x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Tears and laughter

What were the big events, successes and surprises at the Toronto International Film Festival this year?

Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor and Meryl Streep in a scene from August: Osage County. Claire Folger / AP / The Weinstein Company
Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor and Meryl Streep in a scene from August: Osage County. Claire Folger / AP / The Weinstein Company

The curtain has come down on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), though some of the most talked-about movies are set to screen elsewhere around the world, including the UAE.

Hundreds of people waited hours to see the world premiere of August: Osage County, which features Julia Roberts alongside Meryl Streep in their first project together. Work on this adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play finished just as the festival began, and its story follows a dysfunctional family where Roberts forcefully intervenes with her drug-­dependent, cancer-stricken mother, played by Streep.

“It was intimidating, certainly, to be in these scenes with her,” said Roberts. “Choking her and things like that are not how I pictured it going in my mind all these years when I thought we’d be together having tea, speaking in fabulous accents and dressed up looking very chic.”

In Labor Day, Kate Winslet is forced to harbour a prison escapee played by Josh Brolin. Normally reclusive and fragmented, her character rediscovers love in quiet but anxious moments, such as being fed while tied to a chair.

“The film speaks volumes in terms of simplicity,” said Winslet. “Just a glance with them is a whole weekend away.”

Some of the most widely praised films took viewers through emotionally torturous scenes.

12 Years a Slave won front-runner status in Oscar-related buzz with a profoundly unsettling based-on-fact story of a free man who gets sold into slavery. The powerful film elicited a standing ovation after its world premiere, though some viewers left sobbing before various screenings ended.

Scenes of torture also permeated The Railway Man, a true story about a British soldier in the Second World War who gets captured by the Japanese along with thousands of others and is put to work on the Thailand-Burma railway. Nicole Kidman co-stars, but Colin Firth drives the film with his performance as a man haunted by his traumatising past.

Omar, meanwhile, is a gripping psychological thriller set in the West Bank. Some scenes feature Adam Bakri as the title character being brutally interrogated, but the film successfully focuses most of its attention on creating paranoia over whom he should most trust: an Israeli intelligence officer, a childhood friend or his lover?

Political undertones pervaded numerous films about the Middle East and Africa, including Nelson Mandela’s biopic, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and Half of a Yellow Sun, a story about the ­Nigerian-Biafran War.

The Square, a documentary that follows a handful of protesters who spent long periods in Tahrir Square, is remarkably timely even as the political fate of Egypt today is completely uncertain.

Giraffada seems relatively lighter, being a tale about a Palestinian father and son who sneak into Tel Aviv to kidnap a giraffe after one in a zoo is killed during an Israeli air raid. Yet it also highlights the divide they face on a geopolitical level.

Even the visually stunning animated film, The World of Goopi and Bagha, employs “political subtext”, said Shilpa Ranade, who directed the movie based on a screenplay written by her husband, Soumitra Ranade. It is about a couple of fools attempting to broker a peace deal between two king brothers who, abstractly, represent India and Pakistan.

Four films at the TIFF this year received funding through the Doha Film Institute (DFI), including My Love Awaits Me by the Sea, which also received support from a programme under the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF). “We’re seeing an increase in the number of projects being completed in the Middle East,” said Abdulaziz Al Khater, the DFI’s chief executive.

Bastardo, another DFI-supported project, is set to debut in the Middle East at the ADFF next month. It follows an orphan’s attempted takeover of a rough Tunisian ghetto. His struggle with power mirrors the forces that many Arabs have recently rallied against and “originated [from] the political situation in that part of the world and in my country also”, said Nejib Belkadhi, Bastardo’s director.

Not everything was serious, though.

Jason Bateman, in his directorial debut Bad Words, provides an amusing take as a 40-year-old misanthrope who slips through a loophole to compete against children in a national spelling bee.

And The Lunchbox, starring Irrfan Khan from Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire, is the kind of understated romance Bollywood rarely does. It explores what happens when a Mumbai deliveryman sends a meal to the wrong address, which the Harvard Business School says occurs in fewer than one in every six million ­deliveries.