The road less travelled

A map to short films at TIFF

A dark cinema can house disappointments greater than Canada’s poor showing at the Olympic Games, as anyone who’s sat through a hideously bad feature film can tell you. Minutes feel like hours and no amount of daydreaming, candy munching or covert audience cruising can bring on the sweet relief of the end credits.

Then there are short films. Often the most interesting, original and provocative addition to a film festival, a good short is like an Olympic athlete – all muscle, no fat. Untainted by the commercial constraints handicapping many feature films, short film-makers are free to run their own race, resulting in tightly focussed, compact stories that retain the power to surprise, delight and leave you wanting more. And since the Toronto International Film Festival is the Olympics of film festivals, requiring world-class stamina to get through the obstacles (sold-out screenings, super-sized lineups) and hurdles (a program book that weighs more than your head, celeb-stuffed limos clogging the streets) of its action-packed 10 days, here’s a rundown of the mighty, meaty queer shorts that are on offer this year. Take the road less travelled and check out what the new kids on the cinematic block have to offer – you’ll find plenty of winners in these smart, speedy gems.

A highlight of any film festival is the discovery of new talent with the potential to make a mark on Canadian cinema in the future. Queer filmmakers John Greyson and Jeremy Podeswa got their big breaks at TIFF and this year’s crop of short filmmakers offers up a potential addition to their ranks in local actor-turned-director Greg Atkins.

Atkins, who’s worked with both directors, makes a confident showing as the writer, director and star of his first short film Build, a story about the lies we tell ourselves and those around us. Crete (played by Atkins), is a student supposedly studying architecture but who’s secretly hustling in order to support his alcoholic mother (Nancy Beatty). He sleepwalks through the life he’s constructed until meeting fellow hustler Garnet (D Garnet Harding), whose confident sexiness Crete instantly falls for. But Garnet has secrets too, as Crete discovers after bringing Garnet into his home and his life.

Atkins says the story was inspired by the many construction sites in Toronto and the rapid changes to the city. “I started thinking about these people who aren’t growing and aren’t changing,” he says, “in contrast with this city that is under construction and constantly growing.

“Each of the characters’ lives are built on lies,” he says. “None of them tell the truth to each other – none of them asks for the truth either – they just accept what’s in front of them.”

Beautifully shot by Jason Tan, Build is a moody, atmospheric character study in unfulfilled potential and unquenched desire. The actors are uniformly impressive, with Beatty nailing the blowsy bravado of a woman who’s too steeped in the depressing life she leads to do anything but pretend it’s what she wants. And Atkins pulls off the challenge of embodying Crete’s sadness and resignation, while imbuing him with a spark of hope that indicates he may be able to build a better life for himself.


Indie band Broken Social Scene provides one of the film’s songs. (According to rumour, the band refused to let Hummer use it to sell their tiny-penis-substitute vehicles.)

Build marks an impressively assured debut from Atkins, who looks to have a big career ahead of him.

Boundary-pusher, CBC radio host and still the coolest VJ MuchMusic has ever had (sorry George, but you’re still hot) Sook-Yin Lee directs the surprising and wry Girl Cleans Sink. Shot and edited in two days as part of the On The Fly Festival, this 10-minute gem stars Pretty, Porky And Pissed Off member Lisa Ayuso as a dyke with a gun who decides to give a guy a try before offing herself. The delightfully deadpan performances of Ayuso and her co-star (Jeremy Finkelstein) lend the film an off-kilter charm that feels refreshingly natural. Bonus points for casting real people with real cellulite and hairy bits. And look for Lee in John Cameron Mitchell’s (Hedwig And The Angry Inch) upcoming actors-having-real-sex indie feature Short Bus, possibly not coming to a multiplex near you soon.

Everyone’s favourite queer (in the true sense of the word), Winnipegger Guy Maddin, returns to the festival with Sissy Boy Slap Party. A riotous and saucy farce jam-packed with skinny-boy slap-happiness, this short defies explanation. Just see it!

Forget Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (if that’s possible) and check out a cowboy of a different kind in The Sadness Of Johnson Joe Jangles. What’s a pregnant man to do when his hubby falls victim to the ribald charms of saloon gals and booze in the wild Canadian East? Break into a ballad, of course. And that’s just what happens in Jeffrey St Jules’ strangely poignant musical western. Although the film feels confused at times, rest assured that you’ve never seen a gay-pregnant-cowboy-musical like this before!

Undies impressario and alterna-club king Will Munro stars as a houseboy with cleanliness issues in TIFF regular Wrik Mead’s latest herky-jerky live-action short Filth. A four-minute jewel, the short is a sexy and striking take on dirty secrets that can no longer be swept under the rug.

All of these films are screened in various programs throughout the festival, so they’re surrounded by shorts of different orientations, lengths and quality. But that’s the beauty of watching shorts – even if you’re not enjoying one of the films, it’ll be over faster than Canada’s shot at gold in the women’s hurdles.

* Shane Smith is festival director of the Canadian Film Centre’s Worldwide Short Film Festival.

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Culture, TV & Film, Arts, Toronto

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