DISCLAIMER: This film review will mention of various explicit acts and may offend some readers. Reader discretion is advised.
“This is not your average party!”
Back in 2014, I ended the VIFF with a Mexican film that was part of the Altered States series called The Incident. I end my VIFF at the Rio Theatre again with another Mexican film part of Altered States called We Are The Flesh. And boy was it something!
The film begins with Mexico City in a completely ruined state. A recluse of a man taking shelter in a hidden location: one of the few livable locations left. Even without uttering a word, he displays some eccentric human behaviors. Even making a bizarre mix of batter, fish and human blood. He talks of the essential elements and of gas.
Two siblings find their way into his location. They’ve been out in the city’s ruins for years and are in need of food and shelter. The man, named Mariano, teaches the two his beliefs and his philosophies. He offers to help them but they must comply to his demands. First he wants them to help him build his domain. They agree, building the walls to his desires. Then he wants the two to have sex. It’s a world where there are no laws. Not even anti-incest laws. The sister complies, fellating the brother. The acts become even more explicit and Mariano dies while masturbating watching them.
The two try to find a place for Mariano’s body. After they find a place in the area, they’re left to their vices on how to fend for themselves. The sister has been mesmerized by Mariano and does things according to the way he wants it but the brother is hesitant. Suddenly Mariano appears again. It’s like he came back to life. But he’s not ready to die yet.
Mariano wants to make sure his world is created before he can die. Cannibalism is part of Mariano’s world. The first victim is a soldier who finds his way into Mariano’s domain. The soldier is scared for his life but Mariano is able to calm him down with his mesmerizing talk and even having him singing along to the Mexican national anthem before being killed by Mariano and the sister. Before Mariano is to sacrifice his own body as flesh to be eaten, he needs more people to be part of his world. Over time the number of people grow. Mariano is then ready to die and have his flesh consumed. The film ends with a man in a dress making his way out of the world and into Mexico City which has returned to its normal state.
Without a doubt the film creates another world: a deeply disturbing world. This world is to be a shelter from a ruined city but instead it’s a world completely devoid of morals and full of lust and animalistic desires. This is the world created by Mariano. This is the world he tries to incorporate the brother and sister into. This is the world he wants to incorporate others into before he decides to leave this earth for good. However it’s a sick world, a world where unspeakable things like incest and cannibalism are the norm because there are no earthly rules. The rules are all gone because Mexico City outside is a load of debris. The two have no choice but to help Mariano create his world and become a part of it.
To make this world work, it all boils down to the character of Mariano to work. Mariano isn’t just a svengali. He comes across as a crazy man full of his wild imagination at first. However he also comes across as a mesmerizing madman reminiscent of Charles Manson of how he’s able to convince the sister that it is the right thing to do all these things including kill the soldier. Mariano’s mind control goes as far as working on the soldier he’s about to kill. The soldier is first scared for his life but as Mariano sings the national anthem, the sister joins in as does the soldier and the soldier is then willing to be killed. That’s the type of mesmerizing mind-control of Mariano. However Mariano knows that if he was to die, it would have to be at the right time. It’s only after hundreds of people become a part of his world that he’s able to sacrifice his body for his feeding. He wanted it that way so that he could create a world of his own. He couldn’t stop at just the brother and sister.
One thing about this film, it’s obvious it’s done for artistic and experimental purposes. This film features countless elements that would make this film uninviting and unwatchable: incest, cannibalism, torture, murder and a demented insanity. It may not be as disturbing to watch as 1975’s Salo but it’s disturbing enough. The subject matter of incest and cannibalism is enough to deter lots of people from seeing this.
Obviously this is a film meant for the film festival circuit. In order for a film like this to get screened, it would need support. Emiliano Rocha Minter is a director who has earned acclaim from fellow Mexican directors Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Support of the director from elder Mexican directors is a definite boost for a film like this. However it would surprise me if a film like this does get a release in a box office anywhere. I know dildos were used in certain sex scenes and you can’t call it porn, but even knowing that doesn’t stop those scenes from being hard to stomach. Even with the film being hard to watch, there were some scenes that became confusing. One example: that batter that we see Mariano make at the beginning and then add more flesh to it in a later scene. It’s not clear what it’s for. Even the ending with a person who’s not one of the main characters being the first one to leave gets one questioning.
The film’s possibility of a box office release may be in question but it has actually won some acclaim at some film festivals. The film was nominated for one award at the East End Film Festival two awards at the Rotterdam Film Festival including a Bright Future Award. It even won Best Film at the Fantasia Film Festival.
This is the first feature-length film for writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter. As I mentioned, Cuaron and Inarritu are already touting him as the next big thing from Mexico. I don’t know if a film like this is good enough to send a message that Minter could be the next big thing from Mexico but it definitely shows his fearlessness. The acting of Noe Hernandez is the highlight of the film. He did an excellent job in capturing Mariano with his eeriness, controllingness and insanity but also his creepy charisma and imagination. It took the right character choices for a lead character like Mariano to work for the film and Hernandez made it work. The next-biggest highlight is Maria Evoli who played the sister. Going from a naive young adult woman to a follower of Mariano is definitely a big effort. The music from Esteban Aldrede added to the eeriness and creepiness of the film.
We Are The Flesh can best be summed up as an ‘envelope pusher.’ It’s definitely an over-the-top film that’s meant for the film festival circuit as it has subject matter too discomforting for your average movie-goer. Even though it can cause many people to leave the cinema, those that stay will be as intrigued as they will be disgusted.
And there you have it. That’s a wrap for my experience at the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival. Wrap-up blog coming soon with big news.
Stories We Tell was one film that was added to the VIFF at the last minute. I was expecting this to be more of a live-action film but it turned out to be a documentary to my surprise. And quite an intriguing one.
The documentary is directed by famed Canadian actor/director Sarah Polley. The documentary first appears to be her father, siblings and other friends and loved ones talking about her mother Diane Polley, from her career as an actor and a singer to her work in a Montreal play around the time her pregnancy with Sarah was starting (April 1978) to the abortion that wasn’t to the birth of Sarah to Diane’s death. All of those involved tell their story with reenacted images appearing in the style of Super-8 home movies. Some even receive direction from Sarah in telling their story and Rebecca Jenkins is cast to play Diane in the Super-8 re-enactments and fake television footage.
After more than half an hour, you think it’s a chronology of the Polley family, or at least the mother. It turns out to be a lot more: a ‘family secret.’ After the death of her mother, Sarah began to question her birth father. Could it really be Diane’s husband Michael Polley or was it another man? It even became a bit of a family joke at the dinner table when Sarah was a young teenager. Eventually the jokes died down and Sarah did some serious business about it. She learned about the actors her mother was acting within that play. She tried to look up one whom many in her family joke as the father but it’s not. Later she learns through conversations of those with the play and through a paternity test her father was Harry Gulkin, Canadian actor and film producer.
The story about searching for the truth of her birth father is seen and heard from the various angles interviewed for the movie: Sarah, her four siblings, Michael Polley, Harry, Harry’s daughter from a previous marriage, and castmates of that fateful Montreal show. The interviews are real in their retelling of the story but some interview dialogue is dramatized for the sake of the film. Possibly to show how a story that happens turns into a story told. I think that was the point Sarah was trying to get across in this is how people take the experiences of their lives and turning them into stories. That explains why we see Sarah giving those she interviews direction at times.
One thing about this documentary is that despite the re-enactment of events on Super-8 film (which had me fooled into thinking they were actually home movies) and the facts being told dramatically by some of the interviewees is that the drama does stop. There is a point where Michael does admit that there was a time in the late 70’s when the marriage seemed to be going dry: he had ambitions of being a playwright but settled on becoming an insurance salesman. He even confesses he told Diane during that time it’s okay for her to romance another man. Another point near the end, Michael cuts away from his cheery personality and his ability to laugh off the situation into showing the hurt he feels knowing he’s not Sarah’s biological father. It’s like that for all the others interviewed too where they all have a calm face or are smiling when they tell the story throughout but it’s near the end when they’re deep in thought that the hurt comes to them. You can see it in their faces.
This is not just a documentary that exposes a family secret of a popular Canadian celebrity. It’s also about Sarah’s relation to the people around her, both family and friends. New people came into her life after learning the truth. Most of her personal relations with others remained unchanged. She still has a healthy relationship with her siblings from her mother’s side as well as the father she always knew. She also has developed a healthy relationship with her biological father and her daughter: people that just came into her life years ago. Another angle of the documentary is it shows how despite laughing off the story, there are still some that feel hurt knowing the truth about the story. Siblings she always knew as full-siblings are now half-siblings. Even the half-siblings from her mother’s first marriage are hurt knowing the truth. The father has hurt behind the laughter. Harry occasionally thinks of the years he missed seeing Sarah grow up.
The thing that surprises me most about this is how successfully the family and others involved were in their ability to keep it secret and away from the media. We shouldn’t forget that this was all happening when Sarah was a public figure. The first secrets were unraveling during her days as Sarah Stanley in Road To Avonlea. It accelerated just as she was becoming the it-girl of Sundance in the late 90’s. The truth was finally revealed just as she was making a name for herself as a director in Away From Her. If this secret had been let out earlier, this could have put a big dent in her career and her image as ‘Canada’s Sweetheart’ during her child actor days could have been tarnished. It’s good to see the family and those who knew the truth kept quiet about this and that only Sarah herself could allow this to be exposed through this film only now. In a world that’s tabloid-obsessed and loves celebrity scandal, it’s good to see this was kept quiet enough to give Sarah the privacy she wanted.
THREE BITS OF TRIVIA: First, Diane Polley was a casting director for two made-for-TV movies of Anne Of Green Gables: the Canadian novel series the family drama Road To Avonlea was spun off of. Second, Diane died only three days after the pilot episode of Road To Avonlea was aired across Canada. Third, Sarah notes on the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) website that at least two journalists knew of the story for years but respected her wishes to keep it private and for her to be the first to let the truth out.
Once again, Sarah can add another accomplishment to her resume. She has already accomplished television acting as a child, movie acting as a teenage adult, directing and scriptwriting just years ago and now documentary director. It’s interesting how back during the late 90’s, Sarah turned her back on Hollywood in an attempt to be taken more seriously despite being referred to as the Sundance it-girl. It was a risky move that has paid off over the years. That’s something to admire especially since we’re in a time when people are mostly willing to become famous however they can, even if it doesn’t involve talent at all.
This is one documentary I saw at the VIFF that works well as a big-screen film. I myself saw it at the 1100-seat Vogue stage theatre in Vancouver. However this is one documentary that would best draw a crowd with Canadians or those into arthouse films. Those are the filmgoers who recognize Sarah best. Outside of that, it’s still a documentary that can touch one who may have a similar story like this in their own family. For the record, American film company Roadside Attractions has purchased the film and plans to release it in the US in early 2013. No word yet on Canadian theatrical release. It’s all in the hands of the NFB.
Stories We Tell is an amusing and touching documentary about the retelling of a family secret within Sarah Polley’s family. It’s as charming and witty as it is intimate, touching and even heartbreaking. Definitely worth seeing.