as basic disciplinary measures.
The story follows a dark history in Sweden’s past through the personal reflection of its protagonist, a self-exiled Sami, first shown at the age of 78 attending her younger sister’s funeral in her native Lapland. For the breadth of the film’s runtime the film confronts through memory, guilt and regret her coming-of-age, where the woman endured prejudice, abuse and, most devastatingly, a loss of identity in her attempts to assimilate outside of the Sami people.
Admittedly, a lot of what I liked about Sami Blood came with the fascination I felt of not fully understanding the film’s depicted history. The film occasionally suffers from some glaring beginner’s mistakes, the aggressive cultural contrasts and its jumpy, arrhythmic plotting. But with its flaws comes a wonderfully evocative atmosphere, full of instilled feeling that normally comes with the territory of remembering: nostalgia, ruefulness, yearning.
Thinking back on the Canadian residential schools now I can’t help but find it unfair how an entire country must bear the guilt of a corrupt administration. But then I’m reminded with one scene, near Sami Blood’s ending, where the guilt of an entire generation is expressed in a one simple but powerful gesture, that this feeling of guilt doesn’t damn us to repent for the rest of our days, but instead reveals an open door to reconcile with the past. (Rating: 6/10)
Perhaps the idea reconciliation is too idealistic in these times of pervasive pessimism, movies like Western, Bad Genius, and Sami Blood don’t present ideal, utopic visions of the world after all. But the films at VIFF this year, even at their most downcast, offers a fresh, reinvigorating perspective of the world, free of the insular and limiting Hollywood market. Despite the variety of films to choose from during festival season I’m always reminded while watching them how each film, good or bad, aren’t simply marketable products designed to satisfy consumer interest, but unique, personal perspectives, crafted and sometimes even handmade to redefine our the notion of ‘interest’ altogether.