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If there is one type of film that can get lost in the chaos of a festival, it is the short film.
Usually around this time of the year, my inbox is flooded with requests from short-film publicists, or directors themselves, to please-really-please include their work in any TIFF reporting. Drunk on the shiny wares of Hollywood – and stretched to my editorial capacity – I usually, and regretfully, decline any coverage of TIFF’s Short Cuts program. But this year, with the festival’s programming slimmed down to 57 feature films from a typical 200-plus, things are different. I have all the time in the world for Short Cuts – and so should you.
And maybe it’s my new perspective, or maybe it’s something in the air, but this year’s Short Cuts lineup, especially the program’s Canadian contingent, is wonderfully strong. So strong that you might begin to feel hopeful about the future of Canadian cinema. Even in a pandemic year.
Here is everything you need to know about this year’s best homegrown offerings – and why they matter just as much as any feature-length film TIFF may or may not be screening this year.
Point and Line to Plane
Director Sofia Bohdanowicz’s latest short film may only be 20 minutes long, but it provides days worth of analysis and introspection, so powerful is its exploration of grief, memory and the lingering impact of art. Inspired, if that’s even the right word, by the unexpected passing of her close friend and producer Giacomo Grisanzio, Bohdanowicz’s film flits between narrative and documentary, with her regular collaborator Deragh Campbell taking on the role of the director’s on-screen avatar, Audrey Benac (who is also central to Bohdanowicz’s MS Slavic 7, Veslemoy’s Song and Never Eat Alone).
“After Giacomo passed away, it moved me into this kind of heightened awareness where it was so incredibly painful and difficult to comprehend what happened that I needed to make something out of it,” says Bohdanowicz, who was able to fund the film using the money donated by Anthropocene filmmakers Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier after the trio won the $100,000 Rogers Best Canadian Film Award in 2019, pledging to split the cash between the trophy’s runners-up.
And though it would be wonderful to be enveloped by Point and Line to Plane on a big screen – all five of TIFF’s 2020 Short Cuts programs will be available virtually, with no in-cinema screenings – Bohdanowicz is grateful that she can bypass the in-person aspect of a TIFF premiere this time around. “Honestly, it’s a big relief that this is being released online. It’s a film that’s quite painful for me and I don’t even understand how I made it. I was in a difficult state of mind. It’s nice to be releasing it in this cocooned way, and be at a distance from it.”
A wild departure for director Igor Drljaca, whose feature films The Stone Speakers, Krivina and The Waiting Room walk the sombre tightrope between narrative and documentary, The Archivists is an eerie dystopian tale of music and imagination. Shot in the “low $100,000 range” thanks to arts council funding, the short explores “the idea that creativity eventually trumps all the darkness,” according to Drljaca, “and as bleak as things may seem today, or in some far-worse future, people will always find hope and dream of a better world.”
Drljaca, who fronts the production company Timelapse Pictures with director Albert Shin (Disappearance at Clifton Hill), doesn’t think the lack of theatrical presentation for Short Cuts will make a huge difference in terms of the works' impact, although he will miss the physical networking opportunities, which are crucial for emerging filmmakers. “Festivals are extremely important as development accelerators for many projects, whether directly or indirectly,” he says. “I think TIFF is working hard to remedy this, but it will be the hardest thing to replicate.”
The ninth short from director Sophy Romvari, Still Processing was made during her master’s program at York University as a way to “investigate the possibilities of cinema as therapy, by documenting my experience of navigating through my father’s unseen archive of family photographs and videos.” Elegant and intimate, the film was shot on campus – which helped slash costs – and featured only two crew members: Romvari and her cinematographer, Devan Scott.
“I’ve been making short films for a number of years, many of which hint at the events that I delve into with Still Processing. Until now I was too afraid to look at those events directly, but I knew I needed to,” says Romvari. “I didn’t want to obscure my experience through metaphor or narrative but rather emphasize the importance of true vulnerability in the face of processing trauma. I lost two of my older brothers over the course of the last 10 years, and there is no way to overcome that entirely, but this film is my best effort not only to face that fact, but to immortalize the beauty that is left behind; for myself, for my family that remains, and for other families who might have experienced such an intense loss.”
“I think most of the promising work that comes out of Canadian cinema is made by filmmakers who aren’t afraid to embrace limitations, both in feature and short filmmaking,” the director says. “Broadly speaking, Canadian film suffers from the desire to imitate Hollywood aesthetics without the budgets or star power. It’s not a surprise to me that short films would be thriving and delivering some of the most unique perspectives, as a medium that’s already so informed by limitations.”
Every Day’s Like This
Earlier this summer, Calvin Thomas and siblings Yonah and Lev Lewis delivered a genuine Canadian-made hit with White Lie, a tick-tock thriller focusing on a college student’s desperate efforts to maintain a dangerous medical charade. Borrowing that film’s lead actor, the phenomenal Kacey Rohl, Lev Lewis’s new short Every Day’s Like This also confronts a medical crisis, albeit in a far different context and tone.
Made for just less than $15,000, using Ontario and Toronto arts council funds, the short feels thematically similar to Bohdanowicz’s film, with both directors exploring death and grief. But even though Point and Line to Plane and Every Day’s Like This share a producer in Thomas, they are deeply unique works inspired by intensely personal experiences.
“A few years ago, before my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I had the idea of making a film about a woman on life support and her family gathering around her hospital bed,” Lev Lewis says. “Eventually I came up with a specific idea and structure that became more and more personal and more a recreation of specific things that I had lived.”
Although Lewis would prefer not to think about how audiences will be watching his short, he says this year’s digital format helped get the film across the finish line. “We shot digitally and I wanted to add grain in our colour session. I was persuaded to not do so, because streaming platforms don’t always handle grain well.”
The future, then, is clear.
TIFF’s five Short Cuts programs are available on Bell Digital Cinema Sept. 11-15 (tiff.net)