As we approach the end of TIFF 2012, I’ll admit the movies are becoming a digital slurry in my mind. After seeing more than 30 flicks (and counting), I’ve had a great run. Still, one day in particular made it all worthwhile.
It started after my broadcast obligations for the day ended. I caught an early afternoon screening of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but found the adaptation of the much-loved novel to have lost a little fidelity in the leap from page to screen. Although well-anchored by Riz Ahmed’s big-hearted portrayal of Changez (a Pakistani who buys into the American Dream), the movie is ruined by shallow characters and hackneyed plotting (say, the cell phone that loses reception at a critical juncture.)
But then, I was off to Ill Manors. I’d heard TIFF artistic Director Cameron Bailey talking up this film, created by a director who used the vocabulary of hip hop to tell a gritty tale of East London. It was high praise that turned out to be entirely justified.
As directed by Ben Drew (Mercury Prize-nominated rapper Plan B), Ill Manors is a sprawling web of stories about drug dealers and pimps, lost girls and boys. It’s Robert Altman’s Nashville with a Guy Ritchie accent. But where the latter’s characters can be cartoonish, Drew wisely recruited a host of first-timers for extra street cred. (Trust me, bruv.)
Mixed into the madness are Drew’s hip hop narratives: mini music videos recapping the sad origins of various characters. That said, to call Ill Manors a rap film would be to limit its achievement and appeal. This movie is about a generation’s wasted lives, youth who've grown up in the shadow of gleaming Olympic stadiums. Plotted without mercy, it’s a scathing story and an unflinching indictment from a promising director. Oh, and who’s that playing Aaron, the drug pusher with a conscience? Riz Ahmed, once again.
After the exhilaration of Ill Manors, I headed directly to the press and industry queue for Spring Breakers. Buzz for the movie about a bikini-clad troop’s crime spree has been growing since its sale. It appears writer-director Harmony Korine has graduated from deliberated, demented productions to creating a movie with entertainment value.
However, by the time I arrived, the theatre was already full. TIFF volunteers warned that there were hundreds of hopefuls ahead of me. What to do? Why, check the screening schedule, of course. There, just two blocks over and having started just two minutes earlier, was the movie Kinshasa Kids.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there are over 25,000 street kids known as shegués. Branded witches, the children are left to fend for themselves in ramshackle markets. As Kinshasa Kids begins, we get a sense of their daily struggle: pulling scams and doing what they can to get by.
Then, down an alleyway, we hear something. Crammed into a dead-end between two buildings, a recording session is going on. A local singer named Bebson jams with his band. The instruments are of a makeshift variety: repurposed pots and pans, an Aspirin bottle converted into a kazoo. The kids join and their glorious racket resounds. Bebson (portrayed by Bebson Elemba) has a raspy voice and a loose, improvisational style. Soon he and the boys are sneaking into Papa Wemba’s studio to record their first collaboration, Boom Boom Shaka.
Director Marc-Henri Wajnberg, whose background is in documentaries, makes Kinshasa Kids a lively film that shakes with the spirit of this Congolese jam band. Although their conditions are deplorable, the kids have a sense of pride in themselves and desire no pity.
Bobbing my way out of that screening, I paused for a moment to offer thanks to the lords of cinema for helping me see those two films back to back. Though set in cities separated by thousands of kilometres, Ill Manors and Kinshasa Kids each sing its own song of the streets.
P.S. My other festival highlights so far? Anna Karenina, Antiviral, A Royal Affair, Berberian Sound Studio, Far Out Is Not Far Enough, The Master, Leviathan, On the Road, Rebelle, Stories We Tell and The Sapphires.
TIFF continues through Sept. 16.