Festival Daily

By Tammy Stone

People do not generally assume that a grape would be tastier if it was as big as a watermelon, or that a child’s plastic craft table should accommodate a royal family dinner. Similarly, in the arts, no one asks if a haiku could benefit from a few extra syllables, or wonders if the Mona Lisa might have more impact if it were as big as Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist.

For some reason, this same sensible logic does not apply in the world of cinema, where more often than not, short films are defined by what they are not: in a word, longer. Short films now play on airplanes, there are specialty channels and film festivals devoted to showcasing them, and cellphone videos proliferate on the Internet. And yet, the unstated view still holds that short films are what happen when filmmakers look into their bank accounts and breathe a deep sigh of resignation.

While it is true that some filmmakers use short films as a calling card on their way to bigger projects, it is also true, as this year’s Short Cuts Canada programme illustrates, that the best short films are works of art in their own right. They entertain, inspire reflection, experiment with form, and most importantly, they categorically exist on their own terms.

Perhaps some of the greatest evidence of this lies in the impressive pool of talent drawn to working on shorts, among them acclaimed and established filmmakers Denis Villeneuve (Next Floor), Helen Lee (Hers at Last) and Sherry White (Spoiled). Veteran actors are also a notable feature of short films this year, including Bob Martin (The Catsitter) as well as David Fox and Severn Thompson (Night Vision).

Director Jordan Canning, whose Bedroom is part of a trilogy, was thrilled when Robert Joy (2001’s The Shipping News and this year’s feature film Down to the Dirt) agreed to take part in her film.

“As luck would have it, Robert was renting a room at my mom’s house while he was in the midst of going back and forth between St. John’s and LA. [We] sent him the script. His response to the script was so overwhelmingly warm and positive... Literally, we had no budget whatsoever, but he really loved the story and the character and wanted to be a part of it,” Canning recalls.

A one-take, 16-minute film, Bedroom is a remarkable achievement in which a married couple discuss their lackluster sex life while lying in bed. “I think one of the advantages of the short form,” says Canning, “is that it lets you see and explore just one moment in a relationship between two people – two people moving a little closer together or a little further apart. You don’t have to explain everything…but hopefully by the end they feel like real people, with real histories and truths. We just wanted the characters to be truthful.”

How Are You? is another beautiful film dealing with relationships – or the recent dissolution of one. It is a meditation on divorce from the woman’s perspective, co-directed by two gifted stage actresses, Martha Burns and Susan Coyne.

“Martha and I have been actors for most of our careers,” says Coyne. “We wanted to make a short film as another way of understanding the business we are in. The subject matter appealed to us, because we were struck by how awkward it can be to run into people after a major life event. Though initially disturbing, these encounters became funny and touching in the retelling, because often people reveal so much of themselves in these moments, including their own fears and anxieties.”

“A short film is all about compression,” continues Coyne “which is why it’s such a good discipline for first-time filmmakers. Your story still has to have a beginning, middle and end, but you have no room for excess. Every detail has to be carefully considered.”

Few would argue that casting can make or break any narrative film. “A very smart director I know says that two things make a movie: scripts and casting,” says Semi Chellas, acclaimed screenwriter (Ginger Snaps) and director of this year’s Green Door, a captivating ensemble film about unrequited love. Toronto author Barbara Gowdy wrote the film, which took care of the script, so “casting it was absolutely crucial,” says Chellas. Her first instinct was to approach Tracy Wright because, Chellas says, “she seemed to be such a perfect fit for the wry, lovelorn character of Rhonda.”

A Toronto native and friend of Chellas, Wright (Me and You and Everyone We Know, Monkey Warfare) acts alongside a gifted cast that includes writer/director/actor Don McKellar. “I think because this was a short, Semi had the opportunity to cast people she knew and liked in the film without having so much pressure from outside. Maybe it would be good to exploit this different expectation for the ‘success’ of a short film…to use it as an opportunity to take more creative liberty and try things.”

“I had always wanted to work with Tracy and Don,” says Chellas, “and I was really thrilled to find a script that seemed right for them.” Though they are often cast as a couple, Chellas says they were both quite happy to try something different in her film.  “Don was really supportive and very game. He has a very generous spirit with newbies, so it was a real pleasure to work with him on this,” she says.  

“I love it when actors surprise you. If you can get that to happen, you’re golden.”