Women-made Shorts at TIFF 2020 – Pam Grady reports

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Women-made shorts are in the spotlight at the Toronto International Film Festival 2020.

Feature films may draw the buzz at film festivals, but shorts are where plenty of gems that are just awaiting for an audience to find them reside. That is certainly true of the Toronto International Film Festival, which even in this pandemic-impacted year, has mounted an impressive slate of five shorts programs. These three, all made by women, are part of TIFF’s Shorts 5 program, described as “journey of discovery.” They certainly are that.

Sinking Ship

The stormy seas of a restaurant’s mural provides the perfect metaphor for the disastrous date night unfolding in front of it. Whatever brought this unnamed woman (Jenny Brizard) and man (Herschel Andoh) together in the first place, it’s gone now in this acerbic two-hander from director Sasha Leigh Henry and writer Tania Thompson.

The handsome, 40ish couple seem to be enjoying a lovely evening out as the woman orders a new drink, until her partner starts in on her. He mansplains that he feels she’s grown “old” and doesn’t care what people think, and he finds her less desirable. Later, he adds, “We can still talk and have sex, but no romance…I don’t feel like being there for you or helping you.” Whatever response he was hoping for, she does not rise to his bait, parrying his insults with wit and aplomb. But pay attention to that mural. Like a mood ring, it tells a tale in this smart, elegant slice of relationship life.

Succor

Heartbroken Angie (Michaela Kurimsky) turns to her friend Abigail (Deragh Campbell) for comfort in the wake of a bad breakup. A believer that the best way to heal is to jump right back into the dating pool, Abigail convinces Angie to sign up with an app. The seemingly perfect man quickly manifests online – or does he?

Writer/director Hannah Cheesman’s clever, discomfiting drama uses the ubiquity of dating apps as a lens through which to view Angie and Abigail’s friendship. The two women could not be more different. Angie transmits every emotion she feels to the outside world through her body language and facial expressions, straightforward in her raw state. Boisterous Abigail is better at keeping things hidden – starting with her motivations as she greets the world with the enthusiasm of a cat with a new toy. Her idea of being a good friend is… interesting.

Sing Me a Lullaby

Shot over 14 years, Tiffany Hsiung’s documentary examines the emotional cost of family separation on a woman and her daughter. The child in question is Tiffany herself who remembers how undemonstrative her mother was growing up, never hugging her or saying, “I love you.” Open declarations were foreign to her mom for a reason – she hadn’t seen her own mother since she was five and she never knew why. Her life had taken her from Taiwan to Canada, leaving her with a hole at the center of her life and a yearning for the family that vanished.

Hsuing, an award-winner for her 2016 feature documentary The Apology about the lives of World War II era “comfort women,” was at the dawn of her career in 2005, the first time she visited Taipei. With a camera crew in tow, she sought clues that would unlock her mother’s past. Early scenes in the film unfold like a detective story. Scenes shot on subsequent visits to the country with her mother accompanying her are more emotional. Sing Me a Lullaby is a daughter’s gift to a parent, one that spins a fascinating tale of Hsuing, her mother, and how tightly family ties can bind even when they appear severed.

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Pam Grady

Pam Grady

Pam Grady is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, FilmStew, SF State Magazine and other publications. Her career began at Reel.com where she was an editor and staff critic. She is currently President of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle.