Let me start with a harsh truth: short films tend to get looked over or outright ignored by critics and filmgoers. This is especially true at a festival like TIFF where they have to compete with nearly 300 features, all of whom are scrambling for whatever fraction of the spotlight they can get their hands on. It’s a reality that’s unfair, but it’s hard to place blame at the feet of audiences given the way the industry operates. Aside from the annual release of live-action, animation, and documentary Oscar nominees getting a theatrical run once a year, short films don’t really get much of a showcase outside of film festivals.
That limited exposure has to sting for those involved with making and/or promoting shorts, especially considering how much work goes into a programme like TIFF’s Short Cuts. Programmers Jason Anderson, Danis Goulet, and Kathleen McInnis have to more or less create their own festival within the festival, selecting 74 short films and grouping them into 11 mini-marathons of 5 or 6 films played back-to-back. Understandably, the task of selecting and arranging the shorts is a difficult one, and it has only become more ambitious over the years. When TIFF created Short Cuts in 2001, they screened Canadian shorts only. In 2014, they brought in a separate programme of international shorts, and one year later decided to make one unified shorts programme that wouldn’t distinguish by geography. The message implied by this unification is simple: great cinema is great cinema. Qualifiers like “Canadian” or “International” only distract from focusing on quality.
It’s an approach that’s more reflective of what TIFF has become, doing away with placing Canadian productions in separate, Canada-only programmes to avoid ghettoizing selections from their home country. And on the international front, one name should stand out to cinephiles this year. Jia Zhangke returns to TIFF with The Hedonists, a short he directed and co-wrote. It’s a simple story about three friends and co-workers who, after their employer lays them all off, travel around together bumbling their way through whatever jobs they can find. Like Mountains May Depart, The Hedonists focuses on characters who find themselves at the mercy of the changing landscapes surrounding them, but this time Jia makes his themes overt through the use of drone cinematography. A conversation between two characters can suddenly have the camera fly into the air, and within seconds a medium shot turns into a long shot of the vast horizon. It’s a change of perspective that serves as a reminder of how individual wants and desires are a figurative drop in the ocean, but it’s a concern that doesn’t seem to plague these humble characters.
The presence of an auteur like Jia in Short Cuts provides an interesting contrast to some other films across the programme, where auteurist influences tend to stick out for better and worse. Lee Chung-hyun’s one-take Bargain, with the camera roaming around a hotel as a prostitute negotiates with her client, will bring Birdman to mind given its cinematography and percussive soundtrack; Raphaël’s Plain and Simple uses the Academy ratio and depth of field to evoke Gus Van Sant, although the short feels directly inspired by Bas Devos’ underseen 2014 feature Violet. Both filmmakers don’t really elevate themselves above their aesthetic influences, yet in the realm of short filmmaking this is far from a major offense. Given the smaller scale, and the fact that the directors are at the starting point of their potential careers, it’s easy to sit back and enjoy these films on their technical merits alone. Plain and Simple’s look at characters dealing with loneliness feels too rote to make an impact, but it also has one of the most stunning shots I’ve seen in the entire programme.
Other shorts don’t weigh as heavily in terms of content, and it comes as a pleasant surprise that this year’s lighter fare provided some of the biggest highlights in the Short Cuts programme. Take Alberto Vázquez’s Decorado and Gabriel Abrantes’ A Brief History of Princess X, two comedies that take a meta approach to their subjects. Decorado follows a character who becomes aware they’re living in a film, but it’s more of an excuse for Vázquez to throw around his own brand of cynical, absurdist humour at a rapid-fire pace. Princess X has Abrantes giving commentary over his portrayal of the sculptor Brâncusi working on a bronze, phallic bust of Marie Bonaparte, providing a small, self-deprecating history lesson that calls attention to its own embellishments. Peter Huang’s 5 Films About Technology is exactly what the title says: 5 short, interconnected stories where people fall victim to their handheld devices in different ways, whether it’s through their own vanity (a poorly framed selfie) or lack of awareness (one of the best gags I’ve seen involving Bluetooth). Charlotte Regan’s Standby, which uses a stationary camera and jump cuts to chart the professional relationship between two police officers on patrol, is a 6-minute example of how powerful of a tool editing can be in comedy.
On the genre front, two highlights come in the form of Alonzo Ruizpalacios’ Green and Damon Russell’s Cul-De-Sac. Ruizpalacios, who directed the underrated Güeros, crafts a visually kinetic story about a security guard in Mexico dealing with the stress of his job on top of being an expecting father. Extreme close-ups, unconventional camera angles, abstract narrative detours, and shifting aspect ratios are some of the stylistic tricks thrown around to get into the central character’s headspace, and it all works to great effect, making Green an exciting warm-up for whatever feature Ruizpalacios comes up with next. On the other side of the border, Russell’s Cul-De-Sac has screenwriter/star Shawn Christensen (responsible for the Oscar-winning short Curfew and its adaptation Before I Disappear) playing one half of a suburban couple who discovers a recording device inside one of his child’s toys. It’s a familiar story that isn’t hard to figure out, and a case for how clichés can still work when treated with the right amount of skill.
Given the breadth of Short Cuts, it’s difficult to try and cover every worthwhile short in the programme, but I’d be remiss to not mention any of the Aboriginal shorts in this year’s line-up. Caroline Monnet’s documentary Tshiuetin, about the first Indigenous-owned train line in Canada, provides an informative slice of life through its profile of a conductor, and Amanda Strong’s Four Faces of the Moon dazzles with its use of stop-motion animation to explore Canada’s colonial past. Surprisingly, one of the strongest Aboriginal films also happens to be one of the shortest: Eden Mallina Awashish’s Nothing About Moccasins, a 4-minute documentary about the footwear that Awashish decides to abort when her grandmother convinces her to not share what’s left of their culture. Elsewhere in the programme, Kelton Stepanowich’s Gods Acre contains a terrific performance by Lorne Cardinal as a man trying to hold on to his family’s land as rising water levels make it inhabitable. All four shorts are an eclectic mix of animation, fiction, and documentary that all share a common tragic thread, one where people struggle to preserve a part of history that’s all but snuffed out.
As much as I’ve tried to avoid the usual trap of assessing shorts as warm-ups for feature-length work rather than taking them on their own merits, with a programme as vast as Short Cuts it’s inevitable that some filmmakers will show off the kind of promise that suggests a bright future in cinema. Francisca Alegria’s And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye is a concentrated blast of magical realism, with Alegria connecting different evocative, supernatural images (a field full of dead cows, a woman forming a stream with her own tears) to look at a mother’s capacity for love. Emma, Martin Edralin’s black-and-white film about a 14-year-old girl (Hailey Kittle, excellent) trying to hide her hair loss due to alopecia from her friends and classmates, is so effective at communicating the anxiety and isolation of its adolescent protagonist that it should leave a lasting impression on anyone who sees it. The fact that Edralin pulls off such a hopeful ending, with Emma accepting her loss and embracing her new life, is remarkable.
This year’s TIFF starts on the 9th of September. You can learn more about all the films in the Short Cuts programme at the TIFF website.