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).