HIFF Day 1: Atlantic Auteurs I & Never Eat Alone

I must confess, I am not an admirer of nature in general. The visual pleasure I glean from film, does not extend to my natural surroundings. However, put that nature onto film and I am delighted; at least, that’s what I must gather from my enjoyment of Dawn George’s films. George turns her camera to find beauty and amusement in the littlest members of our habitats, this time dandelions in her new short work See Weeds. The film edits together the footage of the weeds from the filmmaker’s backyard rhythmically in split screen, forming a playful miniature symphony. The dandelions were not only catalysts of the film as inspiration, but were literally used to develop the footage in an eco-friendly processing technique George described during the Q&A that also involves instant coffee.

Dawn George's See Weeds

Dawn George's See Weeds

Ariella Pahlke’s short documentary Suzanne Gauthier: One thing leads to another portrays another artist with nature on her mind, the local artist and NSCAD professor of the title. Gauthier’s art translates across forms, her ideas flowing like a measured stream-of-consciousness. Readings of past diary entries sound almost poetic in their brevity. At one point, Gauthier brings Pahlke to one of her favourite landscapes, explaining that the camera cannot quite capture the beauty, displaying her much more satisfying sketches of the expansive land and rivers. Like George’s reconstruction of nature in an aesthetic form which captures the essence of the joy she receives from the dandelions, Gauthier shows us how art can redirect one’s attention to pleasures one may overlook otherwise.

In the pieces described above, artistic process was explicitly linked to the end result of the film. However, the film which opened the program was perhaps the most self-reflexive in this regard, continuing the process as the film screened. The film, by Christopher Spencer-Lowe, is called Aleatoria. A quick Google search translated the Spanish word as meaning both “random” and “fortuitous.” This is quite appropriate for the film, as a live balancing act between chance and control in filmmaking. The film itself contains what I believe is a woman spinning old-fashioned film editing equipment, her face confused, as the camera spins away into apparently random footage. While this screened, Spencer-Lowe played an eerie musical score live, using a contraption similar to that of the woman on the screen, apparently improvising with the playback of random loops. Thus, the filmmaker is doubled on the screen, the film concluding with the woman coming into ecstasy amid the chaos. During the Q&A, the Spencer-Lowe continued the chance/control gambit by rolling a die to decide how to respond to questions.

Christopher Spencer-Lowe's Aleatoria.

Christopher Spencer-Lowe's Aleatoria.

For those digging the chaotic elements of cinema, Josh Owens’ Humanity Hyuck Hyuck!!! would appeal. The experimental short is a character study at a moment of a nervous breakdown, a young man’s professional and pizza-related anxieties exploding into a colourful acid-trip stream-of-conscious monologue, scored by the unceasing mayhem of a mad drummer and mixed with animation. It’s like Eraserhead with the energy of Adult Swim’s late-night television. Owen insisted during the Q&A, with a suspected sarcasm, that the short had a very rigid script. (Note: one of the film's producer has disconfirmed my suspicion; the film did in fact have a rigid outline and conventional script).

In the guise of a more conventional narrative form, Leah Johnston’s Ingrid and the Black Hole also played with elements of control and chaos. The film opens on two children, Ingrid and Conrad, discussing black holes and time-travels, and then begins ricocheting through the chronology of their romantic and family life together, often within single shots. What at first appears to be a narrative device is then revealed to be the lived experience of its protagonist, as the elderly Ingrid sits, now dealing with Alzheimer’s, “bouncing around in time.” The sweet time-travel story is pleasant whether interpreted as a euphemism for the experience or an inventive fantasy.

Raghed Charabaty’s #Deema was another short, albeit more experimental, concerned with time and romance, poetically dancing through an Lebanese immigrant’s longing for her lover and the loss of a homeland. The loss of a homeland is not quite proper phrasing, as the film insists on the lingering effect of the home left. The vibrantly colourful film cuts to images such as leaves falling, black and red waves, and its protagonist in an animated dress, depicting the power of beauty and love in spite of trauma.

Raghed Charabaty's #Deema

Raghed Charabaty's #Deema

Kennlin Barlow’s short La Manciata (or the violence of man) approached trauma in a less romantic manner. Opening on a shot of a nude woman in bed in the apparent aftermath of a violent act, her genitals and thighs bloodied and her face obscured out of the frame while the blown-up yellow text of the title slowly rises on to the screen. It’s a sight not entirely uncommon to genre films, so when the following shot is of the same woman in bed with top-lighting, and a nearly imperceptible dark-haired figure sitting at hand in the shadows, I suspected a potential turn towards horror. This expectation was thwarted, thankfully, as the rest of the film consisted of the snoring or breathing of the woman becoming increasingly laboured and the occasional movement of the other figure. There is little offered up in terms of narrative explanation, leaving it broadly up to interpretation. I found it to be a haunting depiction of trauma, refocusing conceptions of violence from the moment of an attack, to the lingering effects depicted less frequently on film.

Lorna Kirk’s short, Him, took on the refugee experience in a ninety-second hand-drawn charcoal animation. In the film, Kirk uses found audio to construct an authoritative voice verbalizing instructional directions, the calm contradicting the destruction of the cityscape which a young boy walks through. Unfortunately, an audio issue prevented a few of the tracks from playing. Fortunately, the film belongs to the National Film Board and is available on YouTube for anyone desiring to understand the full context. The animation is moving either way.

The shorts program concluded with Chris and Susie Shapones’ La Vie à Vélo. The film depicts a sock-knit cat upon a unicycle, just riding. The cyclical ecstasy of the woman in Aleatoria returns here in a calmer manner with the unicycle, the simple serenity of the animation a breath of fresh air to close the first round of screenings.

Chris and Susie Shapones' La Vie à Vélo.

Chris and Susie Shapones' La Vie à Vélo.

In the 9pm slot, Toronto-based filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz was in town to present a series of her works; a trilogy of short films about her paternal grandmother and a feature about her maternal grandmother.

The trilogy of shorts is profoundly moving. First, Modlitwa (A Prayer) shows her grandmother as she works in her home, a poem by the filmmaker’s great-grandmother read on the sound-track. Bohdanowicz has been referred to as “the Canadian Chantal Akerman,” which is not just a superficial reference, but a link of inspiration for the filmmaker herself, sharing an interest in feminine domesticity, the passage of time, and films made largely out of empty interior spaces. Bohdanowicz revealed in the Q&A which followed the screenings that the film was shot on what turned out to be her last afternoon in her grandmother’s home with her. The next short, Wieczór (An Evening), was filmed after her death. The film is similar, but with the painfully significant absence of the woman herself within the home. The same places are seen without her, but hints of her still there – a locket with her photograph in the filmmakers’ palm, handwritten life-mottoes on the fridge, the soundtrack filled with the soft melancholia of an old tune played on a broken record player. The balance between her absence and the spectre of her personality is made even more clear in the final short, Dalsza Modlitwa. Bohdanowicz returned to the home once again, filming almost identically the same spaces as in Modlitwa, this time projecting the footage of her grandmother from that film onto the home. It’s a personal work of loss and art that is deeply felt.

Sofia Bohdanowicz's Never Eat Alone.

Sofia Bohdanowicz's Never Eat Alone.

Bohdanowicz turned to the subject of her other grandmother for her first feature, Never Eat Alone, to similar effect. The film is an unclearly delineated docufiction, centered on a narrative of her grandmother getting her granddaughter to help her track down a lost love from her days as an actress on a live television program. The familial documentation and uncondescending interest in the emotional lives of the elderly calls to mind not only Akerman, but a more experimental version of the work of Sarah Polley’s films (Away From Her, Stories We Tell). While the themes may be similar, the works are unique. The intimacy of Bohdanowicz’s story is aided by the acting of her grandmother, Joan Benac. Displaying a more classical performance technique in the archival television footage, Benac is now totally comfortable as a natural presence before the camera, honest and complex. A soft-spoken work of loneliness and memory, I suspect it will reward repeat viewings and thoughtful consideration.

Head to the HIFF website to check out the rest of their line-up and stay tuned for more blog entries!