A Brief History of Canada’s Best Short Films - Edmonton Short Film Festival

Today, April 17th, is National Canadian Film Day. To celebrate, we want to take a look back at some of the many incredible films to be made throughout Canada’s cinematic history. Not just any films! Rather some short films that have been made by Canadians.

Why short films specifically? Well, for two reasons.

Firstly, as you might suspect, we here at the Edmonton Short Film Festival love short films! As a festival dedicated exclusively to exhibiting short form cinematic content in Alberta , we really like watching, making, and talking about short films.

There’s another more important reason to look back on some of the best Canadian short films today. You see, we think it is possible to make the argument that the history of Canadian cinema cannot be told without including short films in the conversation. More significantly than that, we think that some of the best and most important contributions to Canadian cinema in general have come in the form of the short. The best films that Canada has to offer have historically come in small packages!

What is a short film?

Before looking at some of the best Canadian short films of the 20th century, we should clarify something. What is a ‘short film’ in the first place? This is not as easy of a question to answer as it might seem. For instance, what is the maximum length of a short film? How long does a film have to be before it becomes a feature? Does the size of the budget change things? Etc etc.

There is no definitive to answer to what makes a short film a short film – however guidelines state up to 60 minutes in length is the cut off. Even us, the Edmonton Short Film Festival—don’t have a single answer. Instead, we have two.

The first way of defining a short film is with a narrow or strict definition: 15 minutes or less. Between 0 seconds and 15 minutes, a film of any kind is a short film so long as it fits within this time length. It can be any genre and made in any style: music videos, narrative shorts, animation, documentary, etc. So long as it is under 15 minutes, it is considered a Short Film proper. In the cinemas of old, a short film or two this length would play, as a warm up, before the main attraction on the night’s bill — the feature.

But there is also a wider, more loose way of defining a ‘short film’. There are those films that sit awkwardly between preliminary media snack and main cinematic course. These films, which we like to call “Long Shorts”, are any films with a runtime under 60 minutes. Again, the question of style, genre, and budget do not matter when defining a film as a long short. All that matters is the length and the ability of the filmmaker to tell a story within that time frame.

Canada’s Best Short Films (3 Categories)

There are three categories worth discussing when it comes to Canadian short films. Animation, Documentary, and Experimental shorts. These three genres are where the most renowned and acclaimed Canadian short films have been made. These three areas also help define the uniqueness of film in Canada. Since at least the 1910’s our continental southern neighbours have taken up the majority of the feature film landscape, leaving our film industry striving to differentiate itself. As the Canadian Motion Picture Bureau’s director Bernard E. Norrish once quipped in 1918: “Canada had no more use for a large moving picture studio than Hollywood had for a pulp mill.”

Animated Shorts

Perhaps unexpectedly, animated shorts have garnered some of Canada’s greatest international acclaim. Specifically animated films produced in the 1950’s and 1960’s have drawn in Oscar nominations and awards, as well as acclaim from further afield at some of the world’s most prestigious festivals like Cannes and Venice.

No filmmaker is more important to the story of Canadian Animation than Norman McLaren. Born in Scotland, and immigrating to Canada in his twenties, McLaren is responsible for a proliferation of animated films made with funding and support from the National Film Board of Canada. With a style both whimsical and, at times grotesque, McLaren pioneered a slew of creative innovations in the world of animation.

Working in both stop motion and hand-drawn animation, McLaren’s most notable film is Neighbours, from 1952. The pastel colours and charming soundtrack in Neighbours initially suggests an innocent tale, but things quickly turn macabre as the two male characters begin fighting over a flower that blooms directly on the fence-line of their homes. Grappling with thematic questions about the origins of war and conflict, all in the span of 8 minutes, McLaren would go on to receive an Oscar award for the Best Live Action, Short Subject, in 1953.

Another of Canada’s most notable animators was Ryan Larkin. The Quebec native shot Canadian cinema back into the Oscar limelight in 1970 with his psychedelic and wondrous short film Walkingwhich dedicates its 5 minute runtime to depicting a variety of strange hand-drawn characters and their surprisingly unique gaits. Walking would be nominated for a Best Short Film in 1970, sadly not winning. The story of Larkin’s life, and his later struggles with drug use are discussed in the incredibly sad and equally unusual digitally animated short film Ryan. Made by Chris Landreth, Ryan, the film about Larkin, would go on to win an Oscar itself for Best Animated Short Film in 2004.

In addition to the many many other films by McLaren, and the unfortunately few other films by Larkin, there are many other highlights in Canadian animation history. Who can forget the funny and charming story of The Sweater, in which a little boy is sadly gifted the wrong hockey jersey by his mother? Frederick Back, another animator who worked for the NFB, is also notable for winning the Academy Awards for Best Animated Short Film on two separate occasions, with Crac (a 1981, 15 minute short about the long life of a rocking chairand The Man Who Planted Trees (a 1987, 30 minute long short film about, well, a man who planted trees).

Documentary Shorts

Canada is a country with a great many true stories to tell. Understandably, Some of the finest short films made in Canada are documentaries. It is within this genre that many of the most culturally significant short film works have been made.

It is impossible to talk about documentary films made in the nation of Canada without talking about Alanis Obamsawin. The Abenaki First Nation director, songwriter, and educator is most well known for her 1993 feature length Documentary Kanehsatake, 270 Years of Resistance about the Mohawk community resisting the development of a golf course on their land in Oka. But, Obamsawin’s filmography also consists of a variety of shorter, and equally important documentary films.

Obamsawin’s underrated directorial debut Christmas at Moose Factory is a fascinating documentary film: telling the story of Cree families living on the shore of James Bay. The film is told entirely through voice over narration given by children in the families, while the images of the film is a collage of drawings done by the children, that describe their life. Another of Obamsawin’s films, worthy of equal praise and attention to Kanehsatake, is her 1984 documentary Incident At Restigouche. With under an hour runtime, Incident is an incredible display of documentary filmmaking focusing on the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation, and the two raids the Quebec Provincial Police made onto their reservation in June 1981. These short documentary films are among the finest works in Canadian cinema history.

In addition to Obamsawin, there are several other notable Indigenous and First Nation documentary filmmakers that ought be mentioned. Willie Dunn, the Mi’kmaq folk songwriter, is one of the first Indigenous directors in Canada. His debut film The Ballad of Crowfoot is a 10 minute short film structured as a montage of archival images depicting the Blackfoot Chief who negotiated the Treaty 7 agreement. Another early Indigenous filmmaker, Michael Kanentakeron Mitchell, is essential to understanding the history of documentary film in this country, especially his 1969 short documentary You Are on Indian Land.

When discussing Documentary film in Canada, it is also imperative to discuss the Québécois direct cinema filmmakers of the 1950’s. The filmmakers working for the NFB at the middle of the century are responsible for developing a new way of making documentary films. Filmmakers Michel Brault, Gilles Groulx, and Pierre Perrault, among others, were responsible for revolutionizing an observational style of documentary that showed life as it unfolded with little intervention from the filmmakers.

The most notable entry in the direct cinema canon is 1958’s Les raquetteurs. Co-directed by Brault and Groulx, the film depicts an annual snowshoeing competition in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Deceptively simple in its construction, the film is unique in the proximity of the camera to the action. The technological innovations of the post-war period resulted in lightweight film cameras that allowed camera operators like Brault to film in the street, on the move, and follow events as they happened. These Quebecois filmmakers made a whole suite of small documentaries that revealed the daily lives of plain people, allowing a glimpse into lives otherwise not seen. Groulx’s 1961 film Golden Gloves follows a pair of working class brothers who are amateur boxers trying to make it big. Brault’s 1964 The End of Summer is a delightful and melancholic story of a teenage girl contemplating life and its big questions while a summer holiday comes to a close. Together, these filmmakers developed an approach to documentary film that would not only have a significant influence on the local film culture, but also had resonances internationally, in both America and Europe where similar stylistic developments were taking place.

Experimental shorts.

The last genre of short films worth discussing today, is the experimental short. In many ways all of Canada’s notable short films have an experimental ethos to them. The pioneering work in animation and documentary that happened in Canada were largely due to experiments in cinematic form that drastically changed their respective genres. There have, however, been some amazing short films made in Canada that are a little harder to qualify. Those are the experimental shorts.

Perhaps no Canadian film is more experimental (which is to say: no Canadian film is harder to sit through) than Michael Snow’s Wavelength. For a paint-drying 43 minutes, Wavelength consists of a single, uninterrupted, monotonous shot of an empty room. One or two people inexplicably enter the room and later leave, but otherwise the only thing that happens in this film is a constant and almost imperceptible slow zoom in on the room’s far window. Made in 1967, the film has been the centre of some of the most beguiling and influential debates on experimental cinema ever since.

There are a variety of other notable and intriguing experimental short films in Canadian history. One that is similar, but much shorter than Wavelength is Julian Biggs’s 23 Skidoo. Made in 1964, 23 Skidoo is an 8 minute short that conveys how strange and unnerving it is to inhabit the downtown of a city that has been completely abandoned. Another internationally significant experimental short is Guy Maddin’s The Heart of the World. Made in the year 2000, Heart of the World re-captures the visual style of 1920’s silent films in order to express the possibility that cinema might save the world.

The idea that cinema might save the world is an ambitious one. But for roughly a century Canadian filmmakers have been crafting and inventing new ways of telling stories and sharing ideas, all in the hopes that these small little films might make some kind of big difference in people’s lives. Today, on National Canadian Film Day, we are immensely appreciative of the filmmakers and artists who have committed their life to the pursuit of saving the world through film.