Toronto International Film Festival, 2021: The rebels & the ‘revolted’

Stanley Nelson’s documentary Attica, that played at Toronto International Film Festival 2021, doesn’t just capture singular act of rebellion but that of several protests across place and time

Toronto International Film Festival, 2021: The rebels & the ‘revolted’
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Namrata Joshi

“If we cannot live as people, we can at least try to die like men”.

These words, spoken in the thick of the prison uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York back in September 1971, continue to reverberate 50 years later. Stanley Nelson’s documentary Attica, that played at the Toronto International Film Festival 2021, doesn’t just capture a singular and seminal act of rebellion but that of several protests across place and time: it’s essentially all about the struggle for basic human dignity.

In revealing the dark secrets at one of the strictest prisons in the USA, often referred to as The Last Place, the documentary adheres to the chronology of the protest, beginning with the initial exuberance of the inmates for seizing control over their lives, even if for a short while, to the final bloody raid by Police, which left 43 dead, despite the assurance that they wouldn’t be harmed.

A carnage by the state that could well have been avoided in the light of the on-going negotiations, and the stand-off in the talks notwithstanding. Tellingly, it’s a route that most regimes end up taking in quelling people’s movements that appear to be gaining ground and strength. Violence sneaks in surreptitiously in the most peaceful of protests, when all else fails.

Toronto International Film Festival, 2021: The rebels & the ‘revolted’

Nelson knits the extensive footage at his disposal to transport us back in time to Ground Zero. He pieces them all together with interviews with prisoners, journalists, negotiators, witnesses and families of the staff who had been held hostage by inmates. They were being used as “weapons of defense”—apart from odd baseball bats—against the fully loaded state troopers and a means for brokering prison reforms, peace and amnesty. But it’s the hostages that also got used as the strategic mode to turn the tide against the movement through the intolerant “us” vs “them” divide.

In fact, the demands may have been fundamental—hygienic living conditions, decent food and medical care and fair hearing—but it’s the bedrock of institutionalized racism and inequities laid bare by Attica that hit us hard.

The all-White police force on the one hand, and the Black, Hispanic and Puerto Rican inmates on the other, who are shown to be gaining in political consciousness thanks to the growing hold of the Black Panther movement. Eventually it all coalesces into a finale of ugly “White Power” wielded on the naked, enslaved Black bodies in a chilling post-capture parade and torture. Reminiscent of the worst images of fascism and power play in history, that keep getting replayed, at times in our own Shaheen Bagh, Singhu, Tihar and Karnal.


The brutal daily indignities, inequities and injustices are highlighted in another film playing at TIFF 2021 but in a different space, time and context altogether. Lorenzo Vigas’ The Box lays bare the abominable labour violations in Mexico’s manufacturing industry by locating them in a larger thematic frame of family, paternity, identity and inheritance. And, above all, by narrating it like a coming-of-age saga of a young boy Hatzin, who travels to Chihuahua to collect the remains of his estranged father Escobar, reported dead in a mining accident.

However, on the journey back home Hatzin spots a man called Mario, a recruiter for the local factories, who he is convinced is his real father. The film refuses to explain it all about Mario or the relationship—personal and professional—that Hatzin forges with him. But it does become a device of sorts with which to have the viewer, along with Hatzin, travel into a heart of darkness. A journey into an exploitative industry where a “war” against China’s manufacturing sector is of bigger significance than the basic welfare and well-being of the local workers themselves. Will Hatzin get sucked into the inhuman system and become like Mario or will it toughen his sensitive bone and help him subvert it from within?

Jenna Cato Bass uses an ingenuous horror/genre to cast a glance at the history of colonialism and racism in the context of “White madam and Black domestic worker” divide. Set in contemporary Cape Town, her film Mlungu Wam(Good Madam) is about a young woman Tsidi who, on the death of her grandmother and surrogate parent, moves back in with her estranged mother Mavis.

Toronto International Film Festival, 2021: The rebels & the ‘revolted’

For years Mavis has been working in the sprawling property of a wealthy White lady Diane. While she remains steadfast in her loyalty for the now ailing Diane, Tsidi has many an eerie encounter in the ghostly house. Are these traumas from the past which she is unable to exorcise? Can the painful memories ever leave? Is Mavis truly devoted to Diane? Or is she a shrewd, self-serving opportunist, with a plan, intent on making the best of what she has in hand?

Mlungu Wamis a beguiling, intriguing ride that takes you to the edge of the seat, even as it leaves you with more questions than answers. What it does establish clearly is that apartheid may have been struck off on paper, but its ghosts continue to haunt several generations long after. An unsought but inescapable inheritance.

In Aga Woszczynska’sSilent Land, a young Polish couple on a holiday in Italy employs a migrant Arab worker to repair the swimming pool in the villa. The worker meets with a fatal accident. Could the two have prevented his death with timely intervention? Or was it truly something beyond their control?

As their holiday begins on the wrong note, their relationship appears to slowly crumble under strain, they alternate between pangs of guilt and but a larger span of remorselessness, humoring themselves with wining, dining and with food and fitness regimes.

The undocumented Arab’s life is barely missed as the couple set about diving in the sea.

Woszczynska pitches the throbbing, oily muscularity of the Arab boy against the glacial, cold Aryan beauty of the couple even while tearing off the veneer of sophistication to look at what lies inside the world of the bold and the beautiful. But unfortunately, the exploration of this endemic indifference itself remains cold and uninvolving.

Toronto International Film Festival, 2021: The rebels & the ‘revolted’

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