Dispatch from Tromsø: From Raging Bull to Joyland

It’s time to say farewell to the northmost film festival in the world
Dispatch from Tromsø: From Raging Bull to Joyland

I’ll admit I got a little worried midway through Tromsø International Film Festival. I couldn’t walk by a single street without clicking a photograph and thinking of a clever social media caption. I couldn’t not hang out with the cool bunch of international journalists and Norwegian fest coordinators whose hospitality has been second to none. I couldn’t pass a single vintage library, restaurant or shop without marvelling at how picture-perfect they looked, most of their names proudly prefixed with “northmost in the world”. The few film festivals I’ve been to have been all business: I watch movies like a maniac and write about them. There’s no room for anything else. But something about Tromsø made me crave the 360-degree experience: The events, the sidebars, the food, the parties. It’s that sort of place, really.

How on earth, then, would I find the mental bandwidth to watch actual films when the town looks like Cinema itself? How would I prioritize the stacked movie schedule over sightseeing, and find the courage to book tickets at the risk of missing precious hours of daylight? I can think of worse problems to have on this planet, but as someone who’s often torn between exploring and escaping, it’s been a legitimate struggle. As we speak, the open-air Winter Cinema is screening Palme d’Or winner The Triangle of Sadness, Ruben Ostland’s wicked but weirdly unsubtle social satire. Scratch that. It’s now screening Singin’ in the Rain. If there were ever a time to emulate Amélie Poulain and watch people’s faces as they watch movies, this was it. Not surprisingly, I forgot to tweet about the films themselves.

As it turns out, though, I did manage to do a bit of what we’re all meant to do at film festivals. I watched 15 titles over the week, most of which were followed by fascinating Q&A sessions. If I had the superpower of not needing to rest or sleep, I’d have reviewed them all. But that’s not possible, so this TIFF 2023 wrap is proof of the heart that powers the Northmost film festival in the world: Pure, unadulterated cinephilia. 

The non-fiction jolt

First up, we need to talk about The Grab. The investigative documentary by Gabriela Cowperthwaite reveals an issue so pressing that it’s difficult to write about it without feeling insignificant. It follows investigative journalist Nathan Halverson – who is also one of the producers of this film – during his tireless seven-year journey of uncovering the geopolitics behind the covert war to control the planet’s most vital resources: Food and water. There’s a lot of information to process in this story, a lot of big-picture zooming out and disorienting offshoots. But the film-making does a stellar job of streamlining the dense journalism with Hollywood-thriller panache. In a way, it works as a worthy sequel to all the fine ecological documentaries we’ve been seeing in the last decade. 

The gist of it is this: With the escalation of global warming, the world’s most powerful countries have been competing to replenish – by bully-buying, outsourcing agriculture, invading poorer countries – their depleting food and water stocks. The battle is to eventually use these most fundamental ‘resources’ to control the future. Much of the documentary is devoted to detailing the sinister systems in place. It eases us in by introducing the more accessible and borderline-bizarre cases. Like, for instance, Saudi Arabia buying a giant plot in rural Arizona that sucks the land dry to grow hay. Or Russia – the only country whose ecology and economy stand to gain from climate change – importing American cowboys to start an agricultural revolution. Or China buying a massive U.S. food company ("1 in 4 pigs basically") to provide for a highly populous nation and prevent them from descending into food riots. 

These facts sound stranger than fiction at first, but the makers slowly reveal America’s role in this global power-grab. From Halverson and his team being deported from Zambia to them chancing upon pieces in an endless puzzle of dead-end investor trails, the documentary leaves no narrative stone unturned to convey the urgency of this global conspiracy. We see locals suffering and governments willing to sell more than their soul to attract foreign ‘investors’. We see Western mercenaries doing the dirty work for Middle-Eastern governments. The downside, as well as the upside of the film, is that there is no race-against-time device to make what is essentially a journalism movie look sexy. But that’s the thing – The Grab acknowledges that the story is much bigger than the people who’re working to break it. It’s not about the writing of the story so much as the broader commentary and reportage. In other words, the documentary itself is the exposé, unlike films that document the anatomy of the exposé.

The Performance Conundrum

I’ve never been a subscriber to the film-is-poor-but-great-performance discourse. For me, the two are inextricably linked. The acting cannot exist in isolation; it’s one of several elements that compose the team-language of storytelling. But three very different films I watched at TIFF truly tested my notions. There’s Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, an unfocused period drama that tries to be everything from a mental-health tragedy to a personal film to a Thatcher-era snapshot to a nostalgic movie about movies. It ends up being none of the lot, leaping from one theme to another, and awkwardly using the cinema-heals trope as a forced footnote. But Olivia Colman’s performance as a volatile manager of a 1980s movie theatre in Kent is so spellbinding that it left me wondering if perhaps Empire of Light was better than its scattered quasi-legacy writing. She owns every moment she’s in – as a middle-aged, mentally unstable spinster – and makes a case for being so good that the story buckles under the pressure of measuring up to her. It may look like a showy performance, but it’s actually one of the most compelling and frightening portrayals of schizophrenia in modern film. 

Everything about Brendan Fraser in Darren Aronofsky’s divisive The Whale screams for Oscar-baity attention. The prosthetics, the fatsuit, the impossibly kind face, his acting comeback after years in the wilderness, the chamber tension and intense gluttony. But you can’t help but fall for it. Fraser is singularly heartbreaking as a man whose body stars as a mammoth monument to grief. His character, Charlie, is morbidly obese and almost predictable in his desire to reconnect with his (cruel) teen daughter. There’s also Aronofsky’s heavy-handed infusions of biblical morality and guilt that suggests how perhaps a God-fearing Charlie is striving to pay the price for having sinned. He left his family for a male student a decade ago but is now eating himself to death – and leaving his money to his estranged daughter – after losing the love of his life. Fraser commits to the cinematic gimmick so hard that it’s almost unfair to be unmoved by the meandering movie. He turns the feel-bad drama into something rare: a love letter to the fallibility of humans.

Caroline Cavalli’s Amanda tries too hard to be quick-witted and quirky – and overcooks the socially-inept teen template. It aspires to be a deadpan coming-of-age story about a troubled Turin girl and her struggle with basic human relationships, but rarely transcends its derivative Greta-Gerwig-lite tone. Much like Empire of Light, the twin themes of cinema and mental health shape her disorienting experience. But actress Benedetta Porcaroli has such a wonderful movie face and presence that it’s hard to look past the mercurial protagonist. One of the film’s first scenes features her crushing on a geeky boy at a movie theatre, except she finds herself incapable of taking this magical moment beyond the eye-meeting phase. They stare at each other in the hallway, wondering what to say and where to go. This is supposed to be amusing, but Porcaroli manages to inject it with a sort of introverted sadness that’s tough to convey without dialogue. Similarly, her mood swings in an on-off friendship are nearly romantic, like she’s thrashing hard against the inevitability of becoming a misunderstood tragedy. It’s a star-making and clutter-breaking performance – one that also evokes the illusion of hijacking others’ stories until she can find her own.

Scandinavian Glory

The three Scandinavian features I watched offered varied but satisfying snapshots of a culture we too often reduce to slow-burning-noir stereotypes. Debut director Christoffer Sandler’s So Damn Easy Going is the opposite of Amanda in how it tackles the unstable-teen syndrome. The edgy Swedish dramedy revolves around a broke 18-year-old girl, Joanna, who is forced to get creative to afford her ADHD medicines. Her father is depressed after the death of her mother, and she’s left to fend for herself in contemporary Gothenburg. It’s not as stark as it sounds, though, with Sandler effortlessly upending the genre to present a film that’s both a disarming teen romance and a coming-of-age caper. Newcomer Nikki Hanseblad flings us into the frustrating headspace of someone with a neurodevelopmental disorder, framing social awkwardness as a superpower as well as an illness. It’s an enjoyable, endearing movie that Hollywood has been over-packaging since the Juno years. Gone are the hipster frills, and for once, we’re left with a teenager whose self-therapy is swimming without heading anywhere. 

Dispatch from Tromsø: From Raging Bull to Joyland
Dispatch from Tromso Film Fest: Come for Shekhar Kapur's New Film, Stay for Jemima Goldsmith's Story

The other two ‘Films from the North’ features – Icelandic period drama A Letter to Helga and Norwegian documentary The Johansen Brothers – I’ve written about at length in separate festival dispatches. They are connected at the hip in terms of their small-town settings in remote fjords, similar conflicts between tradition and modernity, but also their willingness to critique a culture without totally dismantling it. It’s too easy for new-age filmmakers to make movies through an urban, woke lens – to tell politically correct and progressive stories that say what we want to hear in 2023. But the directors of this fiction, as well as non-fiction feature, stay true to the reality of the worlds their characters are struggling to navigate. It’s a refreshing change that offers the gift of insight rather than hindsight. 

The Best of TIFF 

What's a festival without one memorable short film? I hadn't planned to watch Endre Lund Eriksen's Home Office. I chanced upon the animated 8-minute fable while strolling by the Winter Cinema screen at the town square. Initially, I was just curious about the kind of shorts that were being screened for local school children every morning. I took a seat, fully expecting to vacate it in a minute. Eight minutes later, not even a surgeon could have extracted the lump in my throat. Home Office tells the story of a ten-year-old girl, Lilly, in Covid-induced lockdown in Tromso. She spends her days attending online classes, doing household chores, being an 'adult' and, most of all, trying to hide her alcoholic mom from the eagle-eyed gaze of a naughty classmate. Lilly’s greatest fear is that she might be teased if everyone finds out about her mother's drinking problem. 

Eriksen composes a poignant and oddly reassuring ode to a child's psychology. By situating the story in the isolation of the pandemic – and did I mention that the characters are not humans but wolves? – he addresses an entire generation of kids who are learning to confront the social consequences of losing two formative years. The film speaks to me personally, too, as someone who was constantly wary of the stigma that came with having "free-spirited" parents. But it also speaks to the broader Scandinavian relationship with alcohol and how the pandemic might just have democratised the concept of dysfunctionality. Everyone developed their own ways to cope, and over time, it became futile to distinguish between drinkers and dreamers. If anything, we became more tolerant towards the fragility of the human condition; screaming – howling – from the balcony became an act of liberation and catharsis. Home Office does an excellent job of expressing this as a positive cultural crack. 

Saim Sadiq’s Pakistani drama Joyland may not have won the Aurora Prize (the festival’s top honour went to Sarah Polley’s Women Talking), but it remains my most rewarding experience of the week. It’s the one time I forgot about where I was – all the travel anxiety, the bitter cold and jet lag melted away. All that mattered was the dark hall and the screen in front of me. It doesn’t happen often enough, though the 35mm screening of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull at Verdensteatret – the oldest cinema hall in Norway – came close. I promise I’m not showing off. 

I hadn’t watched the film since I was 18. It’s the sort of thing I took for granted: Of course, I will watch Raging Bull again. Everyone will watch Raging Bull again. Yet it took me another 18 years for a second viewing. Watching De Niro blaze his way into the history books reminded me of how my generation of moviegoers was perhaps the last to know what motion picture projections looked like – the grainy resolutions, the reel change-over cues – before the digital age came. While I don’t begrudge evolution at all (who wouldn’t like a 4K print of Taxi Driver?), I did enjoy the restored feeling of seeing a film behave like a film. At the risk of sounding like a nostalgic old cinephile who’d rather be called an art enthusiast, I could almost hear Thelma Schoonmaker’s manual splicing of reels in the cutting room that aids Scorsese’s anti-Rocky staging of Italian-American chaos. 

It’s a screening I’ll remember, not least because it’s the first time I’ve defied my own festival form and chosen to watch a stone-cold classic over newer indie titles. I was so charmed by it all that I came very close to whipping out my phone and jotting down notes for a ‘review’. Fortunately, better sense prevailed. Jake LaMotta distracted me from the irony of travelling halfway around the world to find refuge in the arms of an old master. It’s that sort of place, really. 

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