Ottawa Shorts Get Serious

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One of the best things about attending any festival is the promise offered by the short-film programs — most programs offer a few surprises and occasionally serve up a true hidden gem.

I attended four shorts programs at this year’s festivals, and here are some thoughts on the films, both good and bad.

Shorts Program 1 offered the best selection of shorts, even if one of the highlights was Logorama, which won last year’s Oscar for best animated short. Widely available online, Logorama holds up as an entertaining and well-conceived short film that is well worth revisiting.

Coalition of the Willing pulled no punches when it comes to urging everyday folks to take the initiative in combating the causes of global warming. This film was inventive and entertaining while being quite informative and a full-on advocate for its cause.

Prayers for Peace, a short film Dustin Graella made about the death of his brother on the battlefields of Iraq, did what so few news reports or blog posts have made much headway with: putting a face on the high human cost of the war.

Something Left, Something Taken by Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter also was a first-class narrative short about a couple whose imagination runs away with them.

Shorts Competition 3 featured David O’Reilly’s standout film The External World. A random collection of scenes that range from hilariously grotesque to just plain uncomfortable, it won the festival’s top honor for a short film.

The funniest short I saw at the fest was David Hertzfeldt’s Wisdom Teeth. Done in a simple stick-figure style, watching one character pull out an endless stitch from the mouth of his friend who just had his wisdom teeth extracted is drop-dead hysterical — even more so because of the German dialog and translating subtitles.

On the total flip side was Ged Haney’s Milk, Milk Lemonade, an excruciating experience centered on the differing life outcomes of a guy who gets excrement either on his nose or his finger that prompted a sigh of relief from the audience as it ended.

Outside of the competition, guest curator Karl Cohen put together a group of films about mental health called Let’s Go Crazy. Ranging from an early Donald Duck cartoon to an excerpt from Beavis & Butt-head, the real highlights were Adam Elliot’s Oscar-winning 2003 short Harvie Krumpet, the UPA’s classic 1953 version of The Tell-Tale Heart and, most impressively, Chris Landreth’s 2009 film The Spine. The latter in particular stood out for expressly tackling issues of mental health with insight and stunning animation.

Lastly, a program spotlighting Czech animation gave a fascinating retrospective with Jiri Barta’s The Golem and Zuzana Schebestova’s Labyrint (Labyrinth) being particular standouts.

Like the features, the shorts program was often experimental and occasionally challenging for audiences. Whether it reflects what’s going on in short-form animation or is the choice of the festival programmer, there was an overall serious tone to the shorts that could have welcomed a few more chances to be humorous and light.

The festival overall was a pleasant experience — the popcorn at the ByTowne is as good as advertised — and the city was a welcome host for a festival that does justice to spotlighting the best in animation.