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On the Right Wavelength

Whether it was the best of the nation’s student shorts or the Toronto International Film Festival Group’s best effort to include submissions from as many film schools as possible, late Wednesday’s Student Film Showcase at the Cumberland had bit of everything. When it was good, it was very, very good, and when it was bad it was horrid.

At the end of the night, the SFS’ jury (consisting of Limb Salesman producer Ingrid Veninger, Capri Releasing Distribution Manager Robin Smith and Guy Terrifico director Michael Mabbott) handed out two citations and two prizes. But how on earth you could even begin to compare these films is beyond me. Not only did the program cover an amazingly wide spectrum of genres and media, but some films, made in tiny schools I’d never even heard of, couldn’t begin to compete with the resources clearly displayed in other, more polished works. Not all film schools, it seems, are created equal.

Even the most original and amusing idea falls flat if shadow shrouds the majority of what’s in the frame.Case in point: Confederation College student Bruce Clement, director of The Plant, had a good idea: spoof the zombie movie by making the object of terror a neglected house plant. Yeah, okay, maybe it’s been done, but Clement’s film has its share of good ideas, and the film’s horrible acting added to its camp appeal. The problem: the cinematographer must have been blind. Its piss-poor production values ultimately made it trying to watch.

To watch The Plant and Nimisha Mukerjee’s Scattering Eden in the same program was like stepping from St. James Town into Rosedale. The frames in this UBC short are so clean and beautiful, its pacing so polished, its costumes so high-end, and its soundtrack so filled with bland emo-rock that you swear you’ve stumbled into a northern O.C.

In fact, Scattering Eden was nearly note-perfect. It’s the story of a young man’s struggle to deal with the fact that his birth-mother’s ashes have been left on his doorstep. The film stumbles only in dragging the scenario on too long. Shorts are such delicate things. As a friend said to me as we exited the theatre, “It’s amazing what I’ll sit two-and-a-half hours for, and what I won’t sit fifteen minutes for.” Dramatic narrative shorts are insanely hard to pull off. A good idea, clean images and engaging acting can hold you for ten minutes, but they might not hold you for 11.

Far and away the best of the fest was Ryerson animator Timothy Moore’s Colourbars. Imagine it: SMPTE colour bars sit around set waiting for the director to call action. They banter and muck about like actors before the first take. Then, when it’s time to get the job done, they’re in their places to hit that cringe-worthy note with a smile. The concept was imaginative and all it asked of you was two brief minutes. It was the only short of the night that I wanted to see again.

At the end of the night, the jury got it right and awarded Colourbars with the Grand Jury Prize (granting Moore and Producer Zachary J. Gans a 35mm blow-up and a Motorola head-set) and Scattering Eden‘s Philip Lyall with the Cinematography Prize. Other citations went to Kaka’win, a short doc about the life and hard times of Luna the killer whale directed, written and edited by Emily Carr’s Leah Nelson and Jody Kramer’s Pinch, a vivid line-animated evocation of addiction.

As for the future of Canadian film, I doubt the SFS tells us much of anything. While the night tempted me to mourn the potential death of dramatic fiction filmmaking in this country (as though there weren’t enough other reasons to fear an end), I gradually came to my senses. The short is not the best form for dramatic, narrative storytelling. Students are largely smart enough to avoid taking it on. It’s only dumbass twenty-somethings like myself who think they can do it.

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