Short films are different than feature length movies in many ways. Throughout the year, the only real venue to see them is at various film festivals throughout the world or on specialty cable channels like Bravo or Showcase, who devote air time in between feature films and other television series to their airing. For the most part, though -- with the exception of special screenings at arthouse theaters and film festivals -- these potential gems are rarely seen by the movie-going public at large. In fact, outside of the festival circuit, even my exposure to them as a film critic is limited and as such -- until this year -- I hadn't really developed an interest in the medium of short film.
It's not that I don't like short films, it's just that I don't have much of an opportunity to see them. And as such, my initial schedule for this year's Vancouver International Film Festival contained no shorts. Though, just as anyone who attends a film festival knows, schedules change due to a number of unforeseen circumstances like gaps in between movies and nothing else to do, and so I did end up making my way to two different shorts packages this year. And the surprising thing is that I quite enjoyed the majority of the shorts in each collection.
Up first was a collection entitled "Passages", which peaked my interest as a time filler because of a short film by William B. Davis, better known to Vancouverites and X-Files fans the world over as the Cigarette Smoking Man. Although the screening was plagued by technical problems (something I mentioned in my first 6 days article) it served as an eye-opener to the world of short cinema. Here are a couple of the highlights from the package with star ratings.
Elliott Smelliot, from director Anita Dorian, tells the simple tale of a 12-year-old boy genius who is so advanced in math, science, and every other academic subject matter that he is highly regarded as a strong tutor who can help turn failing students' grades around. His latest student is Kate (Amy Rutherford), a 20-something girl next door type to which he forms an immediate connection. He enjoys teaching her about chemistry and the two form a nice rapport with one another. Though, sadly for Elliott, despite his boy genius tendencies, he is still unskilled in areas of life that can't be taught out of a textbook. He mistakes their friendship for something more, leading to an awkward resolution that reminds us that no matter how old you feel, you are still always too young. Running a little over 20 minutes, this is a heart-warming tale that's well acted, directed, and filmed and touches upon an emotion that everyone in the audience has felt at one time or another. (3.5/5)
Officer Tedward, from Vancouver-based filmmaker Adam Locke-Norton, is a simple story of a boy who wants nothing more than to join the Police Force. However, they have no openings, so he takes things into his own hands and acquires a uniform and just starts patrolling the street looking for crimes being committed. This nearly 10-minute short is a smartly written (though very basic in concept and idea) little movie that had the audience laughing aloud for most of its brief running time. Shot on DV cam as part of the University of British Columbia's acting and filmmaking program, Tedward shows some promise for Locke-Norton. (3.5/5)
Also screened as part of the collection was Packing Up (3/5) by William B. Davis about a college professor retiring after an extended stay in the same office; Through My Thick Glasses (2/5) about a girl with poor vision who is told stories about WWI by her father; Louise (3/5), a charming tale of an old women and her daily routine and bug problem; Of Burning Hills (2.5/5) by Jason White, a story told with a odd combination of animation and live action, narrated by Dan Aykroyd; Sarah's Room (3/5) about the messiest room on the planet; and Human Kazoo (not rated due to technical problems).
The second shorts package I attended was for a much different reason than the first. Although I didn't have a hole in my schedule, I decided at the last minute to ditch a screening of Clean (which I could see two days later) and attend a series of short films entitled "Stolen Moments" to support a new actress friend of mine. Little did I know that with only a few exceptions, I was going to see a number of very interesting and well put together shorts, including Commentary On, which has to be the coolest concept for a film either feature length or short in quite sometime.
A Stolen Moment was the second short in the collection of the same name. Set in an eerily cold and sterile future where workers have limited contact with one another and where love is forbidden, it is the passionate love story of two workers who one day share a glance and become instantly attracted to one another, if for no other reason than for other human interaction. Director Audrey Cummings' 16-minute futuristic tale features stunning production value, no dialogue, and a visual look and concept better than most recent science fiction blockbusters to come out of the Hollywood mainstream studio system. An engaging and promising short that one could make a good feature length film out of. (3/5)
Riverburn was one of two highlights in the collection, despite a technical error that resulted in the film being shown in its rough cut version without final color correction and ADR dubbing, and complete with DV camera time code. Shot in the summer of 2003 in British Columbia's interiors during a severe fire season that saw the cast and crew put on as little as 5-minute evacuation notice, this nearly 15-minute feature tells the story of a young girl (Magda Apanowicz), the alienation she faces with her family, and her sexual awakening when one day she meets a cute young boy near the creek. The acting by Apanowicz (an unknown with a small part in the Vancouver-shot The Butterfly Effect) is rock solid and despite the rough cut screened in error, this was an enjoyable little short film that garnered much applause following the feature. It should also be noted that director Jennifer Calvert won the Keystone Award for "Best Young Western Canadian Director of a Short Film". (4/5)
The second highlight of the "Stolen Moments" program came in the form of Commentary On, a hilarious 9-minute feature about a man's relationship with his ex-girlfriend, who just so happened to turn out to be a movie star. Told entirely from the man's perspective, this unique short from Toronto-based filmmakers Rob Lindsay and Rudolf Mammitzsch takes a unique approach in its structure and style. Given the intense interest in DVDs, the film is structured as though the movie was played out as each of the special features on a DVD. The whole feature is told as an audio commentary, while each of the scenes is a different menu option. Be it a storyboard with screenplay captions, a deleted scene, or even just subtitles, this film builds to a satisfying conclusion and is full of hilarious moments throughout. Paradox Pictures, who funded the film on their own with many fundraising efforts, should be very proud of this short film for taking a very cool premise and delivering. This by far was the best short that I saw at the festival and one I hope to see again in some form. (4.5/5)
Also worth mentioning is The Porcelain Pussy (4/5), with funding from Universal and The Canadian Film Centre. It's is a worthy 40s-style film noir, but with the gender stereotypes reversed. Rounding out the package was the dreadful Build (1/5); the unremarkable Bridge (2/5), which used archival footage of bridges being built; Moving In (3/5), about a pair of friends and how the relationship is strained when one of their girlfriends makes the big move; and Stick Up (3/5), a 9-minute comedy where an older couple tries various ways to spice things up by attempting a stick-up in their own SUV.
I also had the chance to view a hilarious short film entitled Flip Phone before a screening of Bill Marchant's Everyone. Flip Phone tells the simple story of three members of a wedding party driving down the road to the wedding. However, they are late, and when they reach the voice mail of the bride-to-be they manage to get themselves in trouble when their entire conversation about how they hate the bride and her groom is recorded onto her voice mail in error. This situation is one anyone who owns a cell phone can relate to, and is one that brought a huge uproar from the sold out audience. Daniel Kash takes a simple story and a simple setting and combines them together to make for a strong 9 minutes. (4/5)
Much like the VIFF itself, the various shorts I saw in both programs and before other feature length programs varied in subject matter, tone, and genre but were for the most part all of a certain quality. I liked some, I disliked others, and I loved the newfound ability to see work from upcoming directors who may sooner or later have their name on something of feature length. So next time you have the chance to watch a short package at a film festival or see a short film on TV, don't do what I used to do -- which was immediately disregard it as having the potential to make you laugh, think, or even cry. They have the ability to do all of those things.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.