“The World. In Short Form.” — On TIFF’s Short Cuts Program

Short film, like other mediums accompanied by the modifier, is often defined by its length, as though it is a curtailed version of what would have been, or a diminutive of an established medium. Indeed a short film is short(er) — the industry standard is something along the lines of ‘under 40 minutes’ —, especially when compared to Hollywood epics or trilogies. But it is a medium in its own right, by which I mean that the qualities that make great shorts are entirely different from those that make a feature length great. The slogan for TIFF’s Short Cuts program this year is “The World. In Short Form.” And indeed Short Cuts’s eight programs and sixty or so films in total are exemplars of the form’s ability to be broader than its length.

In Yang Qiu’s A Gentle Night, a mother searches for her missing daughter a few nights before the Lunar New Year. There is little dialogue, just enough to propel the story; we aren’t told who these people are; no establishing shots tell us where or even when we are; no thriller-genre watermarks that keep us on the edge. Yet, we are engulfed. A Gentle Night relies on the images and pacing to make immediate this removed and unnamed mother’s horror and despair. The movie ends as it begins with little explanations, yet it is difficult to escape the feeling that it is complete, that Qiu’s said all he wanted to say. Absence of specific details encourages the audience to engage with the film with sympathy and compassion, two refreshingly different emotional standpoints from empathy, the currency of usual feature lengths that involve a mother and a lost child. The audience cannot identify with the mother, is left in the emotional peripheries, just close enough to be bystanders to the horror that’s all her own. Charlotte Wells’s Blue Christmas is another example of this kind of storytelling. The story of Alec, a debt collector out on the job on Christmas Eve, hurtles forward — he has a son and a wife, who wants to burn down the family Christmas tree. Much of the film is occupied with Alec driving around town, collecting. Yet, when the film draws to a close and Alec returns home to his smoky living room, we cannot help but sympathize with this family we barely know or understand. Once again, the narrative is focused on the specific events and not on its origins or aftermath. The latter two, we are told, are Alec and his family’s, as Qiu’s mother’s is hers.

Kei Chikaura’s Signature takes a different approach. A man walks through Shibuya, Tokyo. He is unfamiliar with the city and does not seem to speak either Japanese nor English. He runs into a petition, passes by a row a row vending machines, walks into alleyways, and ends up in a dimly lit, disturbingly green hallway. The audience is kept in the dark until the subdued revelation that the man, Cheng Liang, is a ‘foreign worker’ trying to land a factory job. The film creates the illusion that we are, in real time, experiencing what Cheng is experiencing. It is immersive in that the audience’s not knowing is parallel to Cheng’s jarring and painful feeling of being uncertain, out of place, alone, in a foreign country. We find sure footing on the narrative just as Cheng finds his footing in his job interview.

Watching a number of these short films one after the other, one can’t help but feel that they are more truthful reflections of the way we live — not in grand narrative arcs, but in a series of indelible, meaningful periods of time — and of the way we interact with others, within liminal spaces between our points A and points B. That the beginnings and resolutions in many short films feel abrupt is perhaps the form’s greatest gift; our dealing with their absence is an exercise in compassion.

TIFF Short Cuts has eight programs, each with a loose theme ranging from relationships to survival. Details on each of the eight programs, times, and ticket information can be found here. I highly recommend the three mentioned above (‘A Gentle Night‘, ‘Blue Christmas‘, and ‘Signature‘) and the following: ‘Waiting‘ (Amberley Jo Aumua), ‘Magic Moments‘ (Martina Buchelová), and ‘Mother‘ (Rodrigo Sorogoyen). 

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What To Expect From TIFF 2017

There are things we can always expect from TIFF: celebrity sightings, the shut down of King St W, the madness of rush tickets, and, of course, movies spanning across every genre.

At the opening press conference for the Toronto International Film Festival’s 2017 edition, Piers Handling, CEO and Director of TIFF, and Cameron Bailey, Artistic Director, introduced the first batch of films in what promises to be a “tighter, more focused” line up. That could mean any number of things. Will the lineup feature fewer international films? Will there be fewer films from independent production companies?

In the midst of these speculations, we should note that TIFF is still one of the largest film festivals in the world. It’s a period of madly dashing between theatres to catch as many films as humanly possible. Last year’s festival showed 68 films in ten days.

A festival of this scale has no excuse for not having a diverse lineup. Past years have shown a decent amount of international releases, and this year is no exception. Of the films announced so far countries of origin include France, Italy, the United Kingdom, India, Sweden, Chile, and, of course, Canada. The overwhelming majority so far does go to American films, which was the case last year, with Canadian or international premieres of much-hyped big-studio movies with whispers of Oscar nominations trailing in their wake.

While premiering these films in Canada is exciting — and in Toronto we love to be on top of those premieres — these are films that will be widely distributed come Fall and Winter, and they come from a large budget with an impressive studio backing. International distribution is one matter, but my hope is when the full list is revealed, we will see a few more independent productions.

We still have a few holes left in the programming of this year’s festival, but what we do have so far is a good indication as to what we can expect from TIFF’s 42nd year.

The opening film for the festival is the world premiere of Janus Metz’s tennis biopic Borg/McEnroe. This announcement came roughly a week after the first press conference, and the film is an interesting choice, given that another tennis biopic, Battle of the Sexes, directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, will be showing as a part of the Special Presentations. There were speculations that Dennis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 would kick off the festival, but clearly we’ve gone in a different direction that has no Canadian connection or box-office-breaking leads.

The closing night film of the Gala presentations this year is Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s C’est la vie! Nakache and Toledano were the directing duo behind the wonderful 2011 film Les Intouchables, so they will be greeted in Canada with high expectations. The opener of the Special Presentations is Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. This is an already buzzed-about pick as Gerwig has established herself as a strong, young presence in acting and writing. Closing the Special Presentations will be Egyptian director Amr Salama’s Sheikh Jackson, about an Islamic cleric whose childhood hero is Michael Jackson. It will be the world premiere of Salama’s film.

The roster so far also includes George Clooney’s directorial debut, Suburbicon, and Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father. Jolie was also part of the production team on The Breadwinner, a multinational production directed by Nora Twomey, which is the only animation announced for the festival so far.

Piers Handling had suggested in an off-the-cuff way that one of the themes of this year’s festival could be survival, with films such as David Gordon Green’s Stronger, Hany Abu-Assad’s The Mountain Between Us, Andy Serkis’ Breathe and Longtime Running, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier’s documentary on The Tragically Hip’s last tour. These are films where the notion of survival is made literal. There are physical obstacles in the way of the protagonists, some that they can overcome and some they may not be able to.

Some of the other films, Disobedience (Sebastián Lelio), The Hungry (Bornilla Chatterjee), Woman Walks Ahead (Susanna White), and The Square (Ruben Östlund, who won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for the film earlier this year) features stories of outliers, revised histories, or social satire — very different ideas, but ones that are in line with our current cultural appetite and ways of thinking given recent events happening in around the world.

While I have my own wishes for the next slate of announcements, we do know that, despite having a reportedly smaller list of titles, TIFF 2017 will continue to be a showing place for hyped American movies and international gems waiting to be greeted with open arms by a North American audience.

The full list of documentaries, short titles, and first slate of feature films can be found here.

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