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Binocular Briefs – October 2023

The latest survey of under-the-radar animated shorts currently travelling the festival circuit or new to online viewing.

In this month’s edition of Binocular Briefs, we look at six short films – five plus a bonus – recently hitting festivals or released online.

Miserable Miracle, Ryo Orkasa, France/Canada/Japan

Miserable Miracle, which was the (pleasantly) surprising winner of the Grand Prize at the 2023 Ottawa International Animation Festival (I say surprising solely because juries tend to ignore non-narrative films for Grand Prize nods), is Ryo Orkasa’s highly anticipated follow-up to his brilliant short, Datum Point (2015). Orkasa returns to his love of the written word, this time using the words and drawings of French writer Henri Michaux as inspiration.

Words dart and dance across a white backdrop, coming together, breaking apart, and taking the forms of the manic narration (voiced by Tony Robinow). An exploration of language and symbols, each scribble and symbol mirror the frantic and feverish madness of the creative process.

This is a work you will want to watch over and over again, with each screening unveiling new riches, layers, and epiphanies.

Buzzkill, Peter Ahern, U.S.A

Rick and Becky are a couple of awkwards on a first date. As Becky deals with some very odd and unwelcome physical issues involving flies, Rick snoops around her room. Let’s just say that things don’t go well.

Anyone who has been on these blind dates can attest to the feelings of uncertainty that devour your head to the point where you start imagining the craziest outcomes. I’ve had some dates where I wondered if I’d get out alive, especially that one where the first date wanted me to pull her hair while biting and slapping her. That didn’t go well. I got freaked out and told her to leave. I mean, what if she started screaming and the cops came? How would I explain it all? As she left, she turned and slapped me across the face in anger. It felt good, and I wanted more, but by then she was gone.

“The project started as a little personal challenge to see if I could create something that combined my interests in genre films and animation,” adds Peter Ahern. “I’d spent years animating commercial content and was yearning to work on something creepy and character driven. What’s that tired old phrase? ‘If an opportunity doesn’t exist, create it.’”

Buzzkill is a lighthearted, comic, and refreshingly economic take on the anxiety and uncertainty of connecting with new people.

Ahern does a good job of luring the audience into a scenario that many can identify with. Once they’ve tuned in and feel safe, he then takes them on an unexpected horror ride. Lighthearted, comic, and economic (oh, how I love animation films that get to the point fast), Buzzkill is an innovative take on the anxiety and uncertainty of connecting with new people.

Cyclepaths, Anton Cla, Belgium

Birds fly. An armed man rides his e-scooter. Drones hover. A lady struggles with her bags. The armed man shoots down the drone. A gang of masked men drives a car. A train passes. Cyclepaths is an assortment of tableaus. Nothing is explained. Events just happen. People just appear. This mesmerizing, disturbing, and hypnotic student film should be felt, not necessarily described. The video game vibe nicely captures a numb, robotic society. Everything feels stiff. Eerie and discombobulating, we see fragments of actions in an empty, almost post-apocalyptic landscape. You can’t quite pinpoint what’s going on, but it sure as hell feels like now, and that ain’t good.

The Tobos, Tobias Rud, Denmark/Canada

Ah, it's always fun to see the kids embracing 80s video aesthetics that I found annoying because, well, I was there. We didn’t enjoy the glitchiness, folks, but it’s cool to see the next generation finding some beauty in all that.

So, there are four tobos: yellow (Star), blue, purple, and pink (also called Bean), who also exist under the oversight of a sun figure. With a dash of Lesley the Pony and more than a hint of Teletubbies, we soon discover that all is not well in Toboland. Bean Tobo is struggling and on the verge of a breakdown. All this harmony and happiness seem to overwhelm him. Eventually, he cracks and attacks Star Tobo, seemingly exiled from Toboland.

What is refreshing about The Tobos is that it avoids the easy-peasy cynical subversion route that we’ve seen far too many times when the kid’s show is used as a narrative device. There are moments when you expect that the Tobos will become ultra-violent and rely on cop-out sarcasm. Thankfully, the Tobos eschew that easy road. Instead, we get a refreshingly gentle and serious take on self-worth and identity. It’s about people who want to connect yet struggle to find that path.

Bless You, Paulina Ziolkowska, Poland

Okay, this one is a few years old now, but since so many festival shorts vanish after their run, there’s no harm in blowing this one forward.

“Germs fly around wildly in the hustle and bustle of urban life,” says Ziolkowska about her 2018 student work, Bless You. “You stand next to the wrong nose, and it happens in a flash. You can even get a dose during an innocent flirt with your potential sweetheart. And what happens if you keep on infecting yourself?”

This hilarious piece of trippy absurdity is basically 4 ½ minutes of people sneezing on each other. Chaos ensures. Germs flow. 

Essentially, Bless You (which maybe should have been used as a PSA during the pandemic) is about how our actions, no matter how seemingly innocuous or slight, affect everyone around us.


Slouch, Michael Bohnenstingl, Germany

Now, I already reviewed this student film, but it deserves a quick shout-out because it’s now screening online for you to savour.

Slouch thinks of himself as a musical wunderkind, like Robert Pollard, Nick Cave, and Daniel Johnston. Unfortunately, others find his songs boring. To make matters worse, Slouch’s girlfriend, Lisa, is pregnant. As the birth draws closer, Slouch is faced with that age-old dichotomy between following his creative passions and being a responsible family man (not seemingly aware that one is not exclusive of the other). When Slouch freaks out over the reality of responsibility, he lashes out at Lisa. The crisis stimulates Slouch. Pouring real experience into his songs, he finally finds success, but at what cost?

Chris Robinson's picture

A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.