VIFF 2017: “Scaffold” (2017, Kazik Radwanski) & “Let Your Heart Be Light” (2016, Deragh Campbell & Sophy Romvari)

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It seems oddly fitting to begin my VIFF coverage with a few shorts that hail from the country in which the festival is located. Though I saw many wonderful features, there is something congruous between these works and the low-key but still kinetic feel of the festival itself, a peculiar humble vitality that I haven’t truly seen elsewhere.

Kazik Radwanski’s “Scaffold,” which premiered at Locarno to large acclaim, exemplifies this mindset extremely well. Taking place over the course of a workday, it (narratively, not visually) depicts two Bosnian-Canadian laborers working on various jobs in and out of homes around Toronto. The shooting style takes many cues from Bresson in the almost exclusive focus on hands interacting with various objects, including the eponymous scaffold, and there is a quietly optimistic tone about the whole venture. There are small dramatic moments – a dropped phone and flower vase – and some themes of class and nationality hover around the edges, but on the whole the actions are extremely quotidian. The gestures are humble but always striking, and the short knows exactly when to end, which is always a pleasure in short-form works.

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There are many films at this year’s VIFF, but I would wager a healthy sum of money that “Let Your Heart Be Light,” written, starring, and directed by Deragh Campbell and Sophy Romvari, is the only one to feature footage from a Vincente Minnelli movie. Said film is Meet Me in St. Louis, and as might be extrapolated the short deals with affairs of the heart during Christmastime. During the Q&A afterwards, Campbell mentioned that the use of the Minnelli, with its swooning, grand emotions, was meant to act as counterpoint, and much more influence can be found in terms of worldview, if not shooting style, in Akerman – who is visible on a coffee mug here. The principal character, Sophy (played by Campbell) is coming off of a recent breakup, the short invests much more interest in her simple desire to celebrate Christmas the best she can, listening to religious holiday songs and slowly decorating a tree. When Deragh (played by Romvari) arrives to comfort her friend, the short takes on additional resonance, emotion in a truly gentle and honest way; sometimes the most precious gift to have is a modest tree and a friend to hold, an idea which is executed with elegance and kindness. [Though I hadn’t seen the short before, it premiered last year as part of the omnibus film 🌲🌲🌲, and can be found here at 22:35.]

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VIFF 2016: Nine Behind (Sophy Romvari, 2016)

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This guest-review was written by Vancouver critic Josh Hamm.

“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define… [and] preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.”

– Simone Weil, The Need For Roots

Sophy Romvari’s debut short film is a mature, fully formed contribution to cinema; a film imbuing the trivial and mundane with the weight they deserve. The opening sequence of shots almost channel a Yangian rhythm: an extended take captures a young woman, Nora, (Noémi Fabian) in her routine and establishes the mise-en-scène with a slow pan; a cursory glance at the bookshelf conjures up images of the past and present on film, of a woman enraptured by the silver screen. The soft sounds of a bubbling kettle and the slow drip from the sink into a pile of dishes as she pours a cup of tea and settles into her chair and grabs a phone, her leg an almost abstract reflection on the front of the dishwasher– there’s fully formed minutiae and sense of a person through a mere two minutes of seemingly unimportant actions. Yet they also have the steady rhythm of ritual and home-brewed comfort.

Still, Nine Behind is not a film about ritual, or the mundane, per se. It’s propelled by the woman’s conversation with her grandfather in Budapest (the title presumably referring to the time difference between there and Vancouver), a one-sided dialogue that reveals a filial ache for connection and tradition; a yearning for a nostalgia-filled future.

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VIFF 2016: Maudite Poutine (Karl Lemieux, 2016) and Pop Song (Matthew Taylor Blais, 2016)

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The loudest film of the Future // Present series thus far is Karl Lemieux’s film about a drummer in a noisy band (I’m at least 20 years out of date on music genres) trying to make up for the fact that he and his bandmates, in an off-screen act of stupidity, stole a bunch of pot from local gangsters and now owe several thousand dollars they don’t have and can’t raise. The drummer, Vincent, walks and drives around, drinks beer, works at his job in a factory and tries to get his brother, a meth addict with connections to the mob, to help him out. It’s all shot in black and white, with long sequences scored only by music, recalling the hallucinatory interstitial passages of Jim Jarmsuch’s Dead Man, or the desperate final third of A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness. Jean-Simon Leduc, as Vincent, dominates the film, but he’s an incongruous presence in this world. Looking a bit like George Clooney and a lot like Jordan Catalano-era Jared Leto, he’s far too pretty to be a drummer, let alone to be trapped in this dead-end life.

Paired with the feature is one of the best films of the festival so far this year, a three minute short Pop Song (a perfect title), directed by Matthew Taylor Blais. Completely silent, it’s a visual experiment wherein images are layered such that they cancel each other out, creating black spaces in the frame, and then misaligned by a frame, creating a spatial and temporal discontinuity which, with the movement of the image, reveals flashes of gorgeous bright color. Documenting a few quotidian locations: a street sign, trees in a park, a woman, we see their beauty in an entirely new way. It reminded me of Lois Patiño’s Night Without Distance and the nature footage from Godard’s Adieu au langage.

VIFF 2016: Never Eat Alone (Sofia Bohdanowicz, 2016)

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Of the three films in VIFF’s new Future // Present series that I’ve seen thus far, the program Sunday night of Toronto filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz’s new feature paired with three of her short films is the standout. The feature is a fictionalization of the story of her maternal grandmother, Joan Benac, playing herself, who in the early 1950s, appeared as a singer and actress on a kitschy television show. Remembering this in a dream, she tasks her granddaughter Audrey (played by Deragh Campbell, in one of her three films at VIFF this year) with finding the show and tracking down the boy she co-starred with and had dated briefly. She does, she thinks, and writes the man a letter. He’s living on the other end of the country, in a small town where he lives alone and teaches a choir. Audrey writes the man a letter, asking him to call, but he never manages to connect with the women in Toronto (he’s played by George Radovics, Bohdanowicz’s producer’s grandfather). The bulk of the film cuts between the three principals, usually as they’re eating, alone. The television episode is interspersed throughout, and there’s a digressive slideshow of the grandmother’s trip to the Bahamas, both of which are actual artifacts. But wholly fictionalized scenes abound as well, such as one where Audrey tries on a bunch of old clothes her grandmother is trying to get rid of while the two delicately balance familial niceness with the desire not to give or receive these gifts. It’s a found-footage film, using bits and pieces of the past to build a collage of a fictionalized history, an alternate reality version of her family’s history. It bears a kind of inverse relationship to Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide films, which use a highly structured script and compositional style to document her family’s life, their work and routines and relationships as they go about various tasks: cleaning the house, making leather goods, cooking dumplings. Bohdanowicz in contrast films with an off-hand directness, emotionally straightforward compositions chronicling wholly improvised interactions (both Campbell and Benac receive screenplay credits).

Even more astonishing though, are the three short films paired with the feature, chronicling Bohdanowicz’s paternal grandmother. The first, A Prayer, is a short documentary, following said grandmother around her house has she does various chores (and eats a meal, alone, naturally). The second, An Evening, is something special: a tour of the grandmother’s house shortly after her death, patiently documenting its spaces while one of her records plays on the stereo, intermittently marred by a broken needle, from late afternoon until the space disappears into the darkness of night. It’s a film Chantal Akerman would be proud of. The third, Another Prayer, replays the first short, but superimposed over the now empty spaces of the woman’s home, completely silent. Each film is prefaced by a poem composed by Bohdanowicz’s great-grandmother, and the cumulative effect of the trilogy together is devastating.

VIFF 2016: Beautiful 2016 (Hideo Nakata; Alec Su; Stanley Kwan; Jia Zhangke, 2016)

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There are always one or two duds in these omnibus things, so let’s get those out of the way. Beautiful 2016’s first short is an embarrassing Ozu homage that repurposes his hometown (Kamakura) and his one-time actress (Kyoko Kagawa), though if you’re going to steal from the master, at least do us the favor of making off with some of his good humor. A dull banality best left forgotten. Dama Wang Who Lives on Happiness Avenue is quite possibly already forgotten. An indistinct void focused on a spritely, well-coiffed older woman jazzercising her way through Shangahi, Alec Su’s debut short is mercifully, well, short.

A real sense of artistry kicks in with One Day in Our Lives of…Director Stanley Kwan crafts some lovely images of nocturnal Hong Kong, his sense of texture undiminished even after a decade or so out in the wilderness. Distorted Wongian clocks, vertiginous tilts, and a weirdly haunting pop song provide the primary pleasures, though the Day for Night behind-the-scenes antics feel a bit stale. Kwan, once an inheritor of Hong Kong’s art-film tradition, seems to have lost opportunities as the industry shifted production modes this century, though it’s perhaps equally plausible that Kwan’s open life as a gay man curtailed his early promise. Whatever the case, One Day in Our Lives of… should prod those who’ve ignored Kwan for a decade or more (guilty as charged!) to give films like Everlasting Regret a belated look.

Jia Zhangke, on the other hand, is at the apex of his career. He comes swinging into Beautiful 2016—and I do mean swinging—with the swagger of a filmmaker who recognizes his own mid-career mastery. That self-knowledge is not, however, a straight-jacket for Jia. If anything, he’s discovered a more elastic vision of himself as an artist, willing to let in a kind of looseness that he kept at bay with the more static, calling-card early films. Last year’s Mountains May Depart proved that definitively, so it’s not coincidental that The Hedonists begins with a snatch of melancholic score from the prior feature. The presence of Jing Dong Liang as Liangzi, the poor miner destined for destruction in Mountains May Depart, also reiterates that we’re in a pre-established world. But without wasting time, Jia reconfigures the melodrama of his 2015 masterpiece into a buddy comedy. The transition plays subtly at first, until an uproarious cameo from the director himself, equipped with cigar and sunglasses and shouty bravado, brings down the house. Jia’s sense of play extends to the camera too, which he mounts on a newly acquired drone. Given that Jia helped reorient the Chinese film industry around digital technology, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he employs the newest tech better than just about anyone else. But when a standard tracking shot suddenly achieves lift off and ascends to the heavens, a genuine sense of wonder sets in. At this point in Jia’s career, you can only marvel at the corporeal and artistic weightlessness.

2016 Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films

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We are living in a glorious age of animation. Some of the best programs on television are animated. From the great Gravity Falls to the always awesome Adventure Time and on to the fractured genius of Rick and Morty, animation has been fertile ground for visionary storytellers as of late. Cinema has not been ignored either. Heralded auteurs Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman have both made the move to stop-motion features. Kaufman’s Anomalisa is one of five films duking it out in this year’s Best Animated Feature race. For all of the flack the Academy has received for its homogenized choices this year, the Oscars should be commended for their Animated Feature field which sports five idiosyncratic films, only one with talking animals. Three of the five nominees come from foreign countries, two are stop motion and only one is completely computer generated. One! The days of dominance from the big studios like Dreamworks and Disney are over, at least temporarily.

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Then why are most of this year’s five nominees for Best Animated Short so pedestrian? It’s odd that the features are more adventurous in their narratives and visual style than the shorts. There are certainly novel elements to the short films, whether it is the fluid “one-shot” look of the hand-drawn Prologue or the eye-popping color of Sanjay’s Super Team from Pixar. But some of these films feel like half an idea or their mission statement overwhelms the narrative itself. Both are the case with Bear Story from Chilean director Gabriel Osoro. The film is about a toy-making bear who builds a box that cranks out a mechanical version of his imprisonment in the circus and eventual escape back to his family. The animation is solid for the toy sequences but a little too flashy at other spots (Osoro really likes showing off the computer’s ability to generate dust floating in sunbeams) and the whole thing doesn’t quite gel.

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While Osoro’s well-placed abhorrence of the circus can be seen as heavy-handed in Bear Story it’s got nothing on Prologue‘s clunky treatise on the inhumanity of war. Director Richard Williams tells a silent tale with just pencil and paper that begins with a leaf before flying across the page to a centuries-old battle with shields and swords. Naked men thrust at one another, slicing arteries and severing genitalia, all gruesome images seen by a young child who runs back to the safe confines of their mother’s dress. The end. There isn’t anything more to it than that. And while the hand-drawn style is sweeping in its motion, freezing any frame in the battle would just look like something out of that stoner kid in high school’s notebook.

We Can't Live Without Cosmos short film

 

More effective and affecting is the Russian curio We Can’t Live Without Cosmos from Konstantin Bronzit. The film is about two cosmonauts who are inseparable. They share a deep love of space and one another. The film begins with some goofy humor as the duo work their way through their rigorous training regimen before the film turns into an exploration of loss. There are some indelible images contained within, if not any impressive animation. The turn of events from the thrill of exploration to the dull of devastation is interesting but not necessarily better than the deadpan antics that came before it.

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Longtime Pixar animator Sanjay Patel gets his first directing credit on the personal Sanjay’s Super Team. The title character is a restless boy who daydreams that he teams up with Hindu gods to defeat a villain demolishing a temple. It’s no surprise coming from Pixar that the short looks fantastic. The sound design is equally stunning with a great blending of the musical score with the action onscreen. If anything Sanjay’s Super Team should have been longer than its seven minutes, as the film brings up some great possibilities that are left mostly unexplored. If you’re searching for an animated look at the complexity of Hindu culture, stick with Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues.

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Which leaves us with Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow. Hertzfeldt’s film, about a young girl being visited by a clone of herself from the future, is the only nominee that can hold its own with the aforementioned animated features. In a mere 16 minutes World of Tomorrow manages to cram in meditations on love, identity, and loss across a distinctively designed digital landscape. There is enough narrative here for a feature. Hertzfeldt’s decision to keep it confined to a short means that it’s bursting at the seams with ideas. The film is heartrendingly sad yet it brims with a resounding sense of wonder. It’s a film of bleak humor that doesn’t much care if we laugh at it, at ourselves, or at the world. World of Tomorrow is not just the best animated short of the year, it’s one of the very best films–animated, short, or otherwise.

(The 2016 Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films play exclusively at Landmark’s Guild 45th for two weeks beginning January 29. Note that the program includes an additional four shorts non-nominated that were not available for review.)