TORONTO — You will likely find future Oscar contenders and boutique theater releases at the Toronto International Film Festival, which is now in its 41st year and runs through this weekend. But the festival also curates a choice selection of experimental works under its Wavelengths banner — choice fare for cinephiles looking outside the box, or who don’t care for the box at all. And Wavelengths lead programmer Andréa Picard calls the section’s four annual shorts programs its crown. Each screening consists of short films from some of the most daring artists working today from around the world. These are among the standouts.
Wasteland No. 1 – Ardent, Verdant
Best known for her trippy animations often involving photography of intricate yarn work, here Jodie Mack instead contrasts the mechanical and the botanical. The first half of Wasteland No. 1 – Ardent, Verdant is a montage of close-ups of computer motherboards. The rapid editing makes the shifting configurations of nodes circuitry look like a rapid pan over a cityscape, the accreted dust lending it a vacant air, as if it’s a radioactive quarantine zone. The second half of the film depicts hills covered in poppies in bloom, the color contrast cranked to a maximum saturation. The result is like a study by way of speed-reading; we’re in and out in a few minutes, but the images of dueling landscapes are stamped on our minds regardless.
Sky Hopinka filmed the Standing Rock protest camp last winter, the scenes telling no particular story, instead capturing scraps of experience, such as entering the site via truck or confronting police on a ridge. This is less a straight depiction of the protest than a depiction of its memory — reinforced by interviews with water protectors that were recorded after the events in question over Skype. Thus, rather than capture the feeling of being there, this documentary channels the feeling of “what now?” (as alluded to by the title) in the aftermath of the events.
Turtles are always home
By her own count, Rawane Nassif has lived in “seven countries, 10 cities, and 21 homes” since leaving her native Lebanon in 2006. She evokes her transitory existence via some absolutely brilliant photography. She presents a series of still shots, each of which at first appears to be of an average city façade — the outdoor seating at a restaurant, an alleyway, a storefront — only for an edit or even a simple change of focus to recontextualize what you’re looking at. A riverfront seems interrupted by a gray blob, and then the focus shift reveals that we are seeing Nassif pointing her camera at a reflective window, with the river behind her. We see the alluring advertisements on a window, then a shot of the inside of the building reveals that it is empty. The clever framing and vivid colors make this a riveting watch.
The black activist poetry of the 1960s from Detroit’s Broadside Press is brought alive again by locals standing against the city’s now-depleted spaces. Among the various poems recited, Margaret Walker’s “Harriet Tubman” acts as the connective tissue in Ephraim Asili’s film. The thread is woven from Tubman’s legacy to that of the black radicals of the Civil Rights Movement to the activism still being done today. History, art, geography, and politics are unified.
Mr. Yellow Sweatshirt
In an eight-minute single shot angled down from above (a gum-stuck-to-the-ceiling’s eye view, if you will), a man struggles to get a subway turnstile to read his metro card. Pacho Velez and Yoni Brook bring unquestionably the funniest of the category’s films, with expert physical comedy from the lead actor. Beneath the frustration any metropolitan citizen can recognize is a near-elemental struggle — remember, “man vs. technology” is one of the basic types of literary conflict.
Hydrangeas have flourished in the Azores since the plant was introduced there. In the world of Jorge Jácome’s short, the flowers completely take over the islands, driving out most other life. This forms the backdrop for a horticulturally slanted take on the sci-fi “men on a mission” genre, as two soldiers set out on an assignment in the petal-smothered wilderness. Jácome further twists expectations by turning their journey into a love story, taking the homoeroticism of military comradery to its furthest conclusion. Vivid lavender tones and flower-blanketed locations make this small short look more alien than most hundred-million-dollar blockbusters.
The latest work from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, which has traveled around the world documenting the sights, sounds, and small mechanisms of humans working in or traveling through various locations. In this case, director Laura Huertas Millán observes Mexican weavers at work, practicing a tradition which predates the Spanish and was once the focal point of familial organization in Mesoamerican culture. Careful attention to repetition and the nuances of craft and skill make even the most mundane details a compelling watch.
The Wavelengths program continues at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) through September 17.