Nov. 9–17. TIFF Bell Lightbox and Workman Hall.
Few paintings have ever conveyed the pain, anguish and bewilderment caused by mental illness as starkly as The Maze. At the same time, equally few have so vividly demonstrated the power of those same inner torments as a driving force for creativity. Painted by William Kurelek during his stint in two British mental institutions in the early 1950s, The Maze portrays a head that’s been literally split open to reveal a harrowing mosaic of images of violence, isolation, and self-annihilation. In one panel, a boy who has cut the flesh off his arm stares in wonderment at the bones underneath. It remains one of the most famous works by the Canadian artist, who’s otherwise renowned for his scenes of prairie life. The Maze’s recognizability also increased when Van Halen featured it on the cover of their 1981 album Fair Warning. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the rockers’ least party-hearty platter.)
The painting is at the centre of a fascinating new documentary that plays this week at Rendezvous With Madness, which runs Nov. 9–17. As an annual showcase of films, exhibitions, panels, and performances united by their focus on mental illness and addiction, Rendezvous With Madness has always been unique among the city’s film festivals—it’s also been one of the most adventurous in terms of its programming.
With its insights about personal suffering and artistic inspiration, as well as the film’s own unconventional nature, William Kurelek’s The Maze (Nov. 13, 8:30 p.m., Lightbox) is an especially representative selection for the fest’s 20th-anniversary edition. The doc is actually a reconstituted version of a 1969 film portrait of Kurelek by Robert M. Young. Over four decades later, the American filmmaker’s sons, Nick and Zack, created a new incarnation by combining a never-released extended cut by their father with new animated sequences based on The Maze and other paintings by Kurelek. These sequences serve as an avidly surreal and curiously musical counterpoint to the frank interviews with the artist, his doctors, and his family members.
Another strong new doc, Beer is Cheaper than Therapy (Nov. 12, 6:30 p.m., Lightbox) sheds light on sufferings of a more contemporary sort. A Dutch filmmaker who travelled to the army town of Killeen, Texas, Simone de Vries examines the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder in the lives of former and current members of the U.S. military and their families. As her subjects talk about fulfilling orders to shoot women and children, and being tormented by suicidal thoughts (one ex-soldier even talks about the urge to walk out of his house and kill the first happy person he sees), it’s all too clear that their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have broken something inside them. Yet the social stigma of PTSD and the military’s tough-it-out-or-else attitude leave them feeling even more abandoned.
Fortunately, Rendezvous With Madness is not as relentlessly downbeat as its thematic terrain might suggest. The festival opens with Little Bird (Nov. 9, 7 p.m., Lightbox) and closes with Fat Kid Rules the World (Nov. 17, 7 p.m., Workman Hall), two different but complementary features about young people who rely on unlikely new friendships to face challenges at home. Then there’s King Curling (Nov. 10, 7 p.m., Lightbox), a raucous Norwegian comedy that does for stones and brooms what Kingpin and The Big Lebowski did for balls and pins. Combining lowbrow yuks with a more distinctly Scandinavian brand of deadpan, Ole Endresen’s film charts the efforts of a curling team captain to recover from the breakdown that derailed his career. By reaching a richly enjoyable level of lunacy while retaining a surprisingly understanding attitude toward its characters and their many issues, King Curling achieves something as heroic as any sports comeback story.