Andréa Picard, curator of the Toronto International Film Festival's esoteric Wavelengths program, says she never prescribes to a theme.
Over the past 10 years she's been at the helm of Wavelengths, the cineaste says she has seen "recurring topics," but they arise almost organically. "Obviously, filmmakers respond to the world in which they live. And we are living in extremist, very surrealistic and political times," says Picard, who was recently named artistic director of Cinéma du Réel, a documentary festival that takes place annually at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in late March."Filmmakers and audiences, alike, are so tired of the big headlines. And these artists are often finding playful, subversive ways to discuss politics."
Grudgingly, Picard adds, "If there is a theme this year, it's the [camera] lens's proximity to bodies and the intimate, human level of conversation in these films. Wavelengths is often described as the most adventurous section of the Toronto festival, and we're proud to be the platform for independent artists, who make auteur art on very small budgets, often work along for long periods of time, and experiment with cinema in very different ways than the mainstream."
The camera's intimate relationship with its subject is manifest this year in documentaries from veteran auteurs Denis Côté (in his hybrid documentary, Ta peau si lisse, about six Québécois bodybuilders) and Mrs. Fang, from China's pre-eminent documentarian Bing Wang (Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, Three Sisters), who recently won the Golden Leopard Prize at the Locarno Film Festival for his searing portrait of a woman with Alzheimer's in a small village in southern China during the last days of her life.
Picard says Côté (Curling, Bestiaire) has made a career out of alternating between larger-budget films and smaller docs such as Ta peau si lisse (A Skin So Soft), a philosophy that "encapsulates what we are doing here at Wavelengths."
Côté's camera is a tightly focused chronicler of the personal and professional lives of these six men. It shows the lengths they will go – extreme diets, the physical pain and loneliness – to attain what they perceive to be physical perfection. "The film is tremendously moving because of the way Côté almost endearingly films them. We feel their humanity and their solitude," says Picard, who will divide her time between Toronto and Paris.
Mrs. Fang is a penetrating visual document of an old woman, marginalized by her illness and surrounded by family and villagers who smoke, gossip, bicker and talk on cellphones around her deathbed. Wang's camera searches the old woman's face and studies her blinking eyes, which seem to innocently ask, "How did I get here?" Wang, whom Picard describes as perhaps the most important documentarian in the world, says Mrs. Fang exemplifies what she looks for in auteur cinema.
"The criteria I look for in films is if they pose questions that don't let you go," Picard says. "Wang's film poses questions about dignity and how one dies. About the choice around death, and the lack of choice. But it's more than a film about life and death cycles. It's an alternate look at contemporary China's cultural upheaval."
Wavelength's 2017 program of 40 works is slightly smaller this year, in keeping with the overall reduction of TIFF's programming lineup. After 10 years, the moving-image installation portion of the program has been eliminated.
But the core section remains – it is four experimental shorts programs, as well as several medium- and full-length features, as well as documentaries. There are leading contemporary artists such as Sky Hopinka (Dislocation Blues, shot during the 2016 Standing Rock Protests in South Dakota), and Spain's Luis Lopez Carrasco whose film Aliens, about an icon of Madrid's Movida scene, includes 500-plus paintings of extraterrestrials.
The lineup also includes internationally fêted filmmakers such as French master Bruno Dumont, whose Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc is an electro-metal musical about Joan of Arc's adolescence sung by an eight-year-old girl.
Picard says Wavelengths is proud of its status as the platform for independent artists, such as the anthropologist-filmmaking duo, Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Leviathan), whose film Caniba about the notorious Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa is not for the faint-hearted. (Sagawa was deported from France in the eighties for murdering and eating a fellow student at the Sorbonne).
"TIFF is a big festival, with lots of galas, celebrities and city participation, which makes it a very exciting time," she says. "Programs like Wavelengths benefit the overall festival – and its audience – because it shows cinema as a very serious art form, in addition to cinema as entertainment."
TIFF runs Sept. 7 through 17 (tiff.net/festival).