Register Saturday | December 7 | 2019

A Roof with a View

New York City’s Rooftop Films returns to Montreal

On Thursday, September 1, New York City's Rooftop Films returned to Montreal for the second time this year with fifteen short films. The selections ranged from documentary to animation to found footage, proving yet again that the short-film format can be as thought-provoking, emotional, haunting, comic and endearing as its lengthier counterparts. Click on the multimedia gallery on the right to listen to audience reactions.

It's a curious thing, watching films on a rooftop at dusk: one's peripheral vision, so discouraged in the theatre, remains keenly aware of the surrounding environment. The sky above, vast and cloudless, transforms into a starry blanket, while city sounds drift up on a light breeze from below. On this particular night, it's cool enough to remind me-and the 450 rooftop moviegoers on top of the Télé-Université building in the Plateau-that summer is ramping down.

New York City's Rooftop Films has perfected this sort of evening. The group started screening short films on rooftops in Brooklyn in 1997. Last March, they crossed the border to screen (indoors) a selection of vibrant shorts at the Societé des arts technologiques. Last Thursday, they showed us Montrealers that we still have a thing or two to learn from the Big Apple.

As the evening began, early arrivals milled about a healthy rooftop garden before wandering over to the folding chairs, arranged in a semi-circle around the screen-there is still too much daylight at 7 PM to start screening films right away. The atmosphere was laid-back-a local DJ provided a selection excellent enough that no one seemed to notice, or mind, that he was botching mix after mix of quality soul and hip hop. An hour later it was dark enough to start, and Montreal organizer Elizabeth Radshaw introduced the opening act, including singer-songwriter Andrea Lindsay and accompanying musicians Eric Graveline (keys) and Arnaud Lamasse (percussion). The trio's performance was projected onto the screen in shades of night-light yellows and reds. Sounding like a cross between Jewel and the Cardigans' Nina Persson, Lindsay's quirky pop-folk songs of broken love, sung in both French and English, were both endearing and beguiling. Lamasse, who is from France, then performed a comparatively jarring percussive piece on the single-stringed Brazillian instrument, the berimbau.

The program began with two local shorts about agriculture, "Diversidad," by Stefan Verna and Jean-Marc Abela and "Green Roofs à la Montrealaise," by Sabrina Ratte and Elizabeth Radshaw. The first was a segment from a longer, as yet unreleased documentary about a group of fifteen activists who bike from Vancouver to Cancún, Mexico to learn more about, and raise awareness of, how global capitalism has affected local farming. "Green Roofs," meanwhile, chronicles the building of a fully "green" roof, from the ripping up of the old structure to waterproofing the new roof to laying the soil and arranging the plants.

Then came the witty and charming "La révolution des crabes" by Parisian Arthur de Pins. The clean, crisp black-and-white animation told the story of a species of crab that can only move in straight lines. A saucy but forlorn French crab narrates the piece-he is comically woeful about his people's fate until one day, in the face of a life-threatening emergency, he teaches himself how to turn and is immediately chastised by his brethren for (literally) stepping out of line. The piece was a witty jab at the human tendency to rebuke difference and cling to unchanging habits, and one that coaxed plenty of hearty chuckles from the audience.

First-time filmmaker Steve Furman's "Ride of the Mergansers" turned out to be an audience favourite, and a highlight for the Rooftop's artistic director, Mark Rosenberg. The eleven-minute documentary about the laying, hatching and escape of baby Hooded Mergansers from a man-made nesting box was compelling, uplifting and comic. Hinting at the standard nature documentary, the film was shot using a series of static cameras while the score helped stir up a sense of hope and triumph in viewers. The elements worked together to transform a potential yawner into an engaging story about overcoming life's early obstacles. The audience was nearly cheering as the credits rolled.

"The Bear Hunter," by Mary Robertson was a thought-provoking portrait of a hunter's seemingly contradictory ability to care for the animals that he kills-one that clearly challenged the urban audience. Fifty-nine-year-old Bob Chase has been hunting since he was fifteen, and is portrayed as a loveable oaf whose community and pastimes revolve around the sport. There are seemingly contradictory juxtapositions: he brags of killing many deer, yet is shown feeding nearly tame deer on the campgrounds. On a hunting trip he kills a young bear-the first bear he's shot in his life-yet, while killing a bear is a status symbol in his community, Chase instantly regrets having done so. In the aftermath of the kill, he is forced to wrestle with feelings of both pride and shame. His regret is startling and sad, as it reflects the permanence of his act and his inability to change.

Other works such as the haunting "Here After" by Patrick Jolly, Rebecca Trost, and Inger Lise Hansen; the absurd animated short "Atlas Gets a Drink" by Mike Overbeck; and the found-footage montage about Canadian borders, "All Right" by Aleesa Cohene, rounded out the selection.

The last short of the night, Bill Plympton's "The Fan and the Flower" drew many spectators who were familiar with his earlier works. Narrated by Paul Giamatti, the film is the black-and-white animated story of a ceiling fan and a flower that fall in love but can never touch. As the woman of the house grows older and neglectful of the plant, the fan commits suicide, spinning its blades so fast it flies off the ceiling, leaving a hole for the rain to replenish the dry soil. Sweet, with no touch of the violence that has marked his earlier works, Plympton's piece was an adorable and uplifting end to the night-not even the chilly night air could make believe we wouldn't be spending many more such nights under a forever-summer sky.