By M. Sellers Johnson.

The presence of exceptional domestic screenings surely attests to the saliency of the Canadian film industry – a reminder of the importance of local creatives, amidst the large collection of international filmmakers and audiences.”

In the early weeks of September, Toronto found itself once more engulfed by the shuffling feet of thousands of eager movie patrons and professionals. As one of the largest attended film festivals in North America – indeed, the world – TIFF returns to the downtown streets of Toronto with nearly a quarter million attendees, in press and industry professionals (clad in garlands of purple lanyard passes), international visitors, and local denizens swept up in the near-constant stream of screenings, concerts, conferences, red carpet events, awards receptions, and a bevy of ongoing activities. Once more, TIFF is an ever-growing, bustling reminder of the cultural and social significance of film festivals.

While TIFF has inevitably experienced considerable changes in its tenure (almost half of a century) this year presents new challenges and unexpected opportunities amidst the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. During a special screening of Alexander Payne’s warm, wintery comedy, The Holdovers (2023), Payne expresses enthusiasm for film festivals as the closest experience that onscreen actors and filmmakers get to engage directly with audiences (much in the way of performance arts like theatrical plays and live music concerts). He also highlights how the ongoing strikes have prevented many actors from attending and promoting their new films. While there were some exceptions this year with visitations from Nicolas Cage and Maya Hawke, TIFF experienced an unusual circumstance this year in which the deficit of celebrity guests during the festival seemed to refocus public attention towards more Canadian films.

The presence of exceptional domestic screenings surely attests to the saliency of the Canadian film industry – a reminder of the importance of local creatives, amidst the large collection of international filmmakers and audiences. To name a few, Canadian films like the Haitian diasporic feature debut Kanaval (2023) from Henri Pardo, Chloé Robichaud’s Days of Happiness/Les jours heureux (2023), and Stevie Salas and James Burns’ Boil Alert (2023) documentary all reflect on the considerable talent and quality of domestic Canadian cinema. Still, the sheer infrastructure and magnitude of TIFF also presents audiences with a chance to view invigorating and fresh films from around the globe. To highlight a few, here are some of the more outstanding films presented during the early days of TIFF 2023, charting stories from the Anatolian countryside and urban/rural divides in Japan to the northern shores of Aotearoa.

About Dry Grasses/Kuru Otlar Üstüne (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2023)

Winter falls heavy for an isolated Anatolian village in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s About Dry Grasses (see top image). The mundanity of the Turkish countryside is numbing for the discontented schoolteacher Samet (Deniz Celiloğlu) who tests our sympathies each plodding step of the narrative. Deeper issues surrounding pedagogy, morality, jealousy, and even terrorism simmer beneath a thin layer of platitudes in this enduring drama. As a vast setting, the locale is as beautiful and austere as it is telling of its inhabitants. Rather than characters existing in vain to their surroundings (i.e., hardened and restless), they remain products of their own self-entrapment.

The film begins with Samet returning from a winter holiday. At first glance, he is seemingly genial, but he slowly reveals himself as insipid and arrogant, with just enough complexity to overlook his maddening self-righteousness. Samet teaches art at the village school but seems to have long forgone artistic passions for himself. He does, however, pursue occasional photography which inspires some of the film’s more exceptional tableaux vivant sequences. Subject to both his photos and a borderline inappropriate interest is the young student Sevim (Ece Bağcı). Her obvious affection for Samet does not go unnoticed by Ceylan’s antihero, however, he seems too gratified by her attention to respond to her infatuation with compassion and delicacy. And when a sensitive incident arises where he tactlessly disregards her feelings, she responds with misconduct allegations which throw his world in turmoil.

While Sevim’s claims do not necessarily appear to respond to any physical wrongdoing, the situation remains just vague enough to make the viewer wonder. Samet’s colleague and roommate Kenan (Musab Ekici) is unfortunately caught in the crosshairs, as accusations are also levied against him. As the (mostly) affable Kenan and Samet contend with their allegations, they also find themselves casually involved with another schoolteacher Nuray (Merve Dizdar) who works in a neighboring village. Victim to a terrorist explosion and left with a prosthesis, the somber, yet idealistic Nuray delicately tries to handle her growing platonic relationship with the two men, which begins to evolve into a tentative love triangle. As the events of the film slowly plod along, characters’ attitudes are leisurely revealed, relationships calcify, and many cups of weak tea are drunk. The long, novelistic journey to Ceylan’s poetic conclusion will leave viewers either restless or piqued by the film’s cryptic themes and underlying merit. However, the longstanding attention to the exasperating Samet will have others, such as myself, wondering why we spent such a long winter in his company.

Aesthetically, About Dry Grasses is quite interesting. Long passages and excess dialogue are catalyzed by brief moments of visual intrigue. Along with the tableaux vivant sequences, About Dry Grasses is also dotted with visual flourishes of slow motion – at times nearly imperceptible. In these instances, slow-motion effects seem to beckon viewers to peer even deeper into the film’s quiet drama. Ceylan also curiously employs an increasingly common narrative device of self-reflexivity, a noticeable trend across the festival circuit this year. Samet’s fourth wall break at a central juncture in the narrative is curious, but how does it best serve the story at hand? His sudden departure from Nuray’s apartment (and the diegesis) to the backstage of the film set may very well imply Celiloğlu’s need to separate himself from Samet for a moment. And yet, is such a stylistic conceit truly an actor stepping out of their character, or reflecting on their compromised sense of self? What bigger ideas is Ceylan teasing? The scene is too fleeting to surely tell and its timing within the narrative is not necessarily explicit. What can be acknowledged in this non-diegetic interlude is that this occurs in the moments following a critical point in the drama, where two main characters build to a moment in which both of their ideologies and motivations are revealed. And yet, Ceylan’s narrative juncture partially deflates Samet’s undeserved satisfactions, as Samet/Celiloğlu is compelled to step away from his circumstances and take what is implied to be a sildenafil – a pharmaceutical product psychologically tethered to self-image issues. The ambiguity of the moment may not quite justify this self-reflexive embellishment, but it is just curious enough to leave the viewer pondering its deeper meanings.

Long passages and excess dialogue are catalyzed by brief moments of visual intrigue. Along with the tableaux vivant sequences, About Dry Grasses is also dotted with visual flourishes of slow motion – at times nearly imperceptible.”

The film’s excessive length will surely prove unsurprising for fans of the director, and the emphasis on underlying tension and prolonged conversation does seem to complement the extended runtime. However, Ceylan’s interest in a selfish male lead, seemingly gaining some sense of endorsement or gratitude by the end of the film, despite his unbearable egoism, leaves a lingering bitterness for the viewer. Audiences of Christian Petzold’s Afire (2023) will likely sympathize with this sentiment, as its own lead shares some behavioral resemblance to Celiloğlu’s Samet. Both films leave their insufferable protagonists in better sorts than their beginnings, but to what end?

Instead of glorifying Samet, the final shot of About Dry Grasses seems to isolate him. This sense of isolation is also apparent in referring back to the heated dinner conversation with Nuray – and in Samet’s decision to effectively exit the film. Could this be an internal understanding of his innate fallibility, selfishness, and imposed loneliness that instigates this lonely departure from the diegesis? Does Samet recognize his shortcomings enough to inspire change from within, and not rely on external validation and his environment for such fulfillment? The binary that Samet draws between the stifling winters and the withering dry grasses of summer may just reveal a true lack of warmth and artistry, as better embodied by Sevim and Nuray. In spite of his poetic musings and keen memories of Sevim, Samet outwardly rejects such complicated desires, yet internally starves for these challenging nuances of life. And while Samet eventually departs the Anatolian countryside, images of Nuray and Sevim resonate, leaving the viewer with more confidence and curiosity in their fates.

The Boy and the Heron/Kimitachi wa Dō Ikiru ka (Hayao Miyazaki, 2023)

In what was initially perceived to be Hayao Miyazaki’s swan song (a lingering claim over the past two decades), The Boy and the Heron presents another beautiful chapter in Miyazaki’s iconic oeuvre. Themes of motherhood, childhood, legacy, and loss all unfold across Tokyo and the mystical countryside. The film appears to glean different traces of Miyazaki’s content throughout his decades-spanning career. Children set off to prove their maturity, enemies later become friends, rural ruins prove to be gateways into the mystic, and balance is restored within the world(s) by the film’s denouement. As a continuation of a master at work, The Boy and the Heron is at once wistful, violent, endearing, and perilous.

The story begins amidst the Second World War. Following a tragic incident, in which the young Mahito Maki (Soma Santoki) loses his mother, Mahito and his father, Shoichi, (Takuya Kimura) move to the countryside, where Shoichi has abruptly invited Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura) into their family, whose connection to Mahito comes to be later revealed. Still traumatized from the death of his mother, Mahito rejects Natsuko, despite her sincerity and kindness. Natsuko’s pregnancy further unnerves Mahito, and he flees their country home to explore a ruined tower at the edge of the property—all the while contending with the pestering eponymous Grey Heron (Masaki Suda). Mystical forces surrounding their locale soon capture Mahito and take him on a daring journey into a subterranean world, where he is tested to find both of his lost mothers.

As with his many other stories, Miyazaki draws on facets of his childhood to bring this work to life. The working title of the film, How Do You Live?,was also a defining book for Miyazaki as a child. Genzaburō Yoshino’s novel does make an appearance in the film as a token that Mahito discovers from his late mother. Shoichi is also employed at a factory that develops plane parts; an employment shared by Miyazaki’s own father. Miyazaki, himself, was born in the early 1940s, though Mahito might stand in as an elder sibling, especially considering his infant sibling that is born in the film moments of the film. As a through line of his many astounding works, Miyazaki finds ever clever ways to imbue his films with autobiographical traces.

While Miyazaki’s films are often divided between the child-centric films of My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), and Ponyo (2008) and the more adult-centered films like Nausciaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), Porco Russo (1992), and Princess Mononoke (1997), The Boy and the Heron is situated at the crux of preadolescence. The closest work of his to this is Castle in the Sky (1986), also one of his strongest films across an already expansive and impression filmography.

As indicated by its title, Miyazaki’s penchant for aviation inspires an array of magical birds which are curiously imagined throughout the film. In particular, the initially nefarious kingdom of parakeets proves to be quite delightful. And like the curious kodama woodland sprits of Princess Mononoke, The Boy and the Heron offers its own cute creatures in the form of the plush, marshmallowy warawara. However, even the warmth and charm of these ghostly creatures are challenged by a vicious underworld, where beatific scenery is often compounded with horrific peril. Like much of Miyazaki’s work, The Boy and the Heron is a child’s film, albeit a deftly mature one. As such, frightening images of phantasmagoria ensue alongside the more peaceful moments, and the film is as tonally humorous, as it is dark. And while it is not quite as scary nor melancholic as Spirited Away, early moments in The Boy and the Heron prove to be some of the most intensive, frightening Miyazaki images to date.

The surreal opening sequence connects the story historically to his previous venture in The Wind Rises (2013), while also cuing a darker tone that arises at various points throughout this journey. Common narrative fixtures of Miyazaki are apparent throughout the film: domestic uncertainties inspiring a wonderous, dangerous adventure; conflicts transmuting into friendships; sympathetic villains; a delicious dining scene where the characters take a respite and enjoy a meal; and resolving crucial relationships, once lost. Mahito’s journey feels both brisk and languid, as the story moves to new and mysterious locations quite often, while always taking a moment to relish in new atmospheres. Mahito’s adventure is as imaginative as it thought-provoking, and it builds towards a satisfying, if slightly hurried ending. The end of the film is, perhaps, a bit too lofty or sinuous to measure in full upon an initial viewing. Yet this would also seem an unknowing invitation to revisit the film, as fans joyously do with so many of his others.

Here, near the perceivable end of a storied career, Miyazaki offers another rich, emotive, and stirring anime, which may very well beg the question of its original title. While many were expecting The Boy and the Heron to be Miyazaki’s final outing, Studio Ghibli vice president Junichi Nishioka stated amidst the festival that Miyazaki has shown interest in developing new material for another film project – actively spending time in the Studio Ghibli offices, as of recent. The beloved filmmaker will surely keep audiences forever on their toes regarding professed claims of retirement. The beauty of these indecisive commitments to his career is that often viewers have often been blessed with new Miyazaki films, throughout the last twenty years or so. The Boy and the Heron may or may not be the last film that audiences see of this beloved filmmaker, but no matter what comes of Miyazaki at this stage in his career, his work will forever endure in its timelessness, compassion, and wonder.

Monster/Kaibutsu (Hirokazu Kore-Eda, 2023)

Hirozaku Kore-Eda returns to the screen with his recent masterwork, Monster. As Kore-Eda’s most impressive film since Shoplifters (2018), Monster arrives with great wit and compassion. Its cryptic narrative format shifts between four major character perspectives, unveiling a curious mystery that dwells beneath the unfolding drama. Specific details are better left aside for now, but the story begins with single mother Soari Mugino (Sakura Andō) and her son Minato (Sōya Kurokawa), whose unusual behavior begins to rouse Saori’s concerns. When allegations of physical abuse arise from Minato’s school, Saori sets out to question his schoolteacher Michitoshi Hori (Eita Nagayama), whose own peculiar behavior begs further questions about Minato’s mysterious circumstances. The rest of the elementary school staff, including the polite, yet evasive principal Makiko Fushimi (Yūko Tanaka), don’t seem to take the situation too seriously. However, once revealed, the truth about Monster’s elusive set of events is less scandalous or provocative than it is unexpected and heartfelt.

Like About Dry Grasses, Monster concerns misconceptions, allegations, and compromised relationships between children and teachers. But rather than focusing exclusively on the educator’s viewpoint, Monster comprises a collection of vantage points. Each major vignette is also bookended by two opposing elemental forces: a building erupting in flames and a torrential typhoon. Perhaps this contrast best complements the earthen environment, captured stunningly in the final sequence of the film. As we become more privy to each character’s perspective, the narrative web furnishes equally complex considerations on themes of bullying, myopic accusations, tenderness, and the beauty of holistic understanding. Some of Kore-Eda’s mysteries do remain in the shadows by the close of the story, but this mild open-endedness would seem to inspire our continued sympathies for that which we cannot yet understand. The idea of monsters may not always signify what we expect and through the prism of childhood, it indicates something more unexpected and endearing.

While Monster might otherwise suggest something in line with the horror genre, Kore-Eda’s subversive title reveals itself to be surprisingly touching. As one of the more outstanding screenings this year at TIFF, Monster is a perceptive and compassionate tale of tolerance, perspective, and inquiry. The subtext of preadolescent sexuality and suggestions of what a “pig-brain” signifies are handled with great care. Like Shoplifters, and throughout Kore-Eda’s filmography, unconventional families and childhood sympathies remain the central intentions of the film. Monster is another masterful piece by the enduring Kore-Eda, and its mysteries are well worth its innocent revelations.

The Convert (Lee Tamahori, 2023)

While the Musket Wars (1807-1837) are an undeniably contentious and formative part of national history in Aotearoa/New Zealand, its stories have rarely been rendered onscreen. At its world premiere this year at TIFF, Lee Tamahori helps to amend this cinematic gap by returning to his home of Aotearoa with The Convert (2023). Tamahori’s recent film harkens back to his inaugural feature Once Were Warriors (1994) by charting the difficult and complicated history of some Māori communities, following the colonial presence of the Pākehā (non-Māori, primarily light-skinned people of European descent). In The Convert, Tamahori reaches back further into the nation’s history to highlight violent conflicts between certain Māori iwi (tribes) stoked by colonial traders. But rather than assuming a purely white perspective on the fraught memories of a nation, Tamahori privileges Māori perspectives, considerably, in spite of his Pākehā lead.

While some may recognize Tamahori from his more commercial fare, like The Edge (1997), Die Another Day (2002), or Next (2007), it is only fitting that his most impressive and culturally significant work concerns his home nation of Aotearoa. Born in the small town of Tawa, Tamahori cut his teeth in the 1970s-1980s on major New Zealand films such as Mike Newell’s Bad Blood (1981) and Geoff Murphy’s Goodbye Pork Pie (1981). After making his debut with Once Were Warriors, Tamahori has been working mostly out of Hollywood and has only recently returned to New Zealand cinema with Mahana in 2016. Needless to say, his best work remains based in Pasifika, and The Convert surely attests to this.

The Convert begins in the 1830s with preacher Thomas Munro (Guy Pearce) venturing abroad on a merchant ship bound for Aotearoa. Munro appears to be the only true passenger aboard – aside from their Māori guide – among a crew of musket traders, who intend to sell their arms to warring iwi for food and raw goods. While the name of the film seems to imply a tale of Christian evangelism, The Convert comes to be rather subversive. Tamahori focuses on Munro’s efforts to spread the gospel among his fellow settlers and the indigenous people, but his character is not as self-righteous in this aspiration as one might expect. Instead of positioning Western religion as a vain attribute to justify colonialism, Christianity seems to moreso contextualize Munro’s tolerance and passivist attitudes.

In contrast to Tamahori’s title, Western religion appears to have a relatively minor impact on the people. While one Māori warrior does show an interest in Christian iconography, the general townsmen of Epworth don’t show a particular interest in Christian ethics, and their request for a lay preacher seems more perfunctory than anything. In contrast to the bigoted attitudes pervading the colonial settlement, Munro’s companion, the outsider Charlotte (Jacqueline McKenzie), reveals her own transnational history as a Pākehā woman embedded in Māori language and tradition. Charlotte had married a Māori man and gave birth to a child, although her family was lost amidst the ensuing violent conflicts, leaving her as an outsider to her own people. The interchange of cultural influences seems to be but a natural progression of the Māori-Pākehā relationship, which will come to define the rest of Tamahori’s narrative and, indeed, the history of the nation.

It is important to recognize that the unifying, yet subversive, Treaty of Waitangi was signed shortly after the Musket Wars, as a veiled peace agreement between the British Crown and over five hundred Māori rangatira (chiefs). Historically, the Treaty is now recognized as a deceitful endeavor by the British, as the English translation of the document favored the land-owning sovereignty of the Crown. However, this document would forever define colonial involvement in Aotearoa, which continues to affect the nation today. In essence, the musket merchants deliberately fueled bloody feuds between warring iwi as a tactical maneuver in order to undermine the Indigenous claim on the islands and boost power among the settlers, thus igniting internal conflicts already present in Aotearoa and further underscoring the damaging influence of colonialism. However, Pearce’s Munro does not necessarily signify these colonial attitudes himself, despite immigrating with the intention of promoting an outside religion. In Tamahori’s hands, Munro is far a more nuanced character and strives to be a true shepherd of peaceful negotiation.

Nevertheless, Munro does struggle with his resistance to violence, both on the North Island and in his past, but finds that his genuine efforts to broker peace amongst the iwi only bring him further into conflict. He does not leverage religion didactically but rather strives to negotiate inter-tribal treaties while contending with the bitter violence from the English citizens of Epworth, where he struggles to establish his church. While Munro is assigned to Epworth as their lay preacher, the internal violence and corruption within the community eventually press him to leave town with Charlotte and Rangimai (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne), a Māori warrior who he saved upon first arriving to Aotearoa. The conspiracy and murder of the young Māori tribesman, charged with protecting the widowed Rangimai while in Epworth, eventually compel this trio to venture away from the settlement and into the bush, where they remain for the majority of the film. Tamahori’s decision for characters to depart to a colonial outpost of Epworth is wise, as it shifts the audience’s attention away from the British settlement and deeper within the world of the Māori people. Rather than focusing on the British as central characters and the indigenous people as “others,” Tamahori seems to invert, or at least complicate this approach. As a mediary between the English and Māori, Charlotte helps to bring Munro further understanding of Māori culture, and his growing involvement with Rangimai and her father Chief Miainui (Antonio Te Maioha) embroil him in a bloody war, where he must reconcile his new commitments to the Māori, his commitments to faith, and his own violent past.

Though its title subverts initial expectations of a mere colonial narrative by exhibiting more of a cultural interchange, The Convert rouses new international attention to the rich, conflicted, and enduring history of Māori people.”

The story of The Convert is effectively a Western, trading the US frontier for Aotearoa. Munro is a also former war veteran, as is a common trope for many traditional Western protagonists. However, here, Tamahori trades the context of the Union/Confederacy conflicts of the U.S. Civil War for the British army, where Munro served regretfully sometime in the early seventeenth century. As with the generic mode of the Western, Tamahori’s film centers on a capable “gunslinger” who arrives in an isolated town, beset by internal conflict and contentions with disruptive forces in the community and “the wild.” Here, the story centers on a frontier conflict and an outsider protagonist who attempts to broker peace, although he is soon driven to unleash his more violent talents for the greater good of Mianiui’s iwi. The only major difference of Western tropes in The Convert is that Munro rejects the “savage” town, in favor of the wilderness.

As a product of New Zealand cinema, global Westerns, and its credible attention to Māori history, Lee Tamahori’s The Convert stands as one of his best films—a return to Aotearoa where he first began with his auspicious debut. Guy Pearce gives a sensible, yet formidable performance as the lay preacher Thomas Munro. In terms of its perceived audience, the film centers around an outsider perspective becoming more involved in the Māori world, to the point where its title assumes a more subversive meaning. The Convert also appears to be a survey course to non-Kiwi audiences on general fixtures of Māori linguistics and culture. Throughout the film, Tamahori offers terms such as iwi, pounamu (jade), Pākehā, and tā moko (facial tattoos; markings of one’s story). The terms are carefully described and exposited to Munro – and by proxy the perceived Pākehā audiences. These gestures would appear to be deliberate, as if Tamahori were speaking on behalf of his own transnational background, offering an introduction to Aotearoa as he confirms its status as a major player in global cinema.

Though its title subverts initial expectations of a mere colonial narrative by exhibiting more of a cultural interchange, The Convert rouses new international attention to the rich, conflicted, and enduring history of Māori people. The film certainly suggests the latitude of positive Māori- Pākehā relations, as embodied by Munro and Charlotte. However, it also emphasizes the violent histories that complicate Aotearoa, in terms of the domestic and the colonial. As Tamahori renders these histories onscreen with a confident hand, he further ensures that these stories are not to be forgotten.

While these select films highlight some of the more high-profile screenings of TIFF’s 48th annual festival, honorable mentions go out to numerous others, from Lucy Walker’s uplifting documentary Mountain Queen: The Summits of Lhakpa Sherpa (2023) to the surrealist, Canadian horror Dream Scenario (2023) by Kristoffer Borgil, TIFF is a foregrounding venue for new and idiosyncratic films with each new year. One peculiar trend worth acknowledging this year includes two different films about female maestros with odd similarities to Todd Field’s Tár (2022). The aforementioned Days of Happiness details the challenges of a Queer conductor Emma (Sophie Desmarais) who contends with a series of surmounting pressures while prepping for a performance of Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No.5.” However, Robichaud’s film presents a far less searing character study of her protagonist than Field’s eponymous anti-heroine. While Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) feeds toxic relationships, Emma is impelled to leave hers behind. In addition, Hanna Slak’s impressive film Not a Word/Kein wort (2023) also concerns a female orchestra director enduring an emotional crisis. While the focus in Slak’s feature concerns a difficult mother and son relationship in lieu of sexual and artistic drama, Not a Word not only follows Nina (Maren Eggert) organizing a Mahler piece, but Slak’s temporally constructs the runtime of the film to coincide with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, placing dramatic music cues alongside the crucial narrative events of the film. In this instance, Mahler literally comprises Not a Word. And while these films are more than likely coincidental in comparison, it does present a truly odd and striking trend at this year’s festival.

M. Sellers Johnson holds an MA in film studies from Te Herenga Waka (Victoria University of Wellington). His work has appeared in New Review of Film and Television StudiesFilm Matters, and the International Journal of Communication.

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