Documentary / Film Reviews / Highly Recommended

TIFF 2007 Coverage: Part 2, The Highlights

Encounters at the End of the World, Jellyfish, and It’s a Free World…

Encounters at the End of the World

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In his latest exciting documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, which had its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Werner Herzog takes on Antarctica, the only continent he has yet to explore. Encounters tells the story of Herzog’s six-week trip to Antarctica, during which he stayed both in a main base camp, and traveled around the continent, including to the South Pole. The film gives us a glimpse of the fascinating research going on down south, from the dynamic life of an iceberg, to life under the sea, to the study of volcanic activity. Herzog also chronicles his personal encounters with a series of outcasts or eccentrics that ended up making their way to Antarctica: the linguistics PhD student that now lives in a country without a language, the woman that traveled across South America huddled in a sewer on the back of a truck, and a man from communist Russia that still keeps a bag packed should he ever need to leave at a moment’s notice.

Though the subject matter alone would make the movie a worthwhile see, Herzog’s eccentricities, his perspective, and his running yet unobtrusive commentary ground the film in a personal journey, without overtaking the subject matter as a lesser filmmaker, like Michael Moore, might do. I always wondered how documentary filmmakers managed to string together a series of interviews from articulate people. Herzog’s strategy, apparently, when he interviews someone that just can’t get to the point, is to do a voiceover of “blah blah blah, what he’s really trying to say is …”. I wouldn’t be surprised if his subjects were a little bit offended, but it’s hilarious, and the film does have a lot of heart without being heart-warming.

The film’s main flaw is a lack of explicit structure: Herzog really needed to outline the plan for his trip at the beginning of the film so that we might have some idea as to where we were in the progression. It often seemed like we were just meandering from one research topic to another without much direction. Then again, in the Antarctic, everything’s white and icy, and you’re too close to the South Pole to tell the direction from your average compass.

Encounters is truly illuminating: it’s like a discovery channel movie that knows its audience well enough to both entertain and educate extremely well.

Jellyfish

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Jellyfish is a beautiful Israeli film – in plot, structure, and exquisite cinematography – about directionless people, not sure exactly what they want, but whose stories are superb and utterly engaging. There’s the newlywed couple who are about to embark on their honeymoon, but with one glitch: the bride broke her ankle climbing out of a bathroom stall when she found herself locked in. They have a miserable vacation, both of them having second thoughts though still hopelessly in love. They meet a woman, a writer, in the top floor suite, who, as the wife observes, must be a bored, rich, middle-aged woman, because she’s certainly not here simply to write: “Dostoyevsky could write anywhere”. Back home, there’s the waitress from the wedding, who meets a young lost girl on the beach, who cannot speak and refuses to take off the lifesaver disc around her waist. She exists somewhere between fantasy and reality, and it’s never clear whether or not she’s real. And there’s a budding actress with a grouchy old miser of a mother who can’t get along with her new Philipino caretaker that doesn’t speak Hebrew. The actress plays Ophelia in the funniest production of Hamlet I’ve ever seen: a man in a silver ‘alien space suit’ stands on stage, looking at the audience, turning from left to right and back again, saying, in a robotic voice “Hamlet, Hamlet, Hamlet”. I laughed for minutes afterwards – I almost wish the film gave us more time to appreciate that moment.

Jellyfish won the Camera d’Or at Cannes this year and this prestigious recognition is quite well-deserved. The images dance and meander like the characters, with a stunning colour scheme, that would be worth watching even if the plot weren’t as good as it is. Jellyfish is a meditative slice-of-life tale that amuses but is simultaneously quite heartfelt, without ever descending to cliché. It has a few perfect moments of beauty or pure cleverness that make it extremely quotable despite the language barrier – it’s in Hebrew with English subtitles. Jellyfish is certainly one of the best films I’ve seen this year – a sweet little tale of no great importance, but with some insight into human nature.

It’s A Free World…
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Ken Loach’s (The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Sweet Sixteen) It’s a Free World is another spectacularly shot film about a woman’s descent into heartlessness and ruthlessness as she tries to make a pretty penny off of illegal immigrants, caring less and less about the consequences her actions may have on these people. She starts off innocently enough. After being fired from her immigration recruitment job, Angie (Kierston Wareing) decides to start up her own business recruiting immigrants; she gets by on her good looks and street smarts. But she’s working hard and not making much money. Even though she’s dealing with legal immigrants, her business isn’t entirely over-the-table clean. She has a young son to take care of, but he spends most of his time living with her parents. Her initial concern for individual illegal immigrant families slowly turns to a cold-hearted every-man-for-himself mentality. After all, “it’s a free world”, she says, “and if they don’t like her rules, they can get right on back to where they once came from.“

Her metamorphosis from a street-smart but generally caring woman to a selfish, ruthless, yet endangered woman is both note-perfect, and a joy to watch. There is one beautiful scene where she sleeps with a very nice young Polish immigrant man. As they begin to get dressed again, he says “it was really – tender”, and I believe it was. It’s refreshing to see a sex scene as something tender shared between two individuals instead of gratuitous fare. Although she clearly likes him, she’s become hard-hearted both on the streets and off though she doesn’t quite yet see how her ‘job’ is changing her. When some deals fall through, she becomes responsible for paying some of the rowdy immigrants money that she doesn’t have which leads to violent threats and actions. She handles them with grace but her future seems grim.

It’s A Free World raises interesting ethical questions without ever being preachy, although Angie’s father and her roommate Rose (Juliet Ellis) often provide the moral backbone, reminding Angie of the hell she’s getting herself into. Is Angie wrong to exploit these immigrants? Her cruelty to them seems unjustified, but without her help, these immigrants would be completely unable to feed or house themselves. Then again, they’re breaking the law – should they be allowed into England? Is Angie’s quick attempt at making ends meet on her own steam admirable, lazy, completely unsupportable, or all of the above? I don’t think there are any clear-cut answers. Angie is a strong woman that‘s been dealt some hard cards in life, but not melodramatically so.

The film is shot with a lot of light, but with a bluish gray colour scheme, which gives it a harsh, cold, cinema verite feeling, without ever resorting to gimmick. It’s beautiful to watch and engaging throughout, though it did go on just a touch too long. It’s A Free World… questions the truthfulness of its title without unleashing docudrama-esque mediocrity; it’s sure to spawn lengthy discussion from movie-goers.

This review was adapted from a review originally published on BlogUT, the official University of Toronto student blog.

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