TIFF 2018 Dispatch #5: Short Cuts


As the Wavelengths program comes to a close, so too does the Short Cuts program. I don’t always make it out to Short Cuts, but this year, the eighth and final selection of films jumped out at me, offering a potential bounty of riches. The lineup here includes the winner of this year’s Short Film Palme d’Or, a new film from revered Canadian artist Guy Maddin, and a new stop-motion animated film from Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels, the team who previously created the wonderful animated short, Oh Willy… (2012).

I have to admit up front, I ran pretty cool on most of these films. First up, and one of the more impressive overall, was Charles Williams’s All These Creatures, which took home the Short Film Palme d’Or. It’s well-crafted, with beautiful images and rich, atmospheric sound design. I can see why a panel of judges would spring for it. But I also found it a little unsatisfying, dramatically, as it leans heavily into voice-over narration to set up most of the story. It all serves to configure one actual scene with spoken dialogue, but the effect has no impact. The voice-over narration returns to drown it all out again, and then the film ends. It’s a fine film, but one that used narration as a crutch, and I found myself wishing the filmmakers had developed a slightly different approach.

Charles Williams’s All These Creatures

I found Ian Harnarine’s Caroni to be even less successful. It’s an impressionistic and elliptical short inspired by women who leave home to support their families by working as nannies for other families. It’s just a bit too elliptical for its own good, however, too fragmented and far too brief to make a lasting impression. I also thought the symbolism was ham-fisted.

Far more interesting was Ballad of Blood and Two White Buckets, by Yosep Anggi Noen. It’s about a couple who collect buckets of blood from a local slaughterhouse and use it to sell congealed blood to people in the community. Unfortunately, business has been on the decline. As they drag their feet through their daily routine, the woman comes down with a severe coughing fit. She coughs blood at one point but hides the fact from her husband. Soon enough, the man develops a cough of his own. I don’t feel like the film really lands on anything compelling, but stylistically it was one of the more assured films in this collection, and the steady rhythm of its depicted coughing spells almost became hypnotic. As the credits rolled, someone in the far back of the audience suddenly coughed, and, reader, I could not stop laughing.

Yosep Anggi Noen’s Ballad of Blood and Two White Buckets

The next film, Sofia Bohdanowicz’s Veslemøy’s Song, is a simple and endearing short that blends documentary and fiction work together. I like the concept, and it shines a light on a little known subject worthy of more attention (Bohdanowicz is currently planning a feature on the same topic, and I’ll be curious to check it out). But I didn’t feel the blend here was terribly successful, the interview subjects of the first half seguing awkwardly into the fictionalized second, with clumsy voice-over narration and stabs at whimsy. The last line does punctuate the film nicely, however.

Now the part I hate having to write: I did not like Accidence, the new film from Guy Maddin and his two collaborators, brothers Evan and Galen Johnson (Maddin previously worked with the brothers on the 2015 feature, The Forbidden Room). I found the experience grating and obnoxious and pretty much hated it. Accidence is a spin on Rear Window, with a camera pulling back to reveal the many balconies of an apartment complex, and the many small narratives unfolding in each dwelling. But the experience is flat, an intricately choreographed affair of little real interest and not much to attract the eye visually. A single apartment set was filmed thirty times and stitched together in post, impressive perhaps from a logistical standpoint, but the result is ugly, and no matter where I looked in the frame, I couldn’t find anything compelling. The narrative I could glean left me shrugging my shoulders. Maybe I was just looking at all the wrong apartments? I couldn’t stand the song, either.

Thankfully, the final film in this collection—and the showcase, running at 44 minutes—was alone worth the price of admission. This Magnificent Cake!, by Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels, is a big step up both in quality and scale from their previous short. It’s a wonderful, visually arresting work of stop-motion animation comprised of felt sets, objects and characters, and it was a sight to behold on the silver screen. The film tackles the Scramble for Africa, when European powers fought to slice up and grab a piece of Africa in their colonial conquests. It tackles the psychological absurdities of colonialism with a heaping dose of humor and surrealism.

Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels’s This Magnificent Cake!

The film is divided into sections, and the first two sections may have been the highlight of the entire festival so far. I was choking from laughing so hard and marveling endlessly at the elaborate, detailed and exquisite craft on display. As the film continues to unfold, it takes a more pointed turn towards surrealism, which I felt was less successful. The film is perhaps a bit too long for its own good, and the plotting too labored, as the filmmakers work to make connections between the episodic segments wherever they can find a spot for them. But those connections do prove useful, and the film is successful in finally bridging the ending to the beginning, providing a new context for every successive and seemingly disparate chapter. The final note is breathtaking in how thoroughly it is able to not only puncture and deflate the project of colonialism, but also crystallize the fundamental absurdity of human existence.

I don’t want to spoil anything about the film so I will say no more. This absolutely deserves to be seen in a movie theatre, and if you’re in Toronto this week, seek this out! Unlike Wavelengths screenings, which are one and done, the Short Cuts series always have repeats, and Short Cuts Programme 08 screens again on Sunday, September 16th at 7:15pm in the Scotiabank Theatre. I give it the heartiest of recommendations.

In the next dispatch, I’m back to watching features with the world premieres of Maya and Legend of the Demon Cat: Director’s Cut. And later this week, I take a look at films that have been making waves at other film festivals this year, from Cannes to Venice and Telluride.

The 43rd Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6th to 16th, 2018.

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