WSFF: Day 1

Does Scenes from the Suburbs live up to the hype?

The first full day of the Worldwide Shorts Film Festival was a film-filled one! I began the day by seeing the “Choose Your Own Adventure” portion of the Official Selections. The series begins with an experimental short by Japan’s Yusuke Nakajima called I Stare Boiling. I think I missed the point on this one, ‘cuz it seems that if you put a skillet on the burner and throw on some ice, you have yourself a film! Second in the line-up is the Canadian film Three Mothers. Written and directed by Rafal Sokolowski, Three Mothers crosscuts three narratives of motherhood. The film is a bit heavy, but it features very impressive performances from actresses Kristin Booth, Camilla Scott, and Hannah Hogan; cinematographer Cabot McNenly also contributes strong work, as Three Mothers makes striking use of depth and focus. Three Mothers is followed by another tale of parent-child bonds: 1989 (When I Was 5 Years Old). An animated film by Denmark’s Thor Ochsner, 1989 uses dark abstract expressions to reconstruct the trauma of the death of a father. Third in the series is a much lighter short, the Canadian road movie/romance Jonathan and Gabrielle. Directed by Louis-Philip Eno, Jonathan and Gabrielle is a mature and talky story of love, adventure, and discovery during one quick stop on the road to life. 

Something Left, Something Taken
A road trip also provides a great adventure for the travellers of the next short, Something Left, Something Taken. In Something Left, Something Taken, a young couple arrives in California and accepts a ride from a stranger, only to discover that their chauffer might actually be the notorious Zodiac Killer. Something Left, Something Taken is an extremely clever and morbidly hilarious film that brilliantly offsets its dark subject matter by using cute puppet figures and cardboard cut-outs to construct the scene of the crime. Writers/directors/producers/actors/animators Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata might soon have a festival win to add to their impressive credits! The follower to Something Left, Something Taken is an equally strong story of crime scene investigation – The Bridge (La passerelle) by France’s Juliette Soubrier. The Bridge is an ambiguous story about an actress who accepts a strange assignment to re-enact a crime, but only to find herself going to places darker than she expected. The Bridge is an excellent and gripping film. Last in the series is the hotly anticipated Arcade Fire movie Scenes from the Suburbs. Directed by Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are), Scenes from the Suburbs is a fantastic allegory of life in a suburban police state. The film uses tracks from the Arcade Fire’s Grammy winning album The Suburbs to drive/enhance a tale of America’s youth. The band’s songs add a haunting quality to the film as well, and ensure that fans of the film will surely become devote listeners if they are not already. While Suburbs is probably the reason that many moviegoers will choose the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series, there are plenty of commendable films that deserve equal buzz, if not more.
The second series of the day was the Official Selection’s “Golden Girls.” Unlike the last two series, “Golden Girls” opens strong with the animated short The Girl and the Hunter by Jadwiga Kowalska of Switzerland. The Girl and the Hunter is a funny fable whose dark animation will instantly appeal to fans of Tim Burton. Another black comedy in the series is Cookie, the excellent directorial debut by Canadian actress Enuka Okuma. Cookie is a devastating story of love and loss, but Okuma handles the delicate tone of the film with natural skill and gets a terrific performance from lead actress Jennifer Finnigan. I liked Cookie far more than the next offering, which was the entry from Bosnia and Herzegovina called Smart Girls. Smart Girls is about two friends who work together to rid one of her prudishness; unfortunately, her reward is a little more “golden” than she expects. The fourth film is an equally strange sex romp, Heavy Heads, although this animated short throws in some houseflies and TV dinners. It’s funny, if only because it is so strange. Even stranger is the experimental film Wee Requiem, which easily gets the dunce cap of the line-up. Wee Requiem seems like a very personal film, so I won’t be unkind, but all I’ll say is that if you think that a dead mouse is beautiful, this one’s for you. I half expected a plastic bag to float through the frame.  More convincing is the documentary I am a Girl by Susan Koenan, which allows Joppe, a transgendered teen from the Netherlands, to tell her compelling story. Joppe tells of how she became aware of her gender at an early age, and the film is an honest and refreshing narrative of identity and acceptance. It’s also refreshing that Koenan allows Joppe to tell her story in her own words.
Marguerite McNeil in Rhonda's Party
To follow up the moral of acceptance offered by I am a Girl, Rhonda’s Party is a beautiful story of celebrating life. In this film by Canada’s Ashley McKenzie, Marguerite McNeil stars as Rhonda, a retirement home resident who is finally ready to throw a party to honour the 100th birthday of her friend Margaret. Rhonda’s Party is a shattering eight minutes thanks to the laudable performances by McNeil and co-star Karine Vanasse. Rhonda’s Party is an overall masterful film. Finally, Teamwork also offers a very strong story of life and death. This film by Seo Yun Hong uses flashbacks and present-day narratives to build an emotional tale of the memories that haunt us. Teamwork also features a very strong cast, and Seo Yun Hong brings the drama to a rich, cathartic climax. Teamwork adds a very strong finish to “Golden Girls”.
The Majestic Plastic Bag
Although “Golden Girls” has some solid offerings, the third program of the day probably had the strongest line-up overall. “No Place Like Home” opens with the animated film Loom, which creatively dramatizes the last flight of a moth that becomes trapped in a spider wed. Loom features exceptional animation, as well as a neat soundtrack. Second is the Polish documentary Invisible Borders by director Haukar M. Hrafnsson. Invisible Borders tells of the tense relationship between the “haves” and the “have nots” of a small town, and it effectively employs a Talking Heads format to emphasize the human element within the gap between the rich and the poor. This documentary provides a good segue to the outstanding mockumentary The Majestic Plastic Bag. This film by Jeremy Konner documents the heroic struggle faced by one plastic bag as it makes its voyage from the dearth of suburbia to its home in the Pacific Ocean. Jeremy Irons provides some Morgan Freeman-level voiceover that accentuates the drama with wry, deadpan humour. In an age of environmentalism and unnecessary five cent fees, The Majestic Plastic Bag displays the inspiring plight of a soon a species that is soon to be endangered.
A complete opposite in tone and form from The Majestic Plastic Bag is Nowhere Elsewhere, a Canadian short by Annick Blanc. Nowhere Elsewhere is a murky and surreal odyssey into the tormented mind of a young mother (Bénédicte Décary). Not for the easily troubled, Nowhere Elsewhere is a difficult and labyrinthine film that greatly rewards anyone who is willing to unpack the deep imagery and complex story. Equally haunting as Nowhere Elsewhere is the stop-motion film Choke, which conveys the struggles of young Indigenous Canadians. The arresting imagery is well set to some evocative vocals by David Lynch and with Choke, director Michelle Latimer offers a harrowing film that voices a situation too complex to depict in a conventional film. Likewise, Land of the Heroes and We Will Not Die provide glimpses into how ordinary citizens struggle in the Middle East; at the opposite end is the animated short Wild Life, which humorously satirizes the expansion of Canada’s West through the tragic fate of one British rancher. Without a weak film in the bunch, “No Place Like Home” is a program worth adding to any WSFF schedule.

Best Shorts:
Choose Your Own Adventure: Something Left, Something Taken
Golden Girls: Rhonda’s Party
No Place Like Home: Choke and The Majestic Plastic Bag (both great, too different to pick!)

"Choose Your Own Adventure" screens again Friday June 3, 6:15 pm at the Varsity.
"Golden Girls" screens again Friday June 3, 8:30 at the Varsity.
"No Place Like Home" screens again Saturday June 4, 2:15 at the Varsity