WSFF Days 4 & 5: "Stranger in a Stanger Land", "Scene not Herd", Master Class with Jean-Marc Vallee

Screening on Days 4 and 5 of the CFC Worldwide Short Film Festival was the Official Selection “Stranger in a Strange Land.” A programme that arguably offers the widest appeal in the festival, “Stranger” includes one of the more diverse line-ups. It has a few dark tales to be sure, but they have some release and catharsis. There are some comedies here, too, so the laughs can all come out of hiding.

Most of the stories in “Stranger” deal with the effects of migration and/or displacement. Reinaldo Arenas (USA, 4 min.), for example, is an intriguing experimental film about a fisherman who relocates by accident and does not like his surroundings. Like many of the characters in “Stranger in a Strange Land,” he’s a real fish out of water. After the fish comes a bear. Ursus (Latvia, 10 min.) is a stunning piece of hand-drawn animation about a bear that performs a motorcycle act in the circus, but longs to return to the great outdoors. The grayscale etchings of Ursus add a haunting sense of nostalgia for the bear’s lost paradise. Ursus is a rare and beautiful allegory of preservation.

Another powerful tale comes in I am John Wayne (USA, 18 min.). Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Slamdance Film Fest, I am John Wayne is a tough yet understated pony ride through the streets of Brooklyn. Taco (Jamir Daaliya) struggles to accept the death of his best friend and, after escaping his alcohol-sedated mother, he skips his friend’s funeral and opts to pay tribute to his late friend by riding said friend’s horse to Coney Island. This impressive film by writer/director Christina Choe is one of the better portraits of urban living since The Wire. Another tough but well-handled story is The Crossing of the Living Room (La traversée du salon) (Canada, 19 min.). The film’s title comes from a Biblical reference to the crossing of the desert as a pinnacle of personal struggle and endurance. The journey in Crossing is one woman’s attempt to stay sober and get a fresh start on life. Helene Mercier stars as Céline and her portrayal of the recovering alcoholic is consistently compelling.

Another story of a long, hard personal journey comes in Odysseus’ Gambit (Spain/USA, 12 min.). Odysseus’ Gambit, which comes to WSFF after screening at Sundance, is one of the stronger documentaries at the festival. The film follows Saravuth Inn, who is a staple at the chess tables in New York City parks. As Saravuth explains, he was removed from Cambodia by the American military during his childhood and he has ever since been in a place of exile. He keeps himself sane by playing chess with friends and passersby in NYC and by expressing himself through music (which appears as the film’s soundtrack). It’s the chess, though, that offers the best outlet for keeping his life in perspective. As Saravuth explains his different strategies, one sees how his manipulation of the chessboards illustrates his grasp on life.  An impressive doc, Odysseus’ Gambit, directed by Alex Lora, also ranks among the better student films at WSFF.
The Immigrant
Also notable is the animated fable The Changeling (Der Wecheslbalg) (Germany, 9 min.), which gives a divinely biblical rendering of a medieval tale of a couple whose baby is swapped for a troll. The last “Stranger” of the night brings the most familiar faces to programme. The Immigrant (Canada, 20 min.) stars “Kids in the Hall” alum Scott Thompson as a once-famous comedian named Bob London. Desperate to escape the dearth of the Canadian entertainment industry, Bob decides to move to Los Angeles and remove himself from the Z-list. Being such a has-been, though, Bob can’t get a decent Green Card. He therefore smuggles himself across the border (via Mexico) and blends in with the other illegal aliens in LA. The Immigrant is a hilariously self-conscious film with Thompson giving a fine belly-laugh of a riff on his own career, and the self-deprecating humour extends to a sharp onscreen rivalry with Bob’s nemesis/former co-star Dave Foley, also of “Kids in the Hall” fame. The Immigrant further lampoons many a Canadian artist’s desire to escape to LA and find success with Michael Cera appearing in a cameo as star reluctant to help the besieged actor for of deportation. (Margaret Cho and Will Forte also make some humorous appearances.) A fair and scathingly funny look at celebrity and at the Canada/US divide, The Immigrant shows that not every good Canadian talent must make the exodus south of the border. The film, directed by Josh Levy, was originally conceived as a television series that would explore Bob’s immigrant experience, and the film itself could serve as a pilot for a great sitcom. The Immigrant makes good on a premise that has ample room for growth, but it works well as a stand-alone film to be sure. As one of the few comedies in the festival, The Immigrant almost feels like a stranger in a strange land itself, but that’s part of the film’s charm: it feels good to laugh.

On day four I also took in the symposium panel “The Feedback Loop”, which gave filmmakers the opportunity to screen their film for industry reps and receive feedback on the pros and cons of the film’s sale potential. The panel was comprised of a distributor, a festival programmer, a broadcaster, and a marketing/press relations rep. All four panelists gave the filmmakers some decent pointers on how to expand their market and how to maximize the appeal of the film. Top tips: narratives sell, music must be licensed, and beware the perils of uploading!

Day four ended with one of the annual highlights of WSFF: “Scene not Herd.” This programme gives music fans a treat by playing music videos on the big screen before things head on over to a big after party. This year’s after party took place in the trendy open space of The Burroughs Building, with drinks provided by Steamwhistle and Jackson Triggs, and a tasty spread of food catered by Per Se. (I like the puff pastry with goat cheese and roasted fig the best.) There was even cotton candy! A very fun night, which you can enjoy too by making the “Scene not Herd” playlist for your own party:
Jean-Marc Vallee directs Vanessa Paradis and Marin Gerrier in Cafe de flore
Day 5 of the festival included on the week’s highlights: a master class with acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée. Vallée serves on the jury for the Official Selections at this year’s WSFF, but he kindly took the time to give a class to all the filmmakers and interested attendees on the art of filmmaking. Although Vallée is known primarily for his features C.R.A.Z.Y., The Young Victoria, and Café de Flore, he has also made some shorts, including his first film Les fleurs magiques (1995). Vallée gave a good account of his experiences as a filmmaker in the event, which was moderated by Toronto film critic Richard Crouse. Best in the talk was hearing about Vallée’s inspirations for the use of music in his films and of the lengthy work that goes into the visual effects for a film. (I had no idea that Café de flore featured so many visual effects!) It was an exciting event overall!