“Stop your cinema. Wake up.”

Denis Villeneuve’s 1994 short film, REW-FFWD, wants to jerk you violently out of your comfort zone. In a way this makes it a forerunner to the French Canadian director’s new thriller, Prisoners. Yet while the new film is a star-studded psychological thriller, with the mainstream participation of Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman, REW-FFWD is an odd little experimental “psychodrama.” Its violent assault on the audience is at times rudimentary, but this only adds to its enigmatic and staunchly independent voice.

The 30 minutes of REW-FFWD are introduced as the content of a “black box,” the video record of a nameless photojournalist’s trip to Jamaica. The narrator runs the show, guiding the journalist through this video record of his own memories. Rather than simply letting the “tape” play, Villeneuve uses the “black box” gimmick as a tool to rewind and fastforward at will through this odd narrative.

The journalist is sent to Trench Town, Kingston by an ignorant and somewhat racist editor who wants a “Heart of Darkness” story on what he assumes is a violent, barbaric island nation. When the journalist finally arrives, his car breaks down and he is forced to stay with the actually warm and helpful locals until the local mechanic can fix it. Yet none of this proceeds in a linear fashion, Villeneuve more interested in making a short about time and cinema than the silly awkwardness of a international travel.

At the same time, however, REW-FFWD engages with Jamaica on its own terms. Cut into the film is in an interview with a local academic who explains her study of the way that African culture and the extended family have shaped Jamaican society. Meanwhile, musicians Bronco Billy and Massive Dread introduce their interpretation of Rastafarianism to the journalist, and how they see the future of life in Trench Town.
There is, to say the least, an awful lot going on in this short film. Yet none of it feels rushed or crammed. It’s bewildering on purpose, Villeneuve exchanging ideas both within his narrative and with the audience without. He creates a sense of unease, but not for its own sake. It should make a very interesting double feature with Prisoners and you can watch the whole thing below, hosted by the National Film Board of Canada.

Also, check out another of Villeneuve’s shorts on iTunes. Next Floor is an expertly made little film that combines the darkest humor with a brilliantly grotesque style. You’ll never look at abandoned buildings, head waiters or armadillos the same way again.

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