Despite a twenty percent reduction in the number of films screened, the Toronto International Film Festival’s Short Cuts programme continues to be one of the (oft-overlooked) highlights of the festival, providing brief, concentrated blasts of creativity from around the world.1 Programmers Jason Anderson and Danis Goulet have compiled a group of films that, in a surprising but welcome turn of events, provide an especially strong showing for Canadian filmmakers this year.
Take, for example, Philippe David Gagné and Jean-Marc E. Roy’s Crème de menthe (pictured above), which screened earlier this year at the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes. It opens with a young man trying to convince his girlfriend to have sex with him on a bus, which serves as our introduction to Renée (Charlotte Aubin), the woman sitting in front of the pair, who chews into them for disturbing her. Renée is on her way to attend her father’s funeral and clean out his home, two things she seemingly can’t stand doing because of her strained relationship with her dad. Gagné and Roy’s direction is refreshing because of how straightforward it is, using Renée’s father’s household and Aubin’s embittered, terrific performance to convey the complex relationship at the film’s centre. It might also be the most proudly Canadian film playing this year, considering its emotional climax – wherein Renée finally finds some sort of peace – hinges on Rush’s “YYZ.”
Yassmina Karajah’s Rupture is another highlight from this year’s Canadian selection, a film that will inevitably draw comparisons to Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (also at TIFF) for its use of nonprofessional child actors. Karajah worked with four teenagers from the Arab-Syrian community in Surrey, British Columbia to develop the story, which follows a group of young refugees looking for a community swimming pool in their new city. What makes Karajah’s short so effective is its lack of narrative drive; with the focus maintained strictly on these four children and their interactions, the way their traumatic pasts influence who they have become feels more authentic, as it’s communicated through their body language and behaviour rather than exposition. It’s a method that pays off in the final minutes, when one of the teens breaks down upon hearing tragic news from her home country.
Daniel Cockburn, who directed the underseen and underrated 2010 feature You Are Here, returns with The Argument (with annotations), about a professor who studies the nature of metaphor. Toying with cinema, language, and time, the first half essentially functions as a video essay laying out the professor’s argument. The film’s second half is almost the inverse, turning the camera on the professor’s own life, which seems to lack any sort of meaning or metaphor whatsoever. Cockburn’s film, much like You Are Here, revels in ambiguity; bringing up questions with no answers, it creates a space where various ideas bounce around freely. Phillip Barker’s Shadow Nettes is a completely different beast – a black and white mythological tale about fishermen creating virile shadows to lure fish to their nets – but it’s by far the kookiest thing playing in the entire programme, evoking a whole host of surrealist filmmakers (Lynch, Cronenberg, and Jodorowsky, just to name a few) in its story of a father passing the fishing tradition down to his son. Barker comes perilously close to having his film play as a laughing stock of twee quirks, but his clear visual eye, straight-faced commitment, and inventive production design – including an elaborate contraption used to cast shadows – prevents it from going over the edge.
While Canada has had quite a strong showing in this year’s programme, there are plenty of highlights among the international shorts too. One that immediately comes to mind is Carlo Francisco Manatad’s Jodilerks Dela Cruz, Employee of the Month, a politically volatile short from the Philippines. Set at a gas station on the verge of closing down, Jodilerks Dela Cruz, who works there as an attendant, finds herself becoming aware of the cruel, violent world as her unemployment looms. Manatad’s anger at his country’s state of affairs under President Rodrigo Duterte manifests itself through his depiction of an environment shaping an individual. In his entertaining portrayal of Jodilerks’ destructive behaviour, he shows a woman who isn’t really devolving but adapting to the cruel, savage world around her. Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s The Burden, a stop-motion existential musical from Sweden, similarly presents bleak material in an enjoyable package, although this one’s much cuter. During one night in a small town, various animals working menial jobs sing and dance about the banalities of their day-to-day lives. It’s an existential (and very Swedish) dose of melancholy fun, filled with great details (the fact that everyone has autotuned vocals only underlines their mediocrity, since none of them can sing) and a genuinely moving conclusion. It’s one of the best shorts in the programme, and potentially one of the best things in the entire festival.
But as strong as the international selections might be, the one thing that kept emerging from this year’s programme was the strength of selections from the Great White North. And it turns out that the best Canadian film playing in Short Cuts this year also happens to be one of the shortest films playing at the festival. Caroline Monnet’s Creatura Dada runs just over three minutes and packs a knockout punch as it films six Indigenous women enjoying a feast together (one of whom is legendary Canadian filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin). Monnet, who has already shown off her editing skills in previous TIFF shorts like 2015’s Mobilize, crafts a montage of indulgence and celebration for these six women, and it doesn’t take long to understand the gravity of the moment, how rare it is to see Indigenous women portrayed in this way. In fact, Monnet scores the whole thing with a soundtrack that evokes science fiction, as if the footage of these Aboriginal women devouring food and enjoying themselves come from another planet. It ends with an image that’s as bold as it is simple: the women, standing together, stare down the camera and walk towards it as one collective being. It plays as a pointed statement, one that Monnet and her cast deliver with a defiance that reverberates long after those three minutes are over: the future is coming straight for us, and there’s no way to stop it.
This year’s TIFF starts on the 7th of September. You can learn more about all the films in the Short Cuts programme on TIFF’s website.