It turns out it’s time for a Canadian close-up.
There’s a common denominator running through many of the Canadian features at the 2019 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and it’s not thematic. It’s stylistic and involves one crucial filmmaking element: it’s all about the close-up.
Several of this year’s Canadian features are character studies; each one an attempt to illuminate and understand its main character. There’s also a strong group of women directors this year – many presenting a debut feature. Amidst it all, an uncanny truth became apparent: there’s a strong sense of realism evident in each film.
Touchstones of realism are abound, even in the most unlikely of these films as events unfold in real-time, preferring to highlight quotidian – even mundane – details and activities. This is not, however, the neorealism of Italian cinema, despite the familiarity of the personal emphasis. These are similarly desperate, awkward, and lonely inhabitants of our society, but instead of cinema that locates individuals in a time and a place, this is a claustrophobic Canadian version.
Exterior details get peeled away to thoroughly explore individual motivations. These filmmakers want to know these hapless souls as much as we do, so each maintains close proximity and a tight focus to unearth these desperate people and psyches in crisis. That is why this style of cinema feels current and vital – and it all revolves around the use of the close-up. Interestingly, many narrative filmmakers are employing, or at least nodding towards, Canada’s storied national documentary tradition.
Out of all of the films cited here, Nicole Dorsey’s debut feature, Black Conflux, feels less constricted than the others. There’s a greater sense of time and place, and more emphasis on setting than the other movies. And yet, Dorsey maintains a strict focus on her characters. Black Conflux weaves together two unrelated stories involving a good but disillusioned teen girl, and an increasingly troubled, alienated man. Set in 1980s Newfoundland, Dorsey keeps the lens tightly concentrated on each, building up a tension that is vital to the arc of the narrative. The more we know, the more this steady build-up of small details in real-time sparks a breathtaking level of suspense.
The Discovery programme’s FIPRESCI Prize-winner Murmur, the debut feature from Heather Young, employs an entirely non-professional Nova Scotian cast to facilitate an authentic connection. The results are no less astonishing. Murmur is a documentary/fiction hybrid about a lonely woman rebuilding her life. She is atoning for a DUI charge that drove away her daughter. Her mandated community service at an animal shelter is her lifeline, a connection that lets her loving nature shine through, but eventually devolves into an overwhelming obsession.
In Murmur, the camera remains static. It encloses our protagonist with precision so that there are no distracting movements. The frame is square like a photograph, demanding that we face the subject and her reality without flinching. While we observe the repetition of her routines, even the slightest break suggests an unnerving type of chaos.
Written and co-directed by Kathleen Hepburn (Never Steady Never Still) and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (in her feature film debut), The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is perhaps the most heart-wrenching film of this group. What starts as an act of kindness becomes an aching portrait of an abused woman who cannot face reality. Aila (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) finds Rosie (Violet Nelson) crying, barefoot, and pregnant, standing in the rain as her boyfriend’s menacing shouts ring through the air. The simple tale of a stranger helping a person in need unfolds agonizingly slowly to become a shattering testament to the abuser’s power. Rosie is gripped by paralyzing fear and doubt time and again during this extended encounter. The camera is with her – and we are with her – patiently analyzing her every glance, her every move, to understand her grim situation.
And that’s the point of the close-up as a stylistic decision in each of these films – the desire to understand, which leads to compassion and empathy. Interestingly, there are male filmmakers at this year’s TIFF whose films, while not strictly in the realist tradition as their female counterparts, still display a desire to understand and express their suffering protagonists’ motivations.
In White Lie, writer/directors Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas reveal a young woman in a terrible frenzy, struggling to keep up the pretence of a cancer diagnosis. As she and the dreadful lie unravel, the camerawork shifts from the carefully constructed framing of an arthouse cinema aesthetic to a frantic zoom in on this woman’s face, with lingering pauses that heightens all our confusion. The pacing becomes maddening as the details pile up. With each new lie, White Lie unfolds like a desperate and necessary attempt to find an entry point into the protagonist’s psyche.
And with Anne at 13,000 ft. (which received an honourable mention for TIFF’s Platform prize), from Kazik Radwanski, embraces the close-up in all its messy extremes to present a woman of many contradictions; a delicate, sensitive, unpredictable, and unsteady soul who refuses the medication and help that she needs to function in this world. She insists on experiencing life on her own terms, and Radwanski‘s camera stubbornly aims to capture precisely that.
From the opening frame, the film captures the essence of Anne – using extreme close-ups, rapid-fire editing, and almost ceaseless camera movement. The picture is a whirlwind of emotions and impressions, and it captures her ever-changing moods; states of mind that Anne doesn’t understand, let alone the audience. Like all of the films mentioned above, the use of close-up framing in Anne at 13, 000 ft. invites us to engage and deeply reflect. Another framing device would rob viewers of a most vital experience.
Some of the films mentioned above apply techniques that stem from an observational documentary tradition, and others reflect a narrative realist tendency. It’s notable how so many filmmakers have relied on a single shot to reveal the intricacies of their subjects. This movement is indicative of a national cinematic wave making its way to the forefront, and it’s also a terrific emblem of strength and unity. What’s most exciting is that so many promising young female filmmakers are in the vanguard of the movement. In any case, this intimate style is one of many elements that point to Canadian cinema’s powerhouse showing in 2019.