TIFF Review: 'The Waiting Room'

The Waiting Room
(Canada, 92 min.)
Written and directed by Igor Drljača
Starring: Jasmin Geljo, Masa Lizdek, Filip Geljo, Ma-Anne Dionisio
Programme: Contemporary World Cinema (North American Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.
Take your time with The Waiting Room. This new film from Igor Drljača (Krivina) slowly swallows you as it moves back through time and memory. The film is a black comedy puzzler guided by an outstanding performance by Jasmin Geljo as Jasmin, a Bosnian-born actor playing the role of the immigrant in Toronto. The Waiting Room is a subtle slice of humour as Drljača and Geljo delve fully into this character and explore the past that brought him to Toronto. Drljača steeps the film in performance as Jasmin wrestles with a game of identity play as The Waiting Room wipes the smile of this jovial actor’s face and presents the audience with a crying clown.

The Waiting Room brings to the Toronto International Film Festival the latest film from Time Lapse Pictures, the production company founded by Drljača and Albert Shin, whose previous features Krivina and In Her Place (still the year’s best Canadian film) make the team one to watch. Like the team’s other features, The Waiting Room is an unexpected turn that smartly looks at Canadian film from a different angle and situates our place in the world with a local/global focus. The film uses the Bosnian diaspora to chart a personal odyssey through the fraught myth of Canadian multiculturalism as Jasmin struggles to escape a role thrust upon him, but finds inspiration by returning home.

The running joke of The Waiting Room is that Jasmin is a talented actor who headlined a successful sitcom back in Sarajevo, but pieces together a living taking small thankless parts as token foreigners on top of his day job. These bit roles, which are usually a line or two, frequently play upon difference. They cast him as unlikable villains—drug dealers, hoods, and assorted criminals. Jasmin usually approaches these roles by asking the directors (mostly hacks) if they have any sense of how they want the characters to be. “Just interpret it,” they usually say, and Jasmin plays the parts quietly and humanely, favouring realism over a theatrical flair. Usually, though, the directors and casting directors ask for a bit more gusto and, inevitably, cultural flavour. They basically ask him to Bosnian it up.

He accepts these directions with resigned humoured. Throwing it an exaggerated accent (he already has one) and a few curses in Bosnian, Jasmin gives the audience what they want: a loud, disorderly “other.” Jasmin repeats these lines over and again, and the repetition brings him further from his real self—i.e. the “Bosnian” the casting agents and directors seek. His fatigue eventually empowers him, and his artistic embellishment soon become laugh-out-loud chirps at the hack artists. In between these auditions and performances, The Waiting Room gives snippets of the true Jasmin, both in Toronto and legit Bosnia, as he lives his restless life in Canada and remembers his life before the war. These scenes show a man of a different humour, but there’s always a hint of comedy in the way Geljo approaches the part. The actor has a lighter side that bubbles under his sombre surface (Jasmin always looks angry or unhappy) and finds warmth and irony in the roles that the filmmakers call upon Jasmin to play.

In the mix of the complexly structured film is Jasmin’s teenage daughter with whom he visits in fleeting scenes. These scenes don’t fit any obvious place in the narrative or chronology and, as the pieces of Jasmin’s memory fade and inspire his performance, the scenes with his daughter shift their meaning. She could be real, dead, lost, present, or absent. A victim of the Bosnian war or the child he never had, she symbolizes a loss that drives his quest for closure. Whether she inspires his performances or haunts them, she’s a pivotal talking point for the film.

The Waiting Room emphasizes performance by contrasting the various incarnations of himself that Jasmin plays in his life in Toronto, his life before the camera, and his life he revisits in memories. The actor dresses up in drag to play a pregnant woman, or blackens his face to play a chimney sweep, and, in a mix of voice-overs, line readings, and direct addresses, Jasmin digs deep within and uses the performance of his cultural identity to create a fulfilling role when paid gigs fail to provide one.

His final role in the film, which also happens to be his first one in the film, lets him return to Bosnia via a character and rear projection. Tasked with playing a father driving his family to the beach during the Bosnian war, Jasmin (and Geljo) finds a role with appropriate dramatic weight. The Waiting Room diverges tonally from the black comedy of its first acts when the final turn lets Jasmin assume this introspective role. The film lets the actor regain his silent dignity as he drives the car on the fake road, and Geljo’s introspective performance informs Jasmin’s own performance with the fragments of his life that precedes it. The Waiting Room effectively how an actor’s experience informs and enhances his art, and the film doesn’t come together until all the pieces fall in and contextualize this trip that he takes in the installation. The Waiting Room is a challenging journey, but it’s worth the wait.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

The Waiting Room screens:
-Tuesday, Sept. 15 at 9:30 PM at TIFF Lightbox 2
-Thursday, Sept. 17 at 4:30 PM at Jackman Hall

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