Film

Our Favorite Experimental Films From the Toronto International Film Festival

Highlights included Ephraim Asili’s striking debut feature The Inheritance and Nicolás Pereda’s Fauna, an inventive story within a story.

From The Inheritance (2020), dir. Ephraim Asili (all images courtesy Toronto International Film Festival)

The Wavelengths selection at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is a well crafted example of how festivals might continue to transition to virtual formats. Trimmed down yet tightly curated, this year the dedicated experimental section includes only two features and a handful of short films. It’s a compact offer, but it’s also one that better fits the virtual festival landscape, in which audiences are already overwhelmed by the volume of online content (disappointing as this may be for hopeful filmmakers).

Weaving the program together is an emphasis on the nature of performance and its inflection points. Although all art is arguably performance, the word acquires additional meaning in Ephraim Asili’s striking debut feature, The Inheritance (2020). The film’s narrative structure is inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise — a group of friends start living together in Philadelphia and set up a collective guided by democratic and socialist principles — which becomes the container for a mashup of various cultural and artistic references.

From The Inheritance (2020), dir. Ephraim Asili

But The Inheritance is more than this. Archival footage of the aftermath of the 1985 police bombing of Philadelphia Black liberation group, MOVE, is interspersed throughout the film, reminding viewers of the violent, government-sanctioned force that has historically been used against Black communities. Yet the film is not only a documentary about the maligned, eco-socialist group. It also serves to recreate the spirit of a Black Marxist organization in West Philadelphia that Asili himself spent time with. Through conversations, poetry readings, and a workshop on the Nuer language, the filmmaker’s present-day, semi-fictionalized collective remembers the teachings of the Black Arts Movement and MOVE founder John Africa, while reinforcing its own cultural identity. Embodying the director’s description of the film as a “speculative re-enactment” of his own experiences, The Inheritance is playfully didactic and joyous in its creation of a safe space to nurture, discuss, and celebrate Black culture.

Kelly Fyffe-Marshall’s short, Black Bodies (2020), offers another take on the nuances of being Black in our time. Stemming from the filmmaker’s own traumatic experience of being racially profiled — and having the police called on her and her friends — when renting an Airbnb in Los Angeles a few years ago, Black Bodies is Fyffe-Marshall’s cathartic response. Set in a dimly illuminated industrial space, a Black man and woman are the victims of police brutality, an incident that is sublimated via a meta-theatrical performance. Dead bodies ultimately transform into anonymous black clothes — the power of such images urges us to remember the names of all the Black folks who have been brutally killed by police.

From Point and Line to Plane(2020), dir. Sofia Bohdanowicz

Death, art, and performance likewise collide in Point and Line to Plane (2020), the latest installment in the fruitful collaboration between filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz and actor Deragh Campbell. Campbell plays a young woman — Bohdanowicz’s fictional stand-in — grieving the sudden death of a friend. A visual poem touching on the emotional exhaustion of grappling with someone’s loss, Point and Line to Plane looks for answers in disparate objects — books, Mozartkugel ( a confection made of pistachio marzipan and nougat, coated in dark chocolate), the paintings of Kandinsky and Hilma Af Klint — and the shared dates of birth and death that eerily connect Bohdanowicz’s friend with both Mozart and Af Klint. And yet, despite these impermanent threads, death is an inescapable condition. We can look to the sky or mountains for solace, but the absence spurred remains confounding.

The nature of performance also lies at the heart of Nicolás Pereda’s Fauna (2020). From a domestic rehearsal before an audition to an inventive story within a story, the simple act of performing enables the film to constantly shift gears. Actors Luisa (Luisa Pardo) and Paco (Francisco Barreiro) visit Luisa’s parents in an unnervingly deserted mining town where they meet with her estranged brother, Gabino (Lázaro Gabino Rodríguez). After dinner, the men go to a nearby saloon to down a few beers, where Gabino’s father insists that Paco perform a scene from the narco-themed series he stars in. Meanwhile, at home, Luisa needs help to rehearse a few lines for an upcoming audition. It’s a monologue on the symbiotic relationship of a mother and daughter but Luisa’s listless execution prompts her mother to recite it herself. For a moment, fiction and reality seem to blur, suggesting the script might, in fact, reflect their own relationship. Coming one after the other, these scenes exemplify the embedded, gendered roles prevalent in Mexican society.

From Fauna (2020), dir. Nicolás Pereda

When morning comes, Pereda shuffles the cards. Luisa and the others become characters in the book Gabino is reading. Nestled within the main narrative, this subplot plays with tropes of a different genre. There’s a mysterious man who disappeared, another who has come to town to look for him, a femme fatale, and the uneasy feeling of being immersed in a noir. However, time is limited and we are allowed only as far as Gabino placed his bookmark. What happens next is a chapter in someone else’s story.

The Inheritance (2020), dir. Ephraim Asili, is screening as part of the virtual Toronto Film Festival (TIFF) through September 17, and will also screen virtually and at a local drive-in via the New York Film Festival from September 18 through 23

Fauna (2020), dir. Nicolás Pereda, is likewise screening as part of TIFF through September 18, and will screen as part of the New York Film Festival from September 19 through 24.

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