This year you could’ve chased stars like Oprah and Matt Damon around Bloor-Yorkville as part of your festival entertainment and felt socially attuned. After-all, celebrity star gazing generates much buzz for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF); but there’s more.
TIFF offers a diverse selection of films. Some will make it to theatres because of well-known stars, and others will only hope to be like Slumdog Millionaire, the defiant little film that overcame the odds and made it big.
TIFF’s underdog films are my favourite festival offering. This year I was pleased to find Shirley Adams. The storyline sounded interesting, but I felt it was unlikely that a major studio would find it profitable to release it here because of the serious subject matter, novice director, and African rather than North American stars; therefore it was necessary to see it during TIFF.
As the film begins, you wouldn’t know that Shirley Adams, played by notable South African actor Denise Newman, is a mother in crisis, for like so many mothers, she carries her burdens quietly amidst the disturbing ratta-tat-tats of violence in her impoverished neighbourhood.
Poverty isn’t necessarily the cause of Shirley’s predicaments, but caring for her disconsolate paraplegic son, Donovan (Keenan Arrison), without her husband’s help, requires financial and other supports which are out of reach. In this way poverty becomes a propellent.
Along Shirley’s path, small kindnesses fall like breadcrumbs, but it is a difficult path filled with betrayal and loss — losses that show Shirley that no one lives for her; she alone determines to live life with all its tribulations.
Donovan’s struggle with dependency versus freedom parallels his mother’s; but his self-absorbed behaviour is almost frustrating to watch because he doesn’t respond to her love and effort with a determination to live. He’s too busy dwelling on all that has disappeared from his life, so much so that when the naive but well-meaning young nurse, Tamsin, tries to help him, even she becomes a symbol of what he can never have; but sometimes we’re all caught looking backwards rather than forward and thus fail to see the opportunities opening up for us, right? Yet, to be fair, it is understandable that a handsome, once independent young man does not want to be a physical and financial burden on his mother. It is also rather embarrassing to need others if you’re prideful.
Shirley and her son could easily reside in Toronto or elsewhere, you realize, because their struggle is universal, and as she chooses to live instead of drowning in despair, you’re eager to know what will happen next for her. You hope it will be something good.
As we filed out of the theatre, one woman commented to her friends that had she been in Shirley’s shoes, she would’ve transferred her son into a home for the disabled. She could not handle being the sole caregiver for a disabled child. They all laughed at this revelation, probably out of shock and not knowing what they would do, after all, Shirley’s situation isn’t something you prepare for. Instead, when tragedy strikes, you react from the heart in love, anger, fear, or any combination of such emotions, and in the process determine your mettle.
The director, Oliver Hermanus, explained post-screening–which is always my favourite part of TIFF films–that in Cape Town, South Africa, health care and other services for mothers like Shirley, are scarce. Also, the violence that separates Shirley from her joy is rampant in the ghettos there, creating vicious revenge scenarios.
Engaged by Hermanus’ personal accounts of life in Cape Town, and with a bit of self-interest, one gentleman even asked what the government was doing about this violence in preparation for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Not unlike the response to violence here in Canada, where various levels of government expect to police their way to safer communities (without dealing with the reasons people turn to crime), Hermanus indicated that South Africa plans to significantly increase police officers.
Africa News Service records indicate that 30,000 South African Police (SAP) officers are to be added by 2010, with increased focus on regional policing. A staggering number which becomes daunting when paired with renegade police policy that according to Wednesday’s Guardian.co.uk would allow the SAP to fire on suspects, without the expectation that they preserve life.
South Africa’s Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa no longer wants to play by the established rules, believing rampant crime demands a shoot-to-kill policing policy. ‘We are tired of waving nice documents like the constitution and the human rights charter in criminals’ faces,’ he said, disregarding lingering apartheid era distrust of the SAP, and the opportunity to both serve and protect the vulnerable.
Hermanus elucidates that violence is cyclical with unintended consequences, and it wouldn’t be too late for the government to realize the same. The violence it fights is of concern to foreigners who’ve been enticed to visit South Africa, whether for sports or other adventures, and even more so for the South Africans who watch stadiums rise while their shantytowns fall, and politicians get rich while the poor are oppressed and lacking the benefit of the social services foreigners may take for granted at home.
For his openness and honesty in revealing that Shirley’s strength was nothing new to him, given his “activist” mother (frequently arrested for taking trips to “whites only” beaches), and for sharing a passionate story he wanted to tell since he was 15, Hermanus has my gratitude and praise. I had to personally thank the greying graduate for sharing his “thesis” with us. Hopefully when it premiers in South Africa it will be a valuable mirror and microphone for the people he’s sought so long to represent, and a toast to all the enduring mothers out there.
After that, he can work on clarifying his own voice via film and sharing it in the artistic style that motivates him. Unfortunately, style overtook story in some scenes of Shirley Adams, but I sense from his conversation with us, that Hermanus’ first film has already taught him much about what works on screen and what doesn’t.
Thankfully, TIFF provides audiences for little known films like Shirley Adams, and the opportunity for the audience to dialogue with the director. In this case, Hermanus not only catered to our curiosity but also educated us about some of the daily struggles of South Africans, so I was left with the understanding that our experiences are similar, no matter where we reside in this world, particularly the issues that lead to violence and how we deal with change.