Director, Producer, Trailblazer: Ida Lupino

In the 1940s and ’50s, in what is considered by many to be the “golden age” of the film industry, few women were working behind the scenes. They could be seen on screen, usually portraying polarized female stereotypes: the virgin and the whore, the good girl and the villain, the love interest and the mother. Behind-the-scenes positions for women virtually disappeared after WWII, coinciding with the societal shift to focus on the nuclear family and feminine ideals. Any role that did exist were always given to white women — women of colour, if they appeared on screen, were generally only given roles that either cast them as servants or fetishized them. That’s an issue that’s still being addressed today. When it comes to contemporary female directors, we are finally seeing support and recognition for their works, but we are only still at the very beginning.

It was the same in the 1940s as it is now: in order to see the stories they want to see, women needed to make the movies themselves.

Ida Lupino did just this. In the 1940s, she was a big ticket actress, working alongside high-profile actors like Humphrey Bogart. She was top-billed, talented, and beautiful, but she wasn’t finished. She wanted to make movies. While on the set, she would watch the directors and the camera operators and learn from them, probably one of the best education a young filmmaker could ever get. While she was always a student of film, Lupino didn’t get a chance to direct until she sat in for director Elmer Clifton for the 1949 film Not Wanted when Clifton fell ill. Lupino was not credited, but it was her first unofficial project.

Ida Lupino. Photo via TIFF on Twitter.

In 1950 she opened her own production company with her husband, Collier Young. There, she wrote, directed, and distributed a number of films without studio backing and without famous actors. These were films with strong female characters, complicated women, women on the outside of society. Her topics were controversial for the time — sexual assault, unplanned pregnancy, and mental health to name a few —, and even now, despite more open dialogues on these topics, the stories Lupino told and the films she created are still very relevant.

“She’s a humanist,” says Anne Morra, Associate Curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. “She doesn’t pack her films with known movie stars, so the audience has a character without a story attached to them. Her films could be documentaries.”

In her official directional debut, Never Fear, the subjects are professional dancers and lovers with Carol and Guy at its center. Carol contracts polio and loses the ability to dance, causing feelings of worthlessness and inferiority. In Outrage, Lupino tackles sexual assault, depicting a violent attack on a young woman and the subsequent emotional fallout and police investigation.

A still from Outrage (1950). Source.

These are topics that big production companies would never touch since the box office payoff would have been minimal at best. Who would want to see such terrible and unromantic things? Generally, films at the time were much more formulaic, falling under romance or crime. Think of the noir thrillers from the 1940s and the romantic comedies of the 1950s. The main characters are cool, competent men and the women are seductive, soft speaking side pieces. Lupino’s realistic, female-driven narratives were hardly what audiences at the time were used to consuming.

“She’s quite avant-garde in her role,” says Morra. “She learned from other directors but it’s important not to compare her because her works are very unique.”

Despite not fitting in with her contemporaries, Lupino’s works have staying power. This month, TIFF is hosting Lupino’s first-ever retrospective, showing a restored selection of her works as a director and an actress. Morra, who has done extensive research on Lupino, introduced the screening of Never Fear last Wednesday at the Bell Lightbox. The retrospective celebrates Lupino as both a pioneer for women on screen and in independent filmmaking.

“I hope [viewers] take away the idea of Ida as a revolutionary filmmaker. She was a woman working without a blueprint,” says Morra. “I hope they’re able to rediscover her or discover her for the first time.”

As someone who wasn’t very familiar with Lupino, I discovered her for the first time through Outrage, a movie that tore me up emotionally but impressed me with how it handled a story of sexual assault, arguably better, despite some religious overtones, than some television shows aim to depict it now. I was surprised by it, shocked by it, and thrilled to have discovered such a strong point of view from a female director. We now have many more female perspectives. We have Ava DuVernay, Ana Lily Amirpour, Jennifer Kent, and Kathryn Bigelow, all talented filmmakers with distinct perspectives and styles. It doesn’t make sense to compare them with one another, just as it doesn’t make sense to compare them with Lupino, who worked in a very different time and industry. What cannot be denied is Lupino’s effect on cinema, her legacy of a phenomenal body of work and the ground she broke in her time.

As Morra put it, “She’s someone who deserves to be seen.”

Tickets to Ida Lupino’s retrospective can be found here. The retrospective runs through September 2nd. Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

A Conversation with Brad Deane of TIFF

Olivier Assayas

Though I’ve already written in these pages about the retrospective, ‘Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas,’ happening at TIFF this summer, I recently had the chance to speak with Brad Deane, the Senior Manager of TIFF Cinematheque, who is also a part of the programming team for the festival. It was readily apparent that he was a big fan of Assayas’s movies, and he spoke candidly about why the French director of the post May ’68 French tradition remains and will remain relevant in our conversations regarding film, modern culture, and life as we know it.

Hoon: How did you first come across Assayas’s films?

Brad Deane: I think it was at the festival when ‘Clean’ was playing at the Gala. I first heard of him when I was in university in Florida but back then I didn’t have much access to the films. I watched a few of them but it wasn’t until later on that I got to see more and more of his films. There are also a lot of earlier ones that were hard to see. Doing the retrospective is when I was first able to see them. Every time I watched the films I wanted to do a retrospective more and more as I saw these themes running through the works.

H: I’ve been always curious as to see what it’d be like to watch, virtually one after the other, a series of movies by a single director. Do you think a retrospective like this one brings certain elements of the movies to light?

B: Definitely. I think Olivier sees his works that way too. Stylistically they are very different. There’s ‘Demon Lover’ then ‘Clean’ and then he goes back to ‘Boarding Gate.’ But I still do see themes running through the whole body of works. And I know from talking to him that he sees them in that way, he sees them as parts of a larger project. He’s just approaching it from different angles.

Maggie Cheung in ‘Clean’ (2004)

H: Are there particular things you want the audiences to see in Assayas’s films?

B: I’m always reluctant to point out because you’re always going to come away with your own thing. The films are great because they are so rich and there are many different things to look at. But I do think that strong female performances throughout his body of works are really amazing. He’s been doing that since the beginning — it’s effortless, I don’t think he’s consciously trying to do it. Some of the themes about modern culture and how modernization and technology are affecting us are fascinating: As we move ahead, what are losing from the past and what are we gaining? And I don’t think he’s making any kind of moral judgments on these subjects either.

From ‘Something in the Air’ (2012)

H: And I think that’s what was so interesting about watching ‘Summer Hours’ and ‘Personal Shopper’ — he addresses these issues not in a moralistic way but as part and parcel of personal stories.

B: I think he’s someone who doesn’t like to make moral decisions. And the way he approaches things from a political perspective is really fascinating because he grew up in a post May ’68 culture. While maybe some of the views could be considered toward the left, he’s always aware and critical and trying to see what we are gaining and losing. In some ways, he’s so tricky to pin down: you can’t really say he’s this or that. I find that really interesting because it’s engaging — he keeps pulling you in and asking questions. He’s someone who’s very curious about every subject he wants to tackle. And you as an audience member feel that curiosity in the films.

H: Assayas is now recognized as an auteur, yet sometime it is difficult to pin down Assayas into a single genre or a style of film. How would you describe his movies to someone who’s never seen one?

B: It’s tricky. I think ‘Cold Water’ on, there’s definitely a certain visible style of movement on screen with him. The films take place at a brisk pace, almost at the pace of life. If you don’t catch something, you can miss it, though you don’t often do since he’s so strategic about how he lays everything out for the audience. But the films move at that pace and I think that’s how he deemphasizes any moral judgments or anything like that.

H: Do you have a personal favorite Assayas’s movie? 

B: If I have to narrow it down to a few — and this is difficult because I really love his films — ‘Cold Water’, an absolute masterpiece, ‘Summer Hours’, ‘Carlos’…It’s hard to say with the newer ones but I absolutely loved ‘Personal Shopper’. It moves me every time I see it. I remember seeing it at Cannes and walking out of the cinema and feeling completely lost and dazed.

H: Tell us more about what you think of Personal Shopper. 

B: For me it’s about the idea of loss. Why are we here and what’s beyond here. And at the emotional level, losing someone close to you and how you deal with that. It captures that in such a beautiful and complicated way.

H: What I found interesting in Personal Shopper is that it’s an amalgam of genres, some of which he’s explored in his previous films — thriller, murder mystery, etc. 

B: That’s something I love about his work. He’s interested in big Hollywood type of films — we could talk about James Bond movies —, but then he also loves arthouse movies like Bergman and Hou Hsiao-hsien. He loves the high culture, he loves art, he loves trash, Hollywood…to him it’s all the same. There’s no judgment on which one’s better than the other. They all satisfy different needs.

Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas’ runs through August 20th. You can catch a double feature of Assayas’s ‘Personal Shopper’, starring Kristen Stewart, followed by Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic, ‘Blow Up.’ On closing day, you can watch Assayas’s ‘HHH — Portrait de Hou Hsiao-hsien‘ followed by ‘A Time to Live and a Time to Die‘ by Hou Hsiao-hsien. You can  get more information and purchase tickets hereStay on the look out for more information on TIFF’s various retrospectives happening before the festival this year, including ‘Ida Lupino: Independent Woman,’ a close look at the actor, screenwriter, director, and producer in Hollywood in the ’50s. 

What To Expect From TIFF 2017

There are things we can always expect from TIFF: celebrity sightings, the shut down of King St W, the madness of rush tickets, and, of course, movies spanning across every genre.

At the opening press conference for the Toronto International Film Festival’s 2017 edition, Piers Handling, CEO and Director of TIFF, and Cameron Bailey, Artistic Director, introduced the first batch of films in what promises to be a “tighter, more focused” line up. That could mean any number of things. Will the lineup feature fewer international films? Will there be fewer films from independent production companies?

In the midst of these speculations, we should note that TIFF is still one of the largest film festivals in the world. It’s a period of madly dashing between theatres to catch as many films as humanly possible. Last year’s festival showed 68 films in ten days.

A festival of this scale has no excuse for not having a diverse lineup. Past years have shown a decent amount of international releases, and this year is no exception. Of the films announced so far countries of origin include France, Italy, the United Kingdom, India, Sweden, Chile, and, of course, Canada. The overwhelming majority so far does go to American films, which was the case last year, with Canadian or international premieres of much-hyped big-studio movies with whispers of Oscar nominations trailing in their wake.

While premiering these films in Canada is exciting — and in Toronto we love to be on top of those premieres — these are films that will be widely distributed come Fall and Winter, and they come from a large budget with an impressive studio backing. International distribution is one matter, but my hope is when the full list is revealed, we will see a few more independent productions.

We still have a few holes left in the programming of this year’s festival, but what we do have so far is a good indication as to what we can expect from TIFF’s 42nd year.

The opening film for the festival is the world premiere of Janus Metz’s tennis biopic Borg/McEnroe. This announcement came roughly a week after the first press conference, and the film is an interesting choice, given that another tennis biopic, Battle of the Sexes, directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, will be showing as a part of the Special Presentations. There were speculations that Dennis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 would kick off the festival, but clearly we’ve gone in a different direction that has no Canadian connection or box-office-breaking leads.

The closing night film of the Gala presentations this year is Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s C’est la vie! Nakache and Toledano were the directing duo behind the wonderful 2011 film Les Intouchables, so they will be greeted in Canada with high expectations. The opener of the Special Presentations is Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. This is an already buzzed-about pick as Gerwig has established herself as a strong, young presence in acting and writing. Closing the Special Presentations will be Egyptian director Amr Salama’s Sheikh Jackson, about an Islamic cleric whose childhood hero is Michael Jackson. It will be the world premiere of Salama’s film.

The roster so far also includes George Clooney’s directorial debut, Suburbicon, and Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father. Jolie was also part of the production team on The Breadwinner, a multinational production directed by Nora Twomey, which is the only animation announced for the festival so far.

Piers Handling had suggested in an off-the-cuff way that one of the themes of this year’s festival could be survival, with films such as David Gordon Green’s Stronger, Hany Abu-Assad’s The Mountain Between Us, Andy Serkis’ Breathe and Longtime Running, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier’s documentary on The Tragically Hip’s last tour. These are films where the notion of survival is made literal. There are physical obstacles in the way of the protagonists, some that they can overcome and some they may not be able to.

Some of the other films, Disobedience (Sebastián Lelio), The Hungry (Bornilla Chatterjee), Woman Walks Ahead (Susanna White), and The Square (Ruben Östlund, who won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for the film earlier this year) features stories of outliers, revised histories, or social satire — very different ideas, but ones that are in line with our current cultural appetite and ways of thinking given recent events happening in around the world.

While I have my own wishes for the next slate of announcements, we do know that, despite having a reportedly smaller list of titles, TIFF 2017 will continue to be a showing place for hyped American movies and international gems waiting to be greeted with open arms by a North American audience.

The full list of documentaries, short titles, and first slate of feature films can be found here.

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Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas at TIFF

On June 9th, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott of the New York Times published ‘The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century,‘ a list of films that are “destined to be the classics of the future.” Because I read almost every review the two write, I went through the list and noted down films I haven’t seen that I’d like to see now that they’re meant for even more greatness. A few hours later, the marketing team at TIFF reached out with news of a new Summer-long complete retrospective — the first in 15 years — of the French master, Olivier Assayas whose 2008 film, Summer Hours, graced number #9 on NYT’s list and on top of my to-watch list. What are the chances!

Not all coincidences, it is said, are interesting. Considering that Assayas has long been synonymous with post-1968 generation of French cinema that deal with adolescence, political dissent, terrorism, and globalization, and that Summer Hours won numerous critics’ award around the world, perhaps this particular coincidence falls into the not very interesting category. Yet, it is, nevertheless, a fortuitous one, as I now have the chance to spread the news on TIFF’s Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas.

Scene from ‘Summer Hours’

Olivier Assays was a film-critic for France’s Cahiers du cinémathe prominent film magazine founded by André Bazin, before he became a director. Though he worked both as a director and screenwriter for numerous short and feature-length films alongside film giants like André Téchiné starting in 1978, Cold Waterreleased in 1994, is considered to be his breakthrough film as it was screened at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. Assayas has since established himself as a distinguished voice among contemporary filmmakers.

Assayas’s oeuvre is marked by the variety of genres. His 1996 satire Irma Vep about an actress (Maggie Cheung) and a failing director who wants to recreate Louis Feuillade’s 1915 classic Les Vampires is a strange and fascinating homage to the filmmaker and Hong Kong cinema. Sentimental Destinies (2000) is a costume drama set in the earl 20th centuries, concerning a Protestant minister. And with Demonlover (2002) and Boarding Gate (2007), Assayays forayed into noir and thriller. More recently, with Carlos (2010), Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), and Personal Shopper (2016), which won the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, Assayas has become a globetrotter. With each genre, however, it is easy to see Assayas’s search for his vision. Encompassing his oeuvre is his rumination on films, film history, and issues of identity in the face of larger disorienting cultural, economic, and political forces.

Kristen Stewart as Maureen Cartwright in ‘Persona Shopper’

Summer Hours is interesting in that, for many who’ve come to know Assayas through Carlos and Personal Shopper, it offers a quieter and lyrical side of his oeuvre. The film begins with the 75th birthday of Helene (Édith Scob). Her three children, Frederic (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jeremie (Jérémie Renier) gather in Helene’s home outside Paris to celebrate. Soon, Helene dies and leaves the house and her all-important art-nouveau furniture along with her inheritance from her famous artist uncle to her children. What ensues is a series of scenes and dealings with practical matters in which what holds a family together becomes increasingly vague; what was once thought to be a common ground — the house, both literally and figuratively — becomes a point of tension as money, emotions, and personal histories come into play. The center, however contentious and insufficient it had been prior to Helene’s death, does not hold once she is gone. Jeremie moves permanently to Shanghai and Adrienne to New York. Frederic, the only one left in France, struggles to realign himself as the new, albeit reluctant, center of his family of four.

Just next to the adult world of lawyers and contracts, Helene’s grandchildren lead, mostly unseen, entirely different lives. Shown Corot’s works nonchalantly hanging in his grandmother’s house, Frederic’s eldest son responds, “Well, it’s another era.” When Frederic is in the middle of closing a deal with regards to Helene’s furniture, his daughter, Sylvie, is caught shoplifting. That the film ends not in the adult world but with the children speaks to Assayas’s brilliance and vision. The movie that began with Helene and the art or artifacts of her life turns to one concerned with the disorder inherent in a family and becomes one about generations and youth, continuity and the lack thereof in families, cultures, and societies.

As with all great themes in film, family and adolescence and identity are materials that are visited without every really exhausting them. And Assayas’s continually revisits them from unexpected avenues.

Édith Scob as Hélène Berthier in ‘Summer Hours’

As part of TIFF’s ‘Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas,’ Assayas will make four in-person appearances to introduce four of his films: Cold Water, Clean, Le Diable Probablement, and Le Pélican. It is also a chance to see 35mm prints of many of his films, including Summer Hours, Clouds of Sils Maria, and Something in the Air. Finally, it is also a chance to see HHH — Portrait de Hou Hsiao-hsienAssayas’s documentary of the great Taiwanese director (A Time to Live and a Time to Die by Hou Hsiao-hsien is also a part of the retrospective). The retrospective begins on June 22nd and runs through August 20th.

Olivier Assayas with Hou Hsiao-hsien

You can find more information on the retrospective and its schedule here. And continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Are you Brave Enough for TIFF’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival?

Are you brave enough to watch the films shown at TIFF’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival? The eight documentary feature films from Afghanistan, Canada, China, Egypt, France, the U.S., and more deal with human rights crisis across the world — they shed light on new issues and offer new perspectives on old. The lineup is the creative, evocative, and galvanizing call to social action that befits the current state of our cultural, socio-economic, and political systems. It takes courage to watch what you’d sleep better not knowing. Here are two you should definitely not miss.

Tickling Giants by Sara Taksler

There’s a poster on one of the walls of Bassem Youssef’s Al-Bernameg (the Show) office that reads, “Sarcasm: because beating the shit out of people is illegal.” Considering that the Al-Bernameg first aired shortly after the violence of the Egyptian Revolution and that it was shut down under government pressure during Si-si’s quasi-military regime, the poster goes beyond the realm of irony into comic tragedy. But as it were, Bassem Youssef, dubbed the John Stewart of Egypt, over his three seasons as the most popular late-night show host, told jokes that scratched the many itches of the disaffected and the discontent of a country rife with political detritus. Along the way, he made an enemy of many far-right politicians, religious groups, and military personnels, the obstacles to a burgeoning democracy.

As of late, the value of comedy, that of political satire fake-news shows in particular, have been questioned in the Western world due to the rise of the Donald. To what extent such platforms can affect the political consciousness of its viewers is difficult to measure. After all, the voter turnout for the 2016 election, not to mention previous mid-term elections, and local and municipal elections, was scant.

But as Sara Taksler’s Tickling Giants shows, it is easier to be discouraged by the less than far reaching effect of comedy than to be critical of various elements that drive political involvement down in a country where the freedom of speech is consecrated in the Constitution. To be able to joke, to be able to call the president names with impunity, and have a robust legal system that protects not only tv show hosts but journalists at large is a precious thing.

Not that the value of the film lies in making the viewers in North America feel better about ourselves. With various nonsensical “news media” outlets in the West Wing, the media at large is addressing an identity crisis like never before. Youssef has cited John Stewart as his inspiration for making fun of whoever he wants. What those of us whose cultural identities are shaped within the comforts of the hot house of the 1st amendment and the familiar face of John Stewart can learn from Youssef is his fearlessness and persistence.

Complicit by Heather White and Lynn Zhang

Heather White and Lynn Zhang’s Complicit opens with the funeral of Yi Long, a Chinese migrant worker who died of leukemia caused by benzene poisoning. He worked at one of Foxconn’s — the largest electronics manufacturing firm in the world — many assembly lines, in pursuit of the highly visible wealth of his country outside of his rural backgrounds. He is one of many who died without fully understanding why and how he became the victim of globalization.

Complicit follows Yi Yeting, who’s been diagnosed with leukemia due to benzene poisoning, as he organizes other migrant workers who suffer from benzene poisoning (a widely used known carcinogenic chemical compound), n-hexane poisoning (damage to the nervous system), and other occupational diseases. Because many of the 260 million migrant workers — of which 12 million are teenagers — lack legal knowledge and face corporate and bureaucratic obstacles, advocacy groups like Labor Action China, to which Yeting belongs, are key to establishing the victims’ legal status and getting rightful compensation.

Apple accounts for 50% of Foxconn’s sales. In 2014 Apple banned the use of benzene and n-hexane from final assembly of iPhones and iPads. Tim Cook got a whole lot of applause for it. Yet the PR move does little to alleviate the dangers migrant workers face everyday — little to nothing is done to enforce the ‘ban’ and offer an alternative.

From ‘Complicit’: Yi Yeting protesting use of benzene

The human cost of globalization is unfortunately dramatic: the shady corporations and government officials playing a dangerous hide-and-seek, and heroes in pursuit of villains, just an arm’s reach away from the grand revelation. And to the viewer — who is, often, on the other side of the world — the moral cost of globalization can often be lost in the cinematic narrative. However, as the title states, complicity is everywhere. Whatever degrees of separation distances the viewer from the deaths and suffering of those on film, the viewer has no choice not only to be in a particular damning system but also to participate in it. To live today in the industrialized west and to reap benefits of it is to be complicit — and to know of Yi Long’s death yet remain powerless is to commit a venial sin. The film is fortunately not as didactic as I am. Instead, by delving into the personal stories of each victim, the film organically generates empathy and compassion and an acknowledgement of complicity from the viewer.

Tickling Giants (Sara Taksler, 2016) has its Toronto premier on Saturday, April 1st at 6:30. Complicit’s (Heather White and Lynn Zhang, 2017) North American premiere is on Thursday, March 30th at 6:30. TIFF Human Rights Watch Film Festival also features A Syrian Love Story (Sean McAllister), the Canadian premiere of Nowhere to Hide (Zaradasht Ahmed) preceded by Fantassút/Rain on the Borders (Federica Foglia), We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice (Alanis Obomsawin), Girl Unbound: The War to be Her (Erin Heidenreich), the Canadian premiere of No Dress Code Required (Cristina Herrera Borquez), and Black Code (Nick de Pencier). The Festival opens on March 29th and runs through April 6th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. You can get your tickets here

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