Taking Place

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, 2009, color film, 18 minutes.

WITH ITS ROSTER of selections from sixty-four countries, the Toronto International Film Festival continues to make good on the second word in its title. But among the seventeen programs that constitute TIFF—the fest’s name of choice judging by its current rebranding efforts—it is the Wavelengths series that places the greatest emphasis on the specifics of place.

Filmmakers represented at Wavelengths tend to share a regard for landscapes, whether the spaces and sites they investigate are real, fabricated, or some combination of the two. No wonder such geographically inclined works as James Benning’s RR (2007), John Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007), and Heinz Emigholz’s Schindler’s Houses (2006) have all received pride of place in recent editions of TIFF’s nine-year-old survey of avant-garde film and video.

Emigholz is one of many veterans with new works in the series—Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Marie Straub, Jim Jennings, and Ernie Gehr get nods, too. Even Michael Snow—the seventy-nine-year-old local legend to whom Wavelengths is dedicated—is back with Puccini Conservato (2008), a freewheeling ten-minute piece that essentially casts a Panasonic home stereo as the lead in an impromptu production of La Boheme. Yet it may be some relative newcomers (and one well-seasoned provocateur) who make the strongest impression by encouraging viewers not only to look deeply into the places in front of the camera but also to be wary of what they find there.

Recently feted with the first English-language study of his works (by TIFF Cinematheque senior programmer and Artforum contributor James Quandt), Apichatpong Weerasethakul returns to the fest with two superb new shorts, both of them segments of the Thai filmmaker’s multiplatform project Primitive. A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009) offers a typically idiosyncratic and thoroughly mesmerizing tour of Nabua, a Thai village whose sleepy beauty belies a violent history. Images of a shadowy figure emerging from the forest and what could be a spaceship readying for takeoff give evidence of Weerasethakul’s ability to astonish, a capacity perhaps unmatched by any other contemporary filmmaker. Phantoms of Nabua (2009), presented as an installation work at MoCCA in TIFF’s Future Projections sidebar, shows nighttime views of nearby terrain with lightning strikes, a video projector, and an oft-kicked ball of flame serving as sources of illumination.

Another very bright highlight at Wavelengths is the world premiere of Let Each One Go Where He May (2009), the debut feature-length work by Chicago-based film artist Ben Russell. One of several recent pieces drawn from Russell’s excursions to Suriname, the film consists of thirteen ten-minute-long shots that depict the toils and travels of two taciturn brothers. As in Weerasethakul’s new shorts, the often bucolic quality of the environment conceals a troubled past—as the brothers journey through chaotic city streets, serene waterways, and an illegal gold mine, they retrace the routes of ancestors who escaped Dutch slave masters three centuries before. The climactic segments reveal that this is anything but a straightforward exercise in ethnography; things are a lot slyer (and less authentic) than Russell or his subjects let on.

Two shorter works go headlong into other landscapes: A 16-mm film by Toronto’s Chris Kennedy, Tamalpais (2009) makes fractals of a series of Bay Area vistas in ingenious fashion, while Hiroatsu Suzuki and Rossana Torres’s Cordao Verde (2009) is a thoughtful and beautifully composed portrait of green-belt life in rural Portugal.

But it’s another old master that poses the most provocative questions about the places around us. Harun Farocki returns with In Comparison (2009), an hour-long 16-mm work that expands on themes explored in the German filmmaker and artist’s 2007 installation Comparison Via a Third. Presenting footage shot at brickworks and building sites in Africa, India, and Europe, Farocki gradually adds layer upon layer of meaning, subtly transforming what could have been a Discovery Channel doc on brickmaking into a stringent essay film on labor, industrialization, and the hidden mechanics of cinematic montage. It’s a lesson that Farocki has taught us repeatedly during his forty-three-year career, but it pays to think carefully about what we see.

Wavelengths runs at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall as part of the Toronto International Film Festival September 10–19. For more details, click here.