Film Reviews

TIFF 2020: The Short Docs

‘Still Processing’ and ‘The Game’ are Canadian and international highlights, respectively

Still Processing
All photos courtesy of TIFF


Short films account for nearly half of the official selections at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Despite their strong presence, they’re often easy to miss. This year offers a handful of short docs hidden among the gems. The TIFF short docs are, as always, among the festival’s most personal and innovative works. This year’s crop, which includes Tiffany Hsiung’s Sing Me a Lullaby and Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell’s Point and Line to Plane, is especially strong on the Canadian front with Sophy Romvari’s disarmingly intimate Still Processing rounding out a trio of exceptional homegrown docs. Watch out for them at Canada’s Top Ten in the winter if you miss them during the festival proper.

After considering the fate of her dog in Norman Norman, Romvari again confronts questions of mortality, grief, and closure in her own family. This time, she makes sense of the deaths of two brothers she lost over the past decade. Using photographs and diaries that her parents couldn’t bear to open in the years since the boys’ deaths, Romvari opens the fresh wounds with an aim to heal them. Still Processing harnesses the power of images to preserve life as Romvari’s three-year exercise with the doc keeps her brothers’ spirits alive. The act of processing film and developing clear images from ghostly negatives defies death’s cruel tragedy by bringing the boys to life, if only through photos. Using subtitles to voice the pain she struggles to express in words, the filmmaker puts herself at the centre of the healing process. Films this personal are often tricky feats, but Romvari’s willingness to be vulnerable takes the journey to unexpected places as she reflects upon her responsibility with images and the power they hold. Her growth as a filmmaker is inextricable from the film’s well-earned catharsis. The result is a beautifully intimate celebration of life as Romvari uses her talents to give her family a warm comforting hug. Still Processing is a palpably therapeutic work. (Short Cuts 1)

Questions of trauma and closure fuel Scars by Alex Anna. Scars admittedly has an air of familiarity as it closely mirrors Lisa Steele’s groundbreaking 1974 experimental film Birthday Suit with Scars and Defects. Anna, like Steele, puts her nude body on display for the camera. She lets the lens get up close and personal with her scars. However, where Steele’s film focuses on the blemishes of her body to challenge restrictive notions of beauty, Anna uses her scars to fuel a conversation about self-harm. As she traces the lines that cut across her body, she invites audiences to speak openly about mental health in order to help those in pain. (Short Cuts 5)

While Scars uses a modest production to accentuate its theme, Short Cuts finds a more formally adventurous project with Loose Fish. This hypnotic doc-drama hybrid from directors Francisco Canton and Pato Martine chronicles a day in the life of a young boy working an Argentinian fish market. The film explores the boy’s possibility for escaping his seemingly preordained existence with a style that befits his adventure. (Short Cuts 2)

The Game


An awesome slice of cinema verité, meanwhile, appears in The Game (Das Spiel). Roman Hodel’s energetic doc gives audiences every best seat in the house for a tense soccer match. From the rowdy bleachers to the sidelines, The Game observes the thrill of the sport from the many perspectives that transform a match into an event. The vantage point from the game’s referee, for example, offers a unique and dizzying look from the thick of the action. The fans up in the crowd, on the other hand, get a viewer pumped up with the energy that fuels the athletes on the field. The film observes the many hands that go into making the event such a sensation. The astonishing range of coverage of the game, as well as some slickly paced editing that cuts as quick a pace as a star runner on the field, proves this one of TIFF’s most invigorating documentaries. (Short Cuts 2)

The Water Walker


Finally, TIFF delivers a compelling character study in The Water Walker from director James Burns. The doc offers a brisk portrait of Anishinaabe activist Autumn Peltier. The 15-year-old Peltier is Canada’s equivalent to Greta Thunberg with her effort to bring issues of clean water to the forefront. While the profile of Thunberg at the festival this year does its subject a disservice, Burns offers a more satisfying character piece by emphasizing the issues over the activist. Peltier’s voice guides a clear and urgent essay on the many problems affecting drinking water among Indigenous communities. The film is a compelling call to action that Canadians need to see. (Special Event Screening.)

Visit the POV TIFF Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

Pat Mullen is POV’s Online Co-editor, etc. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Complex and ran the former blog Cinemablographer. He is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. You can reach him at @cinemablogrpher

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