So the Toronto International Film Festival is underway right now in the Frozen (though mostly just overcast) North, and everyone is at least somewhat aflutter. They’ve got press junkets and premieres, George Clooney and Madonna, and whatever the Weinsteins will be pushing at the Academy come February. Really, it’s quite a big deal. It’s also, as far as the film world seems to be concerned, the only thing that ever actually happens in Canada.
Yet the Canadians don’t just parade films down the red carpet, they also make them. Short film in particular has always been well supported by Canada’s film institutions: the National Film Board has been nominated for 70 Oscars, 64 of which have been in short categories. The NFB has enabled documentary since its earliest days, winning the first ever doc Oscar for the Battle of Britain short Churchill’s Island. They’ve also been champions of animation, under Norman McLaren’s leadership taking a major role in encouraging artistic experimentation. Canada has been an important source of short film for a very long time.
But enough with the history. Here are seven shorts ranging from creepy fiction to experimental documentary, in both French and English, made in recent years and as far back as the early 1950s. All Canadian.
5Hole: Tales of Hockey Erotica by Cam Christiansen
I suppose it makes sense to start out with hockey, this being a Canuck list. This was one of TIFF’s end-of-year “Canada’s Top Ten Shorts” in 2009, and it’s indicative of how open-minded these institutions can be when it comes to recognizing new talent and creative techniques. Christiansen combines a fairly straight-forward story of awkward sexuality with trippy animation and ethereal sound. It’s in essence a music video, except that the song was been written specifically for the short film. We’ve all seen the intersection of sports and sexual discovery before, but never quite like this.
Canada the Land by Jean-Claude Labrecque and Rex Tasker
With its majestic yet quirky soundtrack, this documentary short really does showcase as much of Canada’s landmass as it can. From the distant Arctic to the Maritime Provinces, directors Jean-Claude Labrecque and Rex Tasker have skillfully thrown together a vast amount of varied footage that evokes everything from other-worldly confusion to comforting warmth of recognition. Trains and ships, farms and lighthouses, islands and mountains all fill up the screen for this impressively concise fly-over of the Canadian landmass.
The Armoire by Jamie Travis
Eerie and perfectly paced, this is another well-deserved TIFF Top Ten short. After a game of hide-and-seek gone wrong, 11-year-old Aaron finds himself suddenly alone in his house. His friend has entirely disappeared and it soon becomes apparent that he won’t be found any time soon. Jamie Travis bends time a bit and shoots things forward through parental concern, police involvement and media obsession. Yet it’s the last minute of revelation that contains this provocative short’s greatest punch, ever more potent due to the skilled tempo of the entire six minutes.
Les Raquetteurs by Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx
Considered an early landmark in the development of Direct Cinema in the late 1950s, this documentary short is fascinating both cinematically and politically. Just before Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, Les Raquetteurs represents the early drive to preserve a distinctive Quebecois culture that would eventually manifest as an independence movement. It is also a marvelous example of a new spirit in documentary filmmaking, with its goal of precisely capturing reality. Finally, it’s really entertaining. How often do you get to watch a snowshoe race?
Neighbours by Norman McLaren
Norman McLaren’s work is brilliant and Neighbours is perhaps his greatest triumph. It’s a witty work of stop-motion animation, well ahead of its time when released in 1952. The pixilation style, precursor to Švankmajer and Gilliam, is combined with the extremely strange method of creating a soundtrack by scratching the edges of the film itself. As for the message, this might be the most controversial film ever made by the NFB. Made in the midst of the Korean War, McLaren had to cut a scene from the short in order for it to play in the US. It picked up an Oscar once it finally got there.
Marius Borodine by Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais
There’s nothing like a good mockumentary. This odd Quebecois short follows the strange life of its eponymous protagonist through home videos and interviews with his friends and family. Marius is an inventor, creating strange objects like the “Vertical Guitar” and the “Indoor Kite.” The short has an excellently dry sense of humor, focusing on the endless parade of weird contraptions and the awkward deadpan style of the interview subjects. No one appreciates Marius’s work until he finally invents a machine that turns any object into drinkable water. Of course, it goes horribly wrong.
Flamenco at 5:15 by Cynthia Scott
The now-defunct Studio D was created in 1974 to encourage women filmmakers and was responsible for some of the NFB’s best work until its closure in 1996 due to budget cuts. Directed by Cynthia Scott, this Oscar-winning documentary brings us inside a flamenco class at the National Ballet School of Canada. There are wonderfully choreographed moments of dance, intriguing interviews with the two professors and an overall feel of artistic endeavor. It might not be quite as powerful as Carlos Saura’s full-length dance films from the same period, but it approaches the flamenco in a more accessible and interactive way that get you thinking about art in general.