From Hottamaru Days (courtesy Fantasia International Film Festival)

Working outside of the demands of the commercial world, shortform cinema allows for greater risk-taking and experimentation than what we usually see in the mainstream. Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, which is dedicated to genre and Asian cinema, has always developed female-identified filmmakers. Women continued to shine in transgressive and subversive short films which played the 32nd edition of the festival this year.

“My films are about protein,” Nao Yoshigai announced during the Q&A about her retrospective program at the festival. Running as a part of the Camera Lucida section (Fantasia’s answer to “arthouse” genre cinema), the retrospective reveals an intuitive filmmaker fascinated by bodies and movement. Almost entirely wordless, her films read like tone poems that work beyond traditional storytelling logic. Yoshigai is also a choreographer and dancer, and her films build meaning through movement and rhythm. 

From Grand Bouquet (courtesy Fantasia International Film Festival)

In Hottamaru Days, nymph-like spirits collect hair, skin, and nails, which they then transform into effigies. Eschewing narrative, the film instead follows the direction of the song and movement. Another highlight of the program was Yoshigai’s newest film, Grand Bouquet, starring emerging actress Hanna Chan. The film takes place in a liminal white space, where the isolated Chan vomits flowers, which then overtake the purgatorial environment. The flowers, coated in thick slime, are as ominous as they are beautiful, the contrast a striking symbol for the decaying Earth and our role in it. Rather than presenting the interconnectedness of life as sanitized and magical, Yoshigai interweaves an element of violence, as our relationship with our planet requires sacrifice to maintain balance.

From The Boogeywoman (courtesy Fantasia International Film Festival)

One of Fantasia’s best-known short film programs, Born of Woman, focuses on stories told by women-identifying filmmakers. Only a few years old, it’s already helped foster new talents. This year’s festival, for example, screened Alice Waddington’s debut feature, the pastel-toned dystopian film Paradise Hills. Their black-and-white nightmare Disco Inferno closed out the inaugural Born of Woman back in 2016. One of the highlights of this year’s Born of Woman was Erica Scoggins’s The Boogeywoman, an intimate and horrific film that opens with a girl getting her first period. Through the visceral otherness of the experience, the film captures a growing sense of alienation. Set at a roller rink, the short adopts a spiral aesthetic. Not only do the characters move round and round, but the editing adopts unusual, chaotic rhythms that create a deep sense of imbalance. Voices and sound overlap so you can’t always tell where they’re coming from, while the emotional rhythm of adolescence seems to inject chaotic shifts in mood and tone as the sense of horror and loneliness escalates. 

From Girl in the Hallway (courtesy Fantasia International Film Festival)

Closing the program was Girl in the Hallway, an animated film by Valerie Barnhart. The animation illustrates a story told by Jamie DeWolf, a writer and circus ringmaster, about the 1999 disappearance of a young girl named Xiana Fairchild. DeWolf prefaces this by explaining why he never wanted to tell the story of Red Riding Hood to his daughter. The parallels between Fairchild’s story and the popular fairy tale express not only the anxiety of children on their own, but also the communities that fail to protect them. Barnhart, a self-taught animator, uses wrinkled and fragile pages of black and white paper as a backdrop for twisted memories that seemed forged in a pulp novel. People form as sketchy lines, unfinished and expressive. The heavy black and textured backdrops are punctuated by red chalk, a stark and bloody evocation of the awful crime at the center of the story. 

At Fantasia, short films are given an elevated platform to an attentive and hungry audience. While genre cinema has long reveled in the horror of what women’s bodies experience, it is still relatively new to see such stories made from the perspective of women. The festival uplifts shorts to a high status, and blocks like Born of Woman regularly sell out. Incorporating a variety of styles and influences, the women’s shorts at this year’s Fantasia made a strong case for the need for inclusivity in the arts. 

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Justine Smith

Justine Smith is a freelance film writer based in Montreal, Quebec.