From the landscapes of Site C to apartment shoots, BC filmmakers traverse success and failure at VIFF

Short films by Canadian directors at VIFF are a corner of the festival where the old fear of elusion still applies: see it now, or never. Maybe they’ll be available online, through Kinet or the National Film Board or Vimeo or somewhere else, but if the new Canadian features that show up, receive praise, and are in some cases even awarded (Hello Destroyer, Werewolf, Never Eat Alone) can’t get anything approaching theatrical distribution in this half of the country post-festival, the shorts don’t stand a chance. It can seem kind of hopeless then, by almost all the external metrics of success, people tend to want to apply to national output. The artistic director of TIFF wants them one way, the sesquicentennial celebration suggests “we” like them another way, and, cross-country free screenings aside, no distribution channel, no quota, little connection to the film artists near to the heart of where one lives. Yet, once one gets beyond the outdated prescriptivist theories of what Canadian cinema needs to look like or be composed of, the number of cases to support each of these current ideas is small, their futures (or historical pasts) short-term. And so, even as sections of the landscape out here, from year to year, can resemble anything from flourishing to disintegrating, the point remains: it doesn’t take that many filmmakers to contradict these narratives.

VIFF, at least, stands out each year by selecting works that have no business sitting next to each other anywhere else — in an ideal world, the curation seems to say, the summing up of a year would include films that range wildly in quality, in works that are just as likely to acknowledge or eschew a background knowledge of film history, works by artists that seem to yearn for a way beyond our current expectations of BC cinema, as well as those who just want a production job. About the only consistency you can count on, besides the plurality of thought behind the whole section, is that anyone who experiences a shred of success will likely be brought back.

That’s the case for Julia Hutchings’s Do We Leave This Here, a blundering film from the winner of last year’s Best BC Short prize. The concept is relevant and sturdy: an odyssey to Site C, two men in a truck (a journalist and a tradesman) who pick up a third. In the right hands, one imagines something to rival Kelly Reichardt’s adaptation of Maile Meloy’s short stories — brutal landscapes and yet, still, in parking lots and offices and around ranches and diner tables, life far more subtle and tumultuous than the wasteland horror houses depicted in canonical Canadian drama. But Hutchings left for the Peace River Valley with a script a short tonal register away from a soap opera. The journalist (Neemish Parekh) is a timid witness to the rest of the cast’s love triangle breakdown, culminating in a sequence where, following an emotional blowout, a chainsaw taken to a tree caught, like in a holiday Hallmark special, in a log cabin’s front door, and a couple minutes of shouting, Laurie (Deanna Milligan) says she has to check on the kids — who remain silent, incurious, and off-screen despite a night of revving teeth and loud guests. Who doesn’t like a preposterous melodrama? There is, perhaps, something to be said for placing a story that isn’t a protest or a lecture in the area affected by BC Liberal projects. But Hutchings goes for tense realism: handhelds, harsh light, and dialogue filled with “um”s and “fucking”s and “am I right?”s. The truck driver brings up documentary ethics talking points, the journalist acts more like an unprepared artist, and the whole thing still ends with a Site C call-to-action postscript.

Like exposition for Hutchings’ short, Memory of the Peace, a documentary work from Jennifer Chiu and Jean Parsons, similarly works very hard to find something to capture the public’s attention re: Site C. It doesn’t really work, for some of the same reasons. This has nothing to do with the skill of the directors and cinematographer: last year, Chiu and Parsons won the largest financial award of the festival, for a short documentary about taxi drivers in the city, and judging by the lack of external funding logos in the credits for Memory of the Peace, that prize led directly to this work. Why has this crisis, over, say, the price of housing in the city, attracted the attention of young filmmakers? Is it because it feels less inevitable? Because of the spectacle of opposition protests, and the charged inspiration they might have fuelled? Whatever the case, these works show the hazards of aiming for the middle, of trying to follow success with success — of all the things that could be said about making a film about pipeline dreams, it’s that everyone has something to say about it, and no one is going to be dramatically moved by an earnest film about it. As activism, there’s no effect to speak of: by the time these shorts premiered, John Horgan was premier, and the work being done around Site C is as fated to move in a certain direction as it was when the Liberals held majority power.

And as art, or archive of a particular time, Memory of the Peace sticks to a format that seems suited to a half-hour public-broadcaster program block: three interview-based mini-profiles, no conclusion, no urgent sense of purpose. Lengthier than any of the other works in this year’s selection (to the point it almost resembles a rough cut), Chiu and Parsons give their three subjects (one pro-project, the others against) a lot of room to talk, who daydream about what Site C would mean to Fort St. John and repeat, almost verbatim, prognostic accounts from political actors and columnists. With no desire to intervene or dramatize like in their previous work (where the questions and presence of the camera were unforgettable), the documentary doesn’t document life, but fit it into an easily accepted debate structure. Why bring a camera, as opposed to write about this place? One would think: to show the unanticipated moment, to be alive to one’s surroundings, to, through editing, connect a community in ways prose could never do. But instead we wait, listening to individual rationalizations and arguments that know no end.

This is not to suggest there is no place for the current event and fiction to come together. There are countless ways to negotiate this marriage, and the two examples so far chose particularly tired ones — with little distance from a story, and the many concrete-seeming forms it takes in local and global news, this tendency seems to proliferate. Rupture director Yassmina Karajah, on the other hand, relies on the underpinnings of neorealism, without any kind of heavily referential devotion to the genre, to serve a story which is about, is cast with, and is intended, in a way, to serve Syrian refugees who have recently immigrated into Canada. Karajah’s film completely deviates from the commonly mediated assumptions about how communities will be affected (in this case, the Surrey area) that it creates a different kind of space to watch and consider — it becomes less about population numbers and resources and more about the personal experience of mapping out a new unfamiliar neighbourhood, of knowing one’s past is completely closed off, of new languages and new ways of communicating. The neorealist approach, in its Italian origin, was to show the impact of war on the faces of children, if not exclusively, very deliberately. Rupture’s story hints at conflicts (a bike is stolen; later, some unrelated misunderstandings begin to pile up), but this is not where its concerns lie: it knows that internal pain can, one moment, deaden the effect of the world, another, amplify the meaning of a single gesture — the specifics of this are tested in ways that evidence a mastery of synthesis between author, subject, and camera. There is real care here: if we can’t see the exact ways that Karajah managed a cast and crew gathered to transform painful, complicated experience, there is enough to point that way in the (untrained) performances and the sun-lit steadicam shots that privilege their point of view. The only question mark might be how the form taken by Karajah almost seems to demand feature length (it clocks in just under 20 minutes) — in any case, the film was this year’s awarded best short from BC. A rare match of ambition and execution, it was not difficult to see why.

While Rupture might have satisfied those looking for something fully-formed in the program, nascent works are more in line with what to usually expect, films that suggest, rather than evidence greatness. Amanda Strong was back with her second animated short in as many years — she won’t likely be back next year on this stage, after Alanis Obomsawin donated a $50,000 post-production grant to Strong following a viewing of her work; Strong is now apparently developing a feature based on a Richard Van Camp story (his work was previously adapted into The Lesser Blessed, a middling Sudbury-shot drama). Like last year’s stop-motion Four Faces of the Moon, narrative movement is suggested in Flood, rather than clearly outlined, and the main impression is made through starkly staged images. Working in a shadow puppet mode, Strong dwells, for example, on a conflict between a hunchbacked European scribbler, penning lacerating papers from a lectern, which assail a heroine far below — while it gets a point across, it’s not much more than might be seen in an editorial illustration. Still, considering the limitations of time and resources, it isn’t necessarily a surprise to see a demonstration, rather than an excavation of talent. In this case, it appears that Strong has done everything she needed to — leaving nothing but a more difficult, but better-funded task ahead: every filmmaker’s dream.

The usual story with independent animation might be seen through Marv Newland’s International Rocketship Ltd. company: a mixture of commercial and personal projects, local celebrity and festival familiarity, with total avoidance of traditional industry trajectories. Newland’s Scratchy, a short surrealist song — totally out of character with the rest of the program — has been in the works, on and off, for at least four years. A transmutated filtration of the spirit of Ted Esbaugh’s Goofy Goat Antics (1931), it possesses a lot that would have been unavailable to Esbaugh (loud colour, an expected audience of adults, surround sound), while zeroing in on what early animators did that’s in little evidence today: a total rejection of psychologically instructive plot, a free-form ability to jump in and out of characters, and a sense of outsized animation as if its makers’ main desire was to make a case for the medium as one of the plastic arts. There is no sense of an old master at work here though — it’s too care-free and frivolous for that, excepting the unintentional reminder that for hand-drawn animation to go the way of silent film would be the same kind of loss — a technology-supplanted style that is far from exhausted.

Of course, yearning for the popularity of styles to rigidly stay put can be its own kind of brick wall — something proven by Christopher Auchter’s The Mountain of SGaana, animated on a 2D plane using Toon Boom Harmony and Photoshop. A myth-based nested narrative involving separated lovers, transformations, and deities mingling with humans, Auchter’s NFB-produced short is a cohesive, straightforward work that nevertheless contains some bold choices. The Mountain of SGaana centres a storyteller — one that speaks in a scroll of images, and likewise the film contains no spoken dialogue; in addition, to convey multiple perspectives Auchter draws on the Haida Formline style, splitting the screen into spaces within an already-existing outline (you can see this in the still above — though it’s different, of course, in motion). The momentum of the action, which has to do with the transference of stories, isn’t any more compelling just because Auchter is experimenting with style and perspective, but it points to a level of thought that is rare, the kind that can look at a problem and find a hybrid of solutions. Perhaps this comes naturally for Auchter (who has a background in both videogame coding and hand-drawn art) — more likely, it has taken a substantial amount of work and guidance to get to this point, on the cusp of following the directions suggested by his work so far: ever more complicated yet legible narratives, and increasingly detailed, grounded images.

A similar level of visual experimentation is the hook for Trevor Mack’s Grandmother: shot like a “found-footage” work, though with a different kind of presence (it is more like we are looking over the shoulder of the camera-operator as it happens), we witness, every now and then, a pixelated breakout of digital corruption, revealing old, nearly forgotten images of a young boy’s grandmother. This, arguably, takes the format back to its inception — the strangest moments of Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield were not the harried escapes from horror, but the un-erased footage of mundane home movies — amusements and friends hanging out, nothing more. This isn’t to trivialize what Mack is doing — delving into the complicated tangles of domestic power abuse and childhood escapes — merely that the choices he’s made to convey this (traumas visited on camera) aren’t new ones. The moments of breakage are memorable, in their way (Asia Youngman designed the glitch effects, which are somewhat diminished by the addition of would-be intense sound cues), but the found-footage structure means there are the old questions: how is this being shot? It’s intended as immersion, putting us right into the headspace of the unnamed protagonist (Elias Louie), or at least a mediated extension of himself — his life with the moments (or confrontations) a camera can’t capture cut out. When we see the heavy foreshadowing shots of a barn support beam and heavy rope, it’s no surprise when the short ends with a giant punctuation mark — no one desires distanced subtlety, exactly, with this kind of subject matter, but given the effects, the soft-focus narrative treatment, and the clear message of its omissions and point-of-view, shock-suicide doesn’t make the work more meaningful or powerful. It draws away from the compelling tug of its main attraction: the dream that brings back someone passed away.

It would be a stretch to diagnose it as a general problem, but a certain weakness among a number of this year’s selection of short films can be found in the basics: narrative and music. That is, there is a movement away from traditional music (drone-like or ambient noises creep into sound designs) and cleanly structured narrative (un-neat collections of scenes move of their own free will, until the short just… ends). There never was a time when these things were wholly valued, nor should they be, but it’s worth noting: even as they lean towards the abstract, filmmakers are still using elements of narrative and music in the same way as the old standards — they just move and sound differently. So in Ryan Ermacora’s The Glow Is Gone, a tired Vancouverite feels pushed out of the city, and instead of penning an essay about how “I Didn’t Leave the City, the City Left Me,” she immediately catches a ferry to chase the pastoral breeze. There are no extra-diegetic songs or symphonic score, but the movement from sound (live rock, leftist podcast, dudes talking sustainable farming methods while ignoring the woman they’re walking with) to silence (and wildlife) tells us all we need to know. Despite the clear narrative, a match-cut, a few rhythmless long-takes, and no real “dialogue” leave the film in the territory of sorta-slow cinema; Jessica Johnson, who co-wrote and stars in the film, has collaborated with Ermacora before — this is the third straight year of the festival where one of their shorts has played in the program. But something feels off with this one: not because it is, like the protagonist, wandering out toward the unknown, but because its aims seem smaller — this one isn’t out to find a poetic sublime, but a daydream.

The main question for Adrian St. Louis’s Lower Plenty Garden Views: how did the couple get access to this house? Are they house-sitting? Does it belong to his or her parents? Are we supposed to believe they live here? Following an intentionally jarring opening (an interrupted sex act — who knows what went wrong), St. Louis’s short settles into a mood: he gazes, she dances, turns in the sunlight, the colour timing is just right — warm but cool — etc. Perhaps, like in The Loneliest Planet, we are seeing a couple act around each other, with a newfound awareness of how much acting the other is doing, following a moment that destroys their sense of what is up and what is down, but the main sense here is the sensibility of a fashion shoot.

Same goes for Mintie Pardoe’s The Good Fight, which, narratively speaking, is based around the driving curiosity that nuns sometimes have sexual urges, even guilt, too. Even if you dismiss the sub-genre that has examined this question from virtually every angle, mock- and seriously (probably all of them, like this one, with sermons about what happened in the previous scene), it feels unfair to criticize Pardoe’s work, since it’s mostly an exercise in staging drama under enormous stained-glass windows, in enormous gardens, enormous dining halls filled with candles. It looks appropriate to hang at a film festival, and won Pardoe and her collaborators honours for best work on a fourth-year short in UBC’s film program in the areas of acting, writing, cinematography, and production design.

And then there’s Sea Monster, which, according to Kassandra Tomczyk, its star, writer, and co-director, is about “a young woman’s sacred act of transmuting her pain into empowerment.” Which seems a little lost in translation — it happens; images don’t always mean what we mean them to mean. An old man and a woman sit in a plastic-scuzz motel room — he feeds her, she gets into a bathtub and he watches her as she recites a memory monologue, they have a yoga-transcendent moment in front of a glowing TV screen in the dark, she inks into a toilet and a squid comes out… or something like that. Daniel Rocque, the co-director and cinematographer, makes everything look precise and expensive, but if this is supposed to be about trauma, there is no sensitivity to power dynamics in the staging or framing, no POV given to Tomczyk’s character (she is regarded as an ethereal presence, no more human than Scarlett Johansson’s character in Under the Skin), a conflict between a general sense of reality-unease and an aqua-sci-fi weird-out premise. Reader, it didn’t work.

A strategically cathartic work, The Martyr belongs to a genre, like any, that can lead to failure: a movie about the making of a movie. But Devan Scott and Will Ross’s film has no ridiculously haloed insights about the power of the form, and, despite dissecting a long, lonely night of failure, isn’t didactic. It knows its place in the world: it is playing at this film festival, maybe more, and wherever there are film festivals, there are ten times more submissions that didn’t make it in, and many of those (and possibly some of those that made it in) had, through the uniting power of art, a totalizing experience, for those making it, of defeating, for a night, or weeks of nights, any desire to ever attempt to make anything with anyone ever again. This goes beyond fear of artistic failure-type paralysis: The Martyr depicts, with a ruthless sense of pacing, how a film set is a stage that requires giving actors, awareness, a sense of proportion. This isn’t played merely, say, as bad-management comedy-of-awkwardness satire, but as deep, moody fractured efficiency: one angle is disaster, another is new breakthrough, all of the images and cutting in service to the story — this is a highly accomplished short, but one that isn’t intent on you noticing that above the work of the actors, the momentum of the narrative. It depicts the water-through-fingers fruitlessness of many creative endeavours without coming across as an in-joke (if anything, its finale echoes the great popular film-about-film via a Don-Lockwood-in-sound! moment), it bridges the alienated and delusional members of the creative class in a way that comes across clear and carefully thought-through — comedy to heal one area, drama to convey the seriousness of another, all of the tones sounding, for once, like they belong together.

A final note: Sophy Romvari and Deragh Campbell’s Let Your Heart Be Light wasn’t shot in BC, so it wasn’t considered as part of the eligibility list for the Best BC short. Which is understandable, but is basically the same debate that’s been going on forever in Canadian literature, where there aren’t foreign co-productions, but are writers who were born in one place but write in another, or vice versa, or don’t write about Canadian settings, or do, but aren’t from Canada, and so on. A lot of ink is spilled to maintain certain borders, in a way that doesn’t usually benefit the writers — maybe someone else, but who cares? Romvari was based in Vancouver when her last short premiered at VIFF, and this new work basically keeps the same tone and unspoken insight and sense of apartment-located modernist wonder but changes the view. There are carefully placed reference points in this one (Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis plays on a laptop, Chantal Akerman’s imprint on a mug), but Romvari continues to strike her own balance — here, through December’s traditions, a film that captures the time-sense of witnessing a friend in a state of a kind of grief. The quietness of that, how meaningful that can be. Romvari appears to be working quickly (this is only one of three shorts completed in the past twelve months), and with an uncommon sense of purpose — at times in her films, she seems to be one of the only working directors anywhere who could translate into film what Annie Baker does for theatre. If she finds greater success in her career, you can bet both BC and Ontario will try to claim her as a local.