Express at TIFF 2019, Day 6: This Is Not a Movie. Or is it?

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The National Film Board of Canada’s documentary slate at TIFF is toplined by This Is Not a Movie by Yung Chang.

And just like that, six days are over, and it is my last day at TIFF. The head is abuzz, everything is a blur, and I am doing my usual ritual of stacking up the stand-outs, the ones that didn’t work all the way were rewarding nevertheless, and the ones that make everything worthwhile – the crazy travel, non-stop screening schedules, and stuffing one’s face with dense carbs.

It is a truism that film critics on the festival circuit do live by bread alone. And movies. The Finnish film Dogs Don’t Wear Pants by Jukka-Pekka Valkeappa has to be one of the most unusual love stories I have seen in a while. A well-regarded cardiac surgeon (Pekka Strang), who has lost his wife under mysterious circumstances, has sunk into a deep, dark space, and nothing, not even his teenage daughter’s petulant transgressions can rouse him.

Quite by accident, as he accompanies his rebellious teen to a tattoo parlour, he ends up in the company of a dominatrix (Krista Kosonen). She thinks he is a client, and before he can demur, she throws the entire kitchen-sink at him – whips, chains, leather, metal, and he discovers something about himself he has never known before: pain can bring him alive again.

In a world awash with hardcore porn, a film which deals with BDSM and so-called aberrative sexual appetites, runs the risk of tawdriness. But Dogs Don’t Wear Pants is more interested in using the implements of pain and humiliation as a means to explore the innards of the human psyche: what does it take a man to shut down so completely that he forgets to feel, and what is it that will help him turn the corner?

There is plenty here to make the faint-hearted or the squeamish extremely uncomfortable, especially a little set-piece involving a sharp object and a tooth, as well as a dog’s collar. But for those who persevere, the film reveals its hand slowly but surely, and shows just how two individuals can come together even in the most challenging circumstances. And leaves you wondering: are those who cause pain hurting themselves? And does pain really purify and heal?

Veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Yonfan’s animation feature No 7 Cherry Lane, which won much applause at the just concluded Venice film festival before fetching up at TIFF, is so stunning to look at that you can spend hours drinking it in. Each frame is a thing of beauty, whether it is the interiors of a house where a handsome young fellow begins tutoring a pretty girl (they read Jane Eyre together; he is a Proust fan), whose mother is a beautiful, sensuous older woman and exerts a powerful hold on the young man.

Other characters float in and out of this ensemble, men, women and animals, all engaged in on, at one level, day-to-day living, and on another, making strong political, psychosexual comments about the times they are going through. The film is set in 1967, and is drenched in nostalgia. The looking-back at an era gone by, by a 72-year-old filmmaker carries special weight, and though No 7 Cherry Lane is often a bit all over the place, there is no doubt that we are in the presence of a major filmmaker, giving us the sights and sounds – lush, drenched in desire, and a couple of blow-your-socks-off-sequences-of-carnal-pleasure – which are stayers.

How do foreign correspondents, the ones who sign up for the wandering life – of mendicant, observer, reporter all rolled into one – see themselves? And equally importantly, how do others, especially in a media environment with shrinking resources, do the same thing?

The National Film Board of Canada’s documentary slate at TIFF is toplined by This Is Not a Movie by Yung Chang, in which the British-born Robert Fisk, who reported for The Times, London, and then moved on to The Independent is shown talking about his life and times. And what a life – more than 40 years spent on the frontlines of some of the most troubled spots in the world, from Northern Ireland to the Middle-East and Syria.

The film opens with Fisk walking down a rubble-strewn town in Syria, and it cuts back and forth in time, swooping back to when he was a young, upcoming reporter telling the stately The Times what was what, and then later, keeps him company as he is shown struggling to make sense of a world gone to hell in a handbasket, and moved to the intangible-yet-permanent internet.

It’s not just journalists, especially print warhorses, who will enjoy this account, but also others who have no idea what it takes to be a newsperson who has dedicated his or her life to the reporting of truth as they see it, and the courage and conviction it takes to tell those stories that no one wants to hear. Conflict goes on forever, doesn’t it?

Also Read: Express at TIFF 2019 | Day 5 | Day 4 | Day 3 | Day 2 | Day 1

And now, I am tearing off to join the long lines for Taika Waititi’s much-anticipated Jojo Rabbit. Have a good feeling about it, and as I am doing so, I am thinking of John Updike’s classic novel, Run Rabbit Run. That’s who we are, us film critics on foreign shores, always on the run.


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