This year’s Toronto International Film Festival has seen the once elephantine fall event scaled back to its bare bones essence, but the carefully selected programmes of shorts remain as much of an underrated highlight as they have in past years.
The first of this year’s five programmes to premiere at TIFF 2020 offers up a cross section of human life and experiences, with glimpses of hope shining through sometimes melancholy moments and experiences.
David is the directorial debut of character actor Zach Woods, and it’s as darkly comedic as one might expect given his previous roles in front of the camera. In it, a suicidally depressed client (William Jackson Harper) is visiting with his kind and attentive therapist (Will Ferrell, playing the straight man here in a change of pace) when they’re suddenly interrupted by a manic, hyperactive interloper (Fred Hechinger). Like most comedic shorts, David is hard to explain without giving away the best punchlines, but once the identity of Herchinger’s character is exposed, Woods’ film becomes disarmingly suspenseful and deeply funny. The result is a film that feels as therapeutic for the viewer as it does for its characters.
Kazakh writer-director Zhannat Alshanova’s subtle, yet remarkably detailed character piece History of Civilization revolves around a teacher’s final day on the job before moving to London in search of better opportunities. It’s a sly look at aging, the relationships between teachers and students, gender roles, and the pressures placed on women as a result of societal expectations and stereotypes. Alshanova packs a lot of subtle depth and nuance into her short, offering up a story of a woman eager to leave behind some of the worst aspects of her homeland, while suddenly recognizing things she never knew she would miss.
4 North A (pictured above) is a collaboration between animator Howie Shia and live action filmmaker Jordan Canning (We Were Wolves, Suck It Up). Written by Canning, this nearly wordless, deeply moving, and beautifully drawn reflection on life and death depicts the night and day of a woman pacing the halls and waiting rooms of a hospital while her father is slowly passing away. Keenly observant in its depiction of how hospitals are hotbeds of pain, loss, and hope, Canning and Shia have created something so truthful that it will move anyone who sees it to reflection and empathy.
Filmmaker, critic, and programmer Tayler Montague’s domestic slice-of-life short In Sudden Darkness takes viewers back to the massive blackout of 2003 that left huge swaths of North America’s east coast without power. Montague depicts the struggle of a black family in The Bronx as they attempt to make a go of things without any creature comforts. Montague’s work is both culturally specific and universal, following the parents’ struggling to feed their kids and keep cool during the summer. The film opens with an argument, and builds not to grand conclusions, but subtle spoken and unspoken understandings. It’s a great showcase for Montague, bolstered by two tremendous performances from Raven Goodwin and Marcus Callender as the parents.
Still Processing is the latest short from Canadian filmmaker Sophy Romvari, and it’s her most masterful and heart-wrenching work to date; the kind of personal reflection on family and loss some directors and writers can spend their entire lifetimes striving to accomplish. The double meaning of the title refers not only to emotional weights, but to a box of mostly unprocessed photographs and home movies from Romvari’s childhood, which include numerous candid memories of the two brothers she lost. Still Processing finds Romvari – who’s no stranger to getting personal with her films – wrestling with waves of emotions and unresolved feelings, bouncing back and forth between the filmmaker narrating her own story and offering up written text on screen for whenever unspeakable thoughts begin to overwhelm her. Depicting grief as a lifelong process, Romvari’s latest opens with the filmmaker questioning whether or not the movie is actually finished, which is the most profound statement a film about grief can offer. No matter where the film leads her in life, Romvari can take heart knowing that she has created something exceptional and infinitely relatable.
Stylish and fast paced, David Findlay’s Found Me finds redemption and catharsis in an unlikely place, as an unhappy young man struggling to make it through another snowy Quebec City winter has his life changed when he stumbles across an independent wresting show. As inspiring and invigorating as it is disorienting, Found Me feels like watching someone else’s dreams of semi-stardom from inside their own head. As pulsating and propulsive as a music video (which is a great choice for something that revolves around the hard-hitting and highly theatrical world of wrestling), Findlay’s film blurs the lines of fantasy and reality in unique, unexpected, and touching ways.
Note: The short film Marlon Brando also screens as part of TIFF Shorts Programme 01, but was not available to review by press time. This article may be updated.
Short Cuts Programme 01 screens as part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival via Bell Digital Cinema for a limited time starting at 6:00pm EST on Friday, September 11. All Bell Digital Cinema selections are geolocked to Canada and limited tickets are available.
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