Ode to the short film

The neglected half of TIFF that shouldn’t be

Ode to the short filmWatching the shorts at the Toronto International Film Festival is like indulging in fine tapas: the films are like mini-meals, each with a flavour as unique as its filmmaker. Some see shorts as a stepping-stone to big features for neophyte auteurs—think Sarah Polley, who made her 2006 directorial debut with a short and went on to win two Oscar nominations. But they’re also the place where established filmmakers can experiment with new ideas.

Though shorts are sometimes neglected in favour of feature films at the festival, Alex Rogalski, the programmer for Short Cuts Canada, points out that the origins of film are with these compact stories. “From the beginning of filmmaking, people were making short films which later, because of commercial reasons, turned into features,” he says. “I’d rather see a six minute film I think about for 90 minutes than a 90 minute film I think about for six minutes.”

This year, Short Cuts Canada had its highest-ever number of submissions to date (650, and growing every year). Forty films, which range from two minutes to 30, were selected for six programs. Three emerging directors agreed to talk to about their films and what comes after the short.

The feminist filmmaker: Nadia Litz, best known for her roles in indie films like Monkey Warfare, made her directorial debut at TIFF this year with How to Rid your Lover of a Negative Emotion Caused by You. The black comedy, which is rich in stomach-turning gore, uses blue globs inside the body as a metaphor for the negative emotions that have grown out of a relationship between a woman and her boyfriend. “When you’re with someone, there’s always something about your partner that you want to change or that you wish wasn’t there,” says Litz. “The more you try to get rid of it, the more it actually festers.” The lead character, Sadie, unsuccessfully tries to cut those negative emotions right out of her boyfriend and Litz’s message is one of acceptance. “It’s about taking the bad with the good,” she says.

Litz also takes the feminist approach to her story. “In relationship movies, I find that the woman is quite passive, whereas the male is going through this crisis of who he is,” she says. Sadie, in contrast to the stereotype, is not afraid of wielding a knife and has difficulty expressing herself. “As females, we often get this label that we’re very communicative and in touch with these emotions and feelings when sometimes we aren’t,” Litz says. “I wanted to tell a story about that.” While Litz enjoyed directing even more than acting and hopes for another opportunity behind the camera, she says she doesn’t differentiate between shorts and features. “We were in some type of production for almost four months and we shot for 5 days, which is long for a short film. The process is very similar.”

The unintentional politico: Kevan Funk, 23, wrote and directed A Fine Young Man, using part of his student loans (otherwise earmarked for studies at Emily Carr) to pay for the production. His Cold War-era story focuses on two CIA agents who find their latest recruit in a young American and ask him to join the fight against communism. The writing is witty, and the period film echoes contemporary questions around recruitment for extremist causes. While Funk admits the short is a response to what he’s been reading in the news, “I never set out to make a political film or a film that was politicized.” For him, the film is about belief. “Anytime you have an unquestioned faith or trust in anything, even yourself, it’s a dangerous thing,” he says. “You can really blind yourself.”

After Toronto, Funk hopes the film is accepted at American festivals. He is also ready with a full feature treatment for his short. “I hope this film can be a testament to what we can do. I have a lot of confidence that we can make a feature film out of it.”

The social commentator: In Above the Knee, Greg Atkins tells a delightful story about Jack, a suburban office worker who opts out of his suit-and-tie uniform and puts on a skirt, changing the way his co-workers and his wife perceive him. Atkins, who made the switch from acting to directing, says he was inspired by the women’s clothing that filled his studio (his partner is a women’s wear designer). “I tried on women’s pants at one point, and this idea of the business world and the uniforms in that world and breaking that uniform started stewing in my brain.”

At first, Jack’s change is met with dismay. But soon, the people in his life embrace—even encourage—the atypical behaviour. For Atkins, the short is about more than breaking social norms; he also wanted to comment on the nature of relationships. “You can be with somebody for a long time and it’s scary when they change–a job, new friends, a new hobby. Nobody can know the other wholly but when they’re in your life you have to accept that and be open and accept them.” Though Atkins dreams of doing a feature one day, he says he wants to continue with shorts for now. “I find many features can be cut down into a short. With shorts, you get to explore one or two ideas in a really strong way instead of diluting the idea over the course of two hours.”