From Tribeca to Telluride, Cannes to Canberra, the international film festival circuit is always an adrenalin rush. At this year’s 40th Toronto International Film Festival, the usual Hollywood hype and indie buzz presided over a line-up of 397 films from 71 countries (comprised of almost 300 feature-length films and 110 shorts). “So many films, so little time,” could be heard uttered on the lips of all across town this week. For movie-goers and media alike, this necessitates a strict process of elimination when it comes to actual movie-watching; good thing there were so many knockout flicks in the mix this year.
In Sebastian Ko’s directorial debut, We Monsters, which had its North American premiere at TIFF, a divorced couple chooses to cover up their 14-year-old daughter’s self-confessed crime of murder only to unleash a domino effect of drama. The psychological thriller dips quickly into uncomfortable territory during the opening scenes, only to introduce a power shift from the sins of a troubled youth named Sarah, (played by Janina Fautz) to those of her divorced parents, Paul (Mehdi Nebbou) and Christine (Ulrike C. Tscharre). Set within a corner of Germany’s barren landscape, Ko mixes metaphorical, drawn-out scenes—such as a chrysalis on a branch, its butterfly trying to escape from within—with the melancholic chords of a violin for an art-film effect. The storyline twists through Sarah’s broken reality as a youth who cannot feel the weight of her actions. “If she were to transform into an alien it wouldn’t surprise me,” says Paul to his ex-wife, Christine, who responds: “She’s a monster.” Tackling perennial questions of nature versus nurture and the strength of blood’s bond, We Monsters is a disturbing joy, much to Ko’s credit.
From the United States, Academy Award–winning director Michael Moore takes his typically humorous approach against the faults of humanity (American, specifically) in Where to Invade Next, his latest documentary. With the intention of bringing great ideas back to the U.S., and thereby pointing out critical flaws in the American system, Moore instructs officials at the Pentagon to stand down before the director himself mock-invades several foreign countries to “claim” their ideas.
Searing in moments and flawed in others, Where to Invade Next is most effective when the camera is fixed on his interviewees and off the protagonist himself. (That would be Moore, who exhibits a penchant for approaching European presidential offices clad in blue jeans, running shoes, and a baseball cap.) On a trip to Italy, Moore visits Ducati where he interviews the motorcycle company’s CEO Claudio Domenicali about workplace satisfaction. (In comparison to working class Americans, Italian employees are typically given at least 20 days paid vacation annually, including a substantial amount of paid personal time and bonuses, not to mention lengthy lunch breaks, as Moore points out.) The filmmaker is shocked at what he hears. “We really feel that we are being rewarded because the people are happy,” explains Domenicali smiling. “There is really no clash between the profit of the company and the well-being of the people.”
In Finland, Moore discovers that education prospers when the government virtually eliminated homework. In Iceland, he meets with Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the world’s first democratically-elected female president, for her opinions on workplace equality. In Germany, he interviews teachers and schoolchildren about how critical it is to collectively acknowledge the dark days of their country’s history. “If they can do it,” says Moore, challenging his audience with a call to action, “so can we.”