In which our retired film critic decides at the last minute what he wants to see and discovers he’s chosen an eight-hour epic
By Jay Stone
TORONTO — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past, or, in the case of the Toronto film festival, ceaselessly into the next lineup.
People who come to film festivals to scout movies for other festivals, or who own theatres and are looking for something to show in them, move through Toronto’s cinemas like sharks, dipping their fins, as it were, into this auditorium and that. In a few minutes they can decide whether what they’re watching is worth the acquisition. Then it’s off to feed in the next hunting ground.
Film critics, on the other hand, are expected to do some research, make a schedule, and head off to the likely movies. You stick it out because you might be interviewing the stars, or the director, and they might ask you what you thought of the ending. You can only say “Mmmm. Interesting,” so many times before they get suspicious.
Retired film critics, however, have no such duties. Indeed, they seem to have no duties at all. We just flit hither and yon, looking for interesting titles or for something that starts at 6:45 p.m., this being 6:30 p.m. and absolutely no research having been done, aside from determining the closest open bar. And so it was that we walked into cinema 5 at the Scotiabank theatres on Thursday at around 8 p.m., which was when we finished dinner, if you must know.
“Did I miss anything?,” I asked the nice TIFF volunteer at the door.
“No, only 3½ hours,” she said, deadpan.
No problem. Plenty to go. For this was Dead Souls, Wang Bing’s eight-hour-and-15-minute epic documentary — a monumental feat in many ways — about life in Chinese “re-education camps” of the 1950s. It’s comprised mostly of old people talking about their experiences: the horror of starvation, of watching other prisoners bloat up so big that their clothes didn’t fit, of drinking their own urine and of eating human flesh, or garbage, or boiled leaves. One man said his crime was to agree with a newspaper story that said different points of view should be tolerated.
Such narrations can be horribly effective — witness the terrifying story of a lynching told by the Harry Belafonte character in Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman — but Dead Souls plays more like an historical document, a gathering of testimony put together while the last witnesses are still alive to talk about it. This makes it important, but not necessarily cinematic, and I wasn’t surprised to find that I was one of four people in the auditorium. One of them left when I was there, presumably to get dinner or perhaps have a nap (he left his coat and tote bag behind.)
I lasted only 45 minutes, enough to get a sense of the movie, but certainly not enough to decide whether the huge investment of time would be worth it. No theatre owner would ever book it: it would take an entire day’s receipts and attract a minuscule audience. A film festival is the only place to see it (Dead Souls also showed at Cannes.)
I promise to do better today. Just as soon as I get cracking.
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