The Art of the Small: TIFF’s Shorts Cuts Canada

Matthew Rankin’s Mynarski Death Plummet is just one of the visually arresting films in the Shorts Cuts Canada programme

Everyone loves a big canvas. Directors can hardly resist getting all that vision up there on screen, going crazy Coppola-style waxing operatic and napalming the jungle for their personal Apocalypse Now. Lately, the push for longer movies is back, with blockbusters like Captain America: The Winter SoldierDawn of the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, and X-Men: Days of Future Past all clocking in over two hours long. Transformers: Age of Extinction is 165 minutes, fer chrissakes! But there’s another way. For the intrepid, those just starting out in film, and the craftspeople dedicated to the art of the small, short films are where it’s at. Over the next few days I’ll be posting interviews with a few of the many filmmakers in the Short Cuts Canada programme. Just like their lengthier siblings, these movies go anywhere, from comedy to horror, from surreal animation to the mundane grit of real life. So here’s to the miniaturists. Let’s get small after the jump.

Canada has a long tradition of excellent shorts and animation. Less is more, baby.

Short films have been a Canadian thing for decades. The National Film Board was founded in 1939, and it’s been instrumental in making renowned documentaries, animation and shorts. To kick off the first instalment of the Shorts Cuts Canada program, two classic NFB films have been restored to commemorate the birth of animation legend and pioneer filmmaker Norman McLaren. He collaborated with Evelyn Lambart to make the classic short of the Canadian anthem O Canada in 1953, and before that made the first stereoscopic animated film ever in 1951 with Around is Around. He created a 3D effect with a cathode-ray oscilloscope, and based the animation on that, creating an elegant, mesmerizing pattern of elliptical shapes transforming in space.

That’s no Star Trek alien. That’s Norman McLaren’s Around is Around!

There’s six separate programmes making up the full slate of Short Cuts Canada movies. Each programme’s been organized around a theme. The first, headlined by the McLaren films, muses on the many facets of fame with tales of war heroes, TV stars, and local mayors. It’s also got one of my favourite shorts of the entire festival, Andrew Cividino’s Sleeping Giant. Set on the sleepy summer shores of Lake Superior, the film follows a boy Adam as he whiles away the hours attempting ever more hazardous stunts with a pair of local boys. With the arrival of the pretty Taylor, the dynamic between the boys shifts. It’s a great look at the pains and competitiveness of growing up, the boys’ awkwardness and undercurrents of violence captured with an assured confidence. Details of the full programme, screening on Friday, September 5th at 9:15pm and Sunday, September 7th, at 9am, are here.

Andrew Cividino’s Sleeping Giant is a bracing slap of northern adolescence.

The second programme explores our physical connections to our environment and each other, from the most intimate spheres to wide open spaces. Take Me (Prends-moi) for instance follows a male nurse who finds his morals challenged when he has to assist a disabled couple in their pursuit of intimacy.

Andre Turpin and Anais Barbeu-Lavalette challenge with disabled intimacy in Take Me (Prends-moi)

Short Cuts 3 has a couple of exceptional animated pieces in it. The films are all connected by experimental visual approaches exploring the fragility of family connections and the self. Randall Okita’s The Weatherman and the Shadowboxer is a striking blend of live action and digital animation. Following two brothers with conflicting memories of their common past, it explores the very different directions each brother has taken.

Randall Okita’s The Weatherman and the Shadowboxer is an expressive blend of live action and animation

Equally impressive is Amanda Strong’s Indigo, a beautiful and haunting stop-motion animation inspired by Native mythology. A confined woman is liberated by grandmother spider (a potent figure in indigenous folklore), her memories opaque and projected in an effort to restore her spirit as life nears its end. Not a definable story per se, the movie follows its own eerie dream logic combining Native imagery and a Tim Burtonesque style to conjure a short that’s both unsettling and unique.

Eerie and evocative, Amanda Strong’s Indigo blends steampunk stop-motion and Native imagery

The programme for Short Cuts 4 addresses questions of culture and generational clashes, death and rebirth, running the gamut from documentary to animation, science fiction and folktales. The creepy Kajutaijuq: The Spirit That Comes is one of the best here. Directed by Scott Brachmeyer, a hunter in the Arctic wilderness tries to live by the traditional survival skills passed on by his grandfather, listening to the stories on old cassettes. The lessons are difficult for modern man to apply, and the well-meaning hunter unwittingly brings down a vengeful spirit on himself. This is as scary as the shorts programmes get, with haunted snowscapes and the claustrophobia of an isolated igloo.

Kaijutaijuq: The Spirit That Comes puts a creepy chill in your bones

Also in the program is the sci-fi tinged Entangled, directed by Orphan Black writer Tony Elliott. Forced to care for her catatonic lover after a secret quantum experiment goes awry, Erin is determined to discover the cause of his condition, no matter the cost. Bridging alternate dimensions in an unusual and compelling way, the short delves into how far a person will go for someone they love.

Orphan Black writer Tony Elliott directs Entangled, a quantum love story gone awry

Short Cuts 5 has another of my absolute favourites, Day 40 from director Sol Friedman. It’s a darkly comic animated take on the story of Noah’s Ark, run through with the spirit of Animal Farm. Noah gets much more than he bargained for as the animals take on the worst aspects of the humans left behind in the flood. And don’t get me started with the zombies!

Sol Friedman’s Day 40 is a dark and wickedly funny inversion of Noah’s Ark

The rest of the shorts dig into the dark side of our nature, from the absurd and disturbing roommates of Arlen Konopaki’s Last Night to Slater Jewell-Kemker’s  Still, a looping psychological thriller about a young couple lost in the forest.

The final slate of films in Short Cuts 6 take up the theme of self-definition, as their protagonists are forced to imagine and choose among the many roads their lives could take. Ray Wong’s Burnt Grass does so with an oddball sci-fi proposition, as a young couple discover a strange phenomenon in their back yard duplicates organic life. Sally soon goes wild with the possibilities, while Jack must contend with their consequences.

Ray Wong’s Burnt Grass is comedic and unsettling

The Short Cuts series of programmes begins on Friday, September 5th and runs throughout the festival, with each programme screening multiple times during the festival. There’s a lot of big movies at TIFF, to be sure. There’s a lot of great small ones, too.

For full info on the Short Cuts Canada programmes and TIFF box office info, see here.




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