Since TIFF’s programming being announced over the last few weeks to now in the middle of the festival, all you hear is what features they’re planning on checking out or how they can spot Joseph Gordon Levitt, Joss Whedon or Kristen Stewart. Yet there is little love for shorts, which is such a shame. The great thing about film festivals is that they will show films that Cineplex simply won’t play. It’s a chance for the film-goer to see something that they cannot see on a regular basis. For those that attend TIFF for reasons other than to pay high prices for a major film that will see a wide release in the next few weeks, I hope a shorts program will be on your roster. Even with a thematic tie, a shorts program will usually have enough variety to satisfy audiences of all tastes so it’s great for a group outing with people you don’t tend to watch movies with. Not to mention if there’s something you don’t enjoy, it’ll be over soon unlike a feature that you don’t like.
I love shorts programs because you get a nice mix of different things in each viewing. Despite the shorts programs at TIFF being all Canadian, you can expect to see stories from all over the globe since the Canadian people tend to be a diverse mix. Below are some of my favourites amongst the selection of TIFF’s first two Short Cuts Canada programs. I wish I could’ve written this earlier so it could’ve given the screenings some exposure but hopefully many of the films listed below will make it to the end-of-year Canada’s Top Ten and you can catch them that way. All of TIFF’s shorts programs play at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
A lot of reviews say Program #1 is the “experimental” program, which I can sort of see but nothing here steers too off course for those more into the mainstream. Of all the shorts from this program, Bydlo by Patrick Bouchard, an NFB production, is my favourite and I can easily see it making the Canada Top 10 at the end of the year. Set to Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, this short has many metaphorical layers about humanity, its consumerist natural and capacity for feral instincts. It’s also major eye candy as the animation is so life-like, especially at the beginning with the elements of nature, and the stop motion work is so hauntingly eerie that only the big screen does this piece justice. Another great piece of wowing eye candy is Malody by Philip Barker. A production designer by trade, Barker’s skills are put to great use in this short that features art direction that will mesmerize and keep you on the edge of your seat despite the lack of a strong narrative. Actress Alex Paxton-Beasley (who kind of resembles a younger Sarah Polley) attracts the audience in her wordless role. Deco Dawson’s Keep A Modest Head brings the life of Jean Benoît, the last official member of the French Surrealist group, onto the screen with his signature visual treatment that combines green screen work and animation. In A Pretty Funny Story by Evan Morgan, a couple sees their neighbour doing an embarrassingly funny dance through their kitchen window and the event leads them all into a spiral of catastrophes. The film starts off with some genuine surprises and once we see the conflict for the protagonists, it feels like this short was going to take a different turn. However, the villain’s characterization at the end leaves the short on an awkward note. Kudos goes to the cast and crew for making the “calling things gay equals bad” moral genuinely organic, funny and resonating rather than having it sound like a PSA.
The following shorts are worth a viewing if only to be able to discuss them afterward. With Theodore Ushev’s Joda (Apart), the sound levels are a bit too muddled to coherently make anything out of it. I also have no knowledge of the history and politics behind this story so it’s difficult to connect to its motivations. Bardo Light by Connor Gaston is a short that centers around an interrogation between a detective and a young man accused of killing his wealthy adopted father. The young man claims a re-rigged television is the actual culprit and the film goes on as an analogy about the consequences of mindless entertainment. It would’ve been better if the language had a bit more subtext that the actors can use but a 10 minute short of two people talking in typical believer trying to convince the skeptic of an other-worldly phenomenon fashion is taxing, even with the hints of imagery depicting the testimony thrown in. It also doesn’t help that audiences can predict the ending just from how one of the characters behave. Similarly, Lingo by Bahar Noorizadeh is for the most part a single shot long take of an interview between a police officer and an Afghan woman who can’t speak English whose son is accused of setting a neighbour’s house on fire due to a bit of lingual misunderstanding. I can appreciate what it’s trying to say about the immigration experience and language barriers in the country but the conversation in conjunction with the long take is a bit stale and at times coming off more as a lesson on Farsi than an actual conversation. The director can be applauded for trying something daring as single shots are tough in the MTV age of quick cuts and constant camera movement but if audiences aren’t going to be physically engaged then the conversation needs to be more dynamic.
Program 2 is a solid lineup of stories about personal struggles and my favourite of the first three shorts programs I’ve seen so far. It’s such a shame that it got stuck with a Sunday at 9am timeslot. Two shorts that come to mind for their powerful performances by the actors are Jeff Wong’s H’Mong Sisters and Sophie Dupuis’ Faillir (Struggle) . In H’Mong Sisters, two girls wooingly find western tourists in attempt to mooch food and money off them by selling them trinkets and getting them to buy local delicacies to eat. Storytelling wise, the outcome is predictable and won’t shock the audience but Phùng Hoa Hoài Linh’s performance as thirteen year-old Mu, especially her realization at the film’s end, will hit you as if you’ve been stung hard. Thùy Anh’s older sister, Paj, is three dimensional with her initial innocence accentuating the inevitable end that befalls her. The initial enthusiasm for her role to these tourists, even taking part in sexualizing her younger sister because “the cuter we are, the more they buy” makes it even harder to bear. And other than the bit of visual sliminess at the end, the role of Jackson played Scott Dean was handled with subtlety as opposed to being the evil white guy from the get go. There are moments where you will question whether through the malice if there is genuine intent. With Faillir, it is again the actors’ performances that allows audiences to sit through a film with such sensitive subject matter that is meant to be uncomfortable. From a storytelling perspective, I was hoping that the climax would not take place and that the narrative would be about the angst and inner emotional struggles of the two leads but the actors pulled off their reactions to the intense event with remarkable tragic strength. Noémi Lira as Ariane is the stronger of the two siblings, being able to show more of an emotional resonance and inner turmoil than Antoine Paquin’s Simon, who is great at being conflicted though at times seem stereotypically male and coming off as a predator caring only about physical lust.
Stephen Patrick Dunn‘s Life Doesn’t Frighten Me is charming with its deadpan tone that’s accentuated by the performance of Gordon Pinsent’s grandpa who can’t say the right things to console his angsty granddaughter played endearingly by Jade Aspros. Joe Cobden’s Vive La Canadienne is a crowd pleaser that will elicit many laughs with its silliness over-the-top and intense dance-fight choreography while Tuesday by Fantavious Fritz manages to echo a level of optimism and high morale in a tale about how everything can go wrong. A lot of that is due to a strong performance by Daiva Zalnieriunas. Asian Gangs by Calum MacLeod and Lewis Bennett is to me the weakest entry in the program though it can be enjoyable depending on who you are. My lack of enjoyment stems from my confusion over whether this is supposed to be a humourous documentary that tries to answer a real-life event or a scripted piece of fiction posing as a doc. It’s hard for me to take this in as a real documentary due to how scripted and acted the interviews seem along with camera work that feels very setup. In the film, the Caucasian Bennett seeks answers to why his elementary school principal claimed he would end up joining an Asian gang if he did not change his ways, a statement he made after Bennett as a fifth grader got in a fight with a seventh grader. The ridiculous premise add to how fictional the film seems. Regardless if it’s factual or fiction, it would’ve been much more satisfying to actually find out why the principal made such a ridiculous claim in the first place as opposed to simply disproving Bennett’s potential to be a part of Asian criminal life. I can see why others would enjoy the short as there is humour to the absurdity, including Bennett asking his Asian friends about their criminal status and the reenactment of the fight with the seventh grader, now a grown man just like Bennett but as someone who have seen way too many filmmakers attempt their own version of The Office coupled with me not knowing whether it’s an actual doc, it doesn’t work.
Note: I saw Nostradamos without subtitles hence why it’s not mentioned here.