Belle River

Kingston Canadian Film Festival Review: Canadian Shorts: Beyond

The Kingston Canadian Film Festival is most known for its robust slate of award-winning feature films, but it also has a series of shorts programs worth attention. One of the programs I took in was Canadian Shorts: Beyond, a collection of works that embrace cinematic experimentation in various forms. The program notes state that the “primary goal is to provide a space to cherish bold practices that go beyond the conventional in both form and narrative to transcend the expectations of audiences.” Going beyond the expected is something the filmmakers definitely took to heart though to varying results. Here are some brief thoughts on the shorts that played in the program.

Mother’s Skin (Director: Leah Johnston)
Set in 1971 Newfoundland, Johnston’s film revolves around a six-year-old girl, Molly (Briar Ainslie), attempting to navigate her increasingly volatile family life. Her mother (Rhiannon Morgan) finds it difficult to get out of bed, weighed down by a depression pulling her further into a dark place, and her father’s (Joel Thomas Hynes) violent rage is getting worse with each passing day. In capturing the family dynamics from Molly’s perspective, the film juxtaposes her innocence, such as her belief that she can summon a sea creature by blowing on a special item, with the dark themes of suicide and spousal abuse. Unfortunately, the narrative does not come together as one would hope. While the performances by the primary cast are good, neither the hints of the fantastical nor the increasingly dark moments hit as hard as they should. Overflowing with potential, Mother’s Skin is the type of film that would work better as a feature, which would give the various ideas swirling within it time to properly breathe.

Chasing Birds (Director: Una Lorenzen)
In this trippy animated short, the simple act of a little girl playfully chasing a bird is so impactful that it literal turns the world upside down. At first Lorenzen’s film plays like a series of vignettes where the bird intersects with various individuals ranging from a priest to a group of friends playing cards to a couple having a romantic dinner. Drawn in a style where the lines of a table in one scene bleed into the table or floor of the next scene, it does not take long for this seemingly easy-going film to reveal its full chaotic form. In the blink of an eye individual worlds start to collide as characters start seeing other people in their floors, walls, etc. As their worlds literally start spinning, Lorenzen’s film conveys the significance of being open to embracing change and new people. There is a clear distinction between those who are willing to help others in a time of crisis and those who choose to hang on, literally by a thread in some cases, to the old ways. An innovative and endlessly fascinating work, Chasing Birds is a wild trip worth taking.

Belle River (Director: Guillaume Fournier, Samuel Matteau, and Yannick Nolin)
In this visually stunning documentary short, the inhabitants of a Louisiana community are dealing with a crisis that could literally cause their extinction. Due to record flooding in 2019, the residents of Pierre-Part find themselves in quite a predicament. As high-water levels sit outside their doors, the community has watched as their property erodes, businesses crumble, and the rates of cancer rise. While those who stay are determined to make the best of a horrible situation, relying on religious faith and community to pull them through, the fact of the matter is they are one disaster away from complete destruction. Expediting this danger is the fact that local authorities will soon have to open the Morganza Spillway floodgates in order to save bigger places like New Orleans and Bâton-Rouge from further future flooding. Through the film’s intricate look at community and politics that keep them in this situation, Belle River finds humanity in a dire situation. It serves a reminder of not only the seriousness of the climate crisis, but also the individuals who often suffer the most from it.


For Roy (Director: Vivian Cheung)
In a deeply personal film taken from her own experience, Vivian Cheung’s For Roy follows young Celeste as she and her Chinese-Canadian family deal with the realities of having her father in hospice care. Hoping that her father will be around for her next birthday, which is a month away, Celeste and her father set out to fold a thousand paper cranes. Legend has it that one wish will be granted to the person who achieves this feat. Set primarily in the crane-adorned hospice room, the film blends reality and fantasy as Celeste observes the wave of people who come to visit her father in his final days. Everyone from crying family members to those serenading him with Christian music to a coffin salesman to a woman selling drinks that claim to cure cancer get skewed in the film. Offering plenty of humour and imagination to go with its emotional core, For Roy is a crowd-pleaser that will get your eyes a little misty.

Overgrown (Director: Cailleah Scott-Grimes)
Cailleah Scott-Grimes’s film opens with an elderly woman, Margo, sitting at her desk as men in hazardous waste suits move about her cluttered apartment. Though no words are spoken throughout the short, instead relying on musical queues and songs to convey the emotion, it is clear that the woman is getting evicted from her home. However, the discovery of a dead mouse under the floorboards leads the woman reflect on her predicament in a whole new light. Filled with plenty of visual flair, the film incorporates slow motion and animation in stunning ways, which allow Overgrown to evolve into something rather poetic. As Margo turns her plight into a symbolic funeral of sorts, one where items from the past find renewed importance, the film forces audiences to reflect on the nature of life. The way things we collect throughout our existence convey not just a moment in time but the loved ones that have come and gone as well. A stylish work backed by a great soundtrack, Overgrown hits all the right notes.

Our Highest Priority (Director: Daniel Karan and Emma Macklin)
Inspired by director Emma Macklin’s own lengthy and harrowing experience as an undergrad, the film offers a searing indictment of the ways universities are failing their students. Bailey (Sheridan Irwin) has been suffering from depression and her grades are starting to reflect this. Specifically going to Pembrook University because they take pride in their mental health resources for students, she quickly realizes that getting the help needed is easier said than done. Stuck on a year-long wait list, witnessing campus police arresting those who are deemed a possible risk to themselves, and finding outside therapy too expensive, Bailey runs into wall after wall in the maze of mental health support. Never falling into the temptation of forcing a happy ending, Karan and Macklin constructs a film that cuts through the “we need to invest in mental health” rhetoric to reveal a broken system that is in desperate need of repair.

Dream on Léon (Director: Roger Gariépy)
I will fully admit that I am not a pet person. Having said that, Dream on Léon left a huge smile on my face. The immensely charming short is told from the perspective of Léon, an old dog whose body is letting him down. As he finds various places to sleep, both outside the home and within, the audience is taken into his various dreams. Ranging from the time he plotted to chase a passing cyclist to his romance with another dog to the time he was tempted to eat his owner’s lunch while waiting in the car, one gets a good sense of his lengthy life. Since the dream sequences are shot from Léon’s point of view, the audience get to walk in the dogs’ paws to better understand his train of thought. While this could have easily been a cheap gimmick in the wrong hands, director Roger Gariépy brings just the right amount of humour and poignancy to make the film feel heartfelt and refreshing at the same time.


Blooming (Director: Zach Closs)
In the Q&A for this film, director Zach Cross revealed that this short film should be treated as a precursor to a planned feature film that would reunite the central couple years later. As a result, the cryptic nature of the short film was by design. Unfortunately, this does little to make deciphering it any easier. What is clear is that the young couple at the film’s core are each dealing with past trauma. As the film moves through the seasons, roles are seemingly reversed, and the things left unsaid only add to the growing chasm between them. While the film that touches on trauma, depression, social media punditry, and more, it never fully takes the time to explore any of its themes in-depth. While the film carries an intriguing style, there is not enough to make one connect with either the couple or the problems that threaten to drive them apart.

Split Ends (Director: Alireza Kazemipour)
Winner of the festival’s Best Canadian Short Film Award, Alireza Kazemipour’s captivating film follows a man with long hair and a bald woman as they each find themselves in front of the Tehran Morality Police. The man has had his car confiscated and the woman is fighting a fine for not properly wearing a hijab while in the privacy of her own car. Pleading their cases to the police captain, they are each given an option that will resolve the issue without having to pay the fine. Of course, the proposed solution has little to do with the situation, but rather the captain’s archaic view on gender and appearance. As each contemplates their options, the film offers a blistering commentary on the way patriarchal societies oppress both women and men. Building towards a great moment of defiance, and featuring wonderful performances from the leads, Split Ends is an engaging reminder of the importance of standing up to unjust systems.

The Kingston Canadian Film Festival ran from March 2 to 5. For more from the That Shelf team on the ground, head here.