Over the three days Lift-Off took place, various short films were screened. As per usual with festivals, the diverse compilation of shorts were a mixed but positive bag. Yes, some struggled to sustain themselves after establishing an intriguing premise (and two were straight-up music videos as opposed to movies). Yet, many showed promise, putting their actors and directors on my radar. Below I highlight the five that left the greatest mark with me.
Enemies Within – Dir. Sélim Azzazi
The first short of the festival was strangely the best of all, an incredibly tense two-hander mostly taking place in one room. Set in 90s France, a man (Hassam Ghancy) born in Algeria (at the time when the country was under French rule) attempts to claim French citizenship. He thinks it will be just a formality since he has been living in the state his entire life. However, recent terrorist attacks in France – creating a wave of paranoia and fear – turn the simple process of giving residency into an interrogation. What’s even more complex is the fact that the interrogator (Najib Oudghiri) is of foreign descent also.
Oscar nominated and with good reason, Enemies Within is a brilliantly realised Kafkaesque nightmare. Despite being set in the 90s, it taps into such relevant modern issues like the negatives of bureaucracy, the importance of national identity and the terror of terrorism leading to more terror – all particularly prescient in the wake of the recent European attacks and a post-Trump U.S.A. The script, also by Azzazi (best known as a sound editor for directors Luc Besson and Jean-Pierre Jeunet) is wonderfully twisty, subtly leading to a denouement where the main character has to make a unthinkable decision – one which will have the viewer thinking what they would do in such a situation.
As I mentioned, the short has a bottle setting. Yet, Azzazi pulls out some ace transitions (one involving a jail cell is particularly stunning) and eerie camerawork to prevent it from becoming too stagey. Hell, even it was just a play, I’d see it for the two lead performances, particularly Oudghiri (who I want to see in more movies). Despite his cruel psychological mind-games, he always conveys a depth. The brilliance of the short is that despite not necessarily agreeing with him, one sees where he is coming from – highlighting the complex nature of the issues raised.
Bad Sheriff – Dir. Ben Bernschneider
Much lighter than Enemies Within but still very impressive was Bad Sheriff, another short taking place predominately in one location. A former cop now vigilante (Florian Wünsche) – dubbed Bad Sheriff by the media – goes for a drink in a bar. Soon after, someone from his days on the force enters (Gregory B. Waldis doing an awesome take on Bruce Dern’s character in The Driver). Is it a chance encounter or is he there to arrest him?
Perhaps its my love of both Nicholas Winding Refn and late 70s/early 80s action cinema – things this short blends together – but I found this a blast. The neon-drenched setting and electro soundtrack evoke Drive while the story and action recall Clint Eastwood flicks (and maybe some John Woo joints for good measure?). Although feature films that solely exist as pastiches to older cinema can overstay their welcome – for every Tarantino film that works, there’s ten by lesser filmmakers that don’t – I would watch a Bad Sheriff movie just to marvel at those bold blues and reds.
Blind Sushi – Dir. Eric Heimbold
This 17-minute documentary centres upon the odd pairing of Ryan Knighton, a blind writer, and Bun Lai, a sustainable sushi chef, as they attempt to make dishes frrom ingredients one wouldn’t typically e.g. shore crabs, plants and insects. While it doesn’t push any boundaries on a cinema level (although Heimbold does shoot the duos antics in a lively, lovely looking way), Blind Sushi flies by due to the two interesting and likeable people at its centre and its fascinating premise focusing on alternative foods to prevent future depopulation of species.
Contractor 014352 – Dir. Simon Ryninks
Walter Mitty but updated for the digital age, this short stars Johnny Flynn as Guy – a lonely, disconnected office worker given the job of e-mailing 12,000 contractors to tell them there is no more work. Unable to do so, he retreats into daydreams where he spends time with one of these contractors (the 014352 of the title).
Based on a poem by writer Zak Klein, Ryninks does great work juxtaposing the dullness of the corporate office with the fantastical cosmic nature of Guy’s dream sequences. While the office scenes feel sterile – with the camera remaining static or moving slowly – the day-dreams are vast and expansive, filled with gliding camera work.
Flynn – who recently appeared in Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen on stage – is a warm presence, delivering wry narration in a way that evokes sympathy from the audience. Occasionally, all the talk of the cosmos and the human soul can slip into pretentiousness. Yet when that happens – there is always a great joke (usually an abrupt transition back to office life) immediately after which gets the audience back on its side. Plus, anyone whose had a bad job and has thought I deserve better than this will relate to Guy and 014352’s struggle: “The faceless dialogue of spreadsheets. You deserve better! Bedsheets from persian silk … These are the spreadsheets to which you belong”. The message of the short is a positive one, an ode to human individuality in an increasingly cold, heartless world.
Fundamental – Dir. Shihchieh Chiu
Based on the experiences of its director, this surrealist black and white animated short centres upon a teenager dealing with the darkness of a rigid religious upbringing. Fundamental blends horror and comedy in a fascinating way. The startling, disturbing monochromatic imagery – taking religious inconography like halos, crosses and stars and twisting their meaning – evokes filmmakers like David Lynch and Guy Maddin. However, like those two directors, Chiu displays a playfulness – a mastery of tone – slipping some abstract comedy into his critiques (a shot of a priest using Tinder got a huge laugh at the festival screening). I’m very interested in seeing what the animator does next.
Overall, I was impressed with calibre of film I saw at Lift-Off. I could have lived without seeing Trophy or The Honey Badger – things I would barely classify as movies, playing more like educational videos or sports commercials. Plus, I wish I saw an independent feature length drama as opposed to solely documentaries. However, if I’d not applied for the critic position, I would have probably missed Longshot, End of the Road or the shorts above – films I still return to in my head a week after seeing them.
Stephen Porzio (twitter@porzfolio)has written a series of articles reporting on Vancouver Lift-Off, the film festival, which he recently attended as an official critic. An Irish writer, Stephen also contributes to the sites Headstuff and Film Ireland and is an editor for Cold Coffee Press.