From Benediction to The Hill Where Lionesses Roar to Good Madam, these are the best acquisition titles at TIFF 2021.
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Every year at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) we focus our efforts on seeking out and highlighting the festival’s hidden gems. These are often films that are still seeking distribution and thus are in danger of not becoming available to wider audiences. We don’t want that to happen! These films deserve your attention.
Below is our list of the best TIFF films still seeking distribution in either Canada, the US, the UK, or all three. This list will be updated throughout the festival.
Ali & Ava (Clio Barnard)
From our review: “’I love this city,’ Ali (Adeel Akhtar) tells Ava (Claire Rushbrook) partway through the film. As British cities go, Bradford is oft-maligned or forgotten, especially by those who live in London and in the south of the country. In her films, especially Ali & Ava, Barnard takes the time and care to show us the heart of the city, exhibiting why the people who live there, like Ali, might love it. She portrays Bradford as a small and tight-knit community: we see Ali make a cup of tea in his kitchen, then carry the mug outside to the next house over, where his mum lives. Later, when Ali is stuck in a traffic jam, he spots a group of funeral goers and rolls his window down to ask who died; there’s a good chance it’s someone he knows, even just in passing. Everyone knows each other here, and in turn, everyone is always helping each other, whether it’s Ali constantly offering people lifts in his car, or Ava regularly babysitting her neighbour’s daughter.” Read the full review.
Altitude will release Ali & Ava in the UK; the film is still seeking distribution in Canada and the US.
Aloners (Hong Sung-eun)
From our review: “‘Loner crushed to death by porn. More and more people failing to find their place in society,’ reads a newspaper headline in Hong Seong-eun’s Aloners. It’s a film about loneliness, but that line is indicative of the biting satire Hong laces into a sad story. We follow Jina (Gong Seung-yeon), a young woman who works in a call centre, placidly dealing with difficult customers, day in, day out. Jina is a total loner: she rarely indulges in chats with co-workers, eats by herself every lunchtime, then heads straight home to lie in bed and watch TV. We learn early on that her mother recently died; Jina is evidently extremely depressed.” Read the full review.
Aloners is still seeking distribution.
As In Heaven (Tea Lindeburg)
From the introduction to our interview with Tea Lindeburg: “Early in As In Heaven, a scene of Lise (Flora Ofelia Hofmann Lindahl) play-fighting with her sister comes to an abrupt end with a hard cut to her father’s (Thure Lindhardt) arrival, who gives Lise a task worthy of an adult: collecting debts from their neighbour. Throughout the course of the day in 1880s rural Denmark, Lise’s carefree childish pursuits will continually be interrupted by adult responsibilities over which she has little control. Whether it’s taking care of her younger siblings or something else, Lise is expected to act more and more like a grown up without gaining access to any of the privileges of being an adult, including being admitted to the room where her mother is going through a difficult labour.” Read the full interview.
As in Heaven is still seeking distribution.
Benediction (Terence Davies)
From our review: “Benediction begins with a young poet, Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden), fresh out of catching an inspirational Stravinsky concert, signing up with his brother to fight in World War I. Davies moves so quickly here that whatever excitement Sassoon may have felt as a young soldier is almost immediately dampened by the sad look in his mother’s eyes as he leaves the station, the lament in voiceover that he never said goodbye to his brother, and the black-and-white archival footage of men dying on the battlefield, narrated by Lowden with one of Sassoon’s poems. The war changed him quickly, and the film’s tone changes quickly, too, almost brutally so.” Read the full review.
Vertigo Releasing will release Benediction in the UK; the film is still seeking distribution in Canada and the US.
DASHCAM (Rob Savage)
From our review: “The greatest trick of DASHCAM is, unlike most found footage or Screen Life films, the central character is just as memorable as the central filmmaking gimmick. From the very start, Annie (Annie Hardy) is almost unbearable. She’s an alt-right MAGA hat wearer who calls people “libtards.” It’s the middle of the pandemic, but the only time she covers her face is in one scene where she dons a Lana Del Rey-style mesh mask (otherwise she can be seen yelling at restaurant workers who insist she mask up). Basically, she’s an embodiment of all the worst traits in society that have intensified during COVID. And to make matters worse, she has a livestream called Band Car where she freestyle raps while driving, like Carpool Karaoke but somehow worse.” Read the full review.
DASHCAM is still seeking distribution.
Good Madam (Jenna Cato Bass)
From our review: “Good Madam begins with a punishing series of images and sounds: hands scrubbing surfaces, then dipping into dirty, sudsy water. They’re actions that could seem mundane, if they weren’t shot in extreme closeup and enhanced with skin-crawling sound design so as to make them feel like something out of a horror movie (and they are). What’s also significant is that these are Black hands, and these images of housework are intercut with shots of old, black and white family photos, which portray the white madam of the house and her family. This is modern day South Africa, but stripped of context, these opening of Good Madam could easily set up an apartheid-era story.” Read the full review.
Good Madam is still seeking distribution.
The Gravedigger’s Wife (Khadar Ayderus Ahmed)
From our review: “In Khadar Ayderus Ahmed’s first feature, The Gravedigger’s Wife, which premiered in Semaine de la Critique at Cannes, the great irony is that Guled (Omar Abdi) earns his living by waiting for people to die, but is desperate to make extra cash to save his wife’s life. The film introduces us to Guled and his wife, Nasra (Yasmin Warsame), through small, intimate moments — giving Nasra a bath, making meals, crashing a wedding together — to give us a solid, observed relationship worth rooting for. Set in Dijibouti City, Somalia, Ahmed’s wide shots drop us into this world, letting slices of life seep into the frame in the shanty town where they live. You can feel the beat of the sun, the dirt on the road, and the warmth between the family members.” Read the full review.
The Gravedigger’s Wife is still seeking distribution.
The Hill Where Lionesses Roar (Luàna Bajrami)
From our review: “Set during the summer before their adolescence crashes hard into adulthood, The Hill Where Lionesses Roar follows three teenage girls in Kosovo grappling with their lack of freedom. This is the directorial debut of Luàna Bajrami, whom you may know as the French actress who played the supporting role of Sophie in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019). At only twenty years old, Bajrami is already an exciting actress and, now, a promising new director, who also wrote, produced, and co-edited her own film. Drawing on her Kosovan heritage, she has made this flawed but heartfelt, smart coming-of-age tale.” Read the full review.
The Hill Where Lionesses Roar is still seeking distribution.
Murina (Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic)
Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic’s debut feature, Murina, transports us to coastal Croatia where the sea is sky blue, the sun is shining, and the beaches are sandy. It seems like paradise, but for Murina (Gracija Filipovic), it’s a living hell because she lives under the thumb of her abusive father. Set over the course of a week, the film follows Murina as she starts to hatch a plan to escape her father with the help of her father’s visiting friend — a hopelessly idealistic plan but one born out of desperation. Much of what happens in the film works more on a metaphorical level than a literal one, including a long sequence where Murina is locked inside a boathouse by her father and tries to escape. Murina’s one great love is diving, and there are gorgeous sequences of her capably diving, in her element, and finding a freedom in the water that doesn’t exist elsewhere.
The film is carefully observed in the relationships between the characters, especially as it relates to how abuse is carried out and overlooked. Early in the film, Kusijanovic establishes the relationship between Murina and her father and Murina and her father’s friend through two dances with each of them as partners: one starts joyful and ends violently, the other is a carefree respite from tyranny. Murina’s view of her situation is sometimes simplistic, wondering why her mother doesn’t just leave. But Kusijanovic hints at why her mother is trapped in this marriage and how she’s become complicit in the abuse of her daughter — both from fear and because she benefits. The kindness Murina’s father’s friend shows her is such a rarity that Murina overlooks — though Kusijanovic never lets us — how his concern for Murina’s well-being, in private, never actually translates to him standing up for her in public. Alex Heeney
Modern Films will release Murina in the UK; the film is still seeking distribution in Canada and the US.
The Odd-Job Men (Neus Ballús)
From our review: “Neus Ballús’s The Odd-Job Men is a quiet, lovely little film that charts a week in the life of three ‘odd-job men’ — plumbers and electricians — on the outskirts of Barcelona. Moha (Mohamed Mellali) is a Moroccan immigrant who takes a job working for the Instalaciones Losilla, a small plumbing company where the eldest member of the team, Pep (Pep Sarrà), is about to retire. The head of the plumbing team, Valero (Valero Escolar), takes an immediate dislike to Moha, for entirely xenophobic reasons, but is overruled by his wife, the boss, who hires Moha regardless. The film follows them during Moha’s one-week trial period (and Pep’s last week on the job) as they venture into people’s homes and lives to attend odd jobs.” Read the full review.
The Odd-Job Men is still seeking distribution.
Scarborough (Rich Williamson, Shasha Nakhai)
From our review: “One of TIFF’s most stirring crowdpleasers is Scarborough, a tough story with a huge heart. Catherine Hernandez adapts her own award-winning 2017 novel into the screenplay for this film about three kids and their parents living in Scarborough, a multicultural and low-income neighbourhood in Toronto. At a hefty 136-minute runtime, it’s a film that sometimes struggles to know what to cut from the source text. But it’s also easy to understand why: the filmmakers’ love for their characters is so palpable, it’s infectious. When the film ended, I, too, wished I could keep spending time with them.” Read the full review.
LevelFilm will release Scarborough in Canada; the film is still seeking distribution in the US and the UK.
Yuni (Kamila Andini)
From our review: “Kamila Andini’s coming-of-age story, Yuni, follows the eponymous seventeen-year-old Indonesian girl on the cusp of adulthood as she figures out who she wants to be. Having seen friends her age get unhappily married, Yuni (Arawinda Kirana) wants to go to university, but there are strong pressures on her to get married and many suitors calling. Much of Yuni’s life is easily recognizable to western audiences: she hangs out with friends, goes to see a band play, lusts after boys, poses for Instagram, and discovers just how female masturbation works. But the patriarchal norms in her small town are strong; her suitors talk to her parents about the value of Yuni’s virginity, which Yuni only overhears by peeking through closed doors. At the same time, men hold the keys to her education: a male literature teacher stands between her and top grades, and she needs the help of a male student to succeed.” Read the full review.
Yuni is still seeking distribution.
Zalava (Arsalan Amiri)
From the introduction to our interview: “In a remote town populated by, as the film calls them, “gypsies”, in northern Iran, a demon has purportedly possessed a girl, causing her to jump to her death. It’s 1978, just before the Iranian revolution, and the townspeople are worried that the demon will jump into someone else’s body. An exorcist arrives (Pouria Rahimisam), especially conspicuous in his western-style suit. He goes into the house where the demon is supposed to be, and comes out with a sealed glass jar which he claims now contains the demon.” Read the full interview.
Zalava is still seeking distribution.
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