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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Why TIFF's Wavelengths programme is must-see

TIFF WavelengthsWhen I first moved to Toronto and started attending TIFF five years ago, I didn't go to a single Wavelengths programme. This was back when the section was composed of only six programmes of avant-garde shorts and features. After the festival ended, a lot of my cinephiles friends listed several Wavelengths films among their favourites of the festival and even the year, including James Benning's RR. It was then that I vowed to never miss another Wavelengths film for as long as I continued to attend the festival.

Five years later, I've held true to that promise, and have, consequently, seen some pretty amazing films. My success with Wavelengths is largely attributable, of course, to the discerning and uncompromising tastes of the section's head programmer, Andréa Picard. This isn't the easiest programme to assemble, as you'd imagine, because it strays so dramatically from the rest of the festival's more marketable curatorial strategy. There are fewer Wavelengths films that eventually make their way into general release than probably any other programme in TIFF.

As the section has a bit of a reputation for impenetrability and esotericism, I wanted to try to de-mystify Wavelengths, so that fewer festivalgoers would feel apprehensive about diving into these wonderful films, some of which may never screen in Toronto again. Andréa was kind enough to agree to an interview, and we're extremely excited to allow her to unpack her curatorial philosophies and strategies.

Was there a formative film you saw when you were young that made you fall in love with cinema?

I was fortunate to grow up watching Classic and foreign films, French mostly, though on the small screen. While much is murky, I do recall making the exciting connection between Claude Jutras's À tout prendre (1963) and the Nouvelle Vague (Godard especially) at a fairly young age and also harboured a nationalistic obsession with Pierre Perrault's Pour la suite du monde (also strangely, 1963!) despite not understanding it and not being from Québec!

But it was Antonioni's Il Deserto rosso (shot in 1963!) and Michael Snow's La Région centrale (1971), which convinced me to study cinema in tandem with my focus on art history. They both, though in obviously different ways, taught me that cinema was an exhilarating visual art, with inexhaustible possibilities. Both still have a tremendous psychological and physical effect on me. Both changed the course of my life.

How did you start working for TIFF?

During my final year of studies, my favourite film professor at UofT told me the Cinematheque was hiring a programme coordinator and encouraged me to apply. Turns out he was on the Advisory Board so had some sway. A regular habituée of the Cinematheque (and a regular skipper of my evening classes as a result), I immediately accepted when I was offered the job and have been with the organization ever since, in a succession of roles.

What makes a film a "Wavelengths" film?

Good question. I often wonder how much emphasis the public puts on the various TIFF sections. Over the years, sections like Midnight Madness have built an undeniable imprimatur. Wavelengths has similarly benefited from a devoted audience and focus.

Wavelengths is named for Michael Snow's 1967 masterpiece, Wavelength, and began as a sidebar for experimental film when it was founded in 2000 by Susan Oxtoby (former Director of Programming at Cinematheque Ontario now Senior Film Curator at Pacific Film Archive). It gradually expanded to include films and videos made my visual artists and more longform work by the likes of James Benning, Jennifer Reeves and Harun Farocki.

As it continues to adapt to developments in moving image culture, Wavelengths has become a forum for moving image art that combines experimental or avant-garde cinema (always with one or two new restorations) with essay films, video art and other unclassifiable forms of cinema. We look for films that are largely made independently or via unusual channels, that display a unique and personal vision, that push the boundaries of cinematic language, that place a strong emphasis on film form, that take artistic or political risks. These are films that experiment in one way or another, though may not be traditionally "experimental".

As of last year, Wavelengths has expanded to subsume the former Visions programme (devoted to visionary auteurs) so the section now includes a larger number of feature-lengths films, including documentaries and fiction films made by some of today's most important filmmakers. I find this an exciting development that has led to TIFF presenting a wider array of artistic cinema (especially that difficult-to-programme phenomenon called the medium-length film). And it's interesting to think about how narrative filmmakers like Chantal Akerman have also been significantly informed by Michael Snow.

Can you recommend a film in your Wavelengths line-up for anyone who might be apprehensive about dabbling in the programme?

It's true that Wavelengths largely attracts cinephiles, artists, curators and experimental film lovers but there is always a fair number of films that appeal to a wider audience, such as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's Leviathan from last year which wound up getting a commercial release alongside a few other Wavelengths titles.

This year's recommendations for the dabbler are Ramon Zürcher's astonishing feature debut, The Strange Little Cat , and MANAKAMANA by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez--the latest from Harvard's innovative Sensory Ethnography Lab which has produced some of the most important documentaries of the past few year, including Leviathan. Also, the dabbler should try a shorts programme to get the authentic Wavelengths experience!

So, you're not only the head vision behind Wavelengths, but also one of the curators for the festival's Future Projections programme, which provides roughly a dozen off screen art installations accessibly scattered around downtown Toronto. How closely related do you see film and art?

This year I'm less involved in Future Projections as the programme is mostly devoted to new commissions around TIFF's David Cronenberg exhibition and retrospective, curated by Noah Cowan and Piers Handling. My single project is French artist Camille Henrot's video installation Grosse Fatigue , which won her the Silver Lion at this year's Venice Biennale. It's quite different from many of the installations I've done for FP in the past, definitely louder! And while it harnesses the aesthetics of the Internet, Grosse Fatigue is fundamentally a search for truth and meaning--like all great cinema.

Film is art to me and this belief informs how I approach curating for Wavelengths. We strive to present museum conditions for onscreen projection of film and video made by artists. Can anyone dispute that Tsai Ming-liang or Albert Serra are singular artists? They may come from a different tradition than Michael Snow or David Rimmer, but they are working way outside of the mainstream and the art world is certainly taking note of their talent. Albert Serra was featured at the last dOCUMENTA in Kassel, Germany, where his Three Little Pigs was shot and edited cumulatively over the 100 days of the exhibition.

One of our tag lines is FILM IS ART, but we are also conscious of this shuttling between the film and art worlds being done by filmmakers like Pedro Costa, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Wang Bing, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ben Rivers & Ben Russell, et al...

What has been your proudest Wavelengths moment?

There have been moments of silent victory, but I'd cite the overall growth of the programme in general and the audience's inspiring and profound engagement that I appreciate most.

What are some of your favourite films playing outside of Wavelengths at TIFF this year?

Thanks for asking! Lav Diaz's masterful Norte, the End of History ; Jia Zhangke's jaw-dropping A Touch of Sin ; Alain Guiraudie's Chabrolian L'Inconnu du lac [Stranger by the Lake] . I love Tsai Ming-liang's heartbreaking Stray Dogs , which is a selection in Wavelengths by my amazing colleague Giovanna Fulvi.

And there are a number of films that I really hope to see during TIFF, though my schedule may not cooperate: Hong Sang-soo's Our Sunhi , Frederick Wiseman's 4-hour At Berkeley . I could watch Christ Marker's Le Joli mai again and again. I'm very curious about Abdellah Taïa's autobiographical Salvation Army , which was shot by one of my favourite cinematographers, Agnès Godard (who also shot Claire Denis' Les Salauds [Bastards] ).

Do you get to watch many films during the festival?

See above! I try to sit through many of the films that I've programmed, especially those I've not yet seen on the big screen. I make extra effort to be present for the shorts programmes as putting them together on paper is vastly different from seeing them projected as an entity. It can be a nerve-wracking experience, but also very beautiful when the audience responds.

And while I'd like to see as many other films as I can, I find it increasingly important to spend time with our visiting filmmakers. The human touch is crucial and having the opportunity to talk to the artists is a privilege that I hold dear.

What's the last new film or piece of art you saw that you loved?

Not new, but two memorable summer experiences were the Leos Carax retrospective presented by the Cinematheque and the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at MOCCA. Two vastly different bodies of work that are ultimately triumphant, but cut from the swathes of profound discomfort. Here the comparisons end, but I found both to be deeply moving and inspiring, and their presentations reminded me just how crucial context can be to works of art.

What are your future goals? Is there anything you haven't done as a TIFF programmer that you'd like to do?

I'm mostly living in the present these days, though I have many dream retrospectives and exhibitions in my back pocket.

And outside of TIFF, how do you spend your autumns, winters, and springs?

Increasingly, I'm in Europe during the "off season", contributing film programs and installations to other institutions, attending film festivals and writing and publishing as much as I can. I also try to catch up on reading, spend much time in museums and galleries, lament the fact that I don't belong to a tennis club in winter, track films for Wavelengths all year-long, consult on artist projects, sit on granting panels and funding commissions. It's all related and nicely diverse at the same time.

Thanks to Grolsch for sponsoring our coverage of TIFF13 Grolsch TIFF

by Blake Williams via blogTO

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