Pity there’s no way to honour a master specializing in the short film form in the same way that we celebrate feature artists. It wouldn’t make sense the way most festivals are organized. There’s no logic in putting the individual’s latest in the Master category of the catalogue: after all a short film does not get a time slot of its own. Big festivals that showcase a variety of work simply can’t accommodate what amounts to an anomaly.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any candidates. In fact, there are plenty of short film masterworks created every year. At the upcoming 2019 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, Theodore Ushev’s latest, The Physics of Sorrow, deserves special attention and so does he as a master filmmaker. It’s time.
A longtime animator at the NFB, The Physics of Sorrow, is Ushev’s chef d’oevre. His previous work has been a highlight of festivals worldwide and he has been honoured with multiple awards and prizes, even garnering an Oscar nomination for his previous work, Blind Vaysha.
The Physics of Sorrow, inspired by the novel by Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov, traces the journey of an immigrant. Mired in rootlessness, his travels are punctuated by touchstones that extend his personal struggles into the realm of the universal. In fact, the story takes on epic proportions as Ushev invokes Greek myths within this one individual’s story.
Employing a remarkable painterly style – using the most glorious ancient encaustic painting method for the animation – Ushev manages to evoke both mythic and fable-like truths that encapsulate a collective consciousness in transition. As the younger voice over (Rossif Sutherland) states: We are all immigrants – a statement echoed to deep effect by an older narrator (Donald Sutherland). Our protagonist becomes both an everyman and a Greek god. And yet, he’s an actual man with bags in this story (a visual nod to Beckett’s world and his play, Man with Bags) navigating a universe filled with absurdist circuses and time capsules, both sources of memory that, together with his travails will form a sense identity.
Perhaps the remarkable aspect of the film is the way that Ushev marries form and content. His latest chosen animation technique extends even the briefest of metaphoric considerations while at the same time enlivening the urgency of his practice. Ushev’s images have always had a dramatic flair – from the painterly expressionism of Lipsett Diaries to the Lino cut intricacy of Blind Vaysha – and his chosen style of animation is crucial to our understanding of each of his tales.
The Physics of Sorrow is the first animated film to be fully realized using the encaustic method. The pigmented beeswax allowed Ushev to create motion within the frame: by warming the wax, he could manipulate it, painstakingly moving the wax as quickly as possible and filming it before it dried. The result is a film filled with thickly textured images – each an artwork in its own right. And now the motion pulsates within as well as between. This technique allowed Ushev to create the sense of an Impressionistic painting in motion in The Physics of Sorrow.
Imagine a film that successfully weaves Greek mythology with modern concerns, employing an ancient painting technique that invokes a more recent Victorian era that still manages to comment on our current collective search for both identity and home and you will have only an inkling of the deep impact of Theodore Ushev’s The Physics of Sorrow, a masterpiece of modern cinema.