Every year the Toronto International Film Festival showcases work from new and emerging talents from around the world in addition to forwarding the cause of Canadian cinema. One of the biggest programmes to give both emerging and already established filmmakers a new place to showcase some of their more off beat wares comes in the Short Cuts Canada programmes, comprised of miniature narratives, documentaries, and works of art from home grown artists. This year finds two filmmakers from last year’s SCC programme – Kazik Radwanski and Igor Drljaca – moving on to full length features this year, while more notable Canadian names like Charles Officer and Trailer Park Boys creator Mike Clattenburg return with more bite sized efforts.
Here’s a look at what one can expect across all six of the TIFF Short Cuts Canada programmes. For more information and for tickets, please visit tiff.net.
The first of this year’s SCC programmes could also easily function as an off shoot of TIFF’s Wavelengths programme of avant-garde features, and that’s both a good and bad thing, In terms of overall entertainment value, it certainly registers the least of the six packages, but there’s still some decent stuff here for adventurous viewers.
Deco Dawson’s Keep a Modest Head steals the show here with a visually stunning look at the “life” of late French surrealist Jean Benoit told largely through recordings from the man himself as the audience watches a seamless blending on live action, impeccable green screen work, haunting animation, constantly changing aspect ratios, and a picture-in-picture mise en scene that creates a psychosexual dreamlike state that few other shorts can achieve in the same period of time.
Also quite successful is the short NFB funded animation Bydlo that takes stunning stop motion animation and a great performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition to create a zombie-like parable that wordlessly equates capitalism to cannibalism quite brilliantly. Equally stunning and more politically charged (yet marred by an incredibly annoying audio mix), is Theodore Ushev Joda (Apart), a plea for the release of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi from prison.
Evan Morgan’s A Pretty Funny Story stands out as the most straightforward narrative about a family besieged by a next door neighbour who would like to keep his late night bedroom dance parties a secret at any cost. It’s sufficiently creepy and darkly funny, but its stabs at suburban satire would be better served by a slightly longer running time.
The remaining trio of films have decidedly mixed success. Bardo Light takes an interesting concept about television literally killing someone, but the ending comes across more weak than ambiguous. Malody has a nice shout out to the Vesta Lunch (the exterior of which exactly conveys a place where bright lights and perfect despair meet) and some great visual effects, but this look at illness through the pain addled mind of a young woman is a jumble of mixed metaphors that shoots itself in the foot by admitting to its staginess halfway though. Lingo, a tale of an Iranian woman who speaks little English that gets called by the police to answer for her son starting a fire, drags out a simple language barrier story to a far too long and circular length. The intent is certainly there, but ultimately instead of generating any passionate discussion, Lingo never rises above a dull monotone.
Friday, September 7th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3, 7:15pm
Saturday, September 8th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4, 1:15pm
By far the strongest and most consistently excellent of the programmes, the second batch of shorts focus largely on familial bonds and people searching for their true selves and a sense of identity. It contains not only five truly great shorts, but also the best of the entire series.
Even the weakest entry in the programme, the wonderfully named Fantavious Fritz’s Tuesday, is an undeniably sweet look at a young woman with a mundane name and a usually boring life that’s about to have one of the worst days ever. It flirts with being mean spirited, but there’s really nothing here that couldn’t happen to any one of us on any given day, making it ultimately relatable in how much of a bummer this young woman’s day becomes.
Societal breakdowns come up in vastly different ways in Jeff Wong’s H’mong Sisters and the Quebecois mockumentary Nostradamos. In Wong’s film, an older sister shows her younger sibling how to survive by giving tours to western tourists in Vietnam while subtly fleecing them for food and services. It’s a great look at how siblings can help each other survive in situations that can sometimes be perceived as extreme. Nostradamos, on the other hand, takes a rightfully cynical look at the Quebec town of Amos as it prepares for a completely non-existent apocalypse which the entire area is likely to survive.
Sophie Dupuis’ Struggle strikes a stark and purposefully uncomfortable tone as a brother and soon to be departing sister struggle with their own hormones and an unexplainable sexual attraction to each other. It’s a tough subject to pull off well, but Dupuis injects her story with true emotion and gets great assists from down to Earth and humane performances from Noemi Lira and Antoine Paquin in the leads.
One the more lighthearted side of things, are Asian Gangs – the story of a man who in 1994 following a school yard fight was told by his principal that he was destined to join an Asian gang despite being white – and the intensely choreographed dance-fight short Viva la Canadienne. Both are destined to be real crowd pleasers with big laughs and genuine excitement, respectively.
But the best of the entire Short Cuts Canada series has to be Stephen Dunn’s tender and sweet coming of age comedy Life Doesn’t Frighten Me. A young woman (Jade Aspros) who has an unfortunate accident in her cut-rate, but adorable Big Bird costume on Halloween (which also happens to be her birthday), only to come home to her grandfather (an absolutely more wonderful than usual Gordon Pinsent) who wants to celebrate and keep her happy, but has little idea how to help her. It’s a sweet and touching film that might get unfairly dismissed as coming from the Wes Anderson school of filmmaking, but Dunn proves that he can do more here in 13 minutes than Anderson can sometimes do across two hours.
Saturday, September 8th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4, 6:15pm
Sunday, September 9th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3, 9:00am
A bit of a mixed bag in terms of content, SCC number 3 features the aforementioned films from Charles Officer and Mike Clattenburg and focuses largely on personal relationships skewed by misconceptions.
Officer’s 100 Musicians is a sharp bit of Rob Ford baiting optimism and a great portrait of people who only hear what they want to as a couple argues over whether or not they heard a radio report that said Ford wanted to hire 100 police officers or 100 musicians and which would help the city more.
Clattenburg’s Crackin’ Down Hard, on the other, hand is a long walk for a short punchline as racial tensions arise in the middle of the desert between a rock climber looking for some peace and a black pimp looking to make some sales in the most bizarre of locations. The punchline can be seen from a long ways off (and kind of from the title), but writer/star Nicholas Wright and a particularly great Yoursie Thomas have a great give and take between them.
A pair of shorts with more off-beat comedic sensibilities shine brightest here. Dylan Riebling’s Model takes a subtle dig at the Toronto condo boom in this wonderfully production designed silent short with an impressive 3D model based around six downtown blocks of the city. Meanwhile, while Dusty Mancinelli’s Broken Heart Syndrome doesn’t have much of a payoff, it does contain a great hook about a grade school music teacher suffering through the side effects of a medication designed to heal his recently dumped and broken heart. It also contains easily the funniest gross out gag of the festival thus far, so there’s that.
As for the rest of the programme, Le future proche takes a high altitude look at the solitude and sadness of a pilot throwing himself into his work that features some gorgeous cinematography. Martin Thibaudeau’s haunting depiction of possibly soon to be buried secrets at a funeral in Reflexions uses some nifty camera tricks. There’s a blistering and all to brief dance number from Guillaume Cote (principal dancer for the National Ballet of Canada) in Lost in Motion. Finally, there’s With Jeff, a well meaning, but ultimately empty story of a young single mother who becomes infatuated with a young man on a motorcycle.
Monday, September 10th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4, 6:45pm
Tuesday, September 11th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4, 12:15pm
The most thematically ambitious shorts populate this programme, but aside from two comically challenged pieces that aren’t as funny or perceptive as they are, this is a group of snowflakes where no two pieces are the same.
The two most comedic minded shorts aim for pointed and blunt misanthropy or hard hitting satire, but they really come across as unsubtle, forced, and mean spirited. In The Dancing Cop an idiotic officer beats and stuns a man who didn’t commit a crime before breaking out into song. It isn’t funny or even all that smart. It’s just depressing. In Worst Day Ever, director Sophie Jarvis takes great glee in putting a young child through various cruel and unfair scenarios that aren’t really as dark as they are off putting and sad to watch. That one might be the “feel bad” selection of the series, but I’m not entirely sure that was the intention.
The more successful, but somewhat less comedic Sullivan’s Applicant finds a woman (a terrific Judith Baribeau) stuck in killer morning rush hour traffic in Montreal en route to an important job interview as she stresses out and finds strength in flirting with a stranger in the car next to her. Much like her attempts to circumvent gridlock, the story is a bit circular, but it’s fun to watch.
The Egyptian set short Their Feast proves that sometimes a great story can overcome lack of technical skills and sometimes shaky acting in this tale of one woman’s quest in the months following the recent revolution to provide for her family in a land with nothing left to give. Equally gritty, but in a different way, is the grimy slice of life story When You Sleep which finds a young couple living in complete squalor while animosity grows between them. It’s difficult to watch and even more difficult to care about the characters, but Ashley McKenzie knows exactly how long her film needs to be for it to have maximum effect.
The best shorts here deal with young people in extreme situations beyond their comprehension. In the CFC produced short Frost, a young arctic woman growing into her own as a hunter stumbles into a world she never knew existed. Without spoiling too much, it’s a city that she wanders into, but not one like we have ever known. It’s a great twist and a well paced coming of age tale. In a more reality based vein is the artful, but restrained Safe Room, in which a young woman recalls hunkering down in a bomb shelter in Israel during the first Gulf War. It’s an engrossing look at what young people think are the biggest threats to their happiness and well being.
Tuesday, September 11th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4, 6:30pm
Wednesday, September 12th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4, 4:45pm
While this package contains a definite focus on the creation and breakdown of families, it also has five relatively short shorts and one rather lengthy 3D production as its centerpiece. But oh what an achievement it is.
Let the Daylight into the Swamp easily takes the prize for the festivals most ambitious short film entry, even if it does run a bit long at 36 minutes. Director Jeffrey St. Jules takes his own family history and crafts a three part blending of fiction, mythmaking, and documentary through old photographs, staged recreations, staged interviews, and real interviews. In the first part which leans heavily on old timey recreations, he mythologizes his grandparents upbringing and his father’s eventual abandonment by his mother. In the second part, he confronts his father about the subject head on in a sweet and moving tribute to family and loss of trust. The final segment, a straight up documentary talking to other parents that have abandoned their children, is by far the least enthralling visually, but it’s hard to deny that the approach is tightly crafted and the sprawling approach is absolutely commendable.
The two briefest films in the package speak directly to the nature of death and rebirth, with the touching and animated Aubade acting as one person’s hand penned eulogy to the family he will be leaving behind after terminal cancer, and the quietly observational Old Growth drawing attention to the circle of life as a lone man crosses snow covered plains on his way to get firewood. Both are deceptively simple in their own ways, but they’re quite beautiful.
The remaining three shorts are appropriately bittersweet. Johnny Ma’s Genius from Quintino is a fable about a slow minded mechanical expert who might be meeting his illegitimate son for the first time following a tragic accident. In Danis Goulet’s gut wrenching Barefoot a young First Nations teen fakes a pregnancy with hopes of fitting in among her peers despite being unaware of the consequences of her actions. And finally, Julian Richings shows up in The Tape as an old man in search of a VCR to watch a now antiquated cassette. Given the other films in the programme, it’s pretty easy to guess what’s on the tape by now, but it’s great to see Richings get a chance to play a sweet old man for a change. He’s quite good at it.
Wednesday, September 12th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2, 6:00pm
Thursday, September 13th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4, 2:00pm
Short Cuts Canada ends off this year’s festival with an all comedy programme that ranges from dry wit to outright cartoonishness. The package will include a new edition of the viral short series Shit Girls Say from newly minted local online celebrity Graydon Sheppard that’s being kept completely secret until the festival hits, but even without seeing it anyone familiar with Sheppard’s work on the series and his Twitter knows exactly what to expect. The only question is if audiences still find it endearing and perceptive or if Sheppard might be veering into Jeff Foxworthy territory.
Patrons who like their humour a bit more on the cerebral side will get a kick out of The Pool Date and American Sisyphus, both of which hold lots of sly commentary about societal taboos. In Pool Date a boorish tourist visits a resort and begins a silent battle of wills to reclaim his chair and drink, while Sisyphus depicts a man literally gorging himself to death at a posh buffet to avoid his family’s admittedly “banal to the point of wrist slitting” conversations.
Holding the humorous middle ground between perceptive comedy and something a bit broader are Herd Leader, a slight but engaging tale of a woman trying to cope with an inherited pug she never asked for, and the gleefully plotted and appropriately titled Horrible Things which ties together a bunch of people who have screwed up in different ways. It involves a dead cat, stolen baseball cards, and absentminded child neglect, and it has one of the best punchlines from a comedic short this year. There’s also the charming and wry short Dear Scavengers about a cantankerous appliance store owner trying to keep out all those nasty lookiloos and ever more dreadful kids that are out on scavenger hunts.
Those looking for belly laughs have two of their own to close out the festival with Canoejacked and How to be Deadly. Canoejacked doesn’t last long, but this story of a jailbreak gone terribly wrong along a river takes a simple premise and plays it out nicely. But it’s hard not to think that despite being just a bit too long that How to be Deadly won’t be the stand out here. Essentially the Newfie version of Jersey Shore, it follows BFFs and dirt bike enthusiasts Danny and Ron as they try to get wasted while selling shrooms and pills all day. It has more laughs than just simply campy mullets and early 90s styled track jackets. They will help send Short Cuts Canada completists home with smiles on their faces.
Thursday, September 13, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2, 6:15pm
Friday, September 14th, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3, 9:30am