Sensory Overload

Pacho Velez and Stephanie Spray, Manakamana, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 118 minutes.

A GOOD MANY PATRONS rely on the Toronto International Film Festival to provide views of places they may never otherwise see for lack of funds, ambition, or courage. But of all these vicarious journeys set to begin when the festival launches its thirty-eighth edition on September 5, none may be as unusual or as immersive as the one presented by the latest creation from Sensory Ethnography Laboratory, which makes its North American premiere this week alongside many other marvels in TIFF’s Wavelengths program.

A multidisciplinary initiative at Harvard University under the direction of Lucien Castaing-Taylor, the SEL has fostered a decidedly experiential take on ethnographic documentary forms, and the fusion of nonfiction filmmaking and avant-garde tactics makes the lab’s products ideal fodder for Wavelengths, TIFF’s experimental purlieu. Indeed, Manakamana—co-directed by Pacho Velez and Stephanie Spray—is as much a standout in this year’s Wavelengths as the previous SEL effort, Leviathan, was in last year’s slate. But whereas Leviathan, a study of life (human and otherwise) on a fishing vessel off the coast of New England, induced more than a few cases of motion sickness, Manakamana offers a more serene viewing experience. Filmed on 16 mm, it comprises eleven fixed-camera shots of various passengers on a newly built cable car that ascends to the Manakamana Temple in Nepal. Your company on this succession of rides ranges from devout pilgrims to garrulous young metal musicians to several goats. All prove to be as worthy of scrutiny as the gorgeous mountain scenery that’s visible over their heads and shoulders.

Nearly as remarkable if more enigmatic is the journey in A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, another 16-mm effort and the first collaboration between two young Wavelengths habitués. The handiwork of Ben Rivers, director of Two Years at Sea (2011), and the Chicago-based Ben Russell, this typically cryptic but often astonishing not-quite-feature follows an unnamed figure (played by musician Robert A.A. Lowe) through a desolate landscape in northern Finland, a rather more social commune in Estonia, and a grotty music club in Norway. The duo’s key concerns about performance, identity, and interpersonal dynamics are most prominently foregrounded in the delightful vignettes starring the commune’s frequently nude members. The young musicians in Manakamana might be most impressed with the transcendent finale, which situates Lowe amid a supergroup of avant-metal heavyweights like Liturgy’s Hunter Hunt-Hendrix.

Ben Russell and Ben Rivers, A Spell to Ward off the Darkness, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 95 minutes.

The Paris-based actor-turned-director Mati Diop also returns to Wavelengths with A Thousand Suns, a wry and poignant film that traces another kind of journey, one that ventures between eras rather than places. Diop’s subject is Magaye Niang, star of the seminal Senegalese film Touki-Bouki (1972). When the now-elderly actor attends an outdoor screening of that film in Dakar, a flood of memories prompts an increasingly surreal and incongruously snowy reverie.

Set in an ordinary German apartment that becomes a universe unto itself, Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat develops its own means of bending perceptions of time and space. The title offers a clue as to why the actions of this apartment’s residents can seem disjointed or contradictory: This may very well be how the daily rituals of humans seem from a feline perspective. Zürcher’s ingenious debut feature suggests what Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) might’ve been like if Jacques Tati had got around to making it first.

While the hermetic oddness of Zürcher’s film might prove a challenge for the rest of the international festival circuit, it seems entirely par for the course in Wavelengths. Along with five programs of shorts and new medium-length works by Jean-Marie Straub, Miguel Gomes, and João Pedro Rodrigues, the lineup also includes North American premieres for two of Venice’s most adventurous competition entries: Stray Dogs, by Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang, and The Police Officer’s Wife, the first feature in thirteen years by Into Great Silence director Philip Gröning.

The most divisive entry among the features may very well be the program’s most cantankerous. An anarchic odyssey patterned in large part after Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971), Raya Martin and Mark Peranson’s La última película combines musings on the end of cinema as a celluloid-based medium with the fictional tale of a blowhard American director (played by bona-fide filmmaker Alex Ross Perry), who comes to Mexico to see if the Mayans were right about the end of time. Though this exercise in cinematic self-immolation could puzzle viewers who don’t already write for Peranson at his magazine Cinema Scope (myself included), the film compensates for its more wayward impulses with its caustic sense of humor and abundance of rapturous imagery.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5–15.