Progressive cinema: A review of the Toronto International Film Festival

‘Zizek!’

Look out Noam Chomsky! Step aside for the new, improved and most entertaining Marxist philosopher on college campuses, Slovenian Slavoj Zizek! The film “Zizek!” introduces us to one of the most frenetic, provocative and brilliant thinkers in philosophy (and movies). Zizek speaks English well enough to understand, but his pronouncements and ideas are not as easily understood. He’s an expert on postmodern culture, Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marxist theory. The film follows his fast moves and challenging ideas around the world as he floods the camera with endless pronouncements. As charismatic as a rock star, the unassuming professorial Zizek forces the viewer to think and respond, a needed type of documentary in times like this.





‘The Last Hangman’

There are some jobs people just don’t want. And it’s not McDonald’s. Albert Pierrepoint, England’s last hangman, takes on the most gruesome and unwanted job with assured confidence in doing the right thing. He feels his job is not to determine the guilt of his subjects but rather that they have a humane and safe execution. Timothy Spall, one of England’s finest actors, stars in “The Last Hangman,” a fierce but quiet examination of the moral and personal demons that plagued England’s last public executioner in the early 1950s. Demanding scientific skills of calculating weights and rope thicknesses to break the neck rather than rip the head off, Pierrepoint became a master in the field, and was even personally summoned to execute the Nuremberg criminals. The film adds an illuminating chapter in the history of capital punishment. With its fine acting, realistic sets and confident direction, “The Last Hangman” captures a forgotten time and place in history.





‘Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela’

The overthrow of the South African apartheid system is one of the glowing victories in the history of people’s struggles. Much is still to be learned about this process. And young U.S. filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris has taken on the task — possibly because he discovered his stepfather was a founding member of the African National Congress.

In “Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela,” Harris, through the use of home movies of his trips to South Africa, parties at his home and interviews with his family, gradually discovers the role his stepfather Lee played in South Africa’s freedom struggle. Lee, in 1960, escaped with several others from his homeland to spread the word of the ANC. At great sacrifice, young Lee eventually found his way to America where he always remained a voice for the movement until his death. Young Harris, unwilling in his early years to accept his stepfather, was confronted with the overwhelming importance of Lee’s role in the struggle when he and his mother went back to Lee’s village to bury him. This film is a tribute to his stepfather, who carried with him just one amazing story among many who have played an unsung role in the advancement of their people.





‘Dreaming of Space’

Russia continues to crank out some exceptional fare, albeit not of the strongly revolutionary type. In order to compete with Hollywood’s flooding of the Russia cinema houses, Russian filmmakers have a tough task. “Dreaming of Space” captures the climate of 1957, the cold winter of a northern port in Russia, and the excitement of Sputnik, the first satellite sent around the earth. With close attention to detail, this film is magnificently created and draws the viewer into this unique time and place. The characters that include an amateur boxer, cook, waitress and sailor are crafted into a heartwarming and humorous tale of people emerging from the dark, postwar period of the Soviet Union. The hope of space travel, scientific accomplishments and the ever-present image of the adored cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin provide the viewer with an entertaining and memorable picture of a lost time.





‘Viva Cuba’

Cuban cinema, still going through times of limited funding, is barely able to squeeze out a minimal number of titles. Having to turn a profit, most films stay within the range of popular consumption, with one eye on foreign markets. “Viva Cuba,” co-produced with France, offers a light-hearted but serious examination of issues plaguing Cubans, but this time from a child’s eye view. Emigration and its effect on the family is the main theme in this colorfully shot and wonderfully written and acted film. It doesn’t fail to address difficult questions either.





‘Manderlay’

For those who enjoyed Lars Von Trier’s “Dogville,” a minimalist treatise on xenophobia, it will be a treat to discover that it was only the first of an American trilogy. The second installment, “Manderlay,” addresses the issue of race relations and nation-building and further challenges the accepted interpretation of American history. Both unconventional films take place on a set with a painted floor and minimal props, with occasional title cards. The effect is overwhelmingly gripping and realistic. Trier is the prolific enfant terrible of world cinema and has focused his attention in this trilogy on American issues that should interest all progressive viewers.





‘Point of Order’

The huge success of “Goodnight, and Good Luck,” the story of Edward R. Murrow’s confrontation with McCarthyism, has prompted the re-release of “Point of Order” (available on DVD), a powerful award-winning 1964 film directed by one of America’s greatest progressive documentarians, Emile de Antonio. The actual filming of the Army-McCarthy hearings is chilling and a great counterpart to the “Goodnight, and Good Luck” film.