featured Interview

The Essence of the Art Form: A Conversation with TIFF Wavelengths Programmer Andréa Picard

August 18, 2017Ben MK

As a festival and as an organization, TIFF is known for spearheading the unique visions of filmmakers, whether they be more traditionally-minded works or artistic expressions that prove slightly more challenging to quantify. Nowhere is this mandate better embodied than in the Wavelengths programme, TIFF's annual showcase of experimental and avant-garde filmmaking, which, since 2006, has been curated by Andréa Picard. We spoke with her about her background, the history of Wavelengths, and what cinephiles and curious festival-goers can expect from the programme this year.

Your resume is quite formidable. In addition to being the programmer for Wavelengths for the past 12 years, you've also been an integral part of Cinema Scope magazine, and you serve on numerous film festival juries. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to find your niche with avant-garde and experimental films?

Andréa Picard: I studied at the University of Toronto and I was in the Art History department [when] I took a film course with Bart Testa, and he showed a number of experimental work[s]. He's an expert in Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, Jack Chambers, Bruce Elder and [Pier Paolo] Pasolini, [and] he was very much a mentor to me in showing these two sides to the avant-garde — [the] European avant-garde and sort of a Godardian tradition, let's say, but then also an experimental tradition like Jonas Mekas or Stan Brakhage. You know, really handmade, tactile films.

I think that at that point, I realized how incredible an art form film is, both in its abstract forms and in its storytelling forms. And so I ended up doing a double degree between art history and film. And [since] then I've always tried to marshal those two interests in all that I do, whether it's writing or programming or curating. Because I also do exhibition work as well, largely with moving images.

And [in regards to] my involvement with Cinema Scope magazine, I actually met Mark Peranson at the Cinematheque in Toronto when I was working there — when Mark started the magazine — and then I started writing about not only experimental film, but the intersections between the contemporary art world and the filmmaking world. Just to ensure that my interests could be pushed through it in some way so that I was still talking about art and film. And for me, cinema is an incredible art form, whether you're telling stories or exploring the tactile qualities of film or video.

I feel honored to be a part of a festival or a magazine or other outlets where there's such a really smart, loyal audience that will engage in a wide range of cinema. At Wavelengths in particular, we've been really lucky. The festival has supported it in allowing it to really curate the section. You'll notice that not only are there short films, but there are [also] medium-length films and feature-length films, and it's the only section in which we can actually pair things up in a resonant way.

We have short features where we have medium-length films put together, because we think that it really makes a statement to have those two films together. So it's a real curation of programmes, and the audience is always up for it. If I look at the history of Wavelengths, I think that the shortest film we ever showed was 14 seconds, and the longest film was probably a 9-hour Lav Diaz film, so you're really exploring the range of cinematic possibilities.

That sort of ties in with my next question. If you were to look back on your history with Wavelengths, is there a particular year that stands out for you, whether it be the content in that year's programming, or your experience choosing that content?

Andréa Picard: No, I would say that each year is different, and that's what's so exciting and challenging. A lot of my colleagues work with sales agents, and [as] you know, film is very much a business as well, [so] I feel very lucky that, yes, I work with really great distributors who are taking chances on art cinema, but I also work very closely with artists and filmmakers themselves, or independent producers. So, in that way, I become very close to the films, and [I] feel very lucky to be having dialogues with artists and filmmakers who are really engaging with the questions of our time.

Life is never static, and everything is in flux, and I think that artists are imbibing everything that's going on and making statements about it. So I think every year is exciting for that very reason. I always like to push the boundaries in some ways. [For example,] my history of showing Jean-Marie Straub films at the festival has been very rewarding. I remember one year where I had a medium-length film by Jean-Marie Straub — and his work is very rigorous, very tough [and] for hardcore cinephiles — and then a really great journalist wrote a piece about him and put a big image in The Globe and Mail. And for me that was like, ok, I can retire now. [laughs]

Regarding this year's programme, you’re quoted in the press release as saying “Many films in Wavelengths are focused on proximity, intimacy, testimony, bodies, agency and listening as a fundamental task in an increasingly noisy world.” Was that a conscious theme that you kept in mind while overseeing the lineup? And if not, how did that theme begin to emerge as the programme started to come together?

Andréa Picard: No, never. I don't program along thematic lines. In terms of the shorts, because we receive so many submissions, it's really hard to put the big puzzle piece together. We want to make sure that all of the films speak to each other but also have their own breathing room, because they're all individual statements. And then I think the themes naturally arise.

And in relation to the statement that I said before, where artists and filmmakers are responding to the world, I think in [this] age we're seeing a lot of dictatorships now, and [what] with everything that's happened in Syria, and [with] migration, Trump and fake news, everybody's sort of had enough of it. And what I've seen in this year's group of filmmakers is that they're bringing things down to a really localized level, where there's personal testimonies, or [where] they're telling stories about individual people.

Because I think that reinforces the notion of empathy in the world today, where there's a lot of noise and bluster, [like] everything on Twitter and social media. But I think individual listening is going to count for a lot, so we're seeing a lot of that. And also, there's just been a focus on bodies, I've noticed, like Denis Côté's film on bodybuilders, or Ben Russell's films on miners. It's also bringing things down to the elemental nature. Work, like manual labor, has always been a big theme since the beginning of cinema. But I think that we're seeing a return to that, because there's something fundamental about survival and humanity.

That's true, because in this current day and age, we all lose our sense of self in social media and technology.

Andréa Picard: Totally. Absolutely. So there's a reinforcement of body here, and of what body means in existing in the world or contributing to the world, [whether it be] through work or having to survive. That's definitely been a theme that I've noticed.

So do you think this has been the most politically-charged lineup in the last few years?

Andréa Picard: No, I think every year there's a certain amount of political statements that are being made, because I think that independent filmmakers use film as an outlet for that. I remember the year where we had Miguel Gomes' Arabian Nights, which is very much a statement about austerity in Portugal. And at that time, they had actually gotten rid of the Minister of Culture. And so [here was] this very big statement about creativity and how we need to continue on.

There was [also] another very similar film called The Nothing Factory, by Pedro Pinho, which was in Cannes this year, and it's also about factory work in Portugal. It was shot on film and it's sort of a collective effort. And so those efforts are sort of ongoing. I [also] remember the year where I showed John Gianvito's Far from Afghanistan. He commissioned a number of filmmakers like Travis Wilkerson, for instance, to make statements against American Imperialism, because that [also] continues on.

So every year there are always a number of political statements. And this year, I would say that one of the most important ones is by a female filmmaker [named] Narimane Mari, who's originally of Algerian descent, but [who] lives in Marseilles. Her film, Le fort des fous, is a three-part film which is basically about the past, colonial exploits of the French over Algeria, and how that continues on in Europe today vis-a-vis Europe and Greece. It's a manifesto in some ways, and it's very scathing, but at the same time she uses all these playful techniques to tackle it, because it's still a taboo subject in Europe.

This year's lineup includes some very intriguing titles. Can you tell me more about some of them? And are there any that you find yourself especially drawn to?

Andréa Picard: Well, I'm drawn to all of them, of course. I'm not going to single any of them out, because I think it's a very strong and a very diverse lineup. I'll just mention that I just returned from the Locarno Film Festival, and I was very happy to see that a lot of the titles that we shared had won a number of awards there. The great documentarian Wang Bing made a very tough film about dying, called Mrs. Fang, that won the grand prize at Locarno, so I'm really happy to be bringing that film to Toronto.

And then [there's] Cocote, which is a film from the Dominican Republic. We don't see that many films from the Dominican Republic every year, and this is the second time that [its director] Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias will be coming to Toronto for Wavelengths. We had his previous film here, which was based on the Bolaño novel. But this one deals with religion and trends in the Dominican Republic. So again, bringing it down to a localized level. That also won a big award in Locarno, and Nelson's just a really great guest to have here. He gives really amazing Q&As. He's one of the most passionate filmmakers I know, and he definitely has a bright future. So I'm happy for that.

And one of our world premieres is called Beyond the One, and it's by Anna Marziano, [who's] an Italian artist living in Germany. I've shown a number of her short films before, and this is her longest film. It's not quite a feature — it's about 54 minutes — but it's one of those mysterious, essay films. It's all shot on film, either on Super 8 or 16 [mm], and it's a fragmentary mystery that's basically about love and the human condition, how it is that we gravitate towards coupledom and yet are always alone, the various different kinds of love today, and how the nuclear family has just exploded. It's done in a really sensitive and beautiful way, and it also deals with maintaining connections with people you love after they die. And so she's coming to present [it], so I'm excited about that.

One of the biggest and buzziest titles [however] is Caniba, by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor. I don't know if you ever saw their film Leviathan, [but] it was a game-changer in the documentary world. They're both out of Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, and it changed the way that they make documentaries. They're both anthropologists and filmmakers, so they combine their research with their filmmaking interests. Leviathan took place on a ship, and they shot it with GoPros, and it was very sensory. And this is shot in a similar way, [but] with closeups.

It's essentially a portrait of Issei Sagawa, who is a cannibal. He was arrested for murdering and eating a fellow student at the Sorbonne in France, and then was held in custody but was [declared] not fit to stand trial. He's been living as a free man in Japan for a really long time, and he's since had a stroke and is coming to terms with his own mortality. A lot of films have been made about him in a very sort of sensationalist way. I think Vice did something, [and] there's been a number of films. He's such an easy subject because the only way he's been able to live his life is off of his infamy. So he is a cannibal, and [then] he became a sushi critic, and he made porn films. He's very aware of that, and he sees it as his own punishment.

They got this really exclusive interview with him, and they went to Japan, [where] he lives in the outskirts of Tokyo with his brother. They filmed him talking about his crimes and talking about how he wants to die. And then what becomes revealed is this very unusual — to put it lightly — relationship with his brother. There's a twist, and I don't want to reveal that, but the film is going to premiere at the Venice Film Festival. I think the subject matter is very explicit and graphic. It raises all sorts of triggers and issues about evil on the planet, morality and sexual fetish tied to death, and [Paravel and Castaing-Taylor] tackle it head-on as anthropologists. I think each viewer is going to have to come to terms with their own reactions. I didn't eat for about 24 hours after I saw the film. [laughs] They're also really talented and really intelligent people [who] are working in a very singular vein.

Do you feel audiences will find those same titles the most compelling? And, if not, which ones do you think will have the most impact on viewers?

Andréa Picard: I think oftentimes audience members gravitate towards some of the Cannes titles. We have a big filmmaker, Bruno Dumont, who's one of the most important filmmakers working today. This is his tenth film, called Jeanette, [and] it's a musical about Joan of Arc. That was a big Cannes title, so I think that will probably do well [here]. But the audiences are really curious in Toronto, and I think that's why filmmakers love to come here, because they're always really engaged in intros and Q&As.

And the shorts programmes always do really well. [This year] there's a documentary impulse in a lot of the shorts, just going back to ethnographic studies or portraits of people, but [there's] also some really experimental, abstract, lyrical work shot on 16 mm. We also have films on 35 mm, so the art of film is still very much present. I think [that] the shorts programme will do really well, and I'm excited that we're using a new cinema this year. We're going to be at the Cinematheque at the Lightbox, [which is] a larger house for the shorts, so that we can have more people.

When I spoke with your colleague, Peter Kuploswky, about the Midnight Madness programme, he mentioned one way he was trying to buck the trend this year was by scheduling one of the movies to start prior to midnight. On a similar note, do you have any surprises in store for this year's attendees?

Andréa Picard: Well, it's not a surprise because I just mentioned it, but we want[ed] to make sure that more people could attend the shorts programme, so we've put that in a bigger cinema, which means it's also going to be a bigger screen for some of the 16 mm [films]. We're really treating the smaller films as important films, which I think is really great. And [also] there's definitely a musical strain that runs through some of these things.

We [also] talked about all these political aspects and [the] focus on empathy and listening, but there are [also] some filmmakers [who] are treating some of these topics in a really playful and funny way, whether it's dealing with racism or colonialism, because I think that filmmakers are also trying to approach things in a less didactic way.

I think that people will be surprised at some of the tone of some of these films. There's actually a lot of fun here, so it's not just rigorous. There's rock and roll, there's singing children, and there's going to be one special guest that I won't mention. She's very young, I'll just put it that way. It'll be the first time [that] I'm onstage with a child. [laughs]

It sounds like the filmmakers are trying to draw more attention to avant-garde films by making them more appealing to mainstream audiences.

Andréa Picard: I don't know if it's that. Maybe it could be the inverse, actually, so you're seeing auteurs using more experimental techniques and just being more radical. You know, what do we take seriously anymore? Everything is so alarmist and so over-the-top, [and] I think that filmmakers are looking at new ways to explore themes. It's really hard to be surprised nowadays. [laughs] Nothing surprises us.

The other work that I would [also] mention — because he's local — is Blake Williams, who's a critic and [a] filmmaker [who's] made a really great 3D feature. We've never really shown a 3D feature in Wavelengths before, but his film is called Prototype, and it's very much a film about film and about technology. [It's] really abstract, [and] it's just such a real trip and a treat. So we have a 3D feature this year for the first time.

Is there anything else you want to share about this year's programme that we may have overlooked?

Andréa Picard: No, I'm happy that there are films from around the world, and, like always, I'm trying to discover new talent and then [also] have master filmmakers. To have the two together is a very exciting mix, and I think that we really managed to do that this year. There's a diversity of work, [from] abstract work [to] narrative work, and everything in between. [There's] a lot of celluloid, but also a lot of video, [and] I'm really happy with how it [all] came together.

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