Film Reviews

TIFF 2014: Short Docs

Patrick Mullen reviews a strong field of short docs at this year’s festival

“First of all, I like your hair,” says a spunky Sloan Avrich as she interviews one of the many beautiful redheads in the short doc Red Alert. Red Alert, directed by doc vet (and Sloan’s dad) Barry Avrich, lets the young girl with the auburn hair inquisitively probe an online myth that redheads are on the brink of extinction. This delightfully funny doc, which screens at the Toronto International Film Festival as a double bill with the terrific coming-of-age drama Wet Bum by Lindsay MacKay, brings some youthful energy to the shorts corner of the documentary programming at TIFF this year. Every good Festival needs at least one short-feature dream team to maximize the film experience, and Red Alert and Wet Bum provide a worthy one-two punch.

Red Alert capitalizes on the absurdity of the idea that redheads are a dying breed by letting this precocious young interviewer draw out the wonders of being a redhead from subjects of all ages and hair colours. Even noted Toronto film critic Richard Crouse shows up with his famously slick brown locks to tell Sloan how much wonder red hair added to the movies when the industry moved to colour from black and white. A dash of colour adds to any film—as does the colourful curiosity of the young Miss Avrich, who makes Red Alert a fun celebration of one’s natural beauty. “Rock being a redhead!” she exclaims on the advice from one interviewee. This kid’s a natural!

Young subjects tell a much different story in the gritty, yet lyrical Congolese film Chop My Money by director Theo Anthony. Chop My Money, one of several short docs in the inaugural edition of the Short Cuts International programme, is a visceral piece of poetry as three young boys—Patient, Guillain, and David—share their experience of life on the streets. Haunting cinematography and a dreamy music from Montreal-based musician Dirty Beaches makes Chop My Money an absorbing, sumptuously stylized doc. The bracing cuts and jarring imagery of its rough, unflinching finale ensure that the three boys leave their mark on TIFF audiences.

If haunting cinematography marks a highlight of Chop My Money, then the star camerawork of the Short Cuts International programme shines in Matthu Placek’s artful doc 130919 – A Portrait of Marina Abramovic. Contemporary artist Marina Abramovic (subject of 2012’s The Artist is Present) lays herself bare in this stunning single-shot of 3D wonder. Cinematographer Mike Berlucchi shoots a complete arc around a nude Abramovic as she holds court in the empty shell of the building meant to house her self-named Institute in New York. This sweeping long-take, set to an inspired soundtrack, is a technical and artistic marvel that puts the camera at the forefront of performance art. The film is provocative in the complexity of its simple premise.

Short Cuts International then whisks viewers from New York to Haiti with the equally powerful Papa Machete. This American doc from Jonathan David Kane chronicles a history of violence as Kane follows Haitian farmer Alfred Avril as he teaches students young and old the art of tire machèt. Avril gives access to his highly secretive practice and her offers the audience a rare glimpse at the practice of this indigenous martial art with which Haitian slaves took up the tools of their trade—their machetes—in order to defeat Napoleon’s army. The outstanding cinematography and revealing insight of the subjects make Papa Machete a fascinating chronicle of history and legacy as the spiritual element of the martial art forms the heart of Kane’s approach.

The animated Swedish doc German Shepherd from director Nils Bergendal offers a sardonically funny account of a man confronting his perception of Germany. German Shepherd subject David Paul recounts in drolly-cynical voiceover how the memories shared by his Holocaust-survivor mother planted an ever-present wariness of all things German in his mind. This playful documentary elicits great laughs thanks to the frankness of Paul’s self-deprecating and pessimistic reflection, which clashes greatly with the vibrant animation. German Shepherd seems like a sunny tale on the surface, but Paul and Bergendal confront profound questions about the nature of human condition and humankind’s potential predisposition for evil. This smart doc both realizes the adage that laughter is the best medicine and that good humour might just as easily mask harsh realities we fear to admit.


Human nature gets a much more upbeat outlook in the punnily titled A Tomb with a View. This swell doc in Short Cuts Canada Programme 4 jets viewers to Brazil where a thoughtful man named Pepe Altustut offers a tour of Memorial Necrópole Ecumênic, which is the tallest vertical tomb in the world. This smart and entertaining doc begins by looking at the practical element of the cemetery—conserving and efficiently reducing the land space occupied by the dead—but it evolves into a poetic reflection on the intangible place where the dead reside: the afterlife. Director Ryan J. Noth speculates on the unknown with one of the sunniest outlooks that a documentary about death could ever imagine. It’s a breath of life amidst a strong field of short docs at TIFF this year.

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