TORONTO, ONT – Three generations of a Ukrainian family sit in a van in the documentary “In the Rearview.” They stare straightforward, staggered by all they’ve left behind. Their home. The dogs they set loose. Their cow, Beauty.
“She cried as we left,” a child says.
“In the Rearview,” which documents several hundred who took filmmaker Maciek Hamela’s van out of eastern Ukraine in the first month of Russia’s attacks, movingly condenses a mass migration into a four-door flight.
“I come from an aristocratic family,” one woman says in the film. “Now I am just a traveling frog.”
As the Toronto International Film Festival winds down after a week of wall-to-wall premieres, on screen there has been no more fraught turf than the land that families try to eke out a life on, amid geopolitical storms knocking on the front door. The biggest battleground isn’t just a war zone but the home.
In the dystopian Korean thriller “Concrete Utopia,” directed by Um Tae-hwa, an earthquake destroys everything in Seoul — except for one high-rise apartment complex. Um, who made the film — a hit in South Korea – amid skyrocketing housing prices, follows the increasingly grim and fearful decision-making of the building’s leadership, led by its elected delegate (Lee Byung-Hun). Surrounded by ruins and desperate survivors, the building’s “residents only” policy is carried out to dark extremes.
A tower block also looms at the center of Ladj Ly’s “Les Indésirables.” Ly, born and raised in the immigrant suburbs of Paris known as the banlieues, has cast potent tales of urban uprising and police oppression (his Oscar-nominated first feature “Les Misérables,” and “Athena,” which he co-wrote) in gripping epics.
“Les Indésirables” is set at Batiment 5, a decrepit public housing building where, in the film’s opening moments, a funeral procession carries a casket down a dim stairway because the elevator is out. “How can we live and die in a place like this?” a woman asks.
A new mayor (Alexis Manenti) with a tenuous grasp of his constituents’ lives (he’s a a pediatrician) becomes set upon demolishing the building. His rash plans draw the protests of a young woman (Anta Diaw) who finds housing for immigrants and who, herself, lives in Batiment 5. The building, under amped-up pressure from the police, becomes a concrete front in its residents’ stifled struggle to build a life in France.
Such stories perhaps resonate especially at TIFF. Before each screening runs a video message narrated by festival CEO Cameron Bailey, thanking Ontario’s native tribes for use of the land the festival takes place on. In recent years, Canada has reckoned with its past treatment of Indigenous people, including heinous sterilization programs and forced-schooling systems.
Against that backdrop, Taika Waititi premiered his “Next Goal Wins,” a crowd-pleasing sports comedy about a woeful America Samoa soccer team, with a personal introduction and welcome from an Indigenous family. Waititi, the charismatic Māori director, took a moment to make a serious point in between an impromptu boxing match with the lectern microphone.
“Coming to New Zealand, being Māori, we don’t see enough of ourselves on screen,” Waititi said. “Growing up we often didn’t see ourselves on screen and I’m very proud of where I come from.”
Toronto, an omnibus of fall films, awards contenders and international highlights, was diminished from its usual frenzy this year due to the dual strike by the actors and screenwriters guilds. Few stars attended and the buzz was notably lesser around the festival’s string of theaters on King Street.
The strikes, which have carried on from summer into fall, reached an inflection point in July when an anonymous studio executive was quoted by Deadline saying: “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.”
Hollywood’s awards season got off to a muted start at TIFF, which wraps Sunday. Some of the most acclaimed films of the fall festivals — Yorgos Lanthimos’ Venice-winner “Poor Things,” Andrew Haigh’s “All of Us Strangers” — also skipped Toronto, leaving a small but noticeable vacuum of top movies in the lineup.
There were still undoubtably many high points, among them Cord Jefferson’s thrillingly sardonic comedy “American Fiction,” with Jeffrey Wright as a bitter author; Hayao Miyazaki’s poignant maybe-swan-song-maybe-not “The Boy and the Heron,” as boundlessly imaginative as anything Miyazaki made as a younger man; and Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers,” a richly humanist ’70s-set tale about three disparate people (Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa — all tremendous) with essentially no home to go to over Christmas break at a New England boarding school.
But it was striking how many filmmakers approached stories where larger forces — war, institutional racism, climate change — bring new pressures to bear on the basic necessities of life, shaping who has land and who has power.
That was true in not just films about the migrant crisis, like Agnieszka Holland’s “The Green Border," a drama about Syrian refugees along the Belarus-Poland border; Kasia Smutniak’s “Walls," a documentary focused on similar territory — but something like Raoul Peck’s “Silver Dollar Road.” The veteran Haitian documentary filmmaker of the James Baldwin film “I Am Not Your Negro” details the Reels family’s decades-long fight to keep ownership of their 62-acre property on the North Carolina coast.
After generations of ownership of land purchased in the post-slavery Reconstruction era, the Reels find themselves under siege from developers through thorny legal processes, ultimately leading to the jailing of two family members – the brothers Melvin and Licurtis Reels – for trespassing on the land they grew up on.
Peck puts their story in the context of Black ownership, opening with the 1865 encounter between Union general William Tecumseh Sherman and 20 Black ministers in Georgia. Asked what they need, Rev. Garrison Frazier replies: “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor.”
In “Zone of Interest,” filmmaker Jonathan Glazer chooses a particularly sinister home setting to contemplate the human capacity to compartmentalize violence. Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) have achieved a kind of domestic bliss at a sickening cost. Glazer, who initially focuses on the harmony of their well-ordered home, reveals that Auschwitz lies next door; the Höss’ dream life is built on the mass murder of Jews.
The eternal yearning for home is most primally captured in Danish writer-director Nikolaj Arcel’s “The Promised Land," starring Mads Mikkelsen as a low-class war veteran from Denmark who follows the urging of the mid-18th century Danish king to settle the near-barren, lawless area of the Jutland Heath. “The heath cannot be tamed,” reads an opening title card — and you might agree after what follows.
With all of these struggles for home, it was fitting that the most-sought after ticket at TIFF was for the premiere of the restoration of Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense.” The euphoric Talking Heads concert film, screened in IMAX and with the band in attendance, was the cinematic equivalent of a warm blanket. On “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” the crowd swayed while on screen David Byrne danced gently with a floor lamp, singing: “I’m just an animal looking for a home/ Share the same space for a minute or two.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP