Due to the global pandemic of COVID-19, I didn’t attend the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). I’ve been going to TIFF since 2012 and the only other time I’ve missed the festival was in 2016 when I was suffering from strep throat (not fun!). Now I’m back in 2021 with thoughts about five films and a bundle of short films: three of which I saw in person and two I saw from the comfort of my own home including the short films. Most of these thoughts are about how I felt and very little spoilers.
Encounter (United Kingdom/United States)
A decorated marine, Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) is trained to identify risk. But what if the risk appears totally ordinary? Malik sees bugs. Evil bugs. Alien bugs that seem to be seizing control of people, one after another. Malik can’t convince the world to sound the alarm, but he can at least protect his two young sons from global parasitic invasion — which might involve kidnapping them from the home of Malik’s estranged wife.TIFF 2021, https://tiff.net/events/encounter
I wanted to watch this movie because it was described as a sci-fi thriller and I’m a big Riz Ahmed fan. The in-person screening took place at the Princess of Wales Theatre which was beautiful and an excellent return to the TIFF experience. Aditya Geddada, who plays the youngest son Bobby, introduced the film in a pre-recorded video which was adorable.
Overall, I enjoyed watching this movie. It wasn’t a film that had me thinking about it long after it ended and my expectations going in definitely impacted the experience a bit since I thought I was getting a specific kind of sci-fi story. The acting was great, and the conversation surrounding mental health and how it impacts families was interesting but I don’t think the execution was quite there.
Night Raiders (Canada/New Zealand)
After a destructive war across North America, a military occupation seizes control of society. One of their core tactics: taking children from their families and putting them into State Academies, or forced-education camps. Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) is a Cree mother desperate to protect her daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart). But events force mother and daughter to separate, leading Niska to join a group of Cree vigilantes to get her daughter back.TIFF 2021, https://www.tiff.net/events/night-raiders
This was a digital screening so I got to enjoy it at home. I wanted to watch it because it takes the very real experiences of Indigenous people in Canada and abroad where their children were taken from their homes and placed in residential schools. These schools were not places of education as they suggest but instead an aggressive attempt to assimilate Indigenous children so they appeared more “civilized” through verbal, physical and sexual abuse. The children were seen as malleable and after generations of this colonial project, Indigenous nations/communities in Canada (and abroad) have suffered loss of culture, language and gained intergenerational trauma. In the last few months in Canada, bodies of these children have been found at sites where the residential schools used to operated (the last residential school in Canada closed in 1996).
So how was the movie? I enjoyed it! I liked its sci-fi approach to the topic and putting it in the future. In this world, it’s not just Indigenous kids’ children who are taken which makes me think about that one poem about how oppression by the state doesn’t just end with one community (I’m aware that a pastor wrote it which is complicated given the topic of this film and the role that the church played in residential schools!). Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers stars in this as the mother Niska. I liked her a lot in Blood Quantum and thought she was great in this. The acting overall was great but I have to talk about how much I’m obsessed with Alex Tarrant as Leo who seems to be Maori in the movie, and offers an international solidarity in being Indigenous and fighting against colonial violence. My only criticism is that it feels like it’s the start of something versus an enclosed feature film and that might just be because of the pacing of the story. I will stay that I would love to see more of this world especially as a TV show.
Kicking Blood (Canada)
Vampire Anna (Alanna Bale) is disappointed with eternal life. She’s less guilt-stricken than tired — tired of the people she preys on, tired of having to say goodbye to people she likes. Her one mortal friend, Bernice (Rosemary Dunsmore), is deathly ill, and a chance encounter with suicidal alcoholic Robbie (Luke Bilyk) has only exacerbated her weariness. Her fellow bloodsuckers see humans as food with an annoying tendency to talk back, but Anna is perplexed and even inspired by human foibles — specifically Robbie’s determination to kick booze and Bernice’s determination to live and die on her own terms.TIFF 2021, https://tiff.net/events/kicking-blood
This was another film that I saw as a digital screening. After being burnt out on vampires from the Twilight boom of the late/mid-2000s to early 2010s, I’m definitely back to wanting to devour (hehe) stories about these eternal bloodsuckers. I really love the cinematography and it was visually enticing to watch. Alanna Bale was a standout as the vampire, Anna, and I’d love to see her in more things. I do like parallels of human addition and treating vampire’s thirst for blood as an addiction as well. That was nice something I’d be interested in seeing more of but otherwise, I think it was a fine movie. Nothing about it was outstanding other than our lead and I wasn’t sure about the ending. *shrug emoji*
The Gravedigger’s Wife (Somalia/France/Germany/Finland)
Each day, in Djibouti City, Guled (Omar Abdi) and his comrades sit outside a local hospital to wait for the next ambulance. When in luck, they will leave with a body to bury in exchange for a little money. No one enjoys the job, but at least they have each other, and Guled has Nasra, played by Somali Canadian model Yasmin Warsame in her first acting role. The gravedigger’s adored wife is dying of kidney failure and in desperate need of a transplant. In order to pay for it, Guled would need the equivalent of what he might make in a year, in far less time.
There is one other option in their home village, but Nasra refuses to hear it. She instead chooses to savour every moment left with her beloved and their son, Mahad, too young — and too emotionally distant from his father — to be without her. Nasra’s worsening health drives Guled’s decision to ignore her warnings in one last act of devotion.TIFF 2021, https://tiff.net/events/the-gravediggers-wife
Last year, I watched Dhalinyaro (Youth) by Lula Ali Ismaïl who was billed as the first Djiboutian director of a feature length film. This year, Somali Finnish director, Khadar Ayderus Ahmed, releases The Gravedigger’s Wife which has been doing the film festival circuit and it’s wild to see Somali language films on this scale. I’m not at all fluent enough in Somali to go without the assistance of English subtitles but being in the Somali mother tongue was still meaningful and during the Q&A the director and the two leads, it was mentioned that there was an uphill battle getting the film financed because it was in Somali as opposed to French.
This was definitely a story that leaned heavily on the characters. The performances were fantastic all around and it was surprising that it was Yasmin Warsame’s first time acting. The director mentioned seeing her in a campaign ad in public and seeing her as his Nasra, considering no one else. The young actor who played the son Mahad (Khadar Abdoul-Aziz Ibrahim) apparently improvised a lot of his scenes since he couldn’t read Somali (as a former French colony, schools in Djibouti teach in French so many can speak Somali but not necessarily write in Somali). Given how well his performance was at such a young age, it was an impressive.
I will say that despite what some folks have said on social media when discussing this film, it doesn’t mention nor address tribes or clans in any way which tends to be a default in discussions around Somalia/Somalis. It’s a love story. It’s a story about poverty. It’s a story about the interesting job of a gravedigger. It’s about how far you’ll go to save someone. It’s about Somalis by Somalis. I loved it.
Last Night in Soho (United Kingdom)
Writing with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917), Wright draws us into the orbit of Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), a 1960s-obsessed young woman who ventures from the English countryside to study fashion at a prestigious London academy. Ostracized by her school’s chic cliques, Eloise retreats from her dormitory to a rented flat in Soho, where her life becomes psychically intertwined with that of Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy), a singer living in 1966. Matt Smith (The Crown) turns up as Jack, a smooth night owl promising to help Sandy achieve stardom. But as Sandy’s descent into the demimonde and Eloise’s nocturnal wanderings intensify, overlapping traumas turn both present and past into a vivid swirl of danger.TIFF 2021, https://tiff.net/events/last-night-in-soho
This is hands down my favourite film at TIFF this year. Part supernatural and part horror, it goes back and forth between the present day and the 1960s as Eloise’s mental state spirals as the walls break between the past and the now. The camera work in this is fantastic and I’d watch it again just to focus on that bit from the cuts between scenes to the lush colours and lighting. Everyone is a standout in this but shout out to Michael Ajao whose character I adored and wanted to protect at all costs.
Speaking of which, I had one critique! There’s a scene involving Ajao’s character and Eloise that I wish was followed up with an angry/upset reaction from Ajao just to acknowledge how not great it was even if he wasn’t aware of what was causing at the time. I’m being very vague but critic Robert Daniels mentions it in his review and I agree with him that race wasn’t thought of when casting this role which is something folks need to think about when doing “blind casting”. Even more so when the cast is incredibly white.
Overall: loved it. The jump scares freaked me out and the way the echoes of the past was presented was fantastic.
TIFF Short Cuts Programme 01
I won’t talk about all of these and will just focus on the standouts. DEFUND was great as a story taking place during the pandemic where twins decided to go out and do more for the “defund the police” movement. This movie offered the different takes/approach to the question of the defunding the police or more so, what happens after. Fanmi had me in my feelings. It deals with a mother-daughter relationship and how letting someone know you love them isn’t a common occurrence for some. Throw in some illness and yeah, I cried. I went out of my way to see Angakusajaujuq – The Shaman’s Apprentice because there’s a picture book that was adapted from the short film from Inhabit Media. I loved the animation in this. It’s so good! I also loved the use of throat singing as the soundtrack and how it shifted to create different moods. This was a fun watch.
That’s it from me and my TIFF ’21 experience. Writing this took longer than expected and there were moments where I was like, “Maybe I don’t need to share my thoughts??” If you haven’t checked out these movies and come across an opportunity to give them a watch, I recommend doing so. I didn’t leave any of these experiences feeling like I wasted my time. Some I like more than others but these were great films to view as my return to TIFF.