Toronto After Dark 2015: Shahbaz on Short Films

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By: Shahbaz Khayambashi

Once again, the sun sets on another successful edition of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival.  On the tenth anniversary of this local darling, I felt it necessary to shine a light on what I have consistently felt to be an important and underappreciated part of this festival: the shorts.

The first time that I went to the festival, about six years ago, my first screening was the Shorts After Dark program and I still make a point of catching that program year after year.  In an atmosphere where short films have a preset and limited life span, either disappearing into obscurity after a festival run (one where no one sees it) or ending up on YouTube, where its status is marginalized.  This is why After Dark is so important to these films: it allows some films to play for the first and only time on a big screen.  Don’t let this suggest, however, that the relationship is completely one sided.  Just this year, the greatest and the scariest films at the festival were both shorts.

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The best thing that I saw at the festival this year was an American short called Movies in Space.  In telling a space travel story which quickly – incredibly quickly – turns into a study of an alien film industry, this short manages to squeeze in a takedown of the film industry, mocking award shows and Oscar bait all in a lean ten minutes.

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The scariest film?  A short ghost story called Vicious (and it was), following a young woman who comes home to see her door unlocked and falling into a world of supernatural terror.  I always felt that this was just a saying, but this short literally had me on the edge of my seat;  about four minutes in, I was begging for something scary to happen because I simply could not take the tension any longer, which is further accentuated by the fact that the biggest jump scare in the film isn’t even a scary scene!

Two other films from the Shorts After Dark program that I feel the need to address (when half of a program is extremely noteworthy, there’s clearly something going on) are the inventive Kafkaesque The Guests, about the titular guests showing up at a woman’s house for a housewarming even though she does not know any of them (it doesn’t go how you expect it to) and Myrna the Monster, about a puppet alien, stolen from the moon after the moon landing, who lives and tries to assimilate to human life in Los Angeles.  These last two films are also examples of something else that makes After Dark so important: this festival oddly gives a general venue to experimental cinema.  I have seen greater experimental films at After Dark than Images or local curatorial shows.  One of these shorts appeared in the Canadian program: This Home is Not Empty is a three minute long minimalist work about the destruction caused by a fire to a home.  The lack of any further context, and the fact that I spent the rest of that day thinking about it, made this the scariest short in the Canadian program.

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Speaking of the Canadian program, while it was rather disappointing this year (too many dismal shorts finding their ways in because of nepotism), it was not without its charm.  The late, great Rowdy Roddy Piper had to stop Cthulhu from taking over the world in Portal to Hell!!! (if anyone could do it, it would be him), a woman explains her terrifyingly realistic nightmare with gorgeous cinematography in Sleep Monster, a police unit sets up a sting operation to arrest the grim reaper in Chasing Death, and the inhabitants of a small town all grow wild with bloodlust after a radio station plays a record of static in Dead Air.  There was weirdness (IBOP (International Brotherhood of Pancakes)), commentary on capital punishment (The Champ), the absolute most disgusting thing I have ever seen (a clump of mold giving birth to a child in Out of the Mold), a short questioning reality in a state of dementia (Home Sweet Home), and possibly the most ambitious Canadian pastiche of film noir with I’m Coming to Paris to Kill You.

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And those small crevices covered, the festival has ended and the dust will soon settle, revealing the winners.  Who will win?  I can’t be certain, even though I will probably disagree.  Instead, I will simply take this opportunity to quickly name the films that deserve to win the awards of the fest.

While the top feature award will probably go to the underwhelming Christmas Horror Story, it should unquestionably be reserved for Sion Sono’s masterpiece of oddity Love & Peace, which could still score the bronze award.  The silver should go to Backtrack, which will unfortunately go unrecognized.  And, the bronze should go to either Patchwork or Nina Forever – both have a fair shot at the gold as well.

The international short awards should go to Movies in Space, Vicious and Myrna the Monster, and I feel like I can say with certainty that that is what will happen.  Finally, the Canadian shorts gold is practically reserved for Portal to Hell!!!, so the real question is who will get silver and bronze.  In a perfect world, they would go to Sleep Monster and This Home is Not Empty.  In our world, it will more likely be Point of View (due to its Doctor Who influence) and Chasing Death.  While we’re waiting for the awards to be announced, let’s start looking forward to 2016; the 11th year is just the start to the second decade after all.

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Readers Comments (5)

  1. Out of curiosity, what (dismal) shorts did you feel got in due to nepotism?

    Reply
    • The one that I was specifically thinking of when I wrote that was Fuck Buddies, a horrible little short that absolutely would not play anywhere else without connections. I made assumptions on a few others (O-Negative, Heir, El Gigante), but the Fuck Buddies example is pretty egregious. And Hexecutioners, but that’s a discussion for another day!

      Reply
      • Definitely off-base assumptions with the others (I don’t have have any personal association with those filmmakers), but yes the director of Fuck Buddies has been a friend of the festival, however I’ve rejected some of his previous films, and also consider this film to be one of the stronger shorts in this year’s programme… so different strokes. You may distressed to learn it is continuing to play other festivals on its own merits.

        I do try to be pretty conscious of nepotism when it comes to programming, despite politicking being a reality of all film festivals, but that definitely wasn’t the deciding factor with this film. If anything, I looked for excuses not to play it, but it’s all too rare that you see so confident a fusion of J-Horror and Henenlotter that tonally ricochets from sardonic comedy to sobering heartbreak, much less from a teenage filmmaker.

        Glad you loved THIS HOME IS NOT EMPTY though – its a similarly divisive short amongst genre audiences – but I think deeply resonant and glad it found appreciation at TADFF.

        Reply
        • While I still have some intense contempt for Fuck Buddies, I do appreciate the evenhanded response and different strokes mentality. I mentioned this in the article, but I have always appreciated After Dark’s dedication to getting strange experimental cinema to a genre audience. After all, it was here that I was introduced to, and fell in love with, the works of Kelly Sears. Keep it up!

          Reply

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