With 42 short films across six programmes representing 23 countries, this year’s Short Cuts lineup at the Toronto International Film Festival continues its tradition of profiling a wide variety of world cinema from new and established filmmakers. And like in prior years, we were lucky enough to watch this year’s selection and report on some of the best short films playing at TIFF this year. Here are ten shorts that constitute some highlights from this year’s programme.
1001 Nights (Rea Rajčić)
In Rea Rajčić’s documentary, two octogenarian women get together every day to sit down and watch Turkish soap operas, a routine that proves to be more than just appointment viewing. Cutting between gorgeous shots of peacocks roaming the streets of their city and the two women seated in an apartment living room––sleeping, commenting, and bickering as they watch their stories––Rajčić highlights the strong connection between her subjects. And despite most of 1001 Nights amounting to watching two people watch television, Rajčić creates an engaging portrait of friendship in one’s twilight years.
A Bird Called Memory (Leonardo Martinelli)
Without a doubt one of the best-looking films in this year’s programme, Leonardo Martinelli’s A Bird Called Memory shows the journey of Lua (Ayla Gabriela), a transgender woman who travels across town looking for her lost bird. Martinelli and director of photography Guilherme Tostes use precise framing and blocking to make the city a visually striking and imposing environment, Lua frequently dwarfed by her surroundings. But as Lua’s search continues and she opens up about her own desires, A Bird Called Memory transforms into something more playful, slipping between reality and fantasy to eventually give Lua her own space to express herself freely.
Electra (Daria Kashcheeva)
Oscar nominee Daria Kashcheeva returns to Short Cuts, after her 2019 entry Daughter, with the unsettling Electra. Taken from the perspective of its title character as an adult, the film dives deep into Electra’s memories as she tries to process a traumatic event that occurred on her 10th birthday. Kashcheeva blends live-action and stop-motion animation to create a disturbing, assaultive experience, as we see a 10-year-old and adult Electra figure out the extent of abuse she received from her mother (portrayed wearing a garish mouth guard as she drowns herself in alcohol) and father (more of an absent figure but tied directly to Electra’s feelings around sexuality). The stop-motion sequences shot at 12 frames per second, where Electra interacts with dolled-up mannequins, give human characters a jittery appearance that only adds to the sense of unease. A complex and ambitious short, at its best Electra recalls the films of Jan Švankmajer, and is among the clear standouts of this year’s programme.
Fár (Gunnur Martinsdóttir Schlüter)
Gunnur Martinsdóttir Schlüter directs, co-writes, and stars in Fár, which sees her playing a corporate worker bored out of her mind at a business meeting in a cafe. While seated next to a large window, a flock of seagulls outside cause a disruption that makes her take action––much to the surprise of her indifferent co-workers. In less than five minutes, Fár goes in unexpected directions as this small, chaotic moment deals with society versus nature, conformity, and the arbitrary parameters people put upon themselves to decide what takes priority in their lives.
Human Resources (Trinidad Plass, Titouan Tillier, and Isaac Wenzek)
This is another brief film at less than four minutes, and it’s hard to discuss what happens in Human Resources without giving away its single, dark joke around people’s usefulness. A stop-motion animation staged like a mockumentary, directors Trinidad Plass, Titouan Tillier, and Isaac Wenzek show a man heading into a recycling center where he intends to recycle himself, and the friendly worker who’s happy to fulfill his request. The mockumentary format combined with the dry, bureaucratic tone gives Human Resources the feeling of a strange, dystopian riff on The Office, but its short runtime refuses to dwell on the implications of its premise, letting them linger long after the film ends.
Nun or Never! (Heta Jäälinoja)
Heta Jäälinoja’s Nun or Never! is a fun, quirky animated short about a nun in a crisis: she finds herself attracted to a strange man she digs up from the garden outside her convent. It doesn’t come as a surprise that Nun or Never! won the audience award at this year’s France’s Annecy Festival, given its distinctive, 2D animation style and visual eccentricities in conveying its protagonist’s horniness. Part of its charm is in Jäälinoja’s way to portray the convent as a setting where everyone operates in unison, like when the nuns’ choir practice merges their bodies into a big, amorphous blob of habits, and how its lead character clashes against the harmony of her community. By the end, Nun or Never! amounts to a sweet, simple tale of a woman learning to embrace and accept her own desires.
Redlights (Eva Thomas)
Context is important for Eva Thomas’ thriller Redlights, and those familiar with the real-life events it takes inspiration from might recognize where its story will end up. The film opens with Tina (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Amber (Ellyn Jade) wrapping up a night at the bar, but when Tina goes back to fetch something they forgot, she returns to find Amber missing. Someone nearby informs Tina that Amber was picked up by a police car, and what follows is an intense pursuit, Tina following the cop car out into the middle of nowhere in hopes of rescuing her friend. Most impressive in Redlights is how well Thomas conveys the reality of how these two Indigenous women navigate spaces where they’re at constant risk of harm, whether it’s their need to remain alert while trying to enjoy their time at the bar or the role authorities play as a terrifying threat rather than any source of security.
Titanic, Suitable Version for Iranian Families (Farnoosh Samadi)
A TV station in Iran struggles to censor James Cameron’s blockbuster hit in Farnoosh Samadi’s bleak, deadpan comedy. Staffers pop in and out of a meeting room to gripe about how involved the process is, from cutting over an hour of footage to using animators to rotoscope appropriate clothing over the female characters. The script’s cheeky sense of humor has Samadi focus on the absurd, arbitrary nature of censorship, with plenty quips to highlight the contradictions around the entire endeavor (my favorite being an offhand mention of The Wolf of Wall Street only getting 15 minutes cut). Samadi’s inspired direction lets her points extend to the film’s form as well, with the whole thing unfolding over a single take with a fixed shot (or: no cuts) before she concludes with a sobering reminder of the oppressive reality these characters inhabit.
WOACA (Mackenzie Davis)
Tucked into this year’s lineup is Canadian actor Mackenzie Davis’ directorial debut, a slick piece of body horror starring Sidse Babett Knudsen as a woman enacting her regular skincare routine. With no dialogue, WOACA mostly observes Knudsen in close-up as she goes through the motions of applying various creams and serums in front of a bathroom mirror––until we notice an apparent zit on one side of her face. Time goes on, treatments get more intense, but her skin worsens until she’s had enough. Davis’ decision to do a big, gross-out finale (people who don’t like pimple-popping should stay away) will probably divide viewers, but it’s the slow, deliberate build-up to that ending that makes more of an impression. It also helps to have an acting powerhouse like Knudsen front-and-center, as well as Weta handling special effects and make-up.
Xie Xie, Ollie (James Michael Chiang)
It’s refreshing to see a take on identity like Xie Xie, Ollie, which concerns the half-Chinese, half-Canadian Ollie (Oliver Chiang) in a state of constant unrest over his inability to fit in. With little ties to his Chinese heritage, he takes Mandarin classes, as he plans to deliver a speech for his grandmother’s birthday. Co-writer and director James Michael Chiang observes Ollie’s preparation through a series of microaggressions and unspoken judgments by those around him (one of the only direct insults comes from Ollie’s white friend, who callously describes him as “barely Chinese”). Chiang, who took inspiration from his own experiences growing up biracial in Canada, evinces a keen understanding of the small humiliations that serve as reminders of one’s own perceived ambiguity. The closing shots, where Ollie silently observes the different treatment he receives at a Chinese restaurant, doubles as a bit of awkward comedy and a gut punch by underlining Ollie’s isolation and inability to express it.
See the schedule and get tickets for Short Cuts programmes at TIFF 2023 here.