Toronto’s Images Festival showcased ten days of film and video that pushed boundaries of form and style. The documentary contingent was no exception to the innovative and invigorating experimental works that screened throughout the festival. The small but strong sampling of docs, which one could interpret liberally given the experimental nature of the festival, showed Canadian and international artists approaching non-fiction from a variety of angles. In some cases, Images introduced something altogether new for documentary and provided the sense of discovery one hopes to see at a festival.
Images highlighted the fact that documentary is in the midst of a formal renaissance by opening the festival with the feature doc Factory Complex directed by Heung-Soon Im. This winner of the Silver Lion at the 2015 Venice Biennale proved a bold choice for an opener given its slow pace and often unflinching accounts of abuse suffered by female factory workers in South Korea in the 1960s. The film felt worthy of its spotlight nevertheless, given the subject matter, and the appreciable effort to let diverse stories and artists figure prominently during the fest.
Im’s meditative style offered Images audiences a challenging essay film that drew on the stories of survivors. The film conveyed South Korean culture’s failure to progress as sexism continues to run rampant in the workplace. The doc treated audiences fully to the victims’ pain as they shared their horrible experiences by speaking in lengthy monologues juxtaposed with arresting visuals of industrial landscapes contrasted with serene images of nature. Factory Complex was unfortunately not one of the festival’s stronger films, though, as Im’s style proved too tasking on its audience. Im favoured digressions a bit too frequently. His effort to approach the stories with a myriad of styles, tones, and angles resulted in an experience that resembled five docs mashed together into a blender as Factory Complex veered from histrionic accounts to quiet images of foliage.
Similarly, Im found mixed results while extending the women’s stories to contemporary workers. The effort to pair South Korea’s history with present-day problems in Cambodia created a compelling argument about a lack of fundamental change but the film also belittled the survivors by juxtaposing their stories of abuse with grievances about poor working conditions in contemporary customer service jobs. The stories of the workers at South Korea’s Walmart equivalent were certainly fair, but it felt like a gross rationalisation to put them in the same field as crimes of physical, emotional, and sexual violence. Im also resisted a festivalgoer’s description of the women as strong survivors during the post-screening Q&A, which captured the film’s well-intentioned but muddled treatment of a worthy subject.
A world of styles and stories also appeared in Images’ enjoyable shorts programme “People, Places, Things.” This programme featured a half dozen curated docs, half Canadian, which challenged festivalgoers to discern fact from fiction. Rosalind Nashashibi’s Electrical Gaza opened the selection with a brilliant hybrid film about a place that exists between nations and times. The film was an inspired mix of actuality footage from Gaza scattered throughout a tapestry of constructed images. A dramatic representation of the area’s guarded wall was contrasted with a surreal rendering of the politically-charged zone, while breathtaking animated sequences challenged the authenticity of the Gaza that the West sees in mediated images.
Electrical Gaza was appropriately followed by the poetic Canadian short No Time for Tomorrow by Emilie Serri, which juxtaposed images of Syria in found footage with contemporary snapshots of the diaspora. Serri worked with her father to create a reflective voiceover in a mix of Persian and French. The film evoked both a journey and a rupture with its provocative layers of past and present. Images then offered one of the most peculiar “political films” that an audience could find with the American short Spectral Tomato III by Jeremy D. Olson, which literally offered a fourteen-minute shot of a tomato as the filmmaker injected it with dye and then chopped it to bits. Olson later elaborated that the piece aimed to subvert the rigid standards placed on tomatoes by the food industry in terms of the sizes, shapes, and colours deemed appropriate for commercial markets. The doc, unlike factory-farmed tomatoes, proved that political statements come in all shapes and sizes.
“People, Places, Things” received its strongest audience response for Barry Doupé’s enjoyably loony hybrid film Life and People. This Canuck comedy drew consistent laughs for its atypical dramatic recreations of mundane scenarios. The actors offered deadpan interpretations of offhand exchanges and found humour in ordinary actions. The film was the least conventional fit with the documentary form given that the entirety of the experience played out like Brechtian drama, but the banality of everyday life was undeniably authentic.
Images offered another reflection on everyday life in Toronto filmmaker Mike Hoolboom’s enjoyable essay film Incident Reports. Perhaps best described as a work of docu-fiction, Incident Reports presented a series of one-minute takes pulled from the filmmaker’s daily existence. The premise of the film advised viewers that the disembodied narrator was fulfilling an assignment from a therapist to help him restore his memory following an alleged bicycle accident. As Hoolboom took his camera around Toronto, the film afforded the sense of seeing one’s community through fresh eyes as the narrator speculated about the habits of his neighbours. Hoolboom’s act of filming like a cinematic flâneur stressed the awkwardness of attempting to create relationships in a city as cold and detached as Toronto. His camera invaded public spaces and caught random Torontonians avoiding the camera’s glance just as they do in elevators and the subway. As the meta-filmmaker gradually regained his sense of self, and, in turn, developed a bizarrely sexual relationship with the unseen therapist, Incident Reports humorously allowed audiences to remember what it felt like to be a part of a community as citizens took to the streets to sing Culture Club in unison. The screening was one of the stronger and stranger sights at Images.
The real find of the festival however, came in the event that preceded Incident Reports that same night. Images delivered an altogether different experience with Kelly O’Brien’s poignant film/performance piece Postings from Home. O’Brien performed live narration for the doc as images from her Facebook account relayed the quotidian actions of her family. O’Brien’s three children figured prominently in the photos shot on her iPhone and uploaded to the social media site, and, like Hoolboom’s adventure, Postings from Home explored the zone between public and private space. The film asked the audience to consider the point at which intimate moments become shared experiences as O’Brien used highlights from her Facebook wall to create mobile-friendly narratives. This diary doc created layers of privacy and transparency as something personal-turned-collective; it was then shared with a group of strangers removed from the filmmaker’s circle of Facebook friends as O’Brien shared the post in person, rather than in the usual wall-to-wall action of the social media sphere.
The openness of the film was revealing and surprising as O’Brien let the audience into her home and mind to experience a mother’s love for her children. Festivalgoers were visibly moved during the screening, which offered wall posts ranging from hilarious, particularly while recounting the stream of consciousness questions posed by O’Brien’s daughter Willa, to frank and philosophical as the filmmaker voiced her experience with her son Teddy (seen in her previous doc Softening) who was born with severe disabilities. In a festival defined by pushing boundaries and experimenting with images, Posts from Home was a revelatory journey through the filmmaker’s intimately illuminating archive.