Navigating the Short Cuts programme at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival might be a tall order, but a number of strong documentaries stand out from the crowd. TIFF combines the Canadian and international shorts into one programme that extends across 11 screenings and a handful of docs pepper the screenings to satisfy festivalgoers looking for a quick bite of non-fiction fare. Here, in alphabetical order, are the top five Canadian docs in Short Cuts:
Bacon and God’s Wrath
Dir. Sol Friedman
Programme: Short Cuts 3
Continuing the train of foodie film thoughts, Bacon and God’s Wrath capitalizes on the ever-growing mania for bacon when an unexpected inquisitor decides to see what all the fuss is about. The film features Razie, a ninety-year-old Jewish woman who follows her faith to the letter and keeps kosher until a stroll through “The Google” opens her eyes to the contradictions of religion. Her confrontation with her faith gets crispy when she decides to try bacon for the very first time. Friedman sizzles a whopper of a revelation as Razie boards the bacon train and sees the world of pleasures one may miss if one lives in fear. Friedman, whose animated Noah’s Ark satire Day 40 screened at the Festival last year, stacks Razie’s awakening with layers of eccentric animation, which complements and flavours—like lettuce and tomato—to bring out the best of bacon in a BLT. This highly original and very funny doc uses self-deprecating humour to crumble our insecurities into (bacon) bits.
The Man Who Shot Hollywood
Dir. Barry Avrich
Programme: Short Cuts 11 (World Premiere)
Fans of the feature doc Finding Vivian Maier are in for a treat when they dig up Barry Avrich’s The Man Who Shot Hollywood. Much like John Maloof, who stumbled upon a treasure trove of Chicago street photographer Vivian Maier’s hidden photographs, Avrich reveals a wealth of unseen celebrity portraits taken by the late Hollywood photographer Yasha (Jack) Pashkovsky. An impressive montage of Pashkovsky’s work is shown as Avrich interviews the photographer about his life and career. Eye-catching images of Hollywood’s greatest stars grace the screen as viewers delight in Pashkovky’s extraordinary range of lighting and composition, as well as his keen eye for capturing the humanity of the world’s biggest icons. Rare images, including the reportedly last image taken of Amelia Earhart, show untapped lucrative potential that sat in a personal archive (a shoebox) under Pashkovsky’s bed. The photographer receives an equally affectionate portrait in his own right as Avrich’s interview with Pashkovsky reveals a man of quiet dignity and humility. At a Festival populated with hordes of screaming fans eager to take snapshots and selfies of celebrities, it’s touching to see a portrait of a man who loved taking pictures of stars just to see them as human beings.
(The Man Who Shot Hollywood will be available as part of TIFF’s free In Love with the Stars exhibition beginning Sept. 16.)
Dir. Amanda Strong, Bracken Hanuse Corlett
Programme: Short Cuts 7 (World Premiere)
Mia’ takes documentary form to new heights as Amanda Strong and Bracken Hanuse Corlett craft a dextrous silent animation fable about memory and legacy. The film begins with a haunting urban cityscape in which an Indigenous street artist, composed with stop motion animation, roams the streets alone before she stumbles upon hallowed waters populated by hand drawn salmon. Mia’ features a visually stunning mix of animation, as the filmmakers use the hybridity of forms to create worlds both earthly and spiritual. The film evokes folklore and memory, and provocatively asks where Indigenous lore fits within the ever-changing landscape of urbanization.
Dir. Caroline Monnet
Programme: Short Cuts 1 (Festival Premiere)
_Mobilize _brings another strong First Nations doc to the fest. This short uses the music of Tanya Tagaq as a driving force as it looks at the introduction of technology and industry to Aboriginal communities. The film samples excerpts from the NFB archives, including Don Owen’s doc High Steel, which follows Mohawk steel workers high in the sky in Manhattan, as Monnet shrewdly juxtaposes the perceived progress of man and machinery from canoe to condo. Monnet cuts the images together at a rapid pace and moves from rural communities to the city, from tradition to modernity, as Indigenous persons converge towards the concrete jungle. The propulsive tempo of the film charts a walk through progress as the characters enjoy traditional life in the beginning and wander the urban streets of the 60s with trepidation. The traditional music becomes more pronounced and involving as the film barrels towards the future and the characters find themselves in a culture clash. The beat of the film creates tension through the rhythm of sound and images, and asks how one moves forward in the face of isolation and inertia.
Rock the Box
Dir. Katherine Monk
Programme: Short Cuts 7 (World Premiere)
Now here’s a great match of filmmaker and subject! Film critic Katherine Monk steps behind the camera and directs the fun and provocative doc Rock the Box. Monk, best known for her work with Post Media and her book Weird Sex and Snowshoes and Other Canadian Film Phenomena, makes a film just as well as she critiques one. Her short Rock the Box charts the success of Vancouver-based Electronic Dance Music (EDM) DJ Rhiannon Rozier, who broke through the glass ceiling of the male-dominated EDM by shaking her moneymaker on the pages of Playboy. Sex sells, Rock the Box says, but Monk smartly implies that no man in the music scene would ever have to do this kind of publicity to turn some heads.
The film lets DJ Rhiannon tell her story in a quick mix of interviews, music video snippets, performance excerpts, and eye-opening social media posts. At no point in the story does DJ Rhiannon make any excuses for giving fans and the industry the full package, nor should she, and the film plays her saucy image and lyrics into an empowering ownership of a male dominated industry. The film cuts through the noise, bringing a distinctly feminists voice to the festival. This year’s slate of documentaries at TIFF offers a strong berth for films by and about women, and Monk’s provocative debut shows that the shorts are no exception when it comes to sharing diverse perspectives.
Bonus short doc:
Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton
By Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson
Programme: Wavelengths Installations
One of the best docs at TIFF wasn’t even screening in the theatres. Tucked away at TIFF Lightbox was an installation playing Guy Maddin’s Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton on a loop. This darkly funny and very strange film partly plays as a behind the scenes documentary on the making of Paul Gross’s Hyena Road, which screened in the Festival’s Gala programme. Maddin mediates upon the absurd paradox of national cinema in this superior making-of farce as he plays second fiddle to Gross’s film—he even gets to play the corpse of a dead Afghan soldier, much to his amusement. In signature Maddin fashion, though, Maddin doesn’t play by the rules for long and Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton drolly appropriates Gross’s film in its own fashion as Maddin plays with form and meaning to turn populism into art. This paradoxical satire of Canadian cinema might be the hidden gem of TIFF 2015.