Women-Directed Short Films @ TIFF19 – Alexandra Heller-Nicholas reports

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For both emerging filmmakers and established directors alike, short films have a long history of allowing a space for cinematic craft to flourish in ways quite unlike different modes of movie-making. If feature films can be compared to poetic epics, shorts – at their best – are instead finely crafted haikus. For women filmmakers and other creatives who find themselves outside the preferred demographic for feature funding (or for those who simply understand the power of a good short film), what these movies lack in screen time they often more than make up for in their sheer impact.

The Short Cuts program at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival showed no sign of loosening its grip on the cutting edge of curating the most exciting short films in the world, including multiple Oscar-nominee Yorgos Lanthimos with Nimic, and Brandon Cronenberg (whose debut feature Antiviral played in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012), whose film Please Speak Continuously And Describe Your Experiences As They Come To You was another big-name highlight on the 2019 TIFF Short Cuts slate.

But like so much at festivals of this scale, the real treasures are often from filmmakers from around the world whose names are comparatively new, and this is certainly the case of women-made shorts. There was no lack of women filmmakers in the strand, with 56% of the Short Cuts program this year directed by women. These include (but are not limited to) Carol Nguyen’s No Crying at the Dinner Table, Agnès Patron’s And then the Bear, Ariane Louis-Seize’s The Depths, Sandra Ignani’s Highway to Hell, Sofia Banzhaf’s I Am in the World as Free and Slender as a Deer on a Plain, Anna Maguire’s It’s Nothing, and Karen Chapman’s Measure.

Of particular note is filmmaker Chloé Robichaud’s Delphine, which won a $10,000 cash prize for the IWC Short Cuts Award for Best Canadian Short Film. Of this movie, the jury noted that “by presenting its main character’s unique point of view through another perspective, Robichaud’s Delphine boldly utilizes an original narrative device to offer a refreshing twist on the coming-of-age genre”.

Another Canadian highlight was Karen Moore’s directorial debut Volcano, a highly-polished, confident short about two frenemies who meet for a catch-up in a tiki bar after Hannah (Hannah Chessman) has returned from the supposed vacation of a lifetime in Mexico with her partner. Becoming increasingly frustrated with Hannah’s seemingly tone-deaf refusal to listen to her problems, Jess (Jess Salgueiro) brings the awkwardness to the surface and things explode in a wholly unexpected manner.

Emphasizing the Short Cuts’ global reach, Valentina Maurel’s Lucia in Limbo marks the extraordinary screen debut of Ana Camila Arenas who plays the title character, a Costa Rican teen who finds herself stranded between childhood and adulthood as she contends with what for her are two major problems; she is still a virgin, and she has head lice. Between peer pressure and well-meaning but ineffective parental advice, the film follows Lucia as she tries to find her voice. Lucia in Limbo is a sensitive portrait of a young woman given space by the filmmaker to make her own mistakes and not have us judge her as she takes her first tentative steps towards empowerment and self-knowledge.

Swiss filmmaker Aline Höchli’s gorgeous animation Why Slugs Have No Legs turns to the age-old tradition of the animal fable to explain the title through the tale of a group of life-loving corporate slugs who couldn’t cut it in the go-go-go world of business came to lose their limbs. Displaying the diversity in both texture and tone that animation allows, Brazilian Camila Kater’s Flesh is as much a manifesto as an interview-based animated documentary, a thoughtful, provocative work that draws parallels between the different range of meat-cooking possibilities (rare, medium rare, medium, medium well and well done) as she works through the memories of five women about different stages of their life and how they relate to their bodies (the ‘flesh’ of the title). The diversity of these women provides an elegant, succinct window into the lived experience of a range of women, including a transgender woman, a woman of color, and icon of the Cinema Marginal movement, actor Helen Ignez.

The unquestionable highlight of the Short Cuts program was for me however undoubtedly Sonia K. Hadad’s Exam, a crime thriller/coming of age hybrid that packs more suspense in its 15 minutes than most mainstream features do in two hours. Iranian high school student Sadaf (Sadaf Asgari) is focused on her studies, which are interrupted by her father who uses her as a drug mule for his cocaine deals. After a client fails to appear when she is meant to make a transaction on her father’s behalf on her way to school, a surprise bag search at her strict school places instant demands on the young woman who is faced to make some quick decisions and reflect on her life more broadly.

Although Short Cuts is clearly the home of the festival’s diverse array of short films, noteworthy short films – including many directed by women – also feature in the more experimental Wavelengths program. This includes works such as Annie MacDonnell’s Book of Hours, Miryam Charles’ Second Generation and Erica Sheu’s Transcript, the latter two of these both privileging letter-writing. Sheu’s Transcript is a breathtaking avant-garde dive into a sensory landscape inspired by Japanese writer Shūji Terayama, a cine-poem whose textures demand a haptic as much as intellectual response from her audience.

In both Creole and English, Miryam Charles’ Second Generation employs an epistolary model with a more narrative function, although again she communicates as strongly through her visual as through the written text that appears on screen. These letters are between three unseen characters; J and M, we learn, are engaged, and M has just learned that J has been accused of sexual assault by S. Weaving a complex range of images with this provocative yet delicately woven story, Charles – like all the women discussed here – proves effectively that a lengthy run-time is far from necessary to communicate important, moving, meaningful stories both by and about women.

The 2019 Toronto International Film Festival ran from 5 – 15 September.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).