RIDM Dispatch #1

Reported by Adam Nayman

Arriving at a film festival that’s already in full swing can be a disorienting experience, so it’s appropriate that the first images I encountered at RIDM 2013 were of a world literally turned upside down. The opening credits of Chelsea McMullan’s NFB-produced documentary My Prairie Home describe a flat stretch of Canadian heartland, but flipped 180 degrees so that the fields of wheat hover above the horizon line separating them from acres of cloudy blue sky. It’s a simple visual effect that’s also the perfect overture for a film about a young person whose life experiences to this point have been, to say the least, topsy-turvy.

Rae Spoon is a transgender Canadian electro-pop country musician who has eschewed being known as “he” or “she” in favour of “they” – as in, after a decade of living as a trans man, they decided that a more gender-neutral pronoun was the way to go. It is perhaps not a surprise to learn that Rae’s experience growing up in rural Alberta in a strictly Evangelical Christian household was fraught with terror and frustration, but the achievement of McMullan’s film is that it unravels its subject’s story with such a light touch. Scenes of Rae performing their own moody, melodic compositions against incongruous backdrops – like a run-down multiplex that hasn’t gotten around for taking down the poster for Oh, God! in the last 35 years – put the focus on talent rather than trauma, and McMullan’s camera placements and are playful and precise — the sign of a filmmaker who is able to mount a showcase to a performer without entirely effacing her own artistry.

I was disappointed to not be able to write more about Once I Entered a Garden, the new film by Avi Mograbi because the version screened at RIDM lacked English subtitles. This is fair enough for a festival situated in Montreal, but frustrating nevertheless because from the thirty or so minutes I watched before giving up – all the while silently cursing myself for skipping so many high school French classes to do God knows what – it seemed like a departure of sorts for the director of Avenge But One of My Two Eyes: not a piece of agitprop, but a meditation on personal heritage in which the director tries to project himself into the life of his grandfather, a Syrian Jew who lived in Palestine before the creation of Israel. Ironically, my inability to understand half of what was being said in the film mirrors it own theme, which is of linguistic confusion; appearing on camera alongside his friend Ali El Azhari, Mograbi laments the fact that if he ever met his grandfather, the two would be unable to communicate, since he speaks only Hebrew and the older man’s mother tongue would have been Arabic.

Words are at a premium in David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s Night Labor, a superbly shot and sound-designed exercise in quasi-verite set at a Scottish fish packing plant. Scenes of sea creatures being methodically butchered may put some viewers in mind of Leviathan, and Night Labor – which was described by its directors at a Q & A featuring a cameo by their newborn baby as a “sensorial experience” – feels at least slightly indebted to the work of the Sensory Ethnography Lab. Like Leviathan, it integrates radical aesthetics with late-capitalist critique. However, instead of abstracting the human form as just another cog in the industrial machine a la Leviathan, it fairly revels in the appearance and personality of its craggy protagonist, Sherman Frank Merchant, a towering sexagenarian in a skull-emblazoned kangol cap and Stone Cold Steve Austin t-shirt whose eccentric nocturnal manouevres around the deserted factory are gradually revealed as laying the groundwork for the day shift. He’s an unforgettable figure, and Night Labor is a lingeringly powerful film – the perfect capper to an enjoyably discombobulating day at RIDM.

For more on this year’s festival:
RIDM Dispatch #2
RIDM Dispatch #3
RIDM Dispatch #4
The POV Guide to RIDM 2013