With all the buzz around world premieres and gala events happening at the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s easy to forget there is also a pretty stellar shorts program in the mix. Consisting of work spanning all genres, the format is a great way to experience new, upcoming talent as well as to check up on a couple familiar faces too. The following is a collection of capsule reviews and scores for each short in their respective screening blocks.
Bardo Light – 10 minutes
What do you get when you mix the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the ancient metallurgical science of alchemy, and the namesake of inventor Philo Farnsworth? The answer is Connor Gaston‘s short film Bardo Light—titled for the bright glow none of us can avoid at the end of our lives.
Told via the police interrogation of the younger Farnsworth (Shaan Rahman) after his adopted father (Bill Gaston) was found suffocated to death in their cabin, we quickly learn of successful experiments using television to control animals. As the pair continued progressing forward in the research, the irresistible force that is God’s Light was released with dire consequences.
A nicely constructed work pitting the extreme seriousness of Rahman’s scientific explanations against the interrogator’s (Chris Mackie) comedic refusal to believe, truth is put into the eyes of the beholder as only prayer remains to help guide souls lost. Complete with intriguing art direction for the modified televisions and fun footage of the animals hypnotized by its glow, the commentary on society’s ever increasing capacity to become slaves to brainless entertainment is laid forth for all to see. Pushed aside as merely a powerless gadget, the truth of television is its ability to lock us inside while suffocating our desire to live.
Ne crâne pas sois modeste [Keep a Modest Head] – 19 minutes
An intriguing concept on behalf of famed North American independent film director Deco Dawson, Ne crâne pas sois modeste [Keep a Modest Head] tells the life story of the last living member of the French Surrealists, Jean Benoît. By using archival footage of the artist in his studio and an audio recording of him telling tales of his insatiable libido and how it helped infer upon his art, the film becomes its own surrealistic work.
Dawson sets us on the cyclical loop of young Benoît (Brock MacGregor) and adult Benoît (Brent Neale) as they travel through the rooftop windows and moving picture frames of their reality-based counterpart’s life. We see examples of his work—although far too few—as well as representations of the sexual creature within. From high contrast black and white visages of a smoking, erect penis to the real Benoît looking at a naked woman’s genitalia “strictly for artistic purposes” (wink, wink) to his childhood voyeurism of the neighborhood girls, it’s unsurprising to find his entry into the artistic fraternity was aided by flirtations with André Breton‘s daughter.
An interesting look in the life of an original, I find it weird saying I felt the film went too overboard. The fact that it did should align itself perfectly with the subject matter and yet I discovered I was disappointed it was too much Dawson and not enough Benoît. Yes, Keep a Modest Head was created to speak on the surrealist’s life and not his art, but that fact doesn’t minimize my frustration.
Lingo – 13 minutes
Writer/director Bahar Noorizadeh‘s short Lingo is an interesting film in that its viewers’ perceptions are everything. Reading the TIFF synopsis on the festival’s website explains it as what happens after a young Afghan immigrant sets a fire in his neighborhood. I disagree wholeheartedly that he was the cause.
I may be wrong—I guess the filmmaker is the only one who truly knows. But watching the very calculating cinematography makes it difficult for me to believe Ali’s (Farhad SarwariAlex Lasheras frame composition clearly shows him away from any structures before a girl at soccer practice first witnesses the tragedy.
Created as a commentary on Canada’s struggle with the language barrier of its immigrants—having an English or French-speaking person attempt Farsi must be insane when the language itself has so many dialects—the second half’s static shot of Ali’s mother Maryam (Shaima Eshan) perfectly embodies the issue. Trying desperately to understand the interrogator (Hossein Martin Fazeli), we witness her surprise as a routine witness statement turns into an accusation.
Say what you will about the problem, arguing two years is more than enough time to learn the language of the country you reside in is just as easy as saying the government shouldn’t let you in without having programs set up to teach it. Fault lies on both sides and excuses simply won’t solve anything when something as simple as confusing the word “set” with “see” can have disastrous effect.
Bydlo – 9 minutes
While watching director Patrick Bouchard‘s and writer Cynthia Tremblay‘s stop-motion animated Bydlo, I couldn’t stop the Battlestar Galactica line “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again” from repeating inside my head. As water brings forth life and evolves into a war against the oppression of each opposing side, we see humanity falling pray to its baser instincts as competition supercedes compassion to let only destruction remain.
Inspired by a movement in Modest Mussorgsky‘s piano concerto Pictures at an Exhibition, Bydlo shows how tenuous life is if we don’t work together towards peace and harmony. As its solitary creature standing motionless amidst the carnage is ripped down by the chaos despite its want to avoid the hate, we see how futile it is to avoid the inevitable apocalypse. Even at the end when both sides are nothing but a shadow of once proud forces, the sun’s cleansing rays reward their victory with a quick, dehydrating death to recycle the earth for the dance to begin anew.
A highly expressionistic piece that mesmerizes with its rough, handcrafted aesthetic of mud-like monsters of aggression, the tumultuous battle for the power inherent in the wheel’s symbol of progress becomes amplified by the orchestral melody. Beautifully using the earth itself to spawn and consume creation, its hard not to feel something stir within you during the experience. Hopefully that emotive reaction will give you pause to acknowledge the sanctity of life and how quickly it can pass.
Malody – 12 minutes
A visual treat from Atom Egoyan‘s regular production designer Phillip Baker, Malody takes us into the surrealistic dream world of a sick woman coming to grips with her situation. Trapped inside her mind as the blips of a cardiac monitor set the beat, Malody (Alex Paxton-Beesley) begins to see herself as a young girl (Ashleigh Warren) carefully setting her up for a fall.
The majority of the film takes place inside a 24-hour diner as she takes a seat at the edge of the counter with only the barely audible voices of the cook (Thomas Hauff) and his last customer (Ryan Granville-Martin) discussing fishing lures. Possibly representations of the doctor and a brother/husband sitting inside her hospital room in the sort of routine malaise such things manifest, Malody’s deteriorating health coincides with the entire diner slowly spinning upside-down. As eggs, flour, and whatever else wasn’t fastened to its perch fly around the room, the unfazed cook mechanically makes his way over to verify what we have already inferred.
Metaphorically showing the brain create a world around what a dying woman cannot clearly see, the film also reveals its fabrication by zooming out to show how the diner is actually a set constructed inside a giant cylinder being rolled inside a studio. Life is a story built through our experiences as seen by our own eyes, the past constantly returning to superimpose itself on the present. And as we suspect the end of Malody’s journey has arrived, the idea her roller coaster of confusion may have been the medication working its way through her veins set in and life may yet have some time left.
Joda [Apart] – 3 minutes
Very clearly wearing its political motivations on its sleeves Theodore Ushev‘s plea for the release of imprisoned Iranian filmmakers is a stunning work of art. Joda [Apart] utilizes rotoscoping techniques with Farsi text used to compose its imagery. Whether the savage brutality of the Green Wave protests or the art of Jafar Panahi and his films, the chalk-like animation on its coarsely textured background is broken only by words like “Hope”, “Torn”, and “Anguish”.
Admittedly, I am not well versed in everything happening with Panahi or the other oppressed Iranian moviemakers. But this ignorance doesn’t mean the impact of such a personal call for liberation is lost. Through the poetic words of Maral Mohammadian, Ushev’s rough depiction of atrocities past, and the delicate hand crafting Panahi’s The White Balloon as a sign for hope, one understands the tone and appreciates the sentiments.
Shed of its meaning and looked upon as simply a piece of visual art, one can’t deny its figurative use of language or the beauty of its form. Juxtaposing the harsh silhouettes of violence with the soft detail of a nation’s will to survive for freedom, we see how the emotional worth of art will always be stronger than the physical pain of abuse. Iran wouldn’t be silencing their political detractors if they didn’t believe this to be true.
A Pretty Funny Story – 19 minutes
A cautionary tale for anyone who revels in using the misfortune of others to elicit laughs from co-workers at the water cooler, the ends may not justify the means if anyone like the uber-paranoid neighbor in Evan Morgan‘s A Pretty Funny Story actually exists.
More a testament to the writer/director’s acutely warped mind than anything else, his depiction of suburban boredom quickly becomes infused with an outside-the-box genre move towards thriller territory. Expecting a straight comedy from the start, the realization that the laughs will in fact be of the uncomfortable variety takes a little while to accept. Once you do, though, the film finds itself a mildly humorous escapade into the dark recesses of a pretty messed up individual.
Is having Rick (Justin Conley) tell his fellow cubicle residents about his neighbor’s wild dancing habits that bad? Should the victim in all of this (Jimi Shiag) care so much that he’d take the drastic measures he does in order to keep the family man and his wife (Erin Hickock) silent? Of course not—that’s the point. Morgan looks to subvert the embarrassment inherent with living way too close to others and the inevitability everyone will be caught in a compromising position at some point.
It’s a fun idea with overwrought performances making sure we over commit on our hypotheses about whether or not the stakes are real. For young Michael (Ezra Sherman), life has gotten a lot more complicated, but as long as no one pisses off the neighbor again all should be fine. Thankfully, Morgan does the right thing by testing to see what happens if someone does. The result may not fully redeem the somewhat tiresome premise, but the payoff definitely makes it worth your time.
Short Cuts Canada Programme 1 plays at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 7th & 8th.
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