See the North in Short Glances at Canada's Top Ten

The Crying Conch
The shorts on display at this year’s Canada’s Top Ten festival are, overall, a respectable bunch. Like the feature selections, the shorts selected by the TIFF team are carefully calibrated to ensure a wide range of representation and to move the spotlight outside the Toronto bubble. And, like the features, there are many stronger titles that didn’t make the list, like Caroline Monnet’s hypnotic Creatura Dada, Molly Parker’s haunting Bird, Andrew Moir’s effective Babe, I Hate to Go, Sol Friedman’s hilarious An Imagined Conversation: Kanye West & Stephen Hawking, Chintis Lundgren’s funny Manivald, Michelle Latimer’s potent Nuuca, and Philippe David Gagné and Jean-Marc E. Roy’s Cannes debut Crème de menthe to name a few. There are nevertheless three genuinely great films in the mix, plus others that show much promise and/or bring voices from traditionally underrepresented communities to the conversation. Might as well #SeeTheNorth even at a short glance.

Programme number one features five very different films beginning with Daniel Cockburn’s offbeat and quirky The Argument (with Annotations). Cockburn offers another thinking-person’s flick after the heady You Are Here, which also screens at the festival, as a brainy intellectual (Clare Coulter) natters on about semantics and such with a nifty lecture that features snippets of classic films and onscreen text. This kind of rambling philosophy and wordplay is the area in which Cockburn excels since he brings the right level of self-awareness to the academic’s self-indulgence. It’s amusing and thought provoking if one has the taste for it, otherwise, The Argument might feel like film class mumbo jumbo.

There’s much less talking in Heather Young’s Milk, which stars Babette Hayward as a young dairy farmer who considers motherhood. One could easily mistake Milk for a documentary with its verité-style observations of like in the cattle pen. The film features a truly excruciating shot of a cow giving birth that serves as the through-line of the story with the image cutting back and forth to the mother pushing out a calf, as the human farmer toys with her own maternal nature. The image of the cow, wide-eyed with pain and contracting her muscles to deliver the baby, is very cinematic and while it’s difficult to watch, the shots of the cow are more dynamic than anything with the young farmer is. Young keeps the story engaging with her sobering interplay of imagery for machinery, bovines, and women to draw parallels between human and non-human mothers.

Documentary finds its representative in Maude Plante-Husaruk and Maxime Lacoste-Lebuis’s The Botanist. The film brings audiences to Tajikistan where a wise old man shares his green-thumbed wisdom in an interview that serves as the bulk of the film. It’s beautifully shot and creatively cultivated with chapter cards dividing the film into roots and leaves, but hardly the best that short documentary had to offer this year. (Get a coffee beforehand.) Ditto Naledi Jackson’s visually striking The Drop-In, a welcome sci-fi entry that has a great palette of colours. Unfortunately, the two actors who carry the dialogue-heavy film aren’t nearly as vibrant.

Finally, Torill Kove’s Threads is the winner of the first programme for its melodic and moving ode to mothers. The latest film from the Oscar-winning animator of The Danish Poet offers a jazzy take on her signature storybook style as a young woman blossoms throughout the full stages of motherhood, raising her daughter and keeping a tight leash on her as she grows up, only to make the inevitable choice to release her into the wild. It’s a touching story that Kove delivers handily with a spirited, bouncy rhythm and bright, joyful colours.

Shorts Programme 2 is easily the stronger set of shorts if one has to choose between the screenings. Yassmina Karajah’s Rupture for example, is a well-intentioned and sentimental story of the experiences of New Canadians. The drama features four Arab children from an unnamed country (presumably Syria), adapting to life in the Canadian suburbs while dealing with unsettling news from home.

Marc-Antoine Lemire’s Pre-Drink is an intimate two-hander about a fateful night between best friends: trans-woman Alexe and her gay best friend Carl, played by Pascale Drevillon and Alex Trahan. Lemire treats the relationship with utmost sensitivity as the friends probe the depths of their bond and explore uncharted territory in their relationship. It’s fairly predictable, but Drevillon and Trahan bring committed performances and the film might be the most valuable conversation piece in the screening.

Equally important is Amanda Strong’s animated essay Flood. One of five shorts commissioned for the CBC’s Decolonize series, Strong takes her signature style a step further by swiftly and smartly tackling Canada’s racist history in striking compositions that draw upon oral storytelling and folklore to challenge the settler rule. It’s very healing, particularly thanks to the poetic voiceover that bookends the fable. Watch Flood here.

Matthew Rankin (Mynarski Death Plummet) delivers one hell of a film with the ingenious The Tesla World Light. The film is the most formally ambitious selection of the bunch, both for shorts and for features, as it playfully interprets the mad history of inventor Nikola Tesla with a mix of live action and animation. Tesla has a flash of genius by telling the story of Tesla’s invention of the alternating current using literal sparks of light to convey illumination. The use of white light to animate the inventor’s madness is truly extraordinary—as is Tesla’s bizarre attraction to his pet bird. Sally Hawkins and Fish Man ain’t got nuthin’ on him! (Read a full review of The Tesla World Light at POV.)

Finally, I really like Vincent Toi’s spellbinding Creole slam poem The Crying Conch. Set in Haiti, the film features a captivating narrator who tells a story of the slave trade and rebellion in a showstopper of a performance. The man speaks on the beach at night, illuminated by the moon in the sky and the bonfire in the sand, as propulsive drums elevate his story to the level of myth. The film crosscuts his powerful narrative with a present-day(ish) drama featuring a worker who defiantly rises up to his oppressive employer in a brutally violent assertion of agency. Told with a hypnotic rhythm and a de-colonial fury that sets the screen on fire, The Crying Conch makes Vincent Toi the breakout discovery of the CTT shorts. Like The Tesla World Light and Threads, Conch stands tall above the rest.

The Canada's Top Ten shorts screen Sunday, Jan. 14 at TIFF Lightbox.