By Gary M. Kramer.

The Short Cuts programs, a staple of the Toronto International Film Festival, showcases five programs of new work by established and up and coming filmmakers. Each program has a loose theme and offers a mix of narrative, animated, and documentary shorts. Here is a rundown of nearly two dozen films that screened in three programs from this year’s fest.

Of the 7 films in “Short Cuts Program 1,” the sole animated entry, 4 North A, was a highlight. This Canadian film, directed by Jordan Canning (a TIFF alum) and Howie Shia, depicts an adult woman visiting her dying father in the hospital. With almost no words, the film creates emotion as scenes contrast the sterility and sparseness of the hospital room with vivid flashbacks of the woman’s childhood memories of her father. Each sequence is linked to death, but that infuses the film with a real poignancy. A sequence featuring a still shot of the woman looking at a vending machine, then a hospital poster, then some artwork, the gift shop, and out a window nicely conveys just how bereft the character feels.

Another heartfelt entry, also from Canada, is Sophy Romvari’s Still Processing, the lone documentary entry in this program.The filmmaker, who lost two brothers, received a box of family photographs. She shares the contents of the box with her surviving sibling. While the photographs are beautiful, Romvari creates a palpable sense of isolation and despair. She uses subtitles to communicate what she is thinking and feeling (because it is so hard for her to articulate her thoughts). These thoughts include ideas about trauma being relative—it can bond you or break you. Still Processing tips towards sentiment when Romvari and her brother watch old home movies, and her use of a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Old Friends” feels a bit too on-the-nose, but these are minor flaws in a personal film.

Marlon Brando, by Dutch short filmmaker Vincent Tilanus, captures two teenage friends, Cas (Tijn Winters) and Naomi (Jetske Lieber) as they finish their school year and plan to spend a summer together. The film is largely a hangout story, as they play pranks and enjoy each other’s company until a secret, followed by a lie, create a rift between them. Tilanus portrays this intense friendship well, culminating in an appropriate and quietly powerful finale.

Another melancholy short is History of Civilization by Zhannat Alshanova, about Indira (Akmaral Zykaeva), a teacher in Kazakhstan who is moving to London. As she prepares to leave, she encounters various people who cause her to reflect on her decision—from attending a party where she gets into a political discussion (and also steals a kiss) to packing a box and being approached by a colleague. Not much of consequence happens in the short, but in a sense, everything does, which is why it impresses.

In Sudden Darkness, the debut shortby Tayler Montague (a film critic and programmer) is set in 2003, in the Bronx, during the blackout. The film charts how a family responds during this uncertain time. While mom Erica (Raven Goodwin) and her husband Jerome (Marcus Callender) mostly fight, their daughter Tatianna (Sienna Rivers), takes everything in. The film lacks a strong dramatic arc, but almost every scene features Tatianna’s perspective, which anchors the story. Montague also establishes a strong sense of place, and a sequence set outside at night during the blackout is clever.

Another debut film, David, by actor Zach Woods, is a predictable comedy about a therapist (Will Ferrell), whose session with a suicidal patient, David (William Jackson Harper), is interrupted by the therapist’s needy son, David (Fred Hechinger). The humor is broad, and the punchline is obvious, but this good-natured short does include a fun Spanish-language cover of Shania Twain’s “You’re Still the One.”

The other comic short in the program is the amusing Found Me, by David Findlay, about a young man (Michel Poudrier) who is bored by his daily grind until he finds an unexpected outlet. Shot largely with music instead of dialogue, this film has some fabulous textures—light filtering through a room, a carwash, a flipbook, to illustrate monotony. Findley shrewdly breaks that tone in the denouement. This is a charming short that is sure to generate a smile.

“Short Cuts Program 4” featured several outstanding films about family dynamics.

Our Hearts Beat Like War is a creative short from Israel about a mother, Rona (Laliv Sivan) who needs to go into work on her son’s (Nuri Keidan) 9th birthday. As the young boy comes to understand what his mom does—she works at a refugee center—he hears a sad story by an Eritrean girl. He later enters a fantasy world when his mother later tells him a story (beautifully animated) about refugees in Sweden. This imaginative short is brimming with surreal images, such as a couch on a beach, as it addressed human rights issues.

The program’s sole documentary short, Strong Son, is an amusing profile of a bodybuilding son as told by his father. It is fun to see junior doing pushups with dad sitting on his back and hearing the father’s advice that strong calves and a strong back lead to a stable home. This short clocks in at only 4-minutes, but it is very sweet.

Every Day’s Like This is an absorbing drama about various family members coping with the matriarch dying of cancer. Director Lev Lewis captures the authenticity of trying to manage caregiving and grief and how it seeps into daily life and routine. Wonderfully acted, and touching, this is a highly affecting short.

Shooting Star is arguably the best short in the program. Director Ariane Louis-Seize creates real tension as Nathalie (Whitney Lafleur) and her boyfriend Christopher (Patrick Hivon) go on a vacation with her daughter Chloé (Marguerite Bouchard). While mom is frisky, much to Chloé’s chagrin, one night Christopher and Chloé get stoned and watch the sky. The dynamic between them changes and sets up the film’s dramatic finale at Nathalie’s birthday party. Louis-Seize deftly navigates the friction and attraction between the three characters, and the actors contribute superb performances.

Another highlight from this program is Rami Itani’s Drought, from Lebanon. A realtor (Carina Medawar) waits in various apartments anticipating a tryst with a lover. Itani, who did the production design, uses space and background well to provide a sense of isolation, desperation, loneliness, emptiness, and disconnection. The sound design is equally strong.

Rounding out the program were two visually striking but narratively obtuse films. As Spring Comes isa wordless, atmospheric drama about a couple in an ice fishing cabin. The female has a strange but wondrous experience. Likewise, the animated entry, O Black Hole! features some lovely pen and watercolor drawings before the style becomes more ornate—with stop-motion and other nifty visuals. But this mythic story, about a woman and the birth of a black hole told in a musical format, may not work for everyone.

Sing Me a Lullaby

“Short Cuts Program 5” was anchored by the moving documentary Sing Me a Lullaby, in which Toronto-based filmmaker Tiffany Hsiung heads to Taipei to find her grandmother, a woman her mother has not seen in thirty years. When she discovers the upsetting truth about why her mother was separated from her family, it sends ripples through the filmmaker.

Mother-daughter drama is also at the heart of Stephanie, about a preteen gymnast’s thorny relationship with her mother, who perhaps coddles her. It’s a slight short, but not uninteresting.

There is more drama and tension in Sinking Ship, in which a couple have a very candid conversation when the man (Herschel Andoh) makes some rather pronounced statements about their relationship. His remarks prompt the woman (Jenny Brizard) to react emotionally in ways that are expressed visually in waves on the background behind them. This is a very captivating and well-acted film.

The dating situation that arises between two friends in Succor, is more comic, as Abigail (Deragh Campbell) creates an online profile for the lovelorn Angie (Michaela Kurimsky) and then secretly poses as her potential new boyfriend. Director Hannah Chessman includes a nice gimmick in telling this story where what is helpful may actually be harmful.

Another comic entry in this program is The Price of Cheap Rent, written, directed, and starring Amina Sutton as a young Black woman artist who finds an affordable apartment in New York. Of course, there’s a catch. This 7-minute short is, essentially a one-joke movie, but it is a pretty funny joke, and Sutton gets plenty of mileage out of it.

Rounding out the program were two shorts that featured animation. Tie, from Portugal, beautifully rendered in black and white, is a wordless entry set in a surreal natural environment where people and animals shift bodies. There are many striking images and some witty moments. In contrast, Scars, by Alex Anna, is a talky and potent documentary that uses animation to tell the story of the filmmaker’s body and the scars she has that are like tattoos. She memorializes them and the pain she felt in this stark, self-reflexive film.

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2

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