Culture | Festival International du films sur l’art

Each year for the past 28 years, the Festival International du Film sur l’Art (FIFA) has brought hundreds of films about the arts to Montreal. The festival’s aim is to foster knowledge and love of art through film, and to urge the international film industry to increase its production of art films. The festival includes movies on topics ranging from art history to literature to print media. From March 18-28, films will be screening all over the city; the breadth of the programming this year is really incredible. We’ve selected some of our favourite of the festival’s offerings below, but the full schedule can be found at artfifa.com.

Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies
March 20 at 4:00 / Musée des Beaux Arts (1380 Sherbrooke O.)
March 23 at 3:30 / Musée des Beaux Arts (1380 Sherbrooke O.)
March 25 at 9:00 / Musée des Beaux Arts (1380 Sherbrooke O.)
How did the invention of movies influence art? Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies is an hour-long documentary that examines the relationship between the first moving pictures and the two painters’ cubism.

Producer and narrator Martin Scorsese wisely chooses to avoid montages or the sort of sentimental melodrama that fuels most documentaries, and lets experts talk instead. The film features commentary from the likes of Chuck Close and Adam Gopnik to argue its thesis, summed up by Scorsese: “Cubism is not an art; it is a revolution that instigated a profoundly radical change of artistic form – a radical change in vision itself.”

Film was the first art form that mirrored movement and time. Fractured space, multiple perspectives – the moving picture tore down conventions of representations. And its effect on cubism was striking. Dark and blurred corners in Picasso and Braque’s artwork, for example, directly mirror those of the first screens. Critics even began to characterize cubism in cinematic terms without realizing it.

By restricting its scope and length, Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies presents an enlightening portrait of cinema’s influence on art, as wielded by the medium’s early masters.

—Gavin Thomson

King of Spies: John le Carre
March 20 at 6:30 / Grande bibliotheque (475 de Maisonneuve E.)
March 24 at 6:30 / Concordia University – Cinéma J.A. De Sève (1400 de Maisonneuve O.)
March 28 at 6:30 / Grande bibliotheque (475 de Maisonneuve E.)
Opening with a predictable combination of suspenseful music, an ominous narrator’s voice, and grainy black-and-white archival footage, The King of Spies would lead you to conclude that this is a bog-standard TV documentary. And you’d be right. The subject matter – the life of famous spy novelist John LeCarré – carries a lot of potential, but André Schafer’s direction failed to take advantage of all the possibilities his experiences offer.

However, where the direction lacks inspiration, spy-novel writer LeCarré himself easily compensates. Ideological without being obnoxious or unrealistic, he saw flaws in his profession and sought to change them through his writing. Touching on the shortcomings of the British Secret Service, to the Cold War, and now to globalization, his work has spanned generations’ worth of social and political issues.

No documentary is complete without extensive biographical segments, and those featured in The King of Spies are relevant and interesting, despite often appearing disjointed within the context of the whole film. But overlooking the predictability of technique, LeCarré’s memories are compellingly presented without being sensationalized.

Through extensive readings and clips from his books and the movies they spawned, and a liberal smattering of LeCarré himself, The King of Spies makes for good viewing. Despite missing the elements needed for this documentary to be worth watching for those with no interest in the topic, it is nevertheless definitely worth it to find out more about the man behind a genre, and the controversial and secretive agencies he criticized.

—Naomi Endicott

Let There Be Light
March 20 at 6:30 / Concordia University – Cinéma J.A. De Sève (1400 Maisonneuve O.)
March 21 at 6:30 / Musée d’art contemporain (185 Sainte-Catherine O.)
“Light is the essence of art. But tonight, light is the subject of art.” So proclaims narrator Alan Yentob at the outset of Tim Kirby’s Let There Be Light.

He goes on to profile six artists who have taken light as their work’s medium and inspiration. They attempt to transform the elusive energy into something substantial and to bring into focus “light’s relationship to the material world,” as sculptor Liliane Lijn puts it.

The narration never becomes any less cheesy, but the spectacle of the film more than compensates: dazzling images of flickering columns of LEDs at a United Visual Artists installation, a glimpse of the earth’s curvature preserved in Charles Ross’s “solar burns,” and, in the film’s most triumphant moment, a radically new view of the sky, captured and shaped by artist James Turrell.

You inevitably leave Kirby’s film with a new appreciation for light, unable to avoid noticing the way it falls over the room and plays across the floor. In that sense, Let There Be Light is successful, though it’s more a result of the sheer innovation of the artists Kirby highlights than of the blurred close-ups and distracting narration he’s chosen as their cinematic frame.

—Sheehan Moore

They Are Giants
March 19 at 6:30 / Cinematheque Quebecois, Salle Claude-Jutra (335 Maisonneuve E.)
The lights come up on the quintessential Old Library: furnished with mahogany, accented with leather, light slanting onto richly-carpeted floors. And the books, oh the books! Walls lined with them, from floor to ceiling, volumes so beautiful that at first you’re too involved in them to notice the giant hand reaching in to select a tome no bigger than its thumb. The camera pulls back and you realize you’ve spent the last few moments in Guus Thurkow’s miniature library, the Bibliotheca Thurkowiana Minor.

Beginning as just a secondary source of income in the days when they managed an antique bookstore in the Netherlands, the Thurkows’ dream of one day owning a complete little library is now a reality. Their Bibliotheca is now home to over 2,000 books, many made by Thurkow himself, and none standing more than 76 millimetres high.

At only 12 minutes, director Koert Davidse’s They Are Giants offers a tantalizing snapshot of the library and the world of miniature books. There’s little elaboration on the why or how of the unique hobby. It’s just enough to whet your appetite for a dish you didn’t even know you were craving.

—S.M.

Faust: Path of the Moment
March 21 at 6:30 / Goethe-Institut (418 Sherbrooke E.)
As a haunting industrial melody plays, a red-dressed woman drags a well-suited Faust across a stage, beneath the banshee screams of bungee-roped actresses bouncing up and down, suspended in the air, while actors dressed as pigs swarm the audience.

Laurentiu Damian’s film, Faust: Path of the Moment, captures the eccentric and grandiose production of a Romanian adaptation of Goethe’s Faust by the director Silviu Purcărete. The film is stitched from clips of rehearsals and performances, as well as the increasingly pathetic and futile attempts of Damian to contact Purcărete for an interview. The film suffers from its stylistic choices, however, making Faust an ineffective documentary about a terrific production.

The play itself looks amazing – harrowing devils, a massive cast, and an ever-transforming stage production that forces the audience out of their seats and walks them through Hell. But where the play succeeds, the film falls remarkably short. Most successful when it lets the play speak for itself, the film dedicates an inordinately large portion of its running length to details, such as inane aspects of the rehearsal, all gift-wrapped to the harmonics of Muzak. Instead of seeing this shrivelled, watered-down depiction of what appears like a great work of art, you’d be better off learning Romanian and booking flights for mid-2000s Bucharest.

—Ryan Healey

Germany’s Cold War Cultures
March 28 at 6:30 / Concordia University – Cinéma J.A. De Sève (1400 Maisonneuve O.)
Director Michael Blackwood sticks to his documentarian roots in Germany’s Cold War Cultures, a film that takes an in-depth look at “Art of Two Germanys: Cold War Cultures,” a 2009 exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The film follows Stephanie Barron and Sabine Eickmann, the exhibit’s curators, as they walk through the gallery and discuss the ways in which the exhibit traces the chronological dichotomy of East and West Germany, starting with the ideological and aesthetic battle of the 50’s between the West’s abstract expressionist art and East Germany’s “Soviet realism” influenced propaganda.

Arguably, West German art dominates the exhibition. This can be traced back to the onset of the West’s “Economic Miracle” – a period that led to both artistic valorizations and critiques of newfound consumer culture, and that led to a flourishing of various artistic movements within West Germany.

Cold War Cultures continues to trace the two country’s respective movements toward increasing experimentation up until the 80’s, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, with work by well-known contemporary artists such as Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, and Gerhard Richter. Blackwood’s film allows the lineage of German art to speak for itself, and effectively “[re-thinks] the art history of a politically divided country.”

—Joseph Henry

The Photographer
March 20 at 4:00 / Cinéma ONF (1564 St. Denis)
March 28 at 9:00 / Cinéma ONF (1564 St. Denis)
At the centre of the film The Photographer is Evgeny Kashirin, the late Russian artist famous for his portrayals of central Russia. Through music, film, and the photographs themselves, directors Thomas Lahusen, Tracy McDonald, and Alexander Gershstein explore the power of the image to tell both a story and a history.

The history at hand is that of the Riazan, a city in central Russia that Kashirin called home. Kashirin’s photographs create a sizable archive of the people and places in Riazan, but one of the city’s inhabitants was careful to note that Kashirin “was not a factual photographer. He fantasizes.”

The stories the photographs tell are those of the everyday people of Riazan – like Baba Frosia and Baba Klava, two women with whom Kashirin kept in touch with over a long period of time – forming a formidable album he expressly wished to share with the world.

The Photographer tells the unique tale of one photographer’s inspiration. The combination of photographs, talking heads, Kashirin’s own blank verse, and original guitar music by Russian Oleg Timofeyev, come together to showcase a moving sociocultural history.

—Hillary Amann

To Be and Not To Be
March 20 at 1:30 / Concordia University – Cinéma J.A. De Sève (1400 Maisonneuve O.)
To Be and Not to Be is not a question, but a bold statement about listening to one’s inner music. Or, at least that’s what it means in the context of To Be and Not to Be: The Tehran Philharmonic Orchestra – a film that tells the story of Iranian composer Nader Mashayekhi and his dream to organize a symphony orchestra in his home country. The film explores lesser-known aspects of Iranian culture that arose under the country’s current conservative political regime.

As Mashayekhi asks, “How can one develop creativity and expression in a world that does not allow them to be original?” The composer has an answer, though: create a new musical genre that applies the complex timbre of traditional Persian music to Western forms. Director Frank Scheffer follows Mashayekhi from rehearsals and performances to his family home and back again. The film is most effective when Scheffer focuses on the stories of Mashayekhi’s students and their struggle to find meaning in music; it features interviews with Iranian musicians who play Latin music in their parents’ basement, who reject playing the tar in favour of the trumpet, and who daringly perform Bach’s Passion According to St. John. To Mashayekhi and his students, making music is clearly a valuable means of expression.

—Talitha Calder

Expansive Grounds
March 24 at 6:30 / Cinquieme Salle at Place des Arts (175 Ste. Catherine O.)
March 28 at 6:30 / Concordia University – Cinéma J.A. De Sève (1400 Maisonneuve O.)
In September 2003, construction started on the Berlin Holocaust Memorial. The structure features huge slabs of concrete, each cut to unique and precise angles, that create a vast sea of grey that covers almost five acres in downtown Berlin. In Expansive Grounds, director Gerburg Rohde-Dahl focuses her camera not only on the memorial’s striking architecture, but also on the spectators watching the construction, as well as on Rohde-Dahl’s own family. Many of the interviews capture the voices of older Germans, who lived through World War II as children under the care of their Nazi parents.

As Rohde-Dahl portrays it, the mere aesthetics of the project challenge Germany with questions of guilt, shame, and memory. While Rohde-Dahl argues with her sister about the potential sins of their father, younger Germans at the site quietly talk about whether the memorial properly represents the loss, the sorrow, and the overwhelming guilt of a new German generation. Together, their confessions of doubt express a voice that feels surprisingly personal, especially when spoken next to the structure meant to represent such feelings.

Unlike other Holocaust films, there is literally no Jewish presence in Expansive Grounds. Jews are barely mentioned. This absence is, in a way, more moving than many of the big-budget Holocaust films that feature fictional recreations of true stories. While some Holocaust films can seem repetitive or numbing, Expansive Grounds feels original, relevant, and appropriately unsettling.

—Sarah E. Adams

Life and Work of Miloš Forman
Cinémathèque Québécoise, 335 Maisonneuve E., March 19, 9 p.m.

Cinema J.A. De Sève, 1400 Maisonneuve O., March 21, 6:30 p.m.

“The meaning of life is to live it and talk about it,” says Czech director Miloš Forman in the opening scene of Life and Work of Milos Foreman, directed by Ann Victorin. “The rest is survival,” he adds. As an orphan of the Second World War, survival is a concept that Forman knows intimately. He made his directing debut during the cultural thaw in 60s communist Czechoslovakia as part of the Czech New Wave of film, a style that borrowed heavily from the French Nouvelle Vague and Italian Neo-realism. Refused re-entry to Czechoslovakia in 1968 after Soviet Russia invaded the country and ended what had been a brief period of national liberalization, Forman headed to New York City, where his film career blossomed. By the mid-1970s, he had gained notoriety as a director in America, with his big-screen adaptions of Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

“For you, it’s a literature; for me, it’s a real life,” Forman has said, when asked whether he has authority to represent the American experience onscreen. “Communism was my big nurse,” he continued, emphasizing the extent to which his artistic projects have been inspired by his own life experience. In his ability to see the common threads of human experience within the particular details of life, Forman becomes an apt subject for a compelling study of the relationship between an artist’s life and work.

-H.A.

Save the Last Dance for Me: Company of Elders
Cinéma ONF, 1564 St. Denis, March 20, 6:30 p.m.

Cinéma J.A. De Sève, 1400 Maisonneuve O., March 28, 4 p.m.

Dancing is often associated with youthful characteristics like beauty, vitality, and energy. In Save the Last Dance for Me: Company of Elders, though, these conventions are shattered. For eight weeks, BBC documentary filmmaker Fran Landsman followed the Company of Elders, a contemporary dance group whose members have an average age of 79, as they prepared to premiere a new work by choreographer Chris Tudor at the Sadlers’ Wells Theatre in London.

As the weeks pass, Tudor becomes increasingly nervous, worried that the dancers may not be able to memorize their choreography in time. But the dancers seem unconcerned, laughing and joking during lunch breaks.

As this dynamic develops, the film illustrates how elderly dancers can add an illuminating and exciting element of expression and artistry to dance, which is not always found in younger performers. While the film suffers from the inclusion of Alan Yentob’s distracting narration, Landsman’s talent as a filmmaker compensates for the decision, highlighting the layered interactions between Tudor’s youthfulness and the wisdom of the dancers.

-T.C.

Super 8: The Art of Making It
Musée d’Art Contemporain, 185 Ste. Catherine O., March 19, 6:30
Musée d’Art Contemporain, 185 Ste. Catherine O., March 28, 1:30
Sold Out
In the art world, success is elusive. Defining what it means to “make it” in a creative field triggers a whole slew of definitions, opinions, facts, myths, and fantasies. How does one measure an artist’s success? Is it by national or global recognition, the number of works of art sold, personal satisfaction and enjoyment, or experience? Super 8: The Art of Making It delves into the roadblocks and rewards facing eight Canadian artists striving for success in the art world. Self-produced iconic superstar Andy Warhol functions as the documentary’s ultimate success story, as the film explores how other artists differ from and conform to his precedent.

Apparently, pursing art as a career involves intense left-brain effort, while artists are right-brain thinkers. Thus, a problem arises: should an artist create only what sells, or trust their artistic ideas? Director Katherine Jeans astutely addresses this crisis via a magical tour inside the workspaces, headspaces, and social spaces that make up the unique world of art.

-Rikki Gotthelf

Where is Where?
Cinéma J.A. De Sève, 1400 Maisonneuve O., March 21, 9 p.m.

In Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s film, Where is Where?, cultures clash in form and content. The film centres around an incident in the 1945 Setif massacre in Algeria, during which French soldiers arrived at a village at night, rounded up innocent Algerians, and shot them in cold blood. The film consists of intersecting sequences of a Finnish woman on a global death tour à la the Ghost of Christmas Future, black and white footage of a bustling antebellum Algiers, a silent modern rendition of an Algerian massacre orchestrated by clandestine French troops, and the odyssey of the Algerian boys planning to kill “a European.” The film is divided on four screens, and often two isolated thematic threads overlap. The Finnish woman swims nude in a tranquil lake only to hear a muezzin’s call to prayer in the wooded distance, and soon one screen is occupied with burqa-clad women dodging taxis, then another with men in military fatigues walking slowly through the Kasbah, until one world entirely overwrites the other. The conclusion brings together the film’s scattered surrealistic narratives into one single large screen, a close-up of maimed faces with muted drumbeats and the sound of bombs detonating behind them.

-R.H.


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