TIFF Round-Up – Films Plucked from the Field of Nightmares

TIFF Pelo Malo Junior Mariana Rondon featured
It’s all over, bar the shouting! Now that another TIFF edition has wrapped up in Cluj, I have to say… I see what programmer Mihai Chirilov meant by the shock value this year being just about evenly distributed across the board. The films (that I’ve managed to watch, at least) have delighted me through frights of all kinds, without any of them being as one-dimensional as cut-and-dried horrors. I’ll leave you with my short-list of absolute musts that, if I were you, I wouldn’t think twice about looking up on Netflix. 

Before I get to the brass tacks, though, I want to cleanse your palate with a taste of the first-rate concert that set upon the cinematic smorgasbord from the left field of music. I give you the Bălănescu Quartet and their classic, yet refreshingly modern, reinterpretation – one might say remix – of Maria Tănase’s oeuvre (I, for one, couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw this in the festival schedule!):

On to the movies, now! Here are six of them that caught my eye over the ten jam-packed festival days:

White Shadow An Israeli drama that took home a special jury mention, gave me the shivers from the onset, there was something off about Alias, an albino teen whose young friend, Salum, also pigment-challenged, spoke, seemingly frankly, about being airworthy, and a witch doctor to boot! Director and co-writer Noaz Deshe debuted strongly with this Tanzania-set feature that Chirilov referred to as “a documentary account,” more so than any other film in the competition lineup this year. As it turns out, albinos are hunted, hacked and sold, limb by limb, in many African countries – at the Q&A that followed the screening, the director mentioned Uganda and Mozambique among the other well-known offenders, aside from Tanzania.

TIFF White Shadow Noaz Deshe 1

The thing about Alias is that he’s known this his whole life, his face conveys as much – he is like a “closed fist,” in Deshe’s own words. After his own father’s sold for parts, Alias is entrusted by his mother to uncle Kosmos, in a soul-crushing show of self-denial that sees the woman walk alongside the truck and shout a rapid-fire litany of advice she would have given him through the years, had it been possible for them to stay together. Alias then gets a crash course on mid-road commerce, peddling trinkets to drivers to earn his keep. He also finds love, but his skin color prevents him from acting on it – the African equivalent to being born under the wrong star.

TIFF White Shadow Noaz Deshe 2

White Shadow features the second literal hatchet job I’ve seen this year, after the unsettling Mr. Pip, and that number’s still a bit high for my taste. Still, praise must be heaped onto the movie itself, for its shooting style (heavy with quick, hand-held, often confusing, close-ups, as if the helmer was chasing killer bees, not people), cast (all non-professionals from a village that willingly flocked to lend a hand to a story that needed to be said) and the lead Hamisi Bazili in particular. Deshe told us that, when they offered him the part, he reacted as if he were expecting it, as any albino in Africa must have had, for a long time – he made the crew feel they “were almost too late,” in bringing this situation to light.

Pelo malo Set in one of Caracas’s sprawling squalid neighborhoods, this film might be even more cringe-worthy than the one before, Curly-haired nine-year-old Junior has been waking up to a bad hair day since as far back as he can remember. His search for a tamer mane has him going to extraordinary lengths (his grandma Carmen, a bowl-ful of oil, even YouTube!) for a solution, while stretching his mother’s patience thinner and thinner. His sensitivity rattles the hardened widower, a former security guard, now unemployed, who struggles to make ends meet while caring for Junior and his infant brother, whom it’s blatantly obvious she loves better, despite (or maybe precisely because) his looking nothing like her deceased husband.

TIFF Pelo Malo Junior Mariana Rondon 1

Written and directed by Mariana Rondón, and shown in the Supernova section at TIFF, the flick only skims through Marta’s past, not concerned with stamping the many question marks this creates into a nice, explanatory whole. It’s more interested in pointing to the political goings-on that frame this account of maternal penury, through actual, and actually fabricated, news bulletins about Hugo Chavez’s cancer and his (reportedly) well-wishing people. In a dirt-poor country that’s been run into the ground by the government, people don’t have enough strength left over for tolerating diversity – as the director herself noted at the post-screening Q&A, this underlying discourse was at the heart of making this movie.

TIFF Pelo Malo Junior Mariana Rondon 2

Whether Marta (played with high-strung steadfastness by Samantha Castillo) is showing her homophobia or indeed, she’s worried that so many others will all through Junior’s life, comes down to each of our own understanding of the film. Having said that, I’ve been hard-pressed, ever since watching this, to think of another movie character displaying such filial hate, so outwardly. The always scowling Marta can’t stand Junior’s touch, snaps and yanks at him all day long, then all but negotiates a price for letting her mother-in-law take him off her hands. The tit-for-tat that her unfit behavior sparks at home, in her interaction with Junior is, however, among the best display cases for talent I’ve seen at TIFF so far. The young Samuel Lange Zambrano shows great raw promise in this, his onscreen debut, a layered role that blends delicacy and hunger for affection with rebellion and even fraternal jealousy.

This unnerving drama starts off with a curt “I don’t love you” exchanged during an I-spy spin-off between Junior and his play date, the Miss-wannabe girly-girl next door. It ends on the same words, only this time they pack the extra, stomach-turning punch inherent in their utterance by a mother to her own son. Watch it at your own risk.

Caníbal – Manuel Martin Cuenca’s new outing, about a cannibal living in Granada off of women he kills for sustenance, isn’t as reductive as this log line, or any synopsis for that matter, might convey. Thanks to the lead’s poised, but inwardly complex, character, it’s even less likely that you’d ever be tempted to see this as a formulaic new shoot on the horror branch nowadays teeming with Hannibal Lecter wannabes. True to form, the helmer releases the pedal right after the gory establishing opener, thereafter skimping on the genre’s set pieces in favor of a long look at the man himself – Carlos, consummate tailor by trade, woman-eater by dinner time.

TIFF Cannibal Manuel Martín Cuenca 1

Antonio de la Torre epitomizes the silent killer, not unattractive but not seductive either, keeping to himself and enjoying his meticulous work, self-trained over many years in the ways of procuring and storing his food. When he meets his new neighbor, the foxy Alexandra, it’s obvious he’s uncomfortable with her advances, as well as that she’s flirting herself into an early grave. Her twin sister Nina, on the other hand, come to make sense of Alexandra’s disappearance, proves harder to dispose of. Olimpia Melinte, playing both of the twin sisters, shows exceptional range as she switches from come-hither mode into a self-effacing Romanian immigrant who gets under Carlos’s skin. It’s not through any womanly wiles either, but sheer, naturally flowing and understated charm, the kind one gets after years of living in someone else’s shadow.

TIFF Cannibal Manuel Martín Cuenca 2

Availing himself of his talented cast and, in a bookend detour, of the snow-capped mountains in Granada, Cuenca keeps our eyes trained on Carlos. It’s not ever so in your face as a close-up of some pulsating vein, but it’s enough to ensure we tune in to very subtle, revealing shift. While there’s nothing more riveting than to catch a killer show a flicker of love, it’s the tension appended to the open-ended scenes that really reels the audience in. All in all, a slow-burning must-see.

Floating Skyscrapers – Polish director Tomasz Wasilewski was at last year’s TIFF as well, showcasing his debut flick In a Bedroom, and was now awarded a well-earned Director’s Prize at TIFF, for his sophomore effort. The film, also written by the director in true European-auteurish fashion, centers on Kuba (Mateusz Banasiuk), an aspiring professional swimmer, who awakens to his true sexuality. Or at least a new side of it – we never go quite deep enough under the surface of this captivating, yet opaque, thuggish lead. The director lets us draw our own conclusions from a story told through tight editing and top-notch sound design, oftentimes from back angles that reveal Kuba’s beefed up figure as well as his hinting to his secret.


What makes Skyscrapers stand out – aside, that is, from Banasiuk’s strong, consistent perf – is Kuba’s girlfriend of two years, Sylwia (played by Marta Nieradkiewicz), who suspects that his new friend Michal might be more of a rival than Kuba lets on. The actress counteracts jealousy with love, willingly closing her eyes and hoping for it all to be a phase, like a blindfolded funambulist, until the very end – only the prospect of an imminent breakup forces her hand, and she in turn, forces his.


It’s a story of self-hatred and societal pressure to confirm, which, yes, have been done to death, but then again, in Poland, a Catholic country where the general discourse gives the gays a wide berth, these barrier-breaking fringe films are much needed. Floating Skyscrapers will not shift public opinion on the back of the 5,000 euros pocketed by the director at TIFF, but, with the heap of awards under its belt, it may well bring discrimination and intolerance closer to the fore.

The Voice of the Voiceless – The silent flick that came out of left field (read, the USA) to tug at my Blind-conquered heart is a monumental debut for Maximón Monihan, who both wrote and directed it. He explained on the TIFF stage how he stumbled on this now extremely topical subject of modern-day slavery and decided to dig deeper into the lucrative trade in people that’s preying on deaf Guatemalans’ hopes for a better life. “The NYPD busted this [human trafficking] ring, but the enslavement of deaf people is still happening,” Monihan added.


Subject matter aside, the movie ranks so high on my list of must-revisits as an exceptional visual and aural feat – that, by the way, was supposed to be a 10-minute short capitalizing on an award the filmmakers got at a Youth Film Festival. Now eight times that long, it’s shot in black and white for the most part, as it portrays the bleak life of a 17-year-old deaf girl who lands smack into this imprisonment, having to use her condition as a peddling trick, for cash – at the end of the day, she needs to hand over at least one hundred dollars, otherwise she gets zapped by her “owners.” Through extensive interviews with the deaf, Monihan succeeded to illustrate the thumping, the thudding and the ringing that they might still hear, as well as the far from realistic way they might imagine sounds: “without a reference point, the idea of sound could be surreal,” he explained – and his cinematic translation seemed spot-on.


The Voice’s goal was to not only shine a light on the trafficking going on in our backyards, but also to jolt us into “remembering everyone’s humanity” – which, to Monihan’s mind, is a habit we’ve lost at some point, along our way to work perhaps, on the panhandler-ridden subways.

Night Moves Another US film that left a mark, though not as ground-breaking as Monihan’s, comes from Kelly Reichardt, one of the few woman directors who plow through this male-centric industry. After Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, this new outing falls just a tad short of expectations, but only if you consider the high bar she’s set for herself. By any other yardstick, Night Moves is a well-shot, brooding drama that deserves to be watched with an open mind.


Told from main character Josh’s point of view (Jesse Eisenberg, as introverted as we’ve ever seen him on screen), the story revolves around three eco-terrorists who plan to, and do, blow up a dam, in service to their cause. Banding together with Dakota Fanning’s Dena and Peter Sarsgaard’s Harmon, but maybe more steadfast and radical than both, Josh sees the hit through, only to find that the would-be victimless crime has actually left a casualty in its wake.


The camera moves seamlessly from breath-taking footage taken in the wild Oregon landscape, to Josh’s hard, purposeful expression – far from that of a bona fide sociopath, it’s the face of a true believer, who decries the unsustainable practices of an indefinite “they” and is convinced that salmons are being killed to keep iPods running. The tension build-up, scattered through with shots of deforestation aftermaths and ominously scored, keeps you on the edge of your seat, while the fallout will have you spiraling for some sort of redemption right alongside the three leads.

Tags from the story
albino, Antonio de la Torre, canibal, cannibal, Chavez, Dakota Fanning, , Floating Skyscrapers, Jesse Eisdenberg, Kelly Reichardt, Manuel Martin Cuenca. Olimpia Melinte, Marta Nieradkiewicz, Mateusz Banasiuk, Maximón Monihan, Mihai Chirilov, Night Moves, Noaz Deshe, pelo malo, Peter Sarsgaard, political film, Samantha Castillo, Samuel Lange Zambrano, TIFF, Tomasz Wasilewski, Transylvania, Voice of the Voiceless, white shadow
Ioanina Pavel
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