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Our Guide to the Short Films of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival

Written by on September 14, 2015 

[Programme 1] [Programme 2] [Programme 3] [Programme 4]
[Programme 5] [Programme 6] [Programme 7] [Programme 8]
[Programme 9] [Programme 10] [Programme 11]

Programme 1
Premiering Thursday, September 10th at 9:00pm | Scotiabank Theatre

The Signalman, dir. Daniel Augusto, 15 min. – Brazil

Writer/director Daniel Augusto definitely cultivates a dark tone for his short film O Sinaleiro [The Signalman]. Between the quiet isolation of the titular character (played by Fernando Teixeira) and the almost supernatural occurrences surrounding him, you can’t help but conjure ideas of some spectral evil looming at his door. The monotony of his job—logging an on-time train as just that—places him on a path towards psychological upheaval, transforming what we see into nightmarish hallucination as easily as believing it to be reality. Abstract and devoid of explanation, Augusto provides us something to sink our teeth into. But I’m not quite sure there’s much to decipher besides its aesthetic mood without a cursory knowledge of its source material.

I admittedly found myself enjoying the short more after reading up on Charles DickensThe Signal-Man for which it is based. Having the background of what this character is and his state on a subconscious level helps traverse the story’s path. Because watching his routine interrupted by an overflowing toilet achieves greater meaning in the depths the text gives us. As is onscreen it’s merely a bad luck circumstance to be cleaned up. The chance meeting with a mysterious gentleman on the tracks he operates taking place the same night as an accident is simply a strange coincidence. But his fear is real when translating the Morse code from another signalmen down the line despite the stakes not quite matching. The final scene therefore comes out of nowhere—a tragically horrific end that’s perhaps too vague.

If I had read the story first I think I might love the adaptation. As a film on its own, however, I question how open-ended everything remains. The atmosphere is palpable, Teixeira’s performance authentic, and the art direction superb (the little matchstick men are great), but Augusto flips through them too quickly for my taste. His signalman’s fear amplifies with physical shaking and paranoia without introducing the cause as more than happenstance. The toilet trouble and the man on the tracks don’t necessarily feel scary as much as odd; the lack of witnessing the accident lessens its own impact as a warning for something more on the horizon. Only when I think about it in the context of Dickens’ text do I see the danger. I wish there were a way to see it on its own.


Mobilize, dir. Caroline Monnet, 4 min. – Canada

One piece of a quartet entitled Souvenir—an anthology by Indigenous artists in Canada addressing Aboriginal identity and representation—ITWE Collective member Caroline Monnet‘s Mobilize proves an invigorating sort of time lapse look at the propulsion of life from hand-made disciplines in nature to the steel behemoths of modern cities set to Tanya Tagaq‘s “Uja”. Composed entirely of outtakes from the National Film Board of Canada’s archives of over 700 films, the staccato sounds resemble breathe heaving forward sharp and focused as snowshoes are strung before being used to walk in the woods for lumber which is cut and bent for canoes that bring humanity to civilization. It’s almost a music video playing on the tempo with an evolution of Aboriginals from forest to pavement.

The cuts are extremely fast to work in tandem with the song’s beats and the innocuous is mixed with the exciting in the process. For every quick glimpse of axes chopping into tree trunks comes wonderfully composed footage of a canoe driver moving towards us with camera positioned at the foot of his craft. Scenes of steel workers moving girders cross against a fashionable woman walking below—a city sprung from the snow and swamplands that come previously. It’s a story of two halves everyone can relate to and a look at Canada through the eyes of a filmmaker twice removed from the visuals’ original intent. The idea of the Souvenir project is a captivating one and Monnet’s quarter a nicely conceived curio of socially charged nostalgia.


o negative, dir. Steven McCarthy, 14 min. – Canada

Sorry, Twilight. Your depiction of love between vampire and human pales in comparison to the uncensored drama of Steven McCarthy‘s o negative. This is the gritty truth of the type of co-dependent relationship such a union is constructed upon—one where morality and humanity is excised completely from matters of life and death. When your lover needs blood to survive you must be willing to forfeit your own existence whether it means feeding them from your vein or playing mother bird by acquiring an outside source and readying it for exsanguination. They are a junkie and you their last line of defense. But as with all pairings of the flesh, going further for them than you’d go for yourself proves an implicit term of the contract.

The short is gorgeously shot by Cabot McNenly with an in-close, on-the-streets vibe of rapidly changing focus from soft to sharp for emotional enhancement. McCarthy himself plays the man willing to go to the depths of Hell for his girlfriend (Alyx Melone), wound up so tight he’s about to burst at any second. The camera captures his silent expressions and body language in accepting his fate, knowing of the prize that awaits him if only he can save her in time. We don’t know how she’s gotten this bad, just that it’s now or never in an expertly languid race against the clock. Too weak to take sustenance from his cut hand, a blood transfusion from vein to mouth is the last ditch effort they need to reset and recharge. Then comes the search for dinner.

What’s great about McCarthy’s depiction is that he doesn’t gloss over the reality of the situation. It’s painted exactly like that of a drug addict and the blindness of love forcing someone to inject poison into their body to save them. It’s about doing the dirty work: whether murder, kidnapping, and theft or merely grunt work like washing blood off the walls post-feeding. We are slaves to those we desire to spend our lives with, caring for them in sickness and health because their wellbeing is the only thing keeping us alive. o negative shares a glimpse at this truth in its most grotesque, horror movie self. There’s no “thank you” necessary when death’s on the line—miracle save resulting from a heinous act or not. We’d do it again every time because love always justifies the means.


Paradise, dir. Laura Vandewynckel, 6 min. – Belgium
7 Sheep, dir. Wiktoria Szymanska, 21 min. – Poland/​​UK/​​Denmark/​​Mexico
Never Steady, Never Still, dir. Kathleen Hepburn, 18 min. – Canada

A lot can happen over a very short period of time. We leave home to start new lives and things come our way that either allow the rebirth to flourish or stop it in its tracks. Sometimes we return to take care of family. Sometimes it’s for a lost love. Other reasons stem from being out of options. Kathleen Hepburn‘s Never Steady, Never Still deals with each of these examples converging on a small Canadian town as one boy’s homecoming helps reveal a mother’s resilience and a friend’s journey towards happiness. Pain, suffering, and regret all have the potential of being washed away by one smile; the hopefulness of another’s joy serving as evidence that it can happen to anyone at anytime no matter the bad luck or tragedy befalling him along the way.

There’s a lot going on in these eighteen minutes and some plotlines appear incomplete as a result. With so many forks in the road, however, one leads to another and to remove it from the whole would be to weaken the remaining parts. It’s Jamie (Dylan Playfair) who has returned, walking the final stretch of road because his truck broke down, pushing his arrival to after mom’s (Tina Hedman‘s Judy) speech therapy session is complete. Their introductions have us anticipating the film as a depiction of familial love with a son giving back to a parent in a time of need—her ailment left unexplained. But Jamie is distracted, calling Danny (Parris JuRay) and leaving Judy in the middle of dinner to hang with him instead. This visit soon proving more involved than having a few days off.

Home becomes a destination for repair to those who left (Jamie) and stayed (Mom and Danny). Relationships are revealed as more than appearances suppose, memories shared about people no longer with them to pull at emotions otherwise inaccessible by words. Life is shown as a complicated road full of obstacles—walls too tall to vault without help. Family, friends, and their love must be tapped as a source of strength and catharsis so smiles and laughter in the face of difficulty can exclaim that complexity doesn’t have to mean impossibility. The success of one works as the success for all because they’re each intrinsically connected via past, present, and future, together or apart. Everything happens for a reason, it’s how we combat adversity that truly defines us. And no one has to do it alone.


That Dog, dir. Nick Thorburn, 15 min. – USA

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