The most vital movie I ended up seeing at this year's Toronto International Film Festival didn't have its first screening until the festival's final day and is, in the words of its own creator, not a movie at all but rather a piece of "visual history."
At more than four hours, it also isn't finished yet, with more than an hour of introductory material reportedly already assembled in the editing room and additional footage still to be shot. But even in its current form, Paul Cronin's A Time to Stir strikes me as a major film about the American Left, its splintering and factionalizing, and its still-flickering embers.
Cronin takes a single subject — the April 1968 occupation of Columbia University by radicalized members of the Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Afro-American Society — and proceeds to map it from nearly every conceivable angle. Amassed — "carved out" might be more accurate — from more than 100 hours of new interviews plus thousands of archival images, the film begins as a minute-by-minute account of the occupation as told by the occupiers (including former SDS leader Mark Rudd and former SAS leader Bill Sales, both of whom attended the Toronto screening). Cronin then folds in other voices — a lot of them — including the faculty members who found themselves caught between a rock (the intractable students) and a hard place (the ineffectual campus administration); the journalists (including NPR's Robert Siegel, then an anchor at Columbia's WKCR radio station) who reported from the scene; those students who eventually took to protesting the protesters; and the police officers who, one week after the unrest began, brought down the bloody curtain.
Coming on the heels of so many shallow, nostalgia-tinged portraits of '60s radicalism (including the Oscar-nominated The Weather Underground), Cronin's film is remarkably astute and tough-minded about the complex dogma of revolutionary movements: the divergent personal, political, and (especially in the case of Columbia) racial agendas; the razor's edge between liberalism and imperialism; the oft-misguided impetuousness of youth; the indifference of the masses. But where does A Time to Stir go from here? To DVD? To marathon screenings in underground cinemas? To every high-school classroom in America? Wherever it ends up, this is a film that demands to be seen.
Cronin's massive Venn diagram of conflicting and congruent ideologies could be viewed as an apt metaphor for Toronto itself: a giant celluloid campus where, the further one strays from the red carpet and the overhyped Hollywood premieres, the likelier one is to find encouraging signs that the festival programmers haven't entirely forsaken art in favor of commerce. Night after night, sold-out crowds jammed into the screening room at the Art Gallery of Ontario (by no means the festival's smallest venue) to see new work by éminences grises and bold new voices from the cinematic avant-garde, including the latest films by Jean-Marie Straub (Le Genou d'Artemide), Nathaniel Dorsky (Winter, Sarabande), and Jennifer Reeves, whose dual-projection When It Was Blue is an alternately euphoric and unsettling visual symphony of earthly creation and destruction.
Among more narrative fare, German director Christian Petzold's Jerichow stars Petzold's regular actress and muse, Nina Hoss, as the beautiful trophy wife of a Turkish-German fast-food vendor, who finds herself increasingly drawn to the brooding ex-soldier who comes to work for the couple as a driver. A loose reworking of The Postman Always Rings Twice done in Petzold's signature coolly detached style, this is a taut, brilliantly acted thriller, void of any inessential details, in which the characters simmer with violent passions but the movie itself rarely breaks a sweat. Yet, here in Toronto — and in Venice the week before — Jerichow, like most of Petzold's previous movies, screened to barely a whisper from most in the international press. And this is a filmmaker — one of the most exciting to come from his country since the heyday of the New German Cinema — whose name critics should be shouting from the rooftops.
Finally, in a category unto itself, there was Birdsong, another minimalist (but hardly stark), naturalist fable from Spanish director Albert Serra, whose spare, soulful Don Quixote riff, Honor de Cavalleria, received a brief U.S. theatrical release last year. For his second feature, Serra has turned his attention to another hallowed tale — the birth of Jesus and the ensuing pilgrimage of the three wise men — and filmed it in the same wonderfully idiosyncratic, deadpan style, with nonprofessional actors improvising in a mix of Catalan and Hebrew against the majestic deserts and forests of the Canary Islands, and an actual lamb cast as the Lamb of God. Joseph complains about the heat. The wise men stop to empty sand from their shoes and, in the film's most beguiling scene, talk about their dreams. When an angel appears, the resolutely material image is like something out of Dreyer. The recipient of one of the more contentious post-screening Q&A sessions I've ever witnessed in docile Toronto, Birdsong prompted one aggrieved viewer to ask Serra, simply, "Why?" But after 90-odd minutes of this fearlessly original, sometimes transcendently beautiful film — and 10 days of too few such visions — I would've thought the answer was obvious: "Why not?"