There’s a kind of cinephilic purity attending a short film festival. There are far fewer moments of drama, save for on screen, and without the regular retinue of hangers-on it definitely feels like a community more than either a bazaar for sales or a repository for features attempting to breathe while being suffocated by the realities of exhibition and distribution. The stakes are less high just as the running time is shorter, but this can, with steady hands, be an opportunity to shine. Sometimes, a smaller canvas can reveal details and qualities obscured by longer running times.
That said, I’ve long been generally uncomfortable with short films, particularly as they habitually screened as part of a programme of disparate works. Seen as individual slices there are some that truly delight, but slogging through the rest while panning for metaphoric cinematic gold is simply not something I’ve ever embraced.
It’s one reason I was particularly pleased to be able to stretch myself and enter this world, attending as part of the FIPRESCI jury the Saguenay International Short Film Festival, or “Regard” as they’ve branded themselves. Located about an hour’s drive north of Quebec city in that province’s Eastern portion. It’s a land of steep hills, snow flurries, fjords and a raging river tamed by the ice clogging it during these last winter weeks. We were too early for whale watching or river surfing, so instead engaged in the sport of jury deliberation and trying not to topple while clambering up ice-covered steep sidewalks.
Along with Sebastiaan Khouw, a young journalist from the Netherlands, as well as programmers and filmmakers from all over the world, it was a few days of film festivities, including speed-dating meet-and-greets, screenings at the local colleges, and congenial dinners and drinks. Our fellow jury member Flavio Lira was unable to attend in person due to logistical reasons, but thanks to the skills for virtual communication honed after the last few years of lockdown the three of us were able to make our deliberations in a timely manner, even crafting our statement using real-time editing via connection to a system on a completely different hemisphere. Regard’s Paul Landriau assisted with all of our needs, and kindly facilitated not only our deliberations but our entire stay.
This was the 26th festival, and the first back in-person since 2020 when on the first night they were forced to close as lockdown hit just as things were about to begin. As such there was a genuine sense of joy, both in being able to converse face-to-face but also thanks to a sense of survival after the industry hardships over the last few years. No film in our selection was overtly themed based on the pandemic, but many did share a sense of either constraint or even claustrophobia.
Our jury selected Gabriela Osio Vanden and Jack Weisman’s Nuisance Bear, a remarkable rumination upon inconvenient ursines. Shot in Churchill, Manitoba, the stark imagery, vérité structure and subtle narrative flow was an easy pick, resulting in unanimous approval from our group. The short has already received plenty of attention – it’s sponsored by the New Yorker, debuted at the filmmaker’s hometown Toronto International Film Festival in September 2021, and went on to screen at True/False, IDFA, SXSW and many other places on the circuit.
With its glorious opening tracking shot, its precise editing and its careful composed vision, Weisman and Osio Vanden capture the contradictions of these animals encroaching into the community as well as our own fascination with these biggest of bears. It’s these subtle contradictions that make the film even more special. We, too, are culpable as voyeurs, watching as the animals walk past oblivious to the lenses and cameraphones pointed in their direction. Yet larger themes such as climate change, encroachment on the natural environment, the synergy between the wild and the tame, all are expressed while remaining overtly tacit. It’s exactly the kind of compact, focussed, precise filmmaking that is perfect set within the short form, and its continued success is assured.
There were several others that rose to the top of my list, and were major consideration during deliberation (as per FIPRESCI guidelines no “honourable mentions” were allowed). As someone evangelistic for David Simon’s masterwork Tremé, I found Guillaume Fournier, Samuel Matteau and Yannick Nolin’s Belle River to be both beautiful and flowing, capturing Cajun country with a keen eye. Mari Valade’s Lolos was the best of several animated films, and its ribald commentary on boobs (a direct translation of the title) was in many ways uplifting.
I was very much struck by Jorge Camarotti’s touching narrative Osumane, about a family that essentially adopts a woman suffering from dementia. With its cultural collisions, exceptional performances and well-drawn storyline it’s clear there’s enough here to be shifted to feature length. Some of its charm may be lost with a longer running time and more convoluted story arcs, making this 25 minute-long tale likely the perfect dose for something this powerful and moving.
I was also asked to participate in a critics panel hosted by Daniel Racine, and joined by Michiel Philippaerts and Justine Smith. We spoke at length about the nature of our profession, its struggles and highlights, and how an uncertain future clouds much of what we do. The spirit however was generally positive, and it was a supreme pleasured to be in the company of such eloquent and genial colleagues.
I left Saguenay with several new friends, plenty of good memories and likely a few more kilos added thanks to the wonderful pastry bakery across the street as well as the poutine shop I was “forced” to introduce my foreign colleague to. Throw in such explicitly Québécois moments as hot maple syrup congealed on a snow-covered board, or the cheerful strumming of street musicians, and you’ve got a memorable event full of charm that’s a definite draw for anyone interested in exceptional shorts programming.
© FIPRESCI 2022
Edited by Jason Gorber