At the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival — “My Imaginary Country” Looks at Chile, Where Protests Fill the Streets Again  

By David D’Arcy

Reviews of three new documentaries at TIFF: My Imaginary Country, To Kill a Tiger, and Miucha: The Voice of Bossa Nova.

Some films at the Toronto International Film Festival are already in theaters.  My Imaginary Country, directed by Patricio Guzman, is playing in New York and opens at Cambridge’s Brattle Theatre on September 30.

Guzman, now 81, witnessed the election of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970, and the US-backed military coup that brought Allende down in 1973 and imposed decades of rule by the extreme right. Guzman was jailed and went into exile.

He made The Battle of Chile (1975-79), an epic account of Allende’s rise and ouster, a subject that he addressed again in Chile, The Obstinate Memory (1997). In 2010, Guzman made Nostalgia for the Light, a meditation on hope and loss set in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, a region that has the world’s lowest humidity and clearest skies. In that desert, where astronomers can observe the stars with stunning clarity, pro-Allende prisoners were sent in 1973. More than three decades later, Guzman watched them sift through the sand, searching for their relatives’ remains.

In his rousing My Imaginary Country, a street-level view of demonstrations that rocked Chile beginning in 2017, Guzman recalls the advice he got from Chris Marker, who gave the director’s team black and white film stock when they were making The Battle of Chile. “When you want to film a fire,” Marker said, “you must be ready at the place where the first flame will appear.” We don’t see that first flame, but for much of the film Guzman and team are running in the streets to catch up with young protesters who are dressed in festive colors and chanting and dancing in unison. Think of musicians on a football field and multiply. Think of kids running in every possible direction. “Fare dodging is another way of fighting,” shout teenagers as they protest price increases by swarming through the subway.

A sense of hopeful possibility infuses the documentary, as throngs of Chilean youth battle in the streets with police, tearing up the pavement for rocks to throw at the helmeted men who shoot at them. Guzman’s extended conversations with today’s demonstrators, all of them women, all fiercely confident, give the film a surging motivational energy. It is as if this younger generation were about to fly into battle armed with stones and banging on pots and pans. Their loud percussion and the chanting are their generation’s (and this film’s) soundtrack.

A second Chilean revolution? When we see the rallies and the impassioned women who lead them, we also see what’s missing. No one – besides the helmeted police – seems over 30. Everyone looks like a student, born long after 1973. Labor unions and other organized groups appear to be unrepresented, yet this movement leveraged a rewriting of the country’s constitution and elected Gabriel Boric, a leftist of 36, to be Chile’s president. Changes to the constitution have since been put on hold. Stay tuned.

Guzman witnessed what happened to a revolution welcomed by “a people without arms” (“un pueblo sin armas”), the masses who turned out to support Allende and then saw how the Chilean armed forces struck back, sending the air force to strafe the presidential palace and jailing tens of thousands. The fiftieth anniversary of those events is next year. My Imaginary Country observes a restless generation that’s more impatient and angry than ideological.  We’ll eventually see how much the rest of Chile has changed. I see another film in the works.

A scene from To Kill a Tiger.

To Kill a Tiger, an Indian-Canadian co-production, has all the elements of a dramatic detective story, yet this probing documentary by Nisha Pahuja is a methodical portrait of a family in an Indian village, shamed by the rape of their 13-year old daughter, and ostracized when they dare to seek justice.

The facts here are clear, so clear that no one disputes them. The young daughter (the family asks that her name not be used) was dancing with her friends at a wedding in the village. She was pulled away late at night by a young man, and raped. Two other of his friends raped and beat her, and then threatened to harm her if she told anyone.

Her father, a rice farmer named Rajit, goes to the police and the accused are arrested, but Rajit is told that the best solution is for her to marry one of the rapists. (One of them turns out to be her first cousin.) Best to handle this crime in the village, Rajit is warned. His family is already shunned. No one in the village speaks to him or his wife, or to his daughter, who hides inside their house.

Rajit decides to take his daughter’s case to the nearby city of Ranchi, whose court hallways are clogged with lawyers and clerks in shirts and ties who seem drawn from a mix of Kafka and Daumier. The prosecutor, a tall thin man with his hair dyed red, tells Rajit that he has 500 active cases.

“This is Jharkand (the state),” says a villager who faults Rajit for allowing his daughter out at night, “I can’t even trust my own son.” Indeed, India has an alarming crisis — a woman is raped every twenty seconds. Few of those crimes are reported, far fewer prosecuted.

A subplot in To Kill a Tiger traces how Rajit’s family is helped by the Srijan Foundation, a non-governmental organization that fights abuses based on gender. Without its assistance, the rape would likely have been another statistic in an Indian village. Or a crime ignored and unrecorded. The phrase, “to kill a tiger” comes from a proverb that warns that a tiger can’t be killed by a single person. The foundation’s aid may also explain why cameras get such close access to the family; a poor rice farmer finds a way to pay lawyers as the case drags out. Court clerks had to be bribed, Ranjit says, to keep the case of a raped 13-year old on the docket.

Simply reporting the crime represents an encouraging change of direction in the village – serenely picturesque from a distance, brutal up close. Still, we watch as the three accused, led in and out of court in handcuffs, threaten Rajit and his family in front of police and lawyers.

To Kill a Tiger takes a slow approach, unlike that of Bandit Queen (1994), a lurid, violent melodrama which was based on the life of Phoolan Devi, a low-caste girl, raped by higher-caste men, who led a gang in revenge and, after a prison term,  was elected to India’s parliament before she was assassinated in 2001. When TIFF screened Bandit Queen in a showcase of Indian films in 1994, Phoolan Devi pleaded for the festival to cancel it because there were scenes that she called shameful. TIFF chose to show it.  You can watch Bandit Queen online.

Shame and fear almost keep the rape case from advancing, with Ranjit turning to drink to relieve his stress. Yet the crawling pace of To Kill a Tiger gives this look at the slow workings of justice its eye-opening power. Rare convictions were the result of the family’s stubbornness: three men went to prison for 25 years.

A ground-breaking achievement for female rights? Pahuja ends her film with embittered villagers complaining that Rajit and the verdict brought shame on them. For Rajit, the verdict was more than he ever expected, yet punishing a crime doesn’t change a culture. No word on a release date.

Another new doc at TIFF brought attention to a voice from the past.

A scene from Miucha: The Voice of Bossa Nova.

Miucha is a name that few besides serious bossa nova fans would know. At TIFF, the documentary Miucha: The Voice of Bossa Nova revisited the life and music of Heloísa Maria Buarque de Holanda (1937-2018), who helped get the world listening to Brazilian music in the ’60s and ’70s. She is an artist worth discovering

We have come to know the vocal side of bossa nova through the voice of Astrid Gilberto, whose sultry delivery of “Girl from Ipanema” popularized the music as somewhat aloof and imperturbable. In archival clips of Miucha’s performances, that same whispery reserve is often there, but in her early days she also had a powerful full-throated delivery, with hints of the energy of be-bop. Miucha sang ballads in a way that convinced you that she owned every word.

Miucha was the sister of the songwriter Chico Buarque, a pupil of the poet Vinicius de Moraes, the second wife of Joao Gilberto, and half of a duo with Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim. She also sang with the celebrated saxophonist Stan Getz, bossa nova’s most important non-Brazilian star and popularizer. That’s quite an imprimatur, yet those credentials also posed a problem, as we learn in this documentary made with affection by Miucha’s cousin Daniel Zarvos and Liliane Mutti. For years Miucha was kept in the shadows.

We learn that Miucha met Gilberto in Paris in the early ’60s and they married in 1965. The couple chose to live in Europe and had a child. Motherhood took Miucha off the stage, although her private life is documented through letters and an audio diary, which are at the core of this film. Eventually she returned to performing with Jobim, and her stature in Brazil was assured. Getz, another key collaborator, comes off as something of a heel, but you don’t hear that in their performances together.

Even those who thought they knew Miucha will learn things from this carefully researched portrait, which charts her highs and lows, in music and life. There is no release date for Miucha but, in the meantime, plenty of her music can be found online.

David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years, he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes about art for many publications, including the Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

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