ONEFF Review: Friday Night Shorts

This Was My Son
Last night’s premiere of the Ottawa Northeast Film Festival (The ONEFF) featured a slate of shorts from Canada and the USA. The Friday shorts are a bit of a grab bag, loosely connected and with a range of style and skill. Some films are lacking, they also bring a notable range of diversity both in front of the camera and behind it, so one can see why they’re all appealing. One real winner later in the programme brings the end of the show to a high note.

The programme begins with the well-intentioned oddity This Was My Son (Dir. Rob Underhill; USA, time), which sees actor Mike Wiley perform a monologue as Mamie Till , who recounts the traumatic experience of exploring her son’s body after he was brutally murdered. The history books consider her son, named Emmett, to be a victim whose violent death and open-casket funeral marked turning points in the Civil Rights movement, so This Was My Son gains some resonance as the final images and archival excerpts situate Mamie’s loss within a greater collective tragedy. The monologue itself is surprisingly free of affect, though, as the film offers it in one bland long take in which actor/writer Wiley recounts the lines in close-up. The casting choice is a major distraction, since one spends most of the time wondering while a male actor assumes the part of a grieving mother. (If the intent is to use the male/female spin and the Civil Rights movement as a backdrop for an LGBT parable, it doesn’t resonate.) Although Wiley performs Till’s heartbreak rather well, the monologue doesn’t really do the subject justice, for This Was My Son ultimately plays like a screen test, albeit a very good one. The film comes in a series of similar films by Underhill and Wiley about the lynching of Emmett Till, so perhaps it requires the full spectrum for context.

After This Was My Son, the ONEFF shorts bring another tale of violence with Avalanche (Dir. Thyrone Tommy; Canada, 16 min.). Avalanche feels freshly inspired by the child-on-child violence in mainstream media with the booming popularity of The Hunger Games and Divergent. Nathan (a strong Darius Fisher) is a brooding kin of Katniss with the way he wields a bow and arrow and defends himself against his domineering father. Fisher’s fellow younger actors aren’t quite as strong, while slow pacing and dim lighting make the slow burn of Avalanche less forceful, although Tommy delivers a quietly compelling tale of family violence with a notably diverse cast.

The shorts change gears with the sentimental romance Butterflies (Dir. Cayman Grant; Canada/USA, 19 min.), which features a well-intentioned romance between two cancer patients crossing “falling in love” off their bucket lists. A lesson in life and death follows in When Fish Fly (Dir. Lisa Rose Snow; Canada, 10 min.). This cute short, winner of the National Screen Institute’s dramatic prize, sees one little girl (Alyssa Cross) struggle with grief following the death of her mother. This wordless short conveys both heart and humour with a likable young performer and her trusty fish. It’s a nice example of a trend in the short circuit that forgoes dialogue as films play better abroad with subtitles and with universal appeal.
Nayan and the Evil Eye
There’s a lot more wordplay in the winning short Nayan and the Evil Eye (Dir. Shaleen Sangha; Canada, 8 min.). This short is easily the best of the programme as it brings a playful rhyming story about an unlucky boy and an all-seeing eye. The script hilariously creates a wicked nursery rhyme as young Nayan (Neil Bhaskaran, very fun) stumbles into ill-fortune like Jack spilling his beans. The film plays with fantasy and make believe, all the while balancing the sinisterness of the all-seeing eye with the sing-song cadence of the narrator’s verse. Production efforts are top notch, especially the cinematography by Kiarah Sadigh, but Sangha’s script is the highlight of the night. This hilarious and fantastical short shows much promise for the filmmaker: she’s one to watch! (With one eye or two, take your pick.)

The series ends with a noble misfire when Quelle Affaire (Dir. Ruth Lawrence; Canada, 3 min.) experiments with the latest in technology. The film offers a quick love affair shot entirely with an iPhone 5. The filmmakers note that they shot this film with said iPhone in two hours using natural winter light, and without gear, tripods, lights, or sound equipment. Unfortunately, the technical limitations show. iPhones take great Vines and snapshots; however, as film, the images add little besides novelty as Quelle Affaier certainly looks a step below the films that precede it. The production itself feels haphazard and rushed—the dinner date at a “restaurant” is clearly the living room of one of the production staff—and the thin story doesn’t compensate for the novelty of the experiment. The harshly-lit images probably play better on a mobile device than they do on the biggest film screen in town, and Quelle Affaire doesn’t make a compelling case that everyone holds the future of filmmaking in their hands. It’s an intriguing affair, but a disappointing endnote to the programme. (Watch Quelle Affair online here.)

The ONEFF Shorts screened at The ByTowne on Friday, May 22.
Additional ONEFF screenings happen tonight at The ByTowne, including the Ottawa premiere of How to Change the World.

Please visit www.theoneff.com for more information on this year’s festival.