Friday, September 30, 2022

New Cancer Fear: Curse of the Inconclusive Ultrasound

This won't be the best piece of writing I've done, but forgive me: I had a rough day today. Missed the full day of VIFFing because I went back to the ER with a mysterious lump in my throat, in proximity to one of the locations of my December surgeries (which included a neck dissection and the harvesting of lymph nodes and salivary glands for biopsy; no cancer was detected at that time, or in the biopsy of the parts of my tongue that were removed, but there was definitely some scar tissue and weirdness left in the operation's wake, including an ear-to-Adam's apple surgical scar that is gonna make a fun conversation piece someday, maybe.)  

Luckily, with a little help from Erika, I arrived at the hospital early and was triaged relatively high up there, so that within a jaw-droppingly brief six and a half hours, I managed to see a doctor, get an ultrasound done, and have it discussed with me by a doctor who explained that the results were inconclusive. There was a 2cm something-or-other that he thought did not look like a swollen salivary gland, unless my architecture was significantly altered due to surgery, which it may be. It was still a long day, and way faster than I expected, as I went home unseen after longer waits twice when I was in a panic during my surgery recovery, and Erika was just in there just waiting to be seen for over nine hours the other week, just to get seen, after she coughed up a little blood during her encounter with Mr. COVID (811 nurses really gotta start factoring wait times in when they send people to the hospital - it was nine+ hours to be told it was nothing, which was exactly what the triage nurses probably thought, too. I guess Erika was glad she went, but if it had been me... well, I wouldn't have gone at all: "So I coughed up a little blood, what the fuck!"). 

All the same, 6 and a half hours is a fair chunk of change ot spend on inconclusive results.

Anyhow, a swollen salivary gland was kind of the best-case scenario, what we were hoping it was; in fact, the idea came as a relief, back when I was terrified Thursday, contemplating a return to the surgical ward and how it didn't seem very appealing, when Erika remembered a past swollen gland of mine. Looking at the lump in the mirror, that old lump, several months ago, was just on the tip of my mind, but not quite within reach ("I seem to recall having had something like this before, but... when? What was it?" I was prettily heavily medicated back then!)... I do recall it clearly, now that she twigged the memory, and it was similar to this, but it behaved a bit differently, I think, too - I was distinctly aware of being able to close my mouth and suck the saliva out from it, but the present lump doesn't seem to respond well to that. It does seem soothed by a hot compress, but that could mean more than one thing, as that treatment is recommended for both swollen lymph glands and swollen salivary glands.

Short version, the doctor may be right - it might not be salivary in nature at all. 

Unfotunately, the report he shared with me just before I got sent home included speculations about "neoplastic etiology," which sounds like a phrase you'd hear in a Cronenberg movie. Institute of Neoplastics, say, or maybe neoplastic surgeons, who sew tumours into you? Because decoded, in this context, "neoplastics" means cancer. So that was taken off the plate at the start of the day ("it's moving too fast") and back on the plate at the end of the day, with the reassurance that it could just be a swollen lymph node, perhaps related to a localized infection (they've given me antibiotics to see if they help, but could find no overall trace of infection in my bloodwork; but if the lump goes down, if it responds to them, it's a good sign). 

Then again, lymph nodes can swell in response to cancer too. But what tumours grow this quickly? My surgeon, the one who did the operation on me last September, just over a year ago, and also the first of the two operations I received in mid-December, examined me just last Saturday for the yearly annivesary, more or less, massaging under my jaw in just this area. There were no lumps. I even called to report today's trip and confirm that he had felt no lumps ("he would have mentioned them if there were," I was told, tho' I dunno, he was rushing and I had other questions and he DID schedule a PET scan, without saying whether it was routine. Maybe he felt something but wasn't sure? There must be some category of "it's probably nothing" stuff for him as much as anyone, some threshold beyond with, especially with "sensitive" patients, he does not disclose everything he thinks). 

But I mean, I certainly didn't feel lumps there either until about four days ago (Tuesday, maybe?). So from Tuesday to Friday, it went from a small thing I wasn't even sure was there to something that feels the size of an egg, even if it's only 2cm across on the ultrasound. It's visible to the eye if the lighting and angle are right, and it has made the skin around it all tight, while making it sometimes a bit painful to swallow. It's like a hard knot in there, on the left side of my throat, where there are still a fair number of nerves.

I mean, fuck, maybe it IS an infection. Maybe some poorly-swallowed or half-swallowed jagged edge of potato chip that I choked on and/or coughed up cut me and caused damage and that damage got infected? I do have chewing and swallowing errors, with my tongue like this. I mean, it could be that, it's wholly reasonable. It feels a little less swollen now that I've had two antibiotics (though I've been told that it takes a few days for them to work). Maybe that's all it is? A swollen lymph node responding to a localized infection...? 

...Or maybe it IS a blocked salivary gland, even if they didn't think so from the inconclusive ultrasound. I'm still doing the hot compress, having lemon in my tea and sucking extra-strength Cepacol and taking my antibiotics (last one was maybe half an hour ahead of schedule, to be honest, but I may be impatient for them to work...). Maybe it will be gone by Monday? Then we'll know if it was an infection or not, I guess. They have scheduled a CT scan which they say will take place in a few days. They'll call me. 

I actually believe they will. Meantime, I'm watching the new Cronenberg movie, which I'm enjoying more the second time through, but holy hell is it weird. Quite funny, quite awkward. Erika, with my blessing, is off to the island for a previously planned visit with a friend, so I can dip into Cronenberg, who has definitely been helpful through all this. Might watch The Creature Walks Among Us, next. Horror as coping mechanism, seems like it might fit the bill. Or I could always do The Island of Dr. Moreau again. Certainly De Humani Corporis Fabrica will fit the bill well when it screens...

Thursday, September 29, 2022

VIFF Previews #7: De Humani Corporis Fabrica, Until Branches Bend, Know Your Place

These will be my three final VIFF Previews. The festival has begun as of today! 

De Humani Corporis Fabrica: as a writer and sometimes reviewer, I have never yet been on the box of a DVD or blu-ray, I don't think. I have credits ON a few DVDs and blu-rays, and I've had blurbs appear in promotional materials for the odd film - even had the experience of seeing part of an article I wrote for Montecristo (for Doug and the Slugs and Me) onscreen in front of me in a trailer - but if I could be on the back of the box art for the (eventual? imaginary?) physical media release for De Humani Corporis Fabrica, it would look something like this: 

"If you have a body, this movie is for you" - Allan MacInnis, Alienated in Vancouver

No, really. De Humani Corporis Fabrica is one of the greatest films - not just the greatest documentaries, but greatest films - that I've seen in years. It's important and vital and exciting in a way few documentaries and arthouse films get to be: it breaks taboos as if they never existed in the first place, to show us things few filmmakers have the chutzpah to approach, bringing us inside the human body in ways that, short of having surgery ourselves - or being in the medical profession - few of us get to go. It's groundbreaking in the way that Brakhage's The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes is groundbreaking, but it's in fact far easier to take in: I've seen the Brakhage film exactly once, and never intend to watch it again, but now I want to see De Humani Corporis Fabrica at the VIFF on the big screen, possibly more than once. It's that stunning, that essential, that remarkable an experience - the sort of film that fills you with awe and wonder. The rest of these films I've mentioned I've liked well enough, but this one amazed me.  

That said, it may not be for everyone. While some of it - internal footage of bodies undergoing surgery, not dissimilar to the sort of thing you might see when getting a colonoscopy - is too abstract to really be gross, and some of it (medical imagery showing the results of cancer treatment) is actually quite beautiful, in an abstract expressionist kind of way, there is some hard to watch stuff here. There are close ups of, for instance, penises having jackhammer-like instruments inserted in them, presumably in an attempt to break up kidney stones (it may be very close to a procedure I myself have had, but I was unconscious at the time, so I cannot say for sure; I certainly had a lot of blood coming out my penis, for some months, but, well... it's a long story). There is also cataract surgery in close-up, footage of the cancerous tissue on the inside of a severed breast, a dramatic, belly-slicing Caesarian, and much more. I have had enough surgery over the last few years that there was very little that I found truly hard to watch, but even still, I cried out occasionally, cringed. I did not vomit, I did not faint, I did not cover my eyes, though occasionally I looked away to write notes, which might have helped. 

No notes will be taken on my next viewing, but you might want to think of a coping mechanism that you can turn to if it gets a bit much...

I was left with so many questions on seeing this artful, essential documentary. Why are we afraid of our own bodies? Why can I make myself queasy, just thinking about the internal processes on which my life depends? I have, with no volition in the matter, fainted at the sight of my own blood; why the fuck would I do that? What is the evolutionary value of such a reaction - so if you are attacked and wounded you will pass out and be totally vulnerable, "Oops, saw blood, here you go, kill me?" Does a car break down if it sees gasoline? It's ridiculous! I am afraid of my own body, really I am, and so I was afraid to watch this film. 

And now I am going to be a pain in the ass to my friends about this film telling them to see it. There are some surprising bits of humour in the overheard comments of doctors performing the operations - things you imagine people say all the time (a weary urologist grousing, "I need a vacation"), things that you never want to be conscious to hear during your own surgeries ("Shit! It fell on the floor," or even worse, "It's my first time."). There is plenty of beauty - including a stunning mural at the end on the walls of a French nightclub where, I think, hospital staff are celebrating someone's graduation. The film is also not without compassion for its subjects (though the most dignity, oddly enough, seems to afforded a corpse near the film's end). And there's plenty that you will want to read as metaphor, as poetry, if you are so inclined (it is surely significant that the first really hard to watch footage in the film involves eye surgery). If you think you  have the stomach for it, so to speak - the guts - your viewing will be amply rewarded; I recommend you go with friends, so you have someone to process with afterwards, and be prepared for unusual audience reactions. There may be some. 

Until Branches Bend: People interested in seeing BC documented in film will love the premise of this feature-length film from Sophie Jarvis, about an Okanagan fruit picker who discovers a potentially invasive species inside a peach. She does the right thing in immediately showing the bug to her bosses, knowing that  her own parents' farm was devastated by a moth infestation some years back, only to discover that her bosses are not inclined to investigate. She doesn't leave matters alone, though she doesn't actively choose the role of whistleblower; ample drama ensues, the details of which I will leave for viewers to discover. 

Truth is, I had a bit of a hard time respecting the main character of this film, who is passive and disorganized about things that one cannot really afford to be passive and disorganized about (she wants to terminate a pregnancy, but misses crucial appointments, obsessing over her peach beetle); the filmmaker may have intended her as an unflattering portrait of millenials, but may have gone a bit further than she wanted, as I was unable to really embrace her as a protagonist and actually began to find her (and her way of peeling back her upper lip in consternation) somewhat irritating. Still, there aren't many made-in-BC films that evoke, at different times, Jaws, the insect microphotography of Ken Middleham, and the climax of... well, I guess that a spoiler alert is warranted, but perhaps some of you have not seen Days of Heaven? I thought the program guide was waxing hyperbolic in describing the ending of the film as "apocalyptic," but for the fruit growers of the Okanagan, what transpires surely would be. More than anything, I enjoyed the film's portrait of the region and industry, interesting stuff that happens in BC that I have never seen used in a feature film before. That alone makes the film worth your seeing, if you care about BC cinema. Maybe you'll like the heroine more than I did.

Know Your Place:  I was struck by several things, in beginning Know Your Place, which is easily my favourite Seattle film since 2004's Police Beat, and the non-documentary feature I most urge VIFF attendees to check out this year: that despite my own background being very different from the Eritrean- and Ethiopian-Americans whose lives are the centre of the film, I could identify with no difficulty with their teenage son, who is miserable and lost in ways I also felt myself miserable and lost as a young man; the miseries of youth apparently have a universal element to them, especially when the geographical background is not so different. I was also struck by how the title of the film, which had me expecting something more overtly political - a sort of "don't get uppity" warning from those above you on the social hierarchy - could be simply read as commenting on this kid's alienation - his not knowing where he is "supposed to be." I loved the richness of that double meaning, which I did not anticipate at all before beginning the film. I was also struck by the number of boarded up homes on display (something we have here too, despite our real estate boom, but so frequently occurring in the film you begin to wonder if Seattle is more depressed than you'd thought); and finally, by the sheer beauty of the cinematography by Nicholas Wiesnet, and how gorgeous a portrait of Seattle the film is. Other themes of the film include the confrontation with racism and obnoxious white privilege, the power of friendship and family, and life within immigrant communities. There is a lot more that I could say, but most of it is taken up in my interview with director Zia Mohajerjasbi... so I will direct you there.

That ends my VIFF previews, but I'll be seeing various films throughout the festival. More to come...!

VIFF 2022 Previews #6: Know Your Place (an interview with Zia Mohajerjasbi)

By far, my favourite non-documentary that I have previewed for the VIFF this year is Know Your Place, the feature debut of Iranian-American filmmaker Zia Mohajerjasbi. It's a film of great richness, confidence, and visual beauty, playing the VIFF on October 4th and 5th with the director in attendance. I had picked the film as one to look at from the catalogue simply because the description reminded me of Police Beat, the Seattle-shot film that sees the city through the eyes of a conservative African immigrant bicycle cop (you can read the full text of my CineAction interview with screenwriter Charles Mudede here). My hopes rose further to discover that Mohajerjasbi himself admired Mudede and Devor's film, though I tried to keep my expectations grounded, lest I be disappointed: how could Know Your Place, about two friends, one of Eritrean background and one Ethiopian, on a trek through Seattle to deliver a care package to a family friend, possibly live up to one of my favourite films of all time? 

Time will tell if I will still be talking about Know Your Place eighteen years later, still excited to watch it (I have Police Beat on DVD and see it every few years), but having now seen it, it's certainly possible that I will be. Know Your Place is a highly visually compelling, moving, and profound film which will reward multiple viewings and stimulate many important conversations. I have plans to take in a second viewing of it on the big screen (because it deserves it, having some of the most gorgeous images of Seattle ever lensed, which may have helped it -  along with Klondike, also in the VIFF - win the top award at the Seattle Film Festival this past April). 

Director Zia Mohajerjasbi was very patient in both facilitating my seeing his film, which faced some tech challenges, and generous in answering my admittedly excessive onslaught of email interview questions. I'll let my questions and his answers speak for themselves.  Highly recommended (I am in italics, below, Zia not). 

Zia Mohajerjasbi 

Allan: The structure of the film is quite elegant - it's a very simple "journey" narrative, there and back again - that reminded me of a folktale or a dream. Would you describe this as a road movie? Would it be correct that the "story is not the story," but rather what happens to the characters along the way? 

Zia: What is essential, that I think you’re picking up on, is that the story and what happens isn’t always about the plot itself. I tried to allow space within the structure of the film for characters to live on screen as complete people, to have at least a few moments to exist fully once they’d been introduced. I didn’t want people to come on and off screen and exist in the vacuum of the mainline, living only in service of the two leads or the plot. In that way, I think the world in the film sort of breathes and feels alive, the way Robel and Fahmi’s errand might actually feel outside the confines of the frame.

L to R: Natnael Mebrahtu (Fahmi) and Joseph Smith (Robel)

Were there specific inspirations to this approach?

I’m a huge fan of Iranian cinema. I love the films of Jafar Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami. Where is the Friend’s House? had a significant impact on the general architecture of Know Your Place as a journey narrative.

Did you grow up in Seattle? Do you have much in common with Robel (do your parents speak Farsi at home, for example, as his parents speak - what, Tigrinya? I am not sure what language we are hearing in his home). Curious why you chose an ethnicity other than yours for your main character....? That seems interesting and ambitious of you, curious what motivated it, what your starting point was - in particular I wonder if it was important for aspects of the film that Robel and Fahmi be darker in skin tone, that this would allow for more overt confrontations with racism...? (I do take at least one character's response to them as being motivated and informed primarily by racism).

I did grow up in Seattle. My father is from Iran. My mother was born and raised in the Seattle area, her roots are Lithuanian/German. Farsi was actually my first language, and was spoken to us by both parents growing up. As I got older and started going to school, when my parents, extended family or elders in community would speak Farsi, I would respond in English. A classic dynamic with many first generation immigrant kids, regardless of a parent’s country of origin, so I definitely have this in common with Robel.

See this link for more context around my experience as a filmmaker in Seattle, and the formative friendships, relationships and community spaces that informed my writing a film centering these two lead characters:

A note on language - it's really naturalistic, but the kids speak in a sort of African-American dialect that I found hard to follow at times - it never really interfered with my understanding of what was going on, but I'd say a good 20% of what they say was incomprehensible to me.(I even tried to see if the Closed Captions worked on the screener but they didn't). It'd be terrifying for me as a writer to try to capture their dialogue - I'd be constantly worried I'd gotten it wrong. How "written" are their lines, especially when Robel and Fahmi interact with each other? Did you encourage them to improvise, or workshop with them, or did you write their parts like this? 

The vast majority of the dialogue is scripted, but I’d estimate I revised about 15-20% of it through a pretty rigorous rehearsal process with Joseph (Robel) and Natnael (Fahmi), as well as the rest of the cast. I encourage improvisation, and I like to workshop things so the actors have a chance to make all the words really their own. I often end up improvising the most, writing new lines, adding a little flourish here and there. Ultimately, many of the changes I made in rehearsals were about giving the rhythm and tone of the film precisely that naturalism, without altering the meaning of a scene or significant exchange between characters.

More an observation than a question, but I hope you can speak to it... I was surprised at how easy I found it to identify with Robel's miseries, thinking back to my own youth - including having more conservative Christian parents, not knowing where I was "supposed to be" (I still don't, really) and even being randomly hassled as a teenager by cops on the streets of Maple Ridge, made to account for my comings and goings - an experience I did not recall having, in fact, and hadn't thought about for years, until seeing your film). I ended up really quite admiring how easy you made it for the audience to enter Robel's experience - I began by second-guessing myself ("am I erasing the specificities of this young man's experience by thinking I can identify with him? Do I have the right as a white person to presume that I know what he's feeling here?") and ended by feeling like this was something you were actually striving for, that you want your audience to really feel quite close to Robel, to be aware of similarities, not differences...

I certainly was hoping for the audience to feel close with Robel. To really see him. I love hearing when folks connect with him. Sometimes I worried about that because for the first 30 minutes of the film he is a relatively opaque character - even passive in certain scenes. I actually kind of relate to Robel because of that. I relate when “supposed to be” still comes up for me all the time. I relate to his sort of illusory want for a greater sense of community, a sense of place. All of that.

However, this idea of focusing on the similarities vs differences as a kind of dichotomy doesn’t exactly encompass the intention for me. I think it’s both; all of it. What I might find as different, being a light skinned Iranian-American man, another viewer may find entirely relatable depending on their experience, their vantage point, their gaze. The question for me then as a filmmaker, is how can I hold all that is narratively relevant in the frame so the life of the character is complete? That completeness is what allows for multiple interpretations. For nuance. And even for a life beyond anything I might have ideated initially.

Please tell me about the cabbie. Who was the actor, where did you find him, is he a professional...? The cabbie's speech about "diversity" is really interesting and seems key to the film - his observation that we are "drowning in a sea of names." Could you elaborate on that? It seemed like it was thematically important, that he was giving voice to key elements in your film.

The actor that plays the cabbie is Aaron Sahle. He is cousins with Rahwa Habte who started Hidmo (referencing the Crosscut article above). We’ve been friends for years, and he was the only person I auditioned for the part. One of my closest friends, Futsum Tsegai, who worked on the film, and who has been a creative collaborator for years made the recommendation after reading the script. As soon as he suggested it, we both started laughing, and knew it would work before Aaron even read it.

“Drowning in a sea of names” stems from feelings of heaviness about a world whose basic architecture functions primarily on conflict and separation. Xenophobia incanting itself in infinity. We talk about “diversity” because Xenophobia is what is actually happening. We talk about “inclusion” because racism and white supremacy is what is actually happening. So we need to talk about and dismantle those underlying conditions to plainly have the diversity and inclusion.

“See how nice I am,” is a personal favorite as well haha.

It was interesting how fair ("generous?") you were to the cop. You could have had a cop stop the kids WITHOUT having had them break into a building through a window, but in fact, you provided the cop with perfectly reasonable motivation to hassle them, more than cops sometimes have. And then Fahmi DOES get standoffish, and makes things worse for himself. Why was that important to you, to be fair to the cop? With so many police shootings of black kids in the States, I wonder if that scene has drawn any controversy or criticism ("letting the cop off too lightly?"). Or did you figure it would be stressful enough for audiences to make it through the scene WITHOUT the cop being a dick?

Personally, I think that cop is a dick lol.

Initially, the cop showing up is less about the cop - but rather the question of who called him in the first place. Which pale-faced displacer moved into this gentrifying neighborhood and didn’t talk to their neighbors a single time, decided something like two kids who have lived there their whole lives was “suspicious” then called an institution that they doubtlessly know is disproportionately violent toward Black people? Like dude...what is wrong with you? Go outside and say hi to someone. The cop letting them go was intentional in that it didn’t end in a violent headline, yet violence was done. Emotional violence. To a degree, physical violence. Mental violence, etc.

I had not been aware that there were areas of Seattle with so many boarded up homes. Am I correct in my reading that Robel comes from a poor neighbourhood, and has to voyage through fairly wealthy ones to arrive at his destination? (Is there indication in the film that his own neighbourhood will be also subject to the forces of gentrification?). Is this a concern for you, personally? (It is for me - there have been dozens of demovictions here in Burnaby in recent years).

Director’s statement speaks to this a bit, copy and pasting that below:

The Pacific Northwest raised me. Seattle is home. This film is both a love letter and a lament.

It is personal as an attempt to capture the beauty of the place that raised me and those I keep company with, in this moment of rapid transition; in which the disappearance of the familiar continues to gain momentum with increasing scope and intensity. The dissolution of community, economic displacement, and redevelopment of legacy neighborhoods has made part of the city to which I’d been intimately connected almost unrecognizable. This film is about capturing some sense of what Seattle is, what it has been, what it is becoming. It is a film about home.

Through an intimate narrative lens and characterization, Know Your Place depicts impermanence as a relative experience. The film centers this experience through the eyes of Robel, an Eritrean-American boy of 15 years, at a time of transition in his own life, within the greater transitional context of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

The film’s key performers are almost all first-time actors or second-time collaborators with me. I am unwaveringly committed to a methodology that embraces storytelling as a universal human trait. As tools to filmmakers become more available, the localization of cinema is vital - adding nuance, specificity, potency and authenticity to stories represented in film. No story is “too small”.

In essence, Know Your Place is an exercise in this process - reflecting the possibilities of storytelling in cinema that is grounded in community, friendship and ongoing cultural exchange. This film is as independent and homegrown as it gets: a diverse cross section of our city’s inhabitants, collaborating to bring a story of ‘home’ to life in a way that honors the beauty of our shared space, and the nuance of the individual experiences contained within it.

The photography by Nicholas Wiesnet was gorgeous - do you have history with him? Was there other work he'd done that made you want to use him? It's a very beautiful portrait of Seattle (having interacted about Mudede and Devor, I half-expected their usual DOP, Sean Kirby, to appear in the credits).

Niko shot my short film "Hagereseb" back in 2013 - which also happened to be the first film Joseph and Natty were cast in when they were 10. How we all worked together telling that story really developed a creative trust between Niko and I. I really admire his sensitivity to the storytelling, and his flexibility and enjoyment of working with the relative inexperience of first-time actors. I’m quite obsessive about the image as well, and thankfully we both gravitate to a similar sort of painterly aesthetic, which we really worked to bring to Know Your Place. Rendering the mundanities of daily life beautifully - that’s where I feel we both come to life in our collaboration together.

Can you comment on the film's budget? I was particularly struck by how expensive the film looked - there are even what seem to be helicopter shots of the city (maybe I'm wrong, but I'm always impressed when a film I expect to have a low budget still includes such things). Did you scrimp on other aspects of the film to make something that looked expensive, or did you actually secure a decent budget for yourself? Were you shooting on film or video? (Any tricks for other filmmakers making their first feature? How did you make the film look so good?).

I’ll say this, the budget is quite likely less than you think it to be. This is a true independent film. I always work to stretch the resources of a production as much as possible. A beautiful image is important to me. It is part of the story of a film. It is part of cinema. And often the quality of the image can be the first tell to “they had no money” or “they had money.” One of the joys I have as a filmmaker is making this as confusing as possible. I’ve also been blessed with key creative collaborators who are similarly minded and aim to do the same. Folks like Marty Martin, our lead editor, also shot our aerial photography with a drone. Our producer/unit production manager, Ty Walker, also drove the picture cars home at night. Of course, Niko, our cinematographer, along with his keys in Camera and G&E. Really, the whole cast and crew were game for it. Collectively, we pushed this creatively as far as we could with the resources available.

We shot digitally on the Arri Alexa XT with 1970s Panavision Ultra Speeds Lenses.

The cast was also great, but no one seems to have other credits to their name on IMDB (unless they worked on your previous short film - be curious, incidentally, if that film has any bearing on this one). Are they all non-professionals, people you found from some other context? Have any of them acting backgrounds? How did you get such natural performances from them (the woman they deliver the suitcase to in the end of the film - I am not sure what the actresses name was - is nails-on-a-chalkboard annoying in how aggressively she insists that Robel eat something; I thought it was really quite a triumph for a non-actor to inhabit her nagging to such an extent that I got irritated by it!).

All the actors in the film are first-time, non-professional actors, except for four people who were in my previous short, Hagereseb. For them, Know Your Place is their second time acting.

I wrote about five parts in the film with specific people in mind, including our two leads. The rest of the film was cast between me and one of our associate producers, Mieraf Gebresellasie. We spent the summer before principal photography, contacting people in the community and setting up auditions. Mieraf and I would reach out to friends, friends of friends, parents of friends of friends, etc. It really became a community driven effort, and I don’t think we auditioned more than 5 or 6 people for a single part.

Performance is all rhythm. Often in my approach, I will tighten gaps in dialogue between characters, have folks step on each other’s lines, add small asides, invite a bit of improv, tune the blocking, and repeat a scene endlessly until it becomes second nature. I try to cultivate a space in which people feel at ease to share of themselves; this includes the “director.” We’re doing this together. I keep the process simple and collaborative. The alchemy of repetition and an open exchange of ideas often leads to pretty decent results.

This is all fitting very well with my experience of the film - it makes sense. But returning briefly to the nagging, my wife was curious if that was a comment on poverty - if the kid's refusal to eat stemmed from a very real food shorage among the families? (The shelves are pretty bear at Robel's family's house - if those are his circumstances, he might actually be refusing the food out of a desire not to put a burden on them).

No, just being polite, and also wanting to get out of there. Common refusal of overbearing hospitality.

Joseph Smith as Robel

Why does Robel fall asleep so often (on the bus, etc)....? Where did that plot element come from...? It makes him an easier target... BTW, Is Fahmi solely motivated by a desire for safekeeping when he pockets the money - it seemed that way?).

This one is funny, because I only noticed this once we edited the assembly cut of the film. I was like oh no, is my go-to plot device, “he falls asleep?”

Fahmi is solely motivated by a desire for safekeeping. That moment is shown ambiguously at first to raise a question about him, because if he had duplicitous intentions, that’s sort of a lame cliche. His only ever truly being a friend subverts that. The real conflict between them is never actually between them. It’s within Robel.

The title of the film had me expecting something more overtly about racism, but ended up seeming much richer than that. When in the process of making the film did you arrive at that title?

I wrote the first draft, slapped that title on there, and then couldn’t think of anything better later. I think the film kind of named itself. After writing the script, I titled it almost immediately when everything was fresh, and Know Your Place was the first thing that came up. It can mean many things, so I stuck with it.

Feel free to jettison this question, but I'm wondering if you had your own experiences of racism in Seattle? (It seems a very diverse city, though more like Toronto than Vancouver, in terms of the ethnic mixture one sees - but I presume you lived through the aftermath of 9/11 in the USA,...? That must have had fraught moments (I was actually living in Japan in 2001-2002, so I don't really know what it was like over here).

Indubitably. Post 9/11 we had the scary-breathing-into-phone thing happen a few times on the house line. The cops showed up once at our doorstep because the postman said that the tree pollen on the mailbox was Anthrax that my Middle Eastern father put there. At 12 y/o I was surrounded by no less than four police officers outside the local library, accused of defecating in the book return, called a terrorist and threatened with jail time - while just waiting with a friend for a ride home after the library had closed. List goes on. You know, that kind of stuff.

Nope, I don't, actually, at least not from my own life experiences! But.... is there anything else I've missed? (Will you be here for all screenings of that film? Any history with Vancouver to speak of...?).

I’ll be in attendance at both screenings of the film - October 4th and 5th. Definitely have history with Vancouver. I have extended family in a few places around B.C. I would actually go to Maple Ridge quite a bit growing up to see my cousins.

Know Your Place screens October 4th and 5th, with Zia Mohajerjasbi in attendance. 

Monday, September 26, 2022

VIFF Previews #5: Rodeo and The Killing of a Journalist

People with a fondness for antiheroes in film, or who have an interest in films that document unique subcultures worldwide, should take a look at Rodeo this VIFF, in which a fast-talking young French woman with a passion for motorcycles hustles her way into a bike club-cum-chop shop and gets involved  in stealing bikes for them. While she's a bold, fearless con artist and thief, she is less able than the other members of the club to pop death-defying wheelies, and so has to work to win their trust and respect - which she does not entirely do... 

Julia is not exactly a pleasant character, veering from sullen boredom and spitting contrariness to unabashed, whooping pleasure when she rips off a bike and bombs away on it, which she does more than once in the film, but she's entirely believable and brought vividly to life by actress Julie Ledru (her feature debut; she's someone to watch). Julia is not without a kind side, and surprisingly easy to identify with; you'll share her rush at the audacity of some of her hustles, which when they succeed all-too-briefly lift her above the mundane depression of her everyday life. I could identify with her glee at successful thefts with the adrenaline that comes, for me, from walking away from a thrift store having bought a book or record for far less than it is worth - far too rare a feeling, these days! So to will your inner conman be able to take pleasure in her aggressive, determined, crafty conniving.

There's a lot to Rodeo that I don't want to give away, but first I must confess, good lapsed Catholic that I am, that I did not love all its parts equally. While I approach all films hoping I will love them - and these days am shying away from writing anything at all about films I don't, because life is short, and I don't want to harm a film just because I didn't personally care for it -  Rodeo's ending left me wondering a) if I'd missed something, b) why the filmmakers felt the need to add an element of the supernatural to things, which seemed out of place with the gritty realism on hand elsewhere, and c) if they couldn't have perhaps found a more compelling climax for their story, on par with the gripping theft and stunt riding scenes. While being coy about specifics, I wanted more! (Or possibly was just bummed). But overall I thought the film was a riveting "ride," if you'll excuse me, and I'll be letting the Vicious Cycles MC (the only bike club I have had dealings with, who, note, are considerably more moral than the one in the film) know about this film for sure. Free blurb time: Rodeo - screening October 4th and 6th - should appeal anyone interested in subcultures, whether sports-related or criminal, as well as gritty French cinema. If you like films to take you to places you've never imagined and allow you to identify with people you'd hate to run across in real life, Rodeo is a must-see. More information on the VIFF website

Even more highly recommended - though it hung up, buffering, so frequently as a screener that I began to wonder if there was some sort of Slovakian mafia conspiracy to make it hard to watch - is The Killing of a Journalist. I was initially disappointed to learn that the film, as I first had assumed, wasn't about the Saudi murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but once I settled in, I was totally gripped, though the film is less about the investigations into state corruption that led to the 2018 murders of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kušnírová than it is about their aftermath, and how, after the murders, the people of Slovakia, including Kuciak's colleagues, reacted, including by turning out in demonstration after demonstration, waving placards like "An attack on a journalist is an attack on us all" - which protests over time put enough pressure on authorities that something like justice transpires (if partial - the film's ultimate bad guy, Marián Kočner, who reminds one a bit of Paulie in Goodfellas, apparently still eludes conviction for the murders at the end of the film, even though the evidence is fairly damning, and he has been jailed for other crimes). There is a sublime pleasure in watching Kuciak's fellow journalists grill the Slovakian "President of Police" (standing to the left side of the photo below) about how he did nothing to protect Kuciak, including a blunt declaration on the part of one reporter that "we don't trust you," which somehow reminded me of watching George W. Bush get a shoe thrown at him (it's almost that satisfyingly direct, though, really, even better for being more civil). All three of the men in the photo below, also including, going from L to R, the Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior, will be, if I recall correctly, arrested and tried for corruption over the course of the film. The guy on the right with the guiltiest look on his face was the first to resign, to his credit. Note that this is the Prime Minister of Slovakia offering a million Euro reward for information that helped solved the case, which offer seems to have insulted Slovakians more than it won their fealty:

I don't want to say any more than I have to about the film, so you can watch events unfold - any lack of familiarity you have with the subject matter will not lessen your enjoyment of it - but I should add here that I normally don't enjoy "true crime" stories as they have come to be structured in the west - that sort of A&E crimesploitation shlock which panders to the sensational, sentimental, and prurient. In contrast, I loved the deliberate and respectful approach the filmmakers took on The Killing of a Journalist, and was impressed by the sheer amount of footage they sourced, also including surveillance videos (key to the investigation and seeming pretty moral, when in the right hands; wonder what Todd Serious would have said about it...?). There is some material that tugs at the heartstrings (including the detail that Kuciak's fiance was looking at wedding dresses on her laptop when the shooter knocked on their door; Jan's parents elsewhere in the film say that they had planned the wedding for May 5th, and instead had a funeral). There are also a few crime scene photographs - pools of blood on roped off areas of floor, that sort of thing - that may upset the particularly squeamish. But I really was gripped, even inspired, by the film - journalists matter! - and though it sounds like there is still no real verdict on the fate of Slovakian liberal democracy, I am. at the least, very pleased to now have a cinematic association with Slovakia that doesn't involve Eli Roth.  

(I truly do love the first two Hostel movies, btw - no jab at Roth intended - but I gather Slovakians have, uh, mixed feelings about them, for some reason [note further that they were apparently not even shot in Slovakia, even though they were set there]). 

More information on The Killing of Journalist on the VIFF website

VIFF 2022 Previews #4: Anyox: an artful, labour-centred history of an (almost) abandoned BC mine: a Jessica Johnson/ Ryan Ermacora interview, with the help of Dan Kibke and Emma Tomic

Anyox, in remote northern BC, is the site of a former copper mine that had its own smelter, which ran from 1914 to 1935, when the Great Depression caused the value of copper to lower sufficiently that the mine was closed down. At its peak, it housed enough workers and their families that the town serving them had its own curling rink, tennis court, and other leisure facilities (congratulations to those of you who can spot someone summarizing a Wikipedia entry!). The name means "Hidden Waters" in the Nisga'a language, and while I can't say what made the Nisga'a regard the place as hidden, the name still has a certain level of appropriateness, as Anyox is remote enough that access is still only by sea or air.

And people do still access Anyox in the interests of commerce, even long after the mines shut down, because as a bi-product of the smelting process, there are mountains of slag left behind, which themselves are now the subject of mining, since slag - what's left over when the copper has been extracted from the ore - can itself be used in roofing materials. There is a small handful of people still working, mining slag in Anyox, two of whom we meet in Ryan Ermacora and Jessica Johnson's new documentary, Anyox, which opens at the VIFF on Sept. 30th, and screens again October 3rd.

Anyox has been subject of other films, including an episode on the Vice's Abandoned series, and on episodes of the Youtube channel, "Exploring Abandoned Mines" (see their "best of" Anyox episode here). My colleague Dan Kibke - more on whom below - has praised their work, in particular, in preserving these soon-to-be-forgotten aspects of early 20th century history/ industry - I mean, my grandfather, for whom I have been named, worked in the mines in Nova Scotia, but *I've* never seen the inside of one). He also notes, however, that there is a tendency elsewhere visible (on Instagram, say) to present a sort of "selfie-mode" angle on urban exploration ("this is me in the mineshaft!" "This is me at the top of the abandoned quarry!" "This is me in the abandoned amusement park!" and so forth).

But Ermacora and Johnson's documentary has no such aspect; other than a brief bit of Johnson's voice, in the context of an interview, the filmmakers keep themselves out of their film, capturing the strangeness of the landscapes with an artful, removed eye without locating themselves in them. Also welcome is that Anyox is equally interested, along with the strangeness of the environment and the environmental impact of the mines, in labour history, with accounts from workers (discussed below) of the conditions they worked and lived in, attempts to smuggle left-wing newspapers into the mining town, the struggle to unionize, and an eventual 1933 strike, some of which we read about on filmed footage of microfiche (itself presenting as an exotic, antique technology). The combination of artful, Burtynsky-like images of alien industrial landscapes with voiceover narration documenting labour struggles brought to mind John Gianvito's Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, at times, or maybe certain segments of Michael Glawogger's Workingman's Death. So there are a few layers to Anyox. The three of us who previewed it were surprised and impressed by the artfulness and richness of the film, which, we all agreed, went beyond what we were prepared to settle for, truly impressing us.

About my collaborators on this piece: Dan and his partner, artist Emma Tomic, themselves have explored abandoned mines and other shuttered industrial operations, travelling, for example, to the abandoned mines at Britannia or, more exotically, taking a tour by boat around Battleship Island - Gunkanjima - in Japan. (You've probably seen footage of Gunkanjima in the James Bond film Skyfall, but Dan and Emma, being somewhat less well-funded than Bond productions, didn't have the resources when they went there, long before Bond, to actually land on the island, and had to settle for a view from the ocean; apparently there are now tours available!). Knowing their passion for abandoned industrial sites (as well as other locales, abandoned textile factories and hotels, documented in a book of photographs Dan published), I invited Dan and Emma to watch the film with me; questions were arrived at as the result of the discussion, though formulated in writing by me in the interests of time. (Our questions are in italics; Ryan's and Jessica's answers, also written collaboratively, are not).

 Ryan Ermacora and Jessica Johnson

Allan (and Dan and Emma): What's your history with Jessica? Do you have different areas of interest and expertise, or do they overlap? (If IMDB can be trusted, you previously collaborated on a short documentary  about the workforce in the Okanagan, and
Anyox is the first feature for both of you?)

Ryan and Jessica: Jessica and I are filmmaking partners, we've been making films together for over 7 years.

Yes, our most recent short is on the subject of migrant labour in the Okanagan and is called "Labour/Leisure." We're both interested in histories of labour, resource extraction and the ways in which these subjects intersect with landscape. We’re particularly interested in using cinema to consider the vestiges left behind within the landscape in order to consider the past and possible futures. Before studying film, I studied history, and Jessica studied archaeology, so I think those areas of study have influenced our filmmaking practice. In terms of particular areas of interest/expertise, I'm quite involved in cinematography and work closely with our director of photography Jeremy Cox, including the technical requirements of shooting on film. Jessica is also involved in these processes, as well as doing field sound recordings for our films.

Do you or Jessica have past experience with urban exploration, abandoned industrial spaces, etc? Have you been to other sites around the province? Is it important to you that your locales be local, so to speak, or industrial - or would you be equally interested in other abandoned places around the world, whether they were industrial or not?

Jessica and I made a film in another largely abandoned resource extraction town on the central coast of BC called "Ocean Falls." We’re interested in these types of places as they often reveal a microhistory of the way capitalism encourages constant growth without consideration for the human and environmental impacts. We’re also interested in how people have managed to make a life for themselves, amongst these ruins, often outside of conventional economic systems. The economic conditions that create these sacrificial landscapes are not unique to this province and we’d be interested in making similar work in other parts of the world.

How did you source the archival material? We're guessing that the project began with the archival footage, but there's also footage you shot, the topographical maps, the workers' accounts of conditions, the microfiches accounting labour unrest - what was the order or assembling the material? Was there a point you wanted to arrive at before you actually made the trip to Anyox, given its remoteness and, I presume, the expense and difficulty of traveling there and shooting there...? ("Okay, we have enough to work with, let's go shoot...?"). Or did you go and "shoot first, assemble archival material later?"

The film actually began with a scout of Anyox. After meeting the people who live there, exploring and photographing the landscape, we began doing historical research. The following year we began shooting on location in Anyox. A few months after that first shoot we began reviewing and collecting archival motion picture material. We then did an additional shoot in Anyox the following autumn. We also did two shoots at the BC Archives in Victoria, in order to capture the microfiche and microfilm material. The research we did at the archives influenced what we filmed on the second trip to Anyox. The archival motion picture material is largely from the Library and Archives of Canada (LAC). We spent some time in Ottawa, meeting with archivists and going through material. Our films often involve fairly long processes of research, scouting and photography, before shooting anything for the film itself.

We were stunned at the quality of the archival footage - so much so that I turned, at one point, to Dan and his partner Emily to say, "I feel like I'm watching a Fritz Lang film." It was unfamiliar enough, unreal enough that I half-expected Melies-like creatures to leap into the frame at some point and start cavorting. In particular the "elevator shaft" footage showing activity, well-lit, at many levels of the mine felt like it had been set up by a master craftsman - I presume the lighting was strictly for the film, that the mines were normally much darker, which seems to suggest that this was a major production - people went to a lot of expense and difficulty to get this footage. Was a lot of it shot by the same filmmakers? Was it ever assembled into something previously, some industry documentary or...? It's fascinating. (Was there more of it that you could not use...?).

As we shot our present day material on 35mm and 65mm, we wanted to create a parallel between the present day footage and the archival footage. We knew that formally we wanted the film to use the structural limitations of early cinema, using the static frame and only moving the camera when it’s attached to an apparatus such as the ATV at the beginning of the film. In terms of archival material, while film and lenses have improved over the past century, the improvements are not immense, and a properly preserved and well scanned 35mm negative from 100 years ago can look almost as good as material shot today. A lot of archival material from that long ago has mostly been represented to the public after multiple generations of transfers, often concluding with pretty low fidelity images that are included in educational documentaries. Most of the footage that we found were part of promotional films used for promoting the mining and smelting operations in multiple locations in Canada. Part of our interest in these films is their propagandistic quality, which hopefully contributes to the historical layers within the film. The films were shot by multiple cinematographers. There was a film shot in Anyox filmed by Arthur David Kean called "The Story of Copper" or "Anyox, Story of Copper" which was released in 1918/1919. We spent quite a bit of time searching for this film and speaking with archivists about it, but we were never able to locate a negative or print. It likely was destroyed in a fire like many films that originated on nitrate.

We were curious what filmmakers, photographers, artists, etc are direct influences? A whole bunch of names came to mind in watching the film - James Benning, John Gianvito, Bill Morrison, Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, Peter Mettler, the Harvard Sensory Ethnography people, even Herzog... but there are probably dozens of people we do not know, dozens of films and photographers that could have a bearing, including Vice... Were there specific influences or inspirations? Did you cross paths with other filmmakers? Is there any reason for the particular interest in the site, now? (We also see that there was a book about Anyox... Curious that it is becoming a focal point...)

Yes, all the artists you mentioned likely had some impact on the film. Particularly, James Benning and Sharon Lockhart are artists we think a lot about. Our friend David Ehrenreich made the show Abandoned. After seeing our film "Ocean Falls," David told us about Anyox and the footage he shot there.

There is a book about Anyox which we read, however we wanted the film to largely be made of primary source documents, allowing the viewer to experience the archival research process that the film explores, therefore we did not use material from the book directly within the film.

The music is very interesting. What is your history with Lea Bertucci and how did you get her involved...? What instruments are we hearing? At some points it sounded like slowed down human voices combined with some sort of percussion, at other times it suggested electronica and/or stringed instruments -, do you know what she is playing. How hands-on was your involvement with Lea - did you ask for specific things, or...?

Yes, she's great. We’ve been fans of Lea’s work for a while and decided to just email her to see if she would be interested in composing a score for our film. We collaborated on the film remotely, as she was working from Berlin. The score was developed through a lot of back and forth correspondence. Lea primarily worked with saxophone, cello, and flute. You might be interested in her album Resonant Field, which was recorded in (and in a sort of collaboration with) a decommissioned grain elevator. This is the sort of work that got us so interested to try to work with her.

What exactly was the source of the labour testimonies we hear? It looked from the credits that these were NOT archival audio recordings of testimonies - which is how it sounded when we watched them - but people reading written texts aloud for the film? (Did you use professional actors for the readings, so they WOULD make them sound natural, and not like read texts?). It was interesting, if this is the case, that you had the Croatian texts read in Croatian, not translated...!

The source of the labour testimonies varies. The two English interviews are archival audio from the 1970s that had been a part of two different radio programs focused on labour history in BC. We sourced those from the BC Archives. For the Croatian account, we recorded that with an actor. We found a Croatian language labour publication titled Borba (Fight) that was published and distributed within Canada. In our research, the book Raising the Workers’ Flag by Stephen L. Endicott pointed us towards Marko P. Hećimović’s story, and cited the LAC as the location we could find Borba.

One microfiche headline from
The Worker in the microfiche footage that got a sort of surprised "What. The. Fuck?!" reaction from us was, "Government aids mine and smelter bosses by kidnappings in Anyox." Was that hyperbolic - a sort of propaganda - or accurate? Who was kidnapped?

They're likely referring to deportations, as many of the workers were arrested and taken away from Anyox without having committed any crime. The Canadian government at that time was very concerned with newly immigrated workers spreading leftist ideas, and would deport striking workers. This injustice is why we believe they're being referred to as kidnappings. The sentence is quite representative as it refers to the ways in which since its inception, the government of Canada has largely functioned to aid resource extraction industries. This is still true today as BC continues to use police and military force to dispossess Indigenous people for the benefit of resource extraction companies.

Anything else we should say about the film - stories about the shoot, interesting reactions...? Has it played elsewhere? Will you be present at the VIFF...?

We will be at the VIFF screenings. It premiered Cinéma du réel in Paris, and has since played at the Open City Documentary Festival in London, as well as Muta festival in Peru. We'll be showing it at Black Canvas Contemporary Film Festival in Mexico City and Festival du nouveau cinéma in Montreal this fall.

See other documentary recommendations this VIFF in my previous post, and buy tickets for Anyox VIFF screenings here. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

VIFF 2022 Previews #3: Three documentaries: OKAY! (The ASD Band Film), Soviet Bus Stops, and Anyox

Previewed three superb documentaries at the VIFF: OKAY! (The ASD Band Film), Soviet Bus Stops, and Anyox.

For the record, ye mistrustful, I'm not just shilling. I have developed a rule for this fest that I won't write about films I don't honestly like. I have tried one screener for a film that I loved the premise of, but that left me wanting in its execution (it just didn't have enough control of its material, was making it too challenging to find the through line) - but I won't even mention what it is! (A fellow film writer picked it as one of his top 10 movies at the TIFF, so there is always the possibility that it might just be me). Rather than struggling to be nice to a film I didn't think merited viewing (and thus doing a possible disservice to my readers) or possibly crapping on films unfairly (and thus doing a possible disservice to the film), I'm following  a rule here to only write about films I'm enthusiastic about. I am very enthusiastic about all three of these Canadian-made documentaries and heartily recommend them to anyone looking for an entertaining film this VIFF - with the first being pretty much a Canadian must-watch...

(The ASD Band, L to R: Rawan - Spenser - Jackson - Ron)

Being on the autism spectrum may not mean what you think it means. As this highly enlightening article explains - catching your present author in a misunderstanding in which I, too, long partook - people are typically prone to thinking of the autism spectrum as a gradient, which it isn't. People who are "high functioning" in some aspects may be low-functioning in others, without that making them more or less autistic than each other - just like, on a spectrum, there is no reason to think of red as a shade of blue. The neurodiverse are not just different from the neurotypical, they are also different from each other, with differing strengths and weakness, different challenges and capabilities. They're people. People are quirky. People are individuals. People are all different, whether they have Autism Spectrum Disorder or not.   

I have no particularly good segue to the next paragraph, but OKAY! (The ASD Band Film) certainly does present us with a collection of unique individuals, making music together in the ASD Band, which first came together at Jake's House, an Ontario community centre run by Irene and David Bodanis, the parents of two adult children on the austism spectrum, whom we meet in the doc. The Bodanises wanted to offer people with Autism Spectrum Disorder a place to hang out and work on their social skills, initially figuring that they would "teach individuals one at a time," Jake's House co-founder David Bodanis explains, but it turns out that people on the spectrum, brought together by a common love (of music, for example), can accomplish a lot just working together. "If you start to look at what ASD Band is," Bodanis says, "It is an idea that was just dying to find itself."

The film focuses on the members of the band as they get ready for recording their first EP, Fireflies, which you can find on Soundcloud and Spotify, and their first live show (two dates get mentioned but it appears to have taken place of February 15th this year at the Opera House in Toronto). Jackson - the Elvis-loving guitarist, who likens having autism to performing in a play on opening night, but without having a copy of the script, which theme then resurfaces in his song "Masquerade" - seems the most overtly ambitious member of the group, saying in the run-up to recording their first album that the ASD Band are going to be "forging brilliance together." I think most non-autistic people, speaking thus of their own bands, would coat those words in a protective shield of irony; as articlate as Jackson is - he is very lucid at figuring out what people who are not on the spectrum need to know to understand his condition, and becomes the film's de facto "voice of autism" - I am not sure that protective shields of irony come very naturally to anyone with his condition (but who knows?). He further reveals hopes to play the Hollywood Bowl, in the context of a "dream venue" conversation (he also may well understand that this is not going to happen anytime soon); and we see him baldly (and charmingly) jockeying for centre-spot in a group photo, explaining that this will approximate how the band appears onstage, which rationalization quickly backfires: Spenser, the group's drummer - who also plays with a neurotypical punk band and surrounds himself with the iconography for the Descendents, NOFX, and Lagwagon - explains that if approximating the stage setup was the goal, as drummer, he would actually be in the centre, and so they have to switch places, which looks like it miffs Jackson a bit. 

This is called "getting busted," Jackson, and we've all been there.

Jackson shares lead vocals in the band with Rawan, who, we learn, had a childhood propensity for screaming, and now has a terrific singing voice; she seems a bit shyer in larger social settings than Jackson, determined to not look in the camera for said group shot, looking off to the side for both iterations of it, though again, it is hard to know what to conclude from that: maybe she was just trying to strike a modest pose, as during rehearsals and in more intimate interviews, alone or with friends, one wouldn't necessarily think she was affected by ASD at all (also true of Spenser). Rawan - also the group fashionista - gets a little less speaking time in the film than Jackson, with her most insightful words taking the form of lyrics and most potent moments coming when she is singing, but one gets the feeling of abundant resources within her that she has yet to tap (the band seems a great start, since she seems nowhere more vibrant or expressive than when she's up there on the stage).   

Ron, the pianist, goes along easily throughout, though we do see people encouraging him not to be shy, so we get the feeling he might be; his mother voices concerns about his dependency on the family. He is the only member of the band who displays savant-like abilities, with the rest of the group at one point quizzing him to attach days of the week to random dates (Jackson gives him a random day in 2063, looking at his phone for the answer, and Ron shoots back, "Tuesday," which it is/ It's fun to see that his bandmates are as blown away with this ability as we are). He also is a prodigy on the piano, though you get more of a sense of that when you see footage of him playing classical music than in a band context, where he keeps things pop-appropriate. One of many amusing moments in the film comes when the group's bassist (a neurotypical bassist from Jake's House who I believe is filmmaker Mark Bone) suggests to Ron he warm up - "play some Chopin" - and Ron sets to playing music of exquisite complexity with apparent ease. No obvious simile comes to mind but it's akin, say, to watching someone warm up for their morning jog by running a marathon. 

Presumably Ron does have to work to do that, but he seems a very humble man. It must be quite a challenge to house such extremes - to barely able to tell a knock-knock joke and yet to breeze along on the piano with such deftness. 

There are occasional embarrassing moments, where you might feel bad about chuckling at revealed human frailties (cf. miffed Jackson, above, or said knock-knock jokes) or feel awkward for the unfiltered emotions you sometimes see on members' faces (the film is reasonably gentle about this, not sharing anything that makes people look too vulnerable - it's no Spinal Tap wince-fest - but Rawan does still seem to be crushed, at one point, at feedback she receives about coming in at different points during takes of a song she wrote, a minor correction that she seems to take to heart). You might also feel awkward at detecting what might seem condescension on the part of people in the film who do not have autism, or maybe find your own misunderstandings and condescensions embarrassingly dragged into the light. Bone, if anything, is more protective of the band than he is exploitive, but what IS the appropriate reaction when people at a disadvantage say or do something unintentionally funny, or embarrassing, or reveal a vulnerability without necessarily knowing they've done so?

Thankfully, any such considerations are rendered moot by the fact that the ASD Band are actually pretty great at what they do, which is the key to making this film a real treat to behold. Who doesn't love a good success story? The individual members are all talented musicians; they have clear musical chemistry; and it's really fun getting a behind-the-scenes peek into their processes. The apparent core songwriters in the group, Rawan and Jackson, are both shown bringing lyric ideas to group practices, as they approach recording their first EP, working them up from vague ideas to full blown, genuinely enjoyable songs ("Fireflies" ends up the earworm - you'll walk away from the film humming, "We're different but not less" to yourself). I had lots more fun watching the ASD Band work up these two songs, both explicitly about being on the spectrum, than I did struggling through that deadly dull Godard film where the Rolling Stones compose "Sympathy for the Devil." And I'd much rather watch a documentary about the challenges of being in the ASD Band than, for instance, the challenges of being in Metallica, for instance - "normal" people, I guess, but who really wants to hang out with them? 

Still, I almost always have quibbles with films, and OKAY! is not exception. There are times when Bone, perhaps wanting to keep a zippy pace, makes choices that I would not have made, as when Ron seems to respond instantaneously about that random date in 2063: it was important to the film not introduce an edit between question and answer, so we can see this feat performed in real time - which it may be, but the quick cut (perhaps even a change of camera) allows to wonder if Ron took a few minutes working things out, allows the audience to maybe mistrust both his gift and the film, when a single sustained take would have allowed for no such possibility. 

Another quibble: it is irritating to me that I had to look up Spenser's non-autistic punk band's name, Lime Ricky, also given as Lime Rickey, since it isn't mentioned in the film that I noticed (or mentioned so briefly that I managed to miss it, even though I was interested). I'm pretty sure that's Spenser pissing in the bathtub in their video. Did Bone not think people might not care? The other members of Lime Ricky don't get interviewed about working with Spenser, either, for reasons not explained, though we do briefly hear some of their music. Maybe his punk bandmates are the people who Spenser's family later talk about taking advantage of Spenser (this is left unclear), or maybe they just didn't want their band name to be in there, perhaps because they're not keen to be overshadowed by the autists? If the latter, sorry to break it to ya, fellas, but your drummer is now your star! 

There is one other feature of the film that might leave viewers unsure if they are annoyed or impressed, perhaps depending on how quickly the band sets out on a cross-Canada tour, because the movie seriously leaves you wanting more. We do get some performance footage of the ASD Band's first gig, but it looks to be less than one entire song. You only get to really know two of their songs in the film, "Masquerade" and "Fireflies." If that's a contrivance to leave film audiences hungry to actually get the full-meal-deal of seeing the band in concert, bravo! But audiences who have invested their hopes in the lead-up to the concert might have enjoyed seeing a bit more of the show. I sure would have.

But overall, this film was a delight to watch - positive, funny, and more like the feeling of watching other "young people band movies" (Linda Linda Linda, say, which, note, is not about the Linda Lindas, though fans of the latter should definitely check it out) than watching a film about musicians with mental health issues (like the docs on Roky Erickson or Daniel Johnston, for instance). 

Hey, Spenser, if you're reading this, I have a free idea for you: you know the Big Boys? (The original punk/ funk hybrid band, from the early 80's Austin scene, along with the Dicks and MDC; I gather the Red Hot Chili Peppers, when they got started, were known dismissively by some as the "Little Big Boys," which sort of says something about the Big Boys' rep). They had a song, "Apolitical" - one of their more hardcore tunes - that I always thought could be re-written by someone on the spectrum as "Aneurotypical." Yours if you want it, though you'd no doubt have to substantially re-work the verses and clear it with the surviving Big Boys (And maybe don't tell Jackson that the two comps of their songs were issued as The Skinny Elvis, for their early years, and The Fat Elvis? Unless you think he'd be amused. I like my Elvis skinny, note, but I much prefer the Big Boys fat...).  

Oh, and you might want to look at Youtube vids of Christophe Szpadel, a heavy metal band logo designer, the Lord of the Logos, who himself is on the spectrum. Oh, and you might get a kick out of Dayglo Abortions drummer Blind Marc's side project, Mutated Earthlings, with bassist No Thumbs Dave (more on that in an upcoming Murray Acton interview. 

Now where can I buy that ASD Band EP...?

Living in a foreign country for any length of time, you discover things that a casual tourist might miss. It took me weeks to figure out, for instance, when I lived in Japan, that the dial for my stovetop element was not set up like the ones in Canada, where the first setting on the right is invariably "high" and the last setting, going around clockwise, is "low." In Japan, they do it the opposite way, thinking (I guess) of heat like we think of radio settings, where to get to high, you have to twist it all the way around (or just go to the first setting to the left, if you are turning the dial counter-clockwise; I'm not even sure which paradigm applies). It took me weeks of setting my element on low to figure out that it wasn't just that I had a crap element ("it barely gets warm!"), but that there was in fact a basic cultural difference at work. You also discover differences in valuation: it was fascinating to discover that all the Japanese bands I knew, for example - who I thought of as relatively successful overseas exports, like the Boredoms or Shonen Knife or Melt-Banana - were regarded by most Japanese as weirdos and misfits, minor bands playing to tiny houses, while the artists that were filling stadiums when I was over there, like Glay, were unknown in North America and sounded pretty crap to western ears. 

Neither of those experiences have direct bearing on Kristoffer Hegnsvad's very entertaining documentary, Soviet Bus Stops, but they did come to mind in the course of watching the film, which is in part about a Canadian photographer and architecture enthusiast, Christopher Herwig, trying to make sense of something strange and delightful that he has encountered abroad. At some point in is travels through the former Soviet Union, Herwig stumbled across a really weirdly creative bus stop, given the Soviet propensity for architectural brutalism and standardization. I don't recall  the details of his first encounter, or how the questions raised by this atypical shelter grew into an obsession, but soon he found himself on a mission to visit and photograph any and all of these non-normative rest areas, the locations of which are undocumented and tend to be rural and remote. He's shown approaching strangers on the street to ask them if there are any interesting bus stops near by, and the film is structured around his attempts to access a singularly remote one, after his car gets stuck in the snow (spoiler: a friendly snowplow driver helps him out). 

And while some locals remain entirely nonplussed by Herwig's quest - one shopowner even seems hostile to having his stand, built around one such stop, documented - some of these stops have extremely funky, odd, and colourful designs. It's not hard at all to understand why Herwig is enthusiastic about them ("in Canada, all our bus stops are boring," he explains to one puzzled passerby), though also not hard at all to understand why locals might associate them with less free times, and/or take them for granted. The film does include interviews with some of the designers of said bus stops, and shows dozens of Herwig's photographs, including photographs of stops that have since been destroyed. But the film raises more questions than it has definitive answers for. How did these bus stops, funky and fun in the land of grey totalitarianism, come to be in the first place? Did they serve some sort of propaganda function, convincing the credulous that freedom and creativity could in fact flourish in a totalitarian state? (This strategy works, if so, though the most overtly propagandistic bus stops are not very subtle in this regard; a bus stop that looks like a bird giving shelter with its wings does not seem to have any propaganda value at all). Or did they somehow slip through the cracks of the Soviet system, proof of the resilience of human creativity under oppressive circumstances, the designers quietly competing with each other, having fun, and making unique, individualistic (bourgeois?) bus stops because bus stops were too "minor" to attract much scrutiny from the authorities?    

In any case, the fact that they these magical feats of minor architecture are not appreciated (and that no central registry of their locations exists) lends an unusual urgency to the filmmaker's quest, since these stops can get torn down at any time. To some, they may be a painful reminder of a past they want to forget, but to an outsider, they're a real treat.  Anyone with a passion for architecture and/or travel, anyone who has pursued knowledge of an obscure art, and any students of the way human creativity can flourish under oppressive conditions, will find the film fascinating and delightful.  And while the score of the film seems to be mostly Soviet electrop - kind of Kraftwerk-y, which should please some people I know - ultimately, I was left with the title of a lesser Sonic Youth song swimming in my mind (it may come from somewhere else, but I haven't checked where): "Small Flowers Crack Concrete" - though in this case these "flowers," the bus stops, are themselves sometimes made of concrete, which is even more impressive: to spin an old Marxist (Gramscian?) saw on it's side, you may not be able to take down the master's house with the master's tools, but you can build one hell of a bus stop with them.

3. Anyox 

You don't always have to travel to another country to find landscapes that are radically, startlingly unfamiliar. You don't even need to travel in time - though as the film Anyox shows, that can help. Shot in Northern BC, in an area that can only be accessed by air or boat (unless, maybe, you're a bear), Anyox investigates both the past of a long-abandoned copper mine and smelter, and the present, where the waste products from the copper days (giant mountains of slag, which presents as rock dust) are mined for roofing materials. I am hoping to do much more on this film in a subsequent post, but I went in expecting a very standard urban exploration documentary - my friend Dan Kibke, who is a Brittania mines habitue and urban explorer in his own right, pointed me to the Viceland Abandoned series and the "Exploring Abandoned Mines" Youtube Channel, which both have Anyox installments, and I expected more of the same. What I got was far more artful and intriguing, so that the names I came away referencing were Baichwal/ Burtynsky, Mettlier, Bill Patterson, John Gianvito, and James Benning (though different segments of the film remind me of different filmmakers, and the most striking footage - the archival stuff, which is a real treasure trove - had me thinking of Fritz Lang). More to come on that, I hope. 

In other news, documentary enthusiasts take note that I have now received the screener for De Humani Corporis Fabrica, which  I mentioned in a previous VIFF blogpost. I am equally excited to see it, and terrified. Haven't I had enough surgery this last year? Maybe more to come on that, too.