Shorts shaping up big

Rating: NNNNNWhat makes a good short film? Well, a good short gets its message across quickly but without rushing, it.

Rating: NNNNN

What makes a good short film? Well, a good short gets its message across quickly but without rushing, it takes narrative shortcuts without being confusing and, if it’s really great, it provides an emotional jolt you weren’t expecting.

Since its inception 25 years ago, the Toronto International Film Festival has been committed to Canadian shorts. It’s an important undertaking because these films never get the red-carpet treatment and rarely receive critical notice, which is a shame since they deserve attention.

There is some wonderful work in this year’s crop, and two films by Quebec filmmakers Michèle Cournoyer and Louise Archambault lead the way.

Cournoyer’s powerful, disturbing Le Chapeau (September 9, 3:30 pm, ROM September 10, 6:30 pm, Varsity) brings the effects of childhood sexual abuse into focus. Her six-minute animated film consists of swirling line drawings that blend into different images — an exotic dancer becomes a hat, which becomes a little girl trapped underneath a man wearing a hat.

Cournoyer confronts viewers. Her sometimes graphic images are unflinching and always laced with sadness. In just six short minutes, the horror of abuse is seared into our minds.

With Atomic Saké (September 13, 6:30 pm, ROM September 14, 10 am, Varsity), Montreal director Archambault gives us three female friends who gather for an evening of drinking and truth-telling.

Oozes self-assurance

Each has a secret, and with a startling display of control, Archambault unravels the stories. She uses flashbacks and replays the same scenes from the women’s three different perspectives. The writing is great and the acting’s solid. This is Archambault’s third short, and she oozes self-assurance.

Toronto filmmaker Robert Kennedy has been plugging away at making shorts for the last three years. His fourth, The Dinky Menace (September 11, 6:30 pm, ROM September 12, 10 am, Varsity), is a very funny salute to bad moviemaking.

Kennedy stars as Irving Speck, an absurd director who makes films using Dinky toys. This matchbox-loving Ed Wood suffers a crisis of confidence when a critic describes his work as lame. It’s an over-the-top satire with a very pointed final swipe at the Canadian Film Centre.

Noted writer Susan Shipton has worked with Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema and Robert Lepage. Her wry comic sense comes through in her first film, Hindsight (September 9, 3:30 pm, ROM September 10, 6:30 pm, Varsity), which tells the story of an office worker (Tom McManus) with a glass eye. Fellow office worker Martha Burns feels McManus has been spying on her. Over a paper-bag lunch, they hash out their differences.

Both characters are slightly out of whack, especially Burns, and Shipton takes great delight in playing up her calm kookiness.

Stirring music

I’ve come to adore the anachronistic shorts by Winnipeg filmmakers. First, it was Guy Maddin, then Noam Gonick, directors whose movies replicate the grainy, black-and-white aesthetic of early European cinema. Add deco dawson to that list. His FILM(lode) (September 10, 3:30 pm, ROM September 11, 7 pm, Varsity) looks exactly like a silent Soviet film, complete with stirring symphonic music and two strapping mineworkers who live, eat and sleep in the bowels of the earth.

Dawson’s obvious attention to the accuracy of his images makes FILM(lode), on one level, an exercise in obsession. However, he also provides a gripping tale, part political allegory and part homoerotic love story.

Last year, Elida Schogt earned rave reviews for her first short, Zyklon Portrait. In her second short, The Walnut Tree (September 10, 3:30 pm, ROM September 11, 7 pm, Varsity), she revisits her family’s Holocaust past. Schogt’s mother recounts what happened to her parents during the second world war, and Schogt, who’s blessed with a large volume of film and photo material to drawn upon, once again pieces together a moving chronicle of one family’s survival.

Janis Cole has been making doumentaries for almost 25 years, a remarkable achievement in this country. Her feminist films are rarely showy — it’s all about the subject matter — but she’s changed the way we see women in prison, prostitutes and female directors.

With Bowie: One In A Million (September 9, 3:30 pm, ROM September 10, 6:30 pm, Varsity), she takes on male violence against women. Cathy Bowie was Cole’s friend, a lively woman murdered by her husband. It’s not a new story, but by using a meat-and-potatoes approach including newspaper clippings and excerpts from radio newscasts, a subdued yet still angry Cole shows how common spousal violence is and how lightly society treats it.

Veteran director

Francine Zuckerman, another veteran director making a festival appearance, arrives with Passengers (September 13, 6:30 pm, ROM September 14, 10 am, Varsity), a drama starring Stephanie Morgenstern as a lesbian who, while following her dead father’s hearse, regrets the fact that she never came out to him. Valerie Buhagiar plays her lover. Passengers works mostly because of the performances, especially David Eisner’s as the dad. He lends the role the right amount of tenderness and overprotective concern.

Unlike practised filmmakers Cole and Zuckerman, first-timer Charles Officer is making his festival debut with When Morning Comes (September 9, 3:30 pm, ROM September 10, 6:30 pm, Varsity). A father with a drug problem spends the night with his young son. It’s uneven, but there are wonderful moments, especially by Officer the actor, who conveys real warmth.

Other notable films in the program include Barbara Sternberg’s experimental Like A Dream That Vanishes, Helen Lee’s Subrosa, Paul Carrière’s Landscaping and Gregory Nixon’s Poe.

THE 25TH ANNUAL TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, September 7 to 16 at various theatres across downtown Toronto. 968-3456.

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