Six essential Canadian shorts at VIFF

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      The Canadian short films that play at VIFF are, not unlike the feature-focused festival that surrounds it, a strange variety.

      There’s an avoidance of the celebrity associated with TIFF (Guy Maddin’s recent short works haven’t had a place here), and a strong focus on identifying young Canadian filmmakers right from the start of their careers, both those with feature-making aspirations and those who see something worthwhile and equally compelling in the short-film format. There’s filmmaking here that is resourceful, surprising, and sincere, and also cynical, ironic, and ignorant—often within the same program block.

      The common denominator in a lot of cases is film school, the great intake mechanism of artistic dreams and tuition. One way, perhaps, to divide the short film programming is between the work of those who are still making film school shorts, and those who finished making them once they graduated—as Olivier Assayas describes it, “those films that one makes to get rid of bad ideas before confronting the real questions of cinema.”

      But the closer one looks at the actual films, the more complicated the lines between them appear. For one, the blocks are downright weird at times, throwing together animation, borderline avant garde, and other works that, by their similarities, speak over as much as to one another. And yet, the films here often lack for diversity. The majority feature all-white casts, and there’s a line to draw between that and the apolitical violence and romance that drives the narratives of too many efforts each year.

      Still, there is a lot to celebrate. 

      There are breaks from the past, and, even within shorts I wouldn’t recommend, elements that point forward in interesting ways. The overly ad-packaged vignettes of Joseph Amenta’s “Haus” (from The Curtain Calls, screening Monday [October 8]) still convey some of the new-growth energy of Toronto ballroom rehearsals. 

      “Mahalia Melts in the Rain” (The Curtain Calls) and “Fauve” are compelling showcases for the work of cinematographer Olivier Gossot. (The latter screens as part of Matters of Grave Importance today [October 4] and Thursday [October 11].)

      And seeing Chelsea McMullan’s “My Life Is a Joke” (Matters of Grave Importance) led me to her perfect conversational portrait of Eileen Myles

      "Of course, “pointing forward” isn’t even half the fun of watching the short film programs. If you can get a ticket, you join a sold-out audience seeing films that months before were, in many cases, built on faith.

      Shot in small apartments, watched on laptops; there’s always something shocking about seeing these films seen for the first time. Whether the filmmaker is fumbling after something, or found it—it happened in close proximity, not just geographically, but in terms of experience, in terms of vision.

      At their best, they’re noticing and transforming what a lot of people in the audience are hoping someone would, but had yet to. Here are a half-dozen that do just that.

      “La Cartographe” (Close Quarters) Can “La Cartographe” really be called a short? It’s the longest work in the entire section at 34 minutes. But it doesn’t waste one. Conceptually, this is a contra-city symphony of Burnaby. It leads out from the perspective of Emma (Emma Bonikowsky), who’s stuck somewhere around the 21st floor of an apartment tower with her brother, who dedicates his time to methodically practicing his first-person shooter of choice, day or night. She watches from the couch next to him and from the apartment’s balcony, where she observes a morning jogger, and from there writer-director Nathan Douglas builds a kind of branching perspective upon the things we watch the most: the screen, which whirls and disorients, and the window, which opens out and stabilizes. The film takes a risky leap halfway through, based on Emma’s relation to the jogger. She’s looking for anything to interest her, which means she seizes upon the uninteresting, in the sense that literally no one else on the planet cares about what she chooses to care about. This is a sincerely bewildering and attentive film, one that evokes a similar spirit to some lines near the end of John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror: “We have seen the city; it is the gibbous / mirrored eye of an insect. All things happen / On its balcony and are resumed within, / […] And each part of the whole falls off / And cannot know it knew, except / Here and there, in cold pockets / Of remembrance, whispers out of time.” Close Quarters screens October 9

      “Hazel Isle” (Various Positions) Jessica Johnson has family history on the Isle of Coll, Scotland, but that isn’t what she chooses to show in this portrait. Instead, we get a film made to be seen on the largest screen available, an intensely warm film of a mysterious commonplace. There are echoes of the ancient in many of the carefully framed shots Johnson presents, and the interview recordings that show up in the second half of her film gesture toward forgotten origins, but what’s unavoidable is the here and now: oceans of grass meeting the edge of the land, film flashes and sunset glow, pictures of early mornings. Johnson hasn’t made a document of a trip—this couldn’t be further away from something like tourism—but something like a foundation stone that, paradoxically, she carried back with her.

      “Pumpkin Movie” (Close Quarters)  Originally shown with a collection of Halloween-inspired shorts curated by Kinet, “Pumpkin Movie” means exactly what it appears to mean: when it comes to the old tradition of gathering around a flame to tell a horrific ghost story there isn’t anything more ready at hand for two friends (played by filmmaker Sophy Romvari and Leah Collins Lipsett) than stories of sexual harassment. What works, and what will seem familiar to anyone who’s been on the receiving end of these kinds of stories, is how Romvari makes it mundane. The stories are provocative, but the main thing here is how generously “Pumpkin Movie” invites its viewers into a private space, to listen, to see part of a long conversation that extends back through myth and history. And in a festival season that still makes space for ridiculously paternal films about technology, Romvari (not unlike Elaine Castillo’s “A Mukbang”) matter-of-factly depicts how none of us would be as anxious nor as knowledgeable without it.

      “Under the Viaduct” (Various Positions)  A bit like a wordless sibling to Pet Shop Boys’ “The Theatre” (and about as long), Norm Li’s “Under the Viaduct” is notable simply as a break from routine. Instead of driving by the Cirque du Soleil tents that occupied the space by Pacific Boulevard last winter, it stops and looks at what they encroached upon. Li, who works mainly as a director of photography (the VIFF-awarded Never Steady, Never Still; Beyond the Black Rainbow), accomplishes a slow magic-trick reveal with this short. It doesn’t go as far as it could, it may be naive, but it still leaves behind the suggestive image of rain-soaked overpasses, reflecting the fires below.

      “The Urge to Run a Lap” (Various Positions)  A dense conversation with the future in the form of a poem, there isn’t another film in the program quite like Lesley Loki Chan’s “The Urge to Run a Lap". Coincidentally, there are other films that photograph locations and objects, with text to guide our allusions: the trauma-recalling “Maybe if it Were a Nice Room” by Alicia K. Harris and two shorts by Sofia Bohdanowicz, “Where” and “Roy Thomson". All of them to some extent deal with the unphotographable—not only is there something diminishing about the idea of restaging memory (of sex, of pregnancy, of spaces now gone or changed), these filmmakers know that there just isn’t any simple recovering of that time. So they transform it. Chan’s poetry, I should mention, is poetry in the sense that its rhythm unearths and upends—this is a subversively humourous and plainspoken work; ideally it would play more than twice in Vancouver.

      “Veslemøy’s Song” (Various Positions)  The life of an archivist: the search for the impossible—the past in mint condition—often made impossible by, you know, the way people use things. This is a self-contained continuation of the director Sofia Bohdanowicz’s feature Never Eat Alone (a VIFF award-winner), but where that work was shot digitally, this is a Bolex work like last year’s warm and clipped Maison de bonheur. Bohdanowicz, presenting work this year that came out of an MFA at York University, makes it look easy —personal histories surface like secret caves to investigate for Audrey Benac, again played by Deragh Campbell. Everyone has a question for their ancestors (and they, in turn, have an account), but where most would seek to claim those histories and hold them tight, as if they could be absorbed, Bohdanowicz always comes up against the insurmountable gaps between people. And this, her camera finds, is where beauty might be.