A sad fact of film-festival life sees those most in need of journalistic ink receiving the least. Who pays attention to the makers of short films, the film students, and ex-students who depend on exposure at events like this to acquire the profile needed to finance their first feature?
At the Vancouver International Film Festival, most such filmmakers are Canadian, and most of their handiwork has been collected into six omnibus packages (Bending Light, Black Holes, Celestial Mechanics, Diagrams for Space and Time, Eccentric Orbits, and Gravitational Pull). The remaining few (such as “A String Quartet in Her Throat”) are generally used to flesh out midlength productions.
Inevitably, not all of the 54 shorts in the group shows are of equal value. Many of the dramas, for instance, are bedevilled by overly sentimental writing and amateurish acting. These shortcomings can usually be attributed to lack of experience—eventually, they will almost certainly be corrected by life itself.
Traditionally, documentaries are the weakest link in the amateur chain, but two films here transcend the usual student limitations. (I’m assuming these films were helmed by students; pros and semipros are also included in the omnibus ranks, and it’s not always easy to tell who’s who, which is a compliment to the beginners.)
Leah Nelson’s “Kaka’win” is the standout in this department, covering the whole Luna controversy with a thoroughness that does justice to the fate of the doomed orca. In another key, Jennifer Alleyn’s “La Vie Imaginée de Jacques Monory” says a great deal about art and life in a compact 25 minutes.
The National Film Board, unsurprisingly, steals the honours in the animation department; the standout cartoon is Regina Pessoa’s “Tragic Story With Happy Ending”. The France-Portugal-Canada coproduction might have seemed clichéd in lesser hands, but Pessoa’s black-and-white imagery is so emotionally engaging, the familiarity of her story line flakes off like dried skin.
Unfortunately, Theodore Ushev’s “The Man Who Waited” isn’t quite as successful in this department, not least because it’s so dependent on Franz Kafka’s “gates of justice” allegory, a narrative that has already been given definitive form in the animated credits to Orson Welles’s version of The Trial.
More positively, Paul Whittington’s “Android 207” is strongly reminiscent of the dark cartoons that put Poland on the animation map in the early 1960s, while Ann Marie Fleming isn’t afraid to out-primitive South Park in “M.O.O.D.”
A surprisingly large number of the best pocket features in this festival depend on situational tension for effect. Karl Raudsepp-Hearne’s “Men on a Lake” is like Elmore Leonard before the great American crime novelist discovered humour, while Jeff Stephenson’s “Just Visiting” capitalizes on our newfound fears of travelling to an ever-more-paranoid United States. As for Mathieu L. Denis’s “Le Silence Nous Fera Echo”, I’ve seen less effective police procedurals on cable TV. (For the people who don’t get it, that’s a major compliment.)
Someone who seems equally adept at writing dialogue and calling the shots on set is Kris Elgstrand, who wrote the script for Allison Beda’s amusingly bitchy “Tea Party” and helmed the wryly kinky “Love Seat”.
A more straightforward narrative approach is employed by Hubert Davis in his desperately touching “Aruba”, and the same goes for Teresa Hannigan’s “Snapshots for Henry”.
As for Patricia Rozema, this veteran of feature films semi-successfully forgoes spoken dialogue in “Suspect”.
In terms of pure formal beauty, the outstanding entries are probably Tara Hungerford and Eric Hogan’s “Wearing the Unknown” (boy, do these guys know how to use split-screen!), Marjorie Celona’s “Nicht Angegeben” (a largely successful tribute to the late, great Andrei Tarkovsky), Pascale Marcotte’s “Revolver Tango”, and Claudia Molina’s “Dancing Waters”.
Comic notes are struck in Alexandre Franchi’s “Troll Concerto” (a short haunted by the ghosts of early Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet), Dennis Heaton’s “Head Shot” (about an actor who has trouble showing genuine fear even though he’s “starring” in a snuff film), Cory Kinney’s “The Sparkle Lite Motel” (about a honeymoon catered by Satan), and Geoffrey Uloth’s “The Ecstasy Note” (in which the protagonist finds out that not all gifts are equally beneficial).
Two notable trends this year are the surprisingly large number of successful English-language shorts from Quebec, and the three entries provided by Jamie Travis. Travis’s super-hip updating of Jean-Luc Godard’s aesthetic from Une Femme Est une Femme and Bande à Part in “Patterns 3” is reason enough to give this guy a crack at his first feature.