Looking for signs of life in VIFF’s BC short films selection

First, love. The first impulse, Alexis Tioseco said, with film, with the film of a country still unable to completely understand its own history, still minimized and barely watched by its own populace, must be love. Ask any film student and, well, that would be considered a given — who does not love film, want others to love films, has loved films from the first film they watched, and so on, they might say. Though the short film programming from BC filmmakers at VIFF, many of them students recently graduated from SFU and Capilano and elsewhere, will always arrive with the possibility of new beginning, this is no pre-history: there are many paths, which all filmmakers are made aware of, which prompts the real question: Do you want to make films, or want to have made films? This verges on a false dichotomy — it isn’t true that anyone moving from an educational institution to the filmmaking industry will ever know only the isolation of truly independent art or only the maelstrom of branding and identity-crafting — but there is a lineage that all filmmakers must contend with, and to watch even a minute of a short film is to see “new voices,” in some cases eagerly joining with yesterday’s new voices, in others bending their own into a new kind of poetry.

The Cameraman

The program (the BC shorts play within a broader Canadian selection) begins with Connor Gaston — last year at VIFF, Gaston won the BC Emerging Director award, which granted him $17,500 in cash and equipment credit. Not a guarantee, but a partial endorsement of what Gaston could do, what Gaston has done now is make a short about a love for film, a film about having made films. It is called The Cameraman. There are plans to turn it into a feature film. Speaking to the Vancouver Sun, Gaston says that when it comes to the script, which he wrote, he “[was not] too emotionally attached to it.” But he made the film anyway: a father with Huntingdon’s disease, portrayed as a needy, tempestuous emotional abuser, is saved by celluloid, transformed into a fine-grain angelic keepsake of clips by his son, who always carries around a Bolex camera and is, you know, a great observer of the human condition. The “cameraman” has a brother, who narrates the story from the future — he can’t completely grasp the legacy of his distant brother, but he reveres him, and the films he made, which, apparently, were “loved by critics and audiences alike.

Here Nor There

There is, perhaps, some (cheap) ambiguity surrounding the characters, introduced through the shock of a bloody death of a dog, but Gaston’s short is centred on a look, what his camera does. It yearns, in a very particular, confined way. This year’s winner among the BC shorts, Julia Hutchings’ Here Nor There, on the other hand, is built around performances. The film, like so many others at the festival, does not look new — perhaps it is only with time and experience that cinematographers and directors can escape the standard moves of a time, which here is the floating, focused natural-sunlight experience. Mostly, we see the face and back of Larry MacDonald, who plays an actor who is playing an investigator who is hired to know a recently deceased member of a family he doesn’t know. But sometimes that is enough. There is something to be said for a director who lets an actor simply do their job: MacDonald, as a tall, calm professional, acts as if within a box, restrained by what he sees as the absurdity of his assignment. The short lets us see from both sides of the curtain, as he rehearses and smokes, then delivers a short, boring speech. It may not seem like much — it probably couldn’t be expanded to a feature, unless its style, characters, and breadth of narrative twists were completely transformed, but this is the short film as short story: the brief encounter, the moment that passes, the unexpected sharp change from normalcy, sure to be recalled in memory.

Popsong

Most of the shorts program is made of narratives like this — VIFF does not have a reputation as a festival for experimental works, and so filmmakers of that leaning tend to submit elsewhere. But the non-narrative, or the poetic cinema, if the history of the short were surveyed, holds an enormous place. That spirit was not completely absent: Popsong, which screened before one of the features in the Future//Present series, a flurry of overlaid image negatives (trees, a woman looking back, the stars), is the kind of colour experiment that, at three minutes, barely establishes a rhythm before it ends. It unfolds in silence. With so little around it that looks like it does, of course it is striking, but it is also a work that, though many narrative conventions don’t apply, is tied to others just as fatal: it is digital pastoral sentimentality. Though they come from different worlds, its use of similar symbols pales next to Zia Anger, Ashley Connor, and Randy Sterling Hunter’s collaborative work for Angel Olsen’s “Sweet Dreams,” which is more sentimental, overwhelmingly colourful, a better fit for the title Popsong claims as its own. 

Einst

With experimental film, there is always the question of medium and space. Einst, a single 15-minute reel, was shot on 16mm, but, like Popsong, it was presented by digital projection as part of a program of other works at a film festival. How might it have been changed if it were playing in a gallery space, or in a private screening room, or in a public space? Playing at a film festival isn’t superior or inferior to any of these, but it is different — it changes the way each minute is felt. Directed by Jessica Johnson, whose Ocean Falls screened at last year’s VIFF, Einst continues a project of depicting British Columbia nature as a kind of confrontation: this is it, as it is, over time. Human presence is not centred, though it is shown; what is more important, it seems, to Johnson, is how things look, really look, when someone stops. There is a contradiction in Einst: no matter how much we look at something out of nature, and hear its sounds, and connect these sensations with what we’ve seen and heard ourselves, there is a vast gulf of separation between us and the actual presence the camera is holding. We can’t help but feel this disconnect — even in a world where theatres mock-depict scents and breezes and changes in the atmosphere, the effect of being planted in front of the world outside is introspective. Instead of forcing a sense of play or “you are here” magnitude on her subject, Johnson just steps away; the reel plays out.

Ranger

Whatever one draws from this, Einst is, at least, not simply documentary. Ranger, directed by Sandra Ignagni and Trevor Meier, which tracks the routine voyage of a ship from Labrador to Nunavut, subtly shifts the documentarian point of view. This isn’t a promotional travelogue, or a Maysles observation, incorporating conversations, location, and the relationship between camera operator and subject (like In Transit, one of the best from last year’s VIFF); instead, the experience is condensed into a mostly dialogue-free collection of shots. Though the credits reveal a careful working relationship with passengers and crew, the film takes the position of a silent passenger, one with access to the pilot’s room, but one that otherwise just sees things passing by: the other passengers, the waters that run alongside, and the events that break up the monotony of travel. Whether Ranger was guided by a rigorous approach to ethnography or was found in the editing process, it feels as carefully worked through as a work from the Harvard SEL.

Srorrim

That’s less true of Wayne Wapeemukwa’s Srorrim — the title is the inverse of mirrors, because the interviews in the piece are conducted in front of … mirrors (with the director apparently not visible). This isn’t in the style of Errol Morris, though: the documentary-style film cuts between the interviews and portraits of the people at home, at work, with their actions corresponding to what they express as their deepest wishes in the interviews: for two, connecting in a positive way with their children, for the other, being able to afford a truck to return to his old job. These “portraits” are called “phantasies” by Wapeemukwa, which is to say that they are performances — they are possibilities dangled, with no consideration of the structures and systems that could make them realized or out of reach. To use re-creations and non-actors who know the reality they are asked to act in is a practice that is hardly new — it’s the method behind Kiarostami’s Close-up, to use just one example. But the way it is used here reduces the problems and the subjects before the camera — the effect is watching people describe their dreams as if within a commercial for a lottery or a make-a-wish foundation.

Cabbie

The dreams of people who feel trapped are framed in a different way in Jennifer Chiu and Jessica Parsons’ Cabbie — taxi drivers were interviewed, and their actions are depicted by actors. Names are withheld, because of the fear that the stories wouldn’t match up with the lines managers would prefer to see repeated about the job. This need to fictionalize liberates the film, in a sense, though it is still, basically, made with a real-world effect in mind: empathy for those who work late into the night. Most of the observations are the type that anyone embedded in the service industry would be able to tell, and some of the recreations seem to be unrelated to the stories related in voiceover — or they lack specificity, showing life inside a taxi car from the passenger’s perspective, or as just another vehicle. Still, the work is commendable: telling the stories of people who, whether through tech shortcuts or standard-rate condescension, are often compartmentalized into objects performing a task according to a schedule is something there’s never too much of.

Four Faces of the Moon

There is an established track record at VIFF (and other festivals) of short film-makers returning, after some initial success, with a feature film years later. But that’s less often the case with animated works — possibly because of the limitations of the animation studio system; a director of a fiction short might graduate to a feature, if the right script gets funding, while the director of an animated short won’t likely get handed the resources of a significantly larger animation department in the same amount of time. This may or may not explain why the animated shorts at this year’s VIFF, for the most part, resemble portfolios, examples of character styles and environments, rather than a fully-formed narrative. The exception is Four Faces of the Moon, a stop-motion work by Amanda Strong, in which an indigenous protagonist tours through the nightmares of Canadian colonial history. Otherwise, there was Clouds, by Diego Maclean, which loosely adapts Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery to, for some reason, cloud people; I Am Here, by Eoin Duffy, in which a (banal) cosmological monologue is delivered by a character whose design resembles, as it floats in space, the intro how-to for a new app; and Old Man, a barely-there clip from a stop-motion-detailed nightmare.

The Lift

Advertisement also looms over The Lift, directed by Manny Mahal: a man trains toward a personal best in a darkened weight room. Can he do it? We learn through a montage that plays like a slowed-down-to-short-film-length Nike or Under Armour commercial. It is easy to have our attention grabbed by the athlete’s routine — there are so many ready examples of narratives learned through play-by-play anecdotes and intermission profiles and playoff stories of victory and defeat alike. The weightroom is where the athlete faces their self, questions the reasons why they are there, it is maybe, during the break between seasons, where they end up doubting their future or deciding to retire. But in this short, what we get is quick cuts with brief pauses, timed like a movie trailer.

Last Night

Is it wrong to say that the night holds better stories than the day? It is certainly when many young filmmakers have to make their short films — after day jobs and the business of checking updates and achieving goals set by someone else ends. It’s where the rest of the shorts in the program (the ones from BC discussed here, anyway) are set, in any case. Last Night, directed by Joel Salaysay, is not the strongest of these: there is an element of theatricality to the script (a series of night-time phone calls results in a woman, played by Sarah Bernstein, trying to talk a friend down from the ledge), not all of it seemingly intentional, though Bernstein, the only actor on-screen, gives an admirable delivery. Shot in black-and-white for no discernable reason, the short seems to reach for meaning — in the quasi-poetic climax of the phone conversations, in the dream sequences that recur, as Bernstein’s character fights and fails to stay awake (and is met by a horse, which seems to be on loan from Clint Eastwood’s dreams in Trouble with the Curve). But its best moment is when the camera cuts away from its main approach (literal depiction of a character talking into a phone), into the nighttime, a sequence of waterfront and downtown portraiture, rain falling, as if to search, mentally, for a friend, the streets where she might be walking, the empty spaces neither haunted, nor inviting, just part of an act of careful imagination. 

The Movieland Movie

If Salaysay’s roaming montage were to continue its way down Granville, it might catch the flashing neon of the Movieland Arcade, the set for Zachary Kerrholden’s The Movieland Movie, though it certainly wouldn’t show it as Kerrholden does. The short films at VIFF are the product of years of trial-and-error at school, in the hundreds of hours outside of school when things start to click. And yet all that can be said for many is that the images they create are competent, clinging to realism — that isn’t a problem here, and that’s evident from frame one. Three notes about this short: Kerrholden isn’t a purist, he has picked a subject that is, already, aesthetically exciting in a way that stands out amongst realist drama, and he avoids the generic pitfalls associated with video games.

Not a purist, meaning that Kerrholden and camera operators Kurt Walker, Greg Brown, and Neil Bahadur are shooting in a dimly lit arcade with what appears to be no additional lighting — the images that result are often grainy, covered in digital noise, or with only part of a subject in clear view (people walk through the aisles, in front of the camera, occasionally they obscure the light). But that doesn’t deter Kerrholden: images emerge like mixed-media compositions, the light of the arcade screen or the strobe over a crowd overlaid with the murk of hands in front of a cabinet, the movement of the camera and the rhythm of the cutting and the pulse of music insisting that Movieland does not have luxury bathrooms, but it has an energy that has overcome greed, is indifferent to irony. The editing is sometimes rapid, other times holds an off-kilter composition for longer than any advisor would suggest makes sense, and that’s to its credit — like the sub-culture it records, it has developed as an arm to a commercial enterprise, but with nothing micromanaged, never forced into alignment with current trends.

The excitement of Movieland, even to someone who has never used a fighter pad, is conveyed, despite its complex methods, very simply: it is the mess and sound of a party. How many stories exist of businesses that are special to a community, or, in the world of movies, to recall the many theatres lost in the past decade, were once treasured gathering spaces, but are no longer as profitable, and so are endangered, and may be dying, and some wish to resist, and so the story of that place, in media, in the community, is a thing that must be crafted with precision and beauty? And how many of them get to use the aesthetics of video games, video games before Hollywood realism became their masochistic expensive aim? That’s the subject (the business and the video games, not the dying part) of The Movieland Movie: arcade games, not limited to 16-bit, but preserved, because of the lifespan of arcade popularity, as somewhere in the mid-‘90s. Kerrholden doesn’t frame them like paintings, but as the kind of things controlled by mashed buttons and quick directional turns. Halfway through, the focus narrows to the regular meetings of a Street Fighter crew, and the showdown of two skilled players. It’s silly, and frenzied, and, bolstered by the voices of interviews, likely asked the type of questions a local news report would never think of, a little bit moving.

And even as the narrative of the short becomes, essentially, a tournament, Kerrholden doesn’t get anywhere near the look or sound or message of the current swelling popularity of live-streamed professional tournaments, Evo and others, which take living-room competitions and add brand sponsors, screaming play-by-play, and the dull static set-up of three cameras: the players, the screen, and, in cut-aways, the massed, indistinguishable crowd. Kerrholden sees the Arcade, and those that gather there, as a mixture of the devoted and the spontaneous — and so the film becomes that.

Cave of Sighs

Nathan Douglas’s Cave of Sighs looks like it begins after midnight, a pitch black apartment cut in two by a beam of light from a hallway, two people living in the liminal hours when the rest of the city sleeps. The set-up is a hook-up, but the pull of this film is away from quick pleasure or infatuation. The two (Tatyana Forrest, Dayleigh Nelson), like in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, mentally travel outside themselves, to the past, to the whole span of things, as they look at a reproduction of an image. At the same time, it would be wrong to reduce Cave of Sighs to a small segment that resembles a larger work: the tone is set, immediately, in shadow, in whispers, in candlelight, which seems more religious than romantic — the modern world is entirely shut out, but also entirely contained in the way Forrest and Nelson interact, skipping between light commingling and dense allusion. It’s a work that is hard to pin down, built out from a rigourous, almost classicist visual approach, yet in a way that is at service to a constantly shifting range of tones — the sense is that Douglas is following his interests, packing as much as he possibly can in while still serving a rich, suggestive narrative. It’s serious, in other words, about love, and religion, and family, without ever coming to a trite conclusion about any of these, and without hanging all these ideas on the dialogue — the invocation of a brief, spiritual encounter hangs over all, maybe like a ghost, maybe like the everpresent echoes of the ancients, without another word spoken about it … and all the while, the Skytrain runs on its schedule, its far-off shriek carrying us to and from the careful mystery of this short film.

Nine Behind

In even a group as small as this one, there’s bound to be overlap. So Sophy Romvari’s Nine Behind is not alone as a black-and-white short film where the main action is a young woman speaking into a phone (Last Night). It’s not even a stretch to contrast it with Gaston’s The Cameraman, because Nine Behind does court the kind of easy A-to-B conclusion of: Oh, a short film by a recently graduated film student about a film student living in Vancouver who wants to be a director and is imagining, in a way, what that future could mean. But, to put it mildly, Romvari’s film is the kind of promising early work one is kind of dying to see in a short film program. When it comes to the work of recent film program graduates, there is a collective acknowledgment: the filmmaker is still figuring things out. So, in some cases, we forgive mistakes. Or in others, like in Romvari’s, there’s the thought that: this is far from done. With time and support, things could grow in a major way from here.

In Nine Behind, Nora (Noémi Fabian) is working on a school assignment. Like any true, dedicated student, this means there’s a lot of time spent in between the actual doing, where the thought of it hangs over pretty much every mundane act, every moment. Romvari combines this with the specifics of the assignment: an interview with someone who has worked in film — Nora’s choice is her grandfather, who, we gather, she has meant to talk to for a very long time, but, because of the way routines and schedules take over time, hasn’t done so; she really doesn’t know him, though she can guess how he feels, and her anticipation of his feeling leads her, after he picks up, to almost immediately say that, never mind all the time that led up to this, she could also call back at a later time if it’s an inconvenience. The dialogue (Hungarian, with English subtitles) has no time for clichés or dull exposition: it sounds like two people (though we only hear Nora’s side, the rest is spent waiting, listening) who know each other by second-hand means, attempting to connect, without knowing, really, how to start to talk to each other. We know, from most of the films we watch, how little screenwriters really know about how people talk to each other: they circle around an idea, or investigate each other to further things, always moving, moving, moving for the sake of the movie. Here, conversation is written with the awareness that the way people speak is always changing: topics, dreams, interview questions appear, then are diverted by a sudden memory, a change in tone, an emotional shift … and as this happens, the window to Nora’s apartment shows the day turn to evening, a signal that, perhaps, realism isn’t the only thing on Romvari’s mind.

This is a short film of eleven shots in a single location with a single actor, but it wouldn’t be right to call it low-key, or simple, or even “a work of quiet intimacy” — except for the final moment, all plays out in long shot. Essentially, Romvari has thrown the manual out and made a film packed with trails to follow for any audience member who wants more than one thing to hold onto at a time. It is a film one can imagine continuing to be unpacked, tried out, mirrored, played against and revisited over the course of a career — or simply left as a perfect, unfinished moment, a small segment of an artistic project currently unknown.