There’s been an incredible amount of snow in Los Angeles this week. It’s coming in from Alaska, from Wisconsin, from Latvia; it’s all up on screen, with a considerable number of movies set in bleak white snowscapes. Maybe there’s nothing more exotic to Southern Californians than seeing people in heavy overcoats and riding snowmobiles. This sense of snow is most apparent in the trio of Québécois films, which all share distinct commonalities, screening at the festival. Besides being utterly blanketed in snow, these French Canadian films are all methodically paced and play with the passage of time. They dissect the functioning (or dysfunction) of the family unit, and are preoccupied with notions of personal isolation and mortality. While not necessarily bearing the markers of a distinct or organized film movement, these contemporary offerings from Quebec all spring from similar sensibilities.
Writer-director Stéphane Lafleur does nothing to disavow me of the notion that Canada is some kind of depressing anomic frozen wasteland with En Terrains Connus. But he does sketch a compelling tale of family dysfunction and the glacier-like encroaching of decay and stasis. It’s a slow burn of a film, with its structuring principle announced by its titles as a series of accidents. Quiet and reserved Maryse (Fanny Mallette) is shaken into a low-key obsession when a co-worker at the box factory loses his arm in an industrial mishap. Meanwhile, her slacker brother, Benoit (Francis La Haye), receives a warning of a future accident when the local car rental owner, who just happens to have traveled backward in time, brings a message that Maryse will die in a car crash.
The way which Lafleur handles this time travel conceit—droll, matter-of-fact, its plausibility neither proven nor questioned—is a microcosm of the rest of the film. We nimbly shift from scenes of deadpan domestic humor to chilling slow-motion fugues. Maryse and Benoit’s profound alienation is captured in wide shots that gaze at the isolating sea of white blanketing the icy wastes of Quebec. The characters, like the world they inhabit, behave as if under sedation. They’re only roused from the steady state of their lethargy by the accumulation of annoyances that build like a piece of music heading towards a crescendo. It’s something that the film captures on a sonic level with an ear for repetition: in the rattling of silverware, for example, or the hum of a snowmobile engine. We hear more than we can see; at times the breaking points seem to elude our gaze as they happen off screen or between scenes. We only witness the aftermath—as in the case of a jar of tomato sauce that Benoit desperately struggles to open.
The performances are solidly grounded in understatement; Maryse’s husband Alain (Sylvain Marcel), with his goofy hobbies and well-meaning inability to process his wife’s psychological dissolution, feels plucked right out of a Coen Brothers film. The family patriarch (Michel Daigle), cantankerous and hale, provides a jolt of energy to each scene he’s in. The sibling relationship at the core of the film is slowly sketched over the course of the film as Benoit wrestles with what to do with the warning he’s been given. Because these characters are so reserved, and because they are comfortable in their uncomfortable silence, they can feel somewhat distant. But Lafleur helps find a way in, and by the end that reserve feels more like an unspoken intimacy.
There are tiny moments that click into place after we realize what they mean: Benoit finds a toy car buried in the snow with a metal detector. Maryse measures an ice chest with the length of her arm. The film lets tension simmer rather than explode, and it trends toward the oblique without being confusing. We linger on the unspoken and the unseen, and it’s all tied together with an ethos of comic reflection and gentle self-deprecation. At the risk of painting an entire national and regional cinema with a single brush, these qualities make the film seem quintessentially Canadian.
The art of the sale is a delicate one, a push-pull struggle for power between buyer and seller, a battle that we begrudgingly undertake when there’s a purpose to it. But what happens when that purpose is stripped away, and the whole process turns into pointless predation? That question is at the core of Le Vendeur, written and directed by Sébastien Pilote. Marcel (Gilbert Sicotte) is the top salesman at a small-town car dealership, a kindly old man who buys rounds of sodas for the garage workers and spends quality time with his daughter and grandson. He’s a fixture in a tight-knit community where the local priest holds an annual blessing of the snowmobiles.
But Pilote reveals that community to be a fragile little thing, utterly dependent on the engine of the economy. The town’s paper mill is the largest employer, and when it shuts down, the repercussions ripple outward. We drop into the narrative 240 days after the shutdown, when economic pressure and desperation have built to a level that cannot be easily ignored. Yet everyone, including Marcel, tries to make a valiant attempt. Like En Terrains Connus, the film organizes itself in sections broken up by titles. They announce the days since shutdown, ratcheting up tension like the piling of snow that blankets the cars at the dealership and sets up the blank slate of existential crisis at the heart of the film.
Sales dry up in the harsh economic climate, and yet Marcel soldiers on, pushing cars and trying to clear the lot, because that is what defines his existence: he’s a salesman. And when one of his customers buckles under the weight of his financial obligations, Marcel can only watch helplessly. “The bank will take care of it,” his boss tells him.
There’s a Wall Street/Main Street connection to be made here, with the decisions of distant and unseen corporations warping and twisting the community. Pilote uses the snowy isolation of the town as a microcosmic bubble where cars and financial news reports come in and nothing seems to get out. Yet for all the embedded commentary on the chasm between people who make things for a living and those who sell them, the film is more interested in the personal and psychological consequences of losing one’s purpose in life.
Sicotte delivers a multilayered portrayal of Marcel, whose charming quirks and chummy glad-handing take on an obsessive, predatory gleam in a different light. We linger with him in simple, joyous moments that carry with them the foreboding sense of impending tragedy, whether through the slow grind of economic inevitability or something quicker and far more drastic. Early on, Marcel jokes, “I’m not dead yet.” But Pilote’s careful lens reveals that death is perhaps just a matter of degree.
Denis Côté’s Curling is also touched by issues of mortality; it’s the most oblique and challenging of the three Québécois offerings, starting with the fact that there’s a relative dearth of curling in the film. Bowling is instead the sport of choice, with the quiet and reserved—I sense a trend here—Jean-François Sauvageau (Emmanuel Bilodeau) working as a maintenance man at a bowling alley in a small Quebec town. He also works at a local motel; that is, until he walks into one of the rooms and sees it drenched in blood. Also, there are dead bodies in the woods.
These aren’t twists or inciting incidents kicking off a suspense plot, and Côté never leads us to believe that there is one. These glimpses of some past off-screen brutality are merely things that we observe without any illumination or exposition, minor detours in the life of Jean-François. That kind of obliqueness is mirrored in his relationship with his 12-year-old daughter, Julyvonne (played by Bilodeau’s real-life daughter, Philomène). She has grown up in relative isolation, living with her father in a country house and learning from random books he brings back. She also seems to have inherited her father’s reserve, though the way she animates to life when playing at the bowling alley—and after discovering those dead bodies—suggests a girl secretly chafing under her father’s restrictive wing.
Their relationship is an atypical one, with an odd energy about it; it’s never overtly exploitative or abusive, yet it’s more than mere paternal overprotectiveness. A scene where he watches her dance to Stacey Q’s “Two of Hearts” is not so much creepy as it is utterly bizarre, as if we’re observing the results of an experiment whose purpose is unknown to us. (Trace a line from this film to Hanna to Dogtooth; there’s a nascent fascination with stories about enigmatic fathers isolating and programming their daughters.)
For all its strangeness, the scene fits right in with Côté’s remote, elliptic style; the landscapes captured in the bleach-bypass palette of snowblindness seem outside of time, and the look of the film cements a sense of surfaces masking internal workings, of seeing without understanding. It always comes back to seeing, back to the eyes. Côté communicates so much not through words but through stares that seem blank—but just like the snow, that blank expanse covers hidden depths. “There’s nothing in her eyes,” someone says of Julyvonne, and yet when we look at her we can’t be entirely sure that’s true. As for Jean-François, a girl who works at the bowling alley tells him that he has sad eyes. They’re eyes that draw us in and push us away. There’s a lot in this film that appears obscure; the relevance of curling, for example. But in those eyes, the one thing that seems so clear and so specific is the quality of that sadness.
When you put together dozens of feature films in the concentrated time and space of a festival, a sense of juxtaposition and convergence develops. Common ground and shared ideas are more visible, and it’s easier to see when two different films are swept up in the same zeitgeist, approaching the same urgent thematic space from different angles. Take, for example, two films—one about Iraq, one about Afghanistan—that examine nations rebuilding in the aftermath of American military incursion, and how the introduction of new values and new sports have changed the lives of women.
Normally one would be well advised to be skeptical of films with puns in their titles, for that is the realm of such gems as Bee Movie and Your Highness. But behind the wordplay of Salaam Dunk, this documentary from American director David Fine tells a simple yet resonant story about women in Iraq. We follow the second-ever season of the women’s basketball team at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS). Located in the country’s Kurdish region, the university hews to America’s professed ideals for the country, bringing together Iraqis of all ethnic and religious persuasions and using English as their working language.
Another one of those American ideals seems to be the redemptive power of sports, and Fine structures the piece as a classic sports story. Coach Ryan Bubalo does his best to turn a ragtag group of women, many of whom have never played any sport before, into a cohesive team, and they face fierce competition in the form of elite—and elitist—ball clubs. One game actually hinges on a fateful tie-breaking final-second free throw.
Documentaries have a power of metaphor that in some ways exceeds the reach of fiction because they seem to spring organically from the world, rather than forced from an authorial hand. Here, an Iraq narrative emerges from this narrative about Iraqis, with the progressive American instructors instilling the virtues of pluralism and gender equality in a generation of future leaders. Team manager Safa overcomes her racial prejudices as her role becomes that of team mother, while team captain Laylan finds herself going through emotional ups and down with her teammates. Yet this transient family provides a cathartic experience in dealing with her own history of loss.
The film presents the violence present in Iraq, the violence that claimed the lives of Laylan’s brother and father, as an inescapable fact of history. But unlike the host of other Iraq films, here it is banished to the edges: a brief shot of the university’s military guard, a fleeting misogynistic slap on the court, a tragic story told to a video diary. And yet the university is not Iraq, and we’re made aware that in many ways this story takes place in a protective bubble. While the girls display pride in their school on the basketball court, some of them admit that they’re a bit reluctant to admit back home in Baghdad that they go to the American University.
But while this story is fascinating because of the political context, when Fine plucks the strings of the archetypal sports story, it pushes all the politics aside and encourages us to root for the AUIS team. That’s certainly an easy task, as the coach and all the players come across as a charismatic, endearing bunch of hopefuls striving to build something from nothing. The genius of the sports narrative is its indefatigable capacity to inspire; considering I heard cheering from the theater audience during one of the games, Salaam Dunk might consider that mission accomplished.
A sunrise cutting through the haze overlooking a dusty cityscape, a gang of ragged street kids playing among crumbling buildings and burnt-out military vehicles: These are familiar establishing shots from any number of Afghanistan documentaries. (And Iraq films as well, which speaks to the visual interchangeability between the two spaces to foreign lenses.) Those shots are also in the opening to Skateistan: Four Wheels and a Board in Kabul, from German director Kai Sehr, but here they serve as an incongruous backdrop for the later images of kids on skateboards rolling down the streets of the Afghan capital.
Sehr traces the development and growth of the Skateistan organization, started by Australians Oliver Percovich and Sharna Nolan. It begins as nothing more than showing a few kids’ skateboard tricks in a dried-out fountain, but the group eventually grows into a full-fledged organization; the film captures their ambitions to build a permanent facility. For them, skateboarding is a community-building foundation from which they can provide health and educational services to the kids of Kabul.
At times the MTV-inflected expository opening evokes the feel of a promotional video for the group, but Sehr quickly finds his way into the material by lancing right into the contradictions that Percovich and his people run into as they develop Skateistan. They’re outsiders with open minds trying to build a community out of kids fractured along lines of ethnicity, gender, and social class. The last is personified in Mirwais, a charismatic and rebellious teen that the other street kids look up to. Mirwais impresses Percovich with his dedicated work ethic, but comes with his own set of problems, as when he convinces the other street kids not to take medications offered by Skateistan, or when he displays troubling moments of casual violence and inculcated misogyny.
Skateistan’s role in the lives of young Afghan girls is another avenue explored; we’re informed that skateboarding is the only public sport in the country allowed to girls, and one of the motivations behind the group’s drive to build a permanent indoor facility is so that girls “of marrying age” can participate. While both Salaam Dunk and this film feature interviews with men decrying the practice of girls in sports, here those pronouncements seem to carry a bit more weight as we witness women walking down the streets in full burqa. As Skateistan’s visibility increases, they’re joined by an international team of pro skaters to provide support; one of them, the Dutch-Algerian Louisa Menke, quickly becomes a role model for the girls of the group.
Sehr crafts a strong narrative by making the unfamiliar familiar, but he finds the heart of the story in Percovich, the driving force who keeps the entire enterprise going. Moments where Percovich provides stilted narration (as if reading from a prepared speech) actually come off as endearing; we’re presented with a man who seems uncomfortable with the spotlight but is so animated by passion that he’ll do anything to bolster his cause. It certainly pays off as we see him build a coalition of support from NGOs, government officials, and celebrities. Skateistan is a story of growth and transformation, a structural examination that lets us witness how a small group of people can make their mark on the life of a city.