Under Review

VIFF 2017: New Skins & Old Ceremonies

Cherry Cola + Flood + Good Fight + Let Your Heart Be Light + Lost Paradise Lost + Sea Monster + Thug


Short films have the difficult task of storytelling in limited time. There’s no slow unravelling of characters, lengthy development of relationships or plot thickening. But that doesn’t stop audiences from forming powerful connections with the characters and occurrences on screen. That’s the beauty of them, they move audiences in mere minutes.

This was certainly true of New Skins & Old Ceremonies, a collection of seven short films from across Canada. Likely an adaptation of Leonard Cohen’s 1974 album New Skins For the Old Ceremonies, the films, like Cohen’s songs, are about abstract and vivid imagery.

The opening film: Lost Paradise Lost saw protagonists Julie and Victor tire of the mundane and in pursuit of something new, follow strangers into a forest. Mysterious cult-like rituals take place until the peace is disturbed by a violent motorcycle gang. Julie and Victor narrowly avoid death, but their triumph is celebrated with almost-humorous declarations of love. A commentary on the overly-saccharine and highly predictable dialogue of Hollywood, perhaps.

Flood uses shadow puppetry and Claymation to show a girl drowned by the pages of history. “What does this mean for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people?” asks director and producer Amanda Strong. At only five minutes long, for Flood, the medium was the message.

Thug asks to what extent we are bound by our race, class and world, as an aspiring actor goes to extreme lengths to land a role. The fate of the audition remains unknown to viewers, suggesting that despite our efforts, little changes.

The Good Fight, a highlight of the seven films, exists at the intersection of two conflicting topics: the vow of celibacy taken by nuns, and the discussion of female sexuality. Specifically shot as a drama, despite many light moments, the film’s name, the role of ‘Mother Superior’ and many of the intense shots conclude with a clever and satisfying twist.

Sea Monster uses sound to thrill the audience. The habitual noises made by characters are sharpened to fit the story of a woman allowing her subconscious and tentacles to unravel in a seaside motel. The ripping of a rubber bathmat, slurping of sashimi and deafening hum of the TV’s static matches the character’s eerie transformation brilliantly.

In Cherry Cola two drag queens seek revenge on Dave, who issued a breakup via text message. The two queens seek comfort in a night out together, and stage a small victory by hurling a cherry cola slushy onto Dave’s front door. Director and producer Joseph Amenta calls it a “slushy on society.” The act becomes a catalyst for a profound sharing of stories between the key characters.

The final film Let Your Heart Be Light, sees two friends quietly and delicately decorate a Christmas tree. The film is gentle; about love, friendship and simple pleasures. A variety of Christmas carols and stories play in the background from a laptop, a clever integration of the age-old celebration and its place in modern society.

With many of the films lacking well-defined or linear plots, the Q&A that followed raised questions about what filmmakers – and artists generally – owe their audiences. Does it matter that we don’t understand every action or convention elected by the creators? Are abrupt endings problematic, or do they just challenge the audience? It’s precisely the unknowing and the lacking affirmation that makes these films so strong. While Hollywood often favours high-production and tired-out narratives over subtlety, New Skins & Old Ceremonies demands we think, question, interrogate and dream wildly.