The One-Reel Film Festival is part of Seattle’s renowned Bumbershoot music and arts festival. Throughout the weekend, I’ve had the opportunity to see short films from all over the world, some of which can be viewed online (I’ve included links below where applicable). The films were arranged into blocks of around an hour apiece, which I’ve arranged in presentation order below. Bold text means I enjoyed the film, and an asterisk (*) means it was my favorite film of that block. Skip to the bottom for a list of all the films that can be viewed online.
Best of SIFF 2014: Jury Award Winners
- Rhino Full Throttle (Director: Erik Schmitt, Germany, 15 minutes)
A beautiful tale about temporary friendship amid wanderlust, the expectations we impose on those who pass through our lives on a transient basis, and how to express those feelings outside of Facebook. The main character is an artist (Tino Mewes) who uses the city of Berlin as his medium and muse, using cardboard and forced perspective to carve out a magical world straight out of the minds of Michel Gondry or Terry Gilliam. The in-camera visual construction and deconstruction are marvelous, even as he finds a partner in crime, Vicky (Marleen Lohse), with whom to construct his elaborate artwork. And he loves her, because of course he does – and then this film delivers a powerfully subtle message that no, the girl in your life doesn’t lose the power to make her own decisions just because you develop a crush on her. And the main character’s journey ends up spinning this dilemma into a beautiful tale of friendship and mutual acceptance – the idea that no matter where you go in the world, your friends will always be your friends unless you give them a serious reason not to be.
- Twaaga* (Director: Cedric Ido, Burkina Faso/France, 30 minutes)
I don’t know Burkina Faso, but this short historical family drama acquainted me with a huge amount of detail in its brief runtime, projecting the uncertainty and weirdness of a post-revolutionary environment with remarkable skill. The secretiveness, the petty grievances settled under the auspices of revolutionary fervor, and the grand uncertainty about the future are put on display through the eyes of a young boy, Manu (Sabourou Bamogo), who desperately wants to be a superhero. The film’s title, Twaaga, means “Invincible”, and evokes a tribalistic ritual that we see at the film’s outset, designed to instill revolutionary fervor by imbuing the recipient with an ancestral and magical sense of invincibility. Manu sees his brother Albert (Harouna Ouedraogo) becoming anointed in this manner, and it melds seemlessly with his superheroic desire to navigate his own childhood perils and look after his family. Manu converses with the local comic merchant about the various parallels between the X-Men and the American civil rights movement, then dons a superhero costume to confront his local bullies on the soccer field. And all around the edges of this family, the revolution rages on. This is exactly how powerful, personal storytelling is done, and it has stayed with me since I saw it.
More info and trailer here.
- Maikaru (Director: Amanda Harryman, USA, 7 minutes)
Maikaru is a powerful, personal testament from a young man who grew up in Seattle’s underbelly as a victim of human trafficking. The vast majority of the film is shot up close and personal in Maikaru’s face, his piercing gaze heightened with a pair of stylistic contact lenses that make his pupils look like stars going nova. The contrast created by his upbeat persona, artistic endeavors, and positive outlook is overwhelming as he reveals one terrible thing after another that happened to him, his siblings, and his mother during his upbringing. This is not a pleasant film, but it is certainly an important one for me to properly understand my hometown of Seattle. The Greyhound bus station at 9th and Virginia, the colony of drug culture on Pike between 2nd and 3rd… These were the bedrooms of Maikaru’s childhood, as well as for countless others that I pass each day, whose stories I may never hear.
Watch it here.
- Thanks For the Ride (Director: Tenika Smith, Australia, 17 minutes)
There’s one of these every year – a short with the narrative ambition and depth of character that it would’ve worked better as a feature film, and in this case, that is almost to the film’s detriment. From the hearse driver sitting at a funeral who clearly doesn’t give a damn, to the young man with a cast on his arm who “shouldn’t be here” (according to an angry man who chases him from the funeral), these characters (played by Simon Lyndon and Matt Callan) were instantly intriguing. The resulting short left me wanting another two acts to help fill out their unlikely friendship a bit more – a few of the emotional beats (including a bit of an improbable fistfight) happened just a bit too quickly. But the film’s every attempt at emotional resonance landed well thanks to Lyndon and Callan’s solid “lovable loser” performances, and all told, the film is well worth a look.
- In Autumn (Director: Rosanna Scarcella, Australia, 15 minutes)
Is “romantic dreadnaught” an appropriate name for a film about romance that evokes a persistent and deliberate sense of impending doom? This film was…utterly boring and macabre. And if its objective was to properly express the uncertainty and malaise of middle-aged romance… Here’s where I should dismissively say, “Bravo” and get on with my life, but this film hardly even deserves credit for that. Romance is hard at any age, until the moment it stops being so. For some people, this moment might be death. And this film earns no credit for a tedious slog in the service of such a banal observation.
More info and trailer here.
- A Great Man (Director: Joshua Dawson, Australia, 17 minutes)
There’s something rather powerful about two boys lying on the grass in small-town Australia debating the definition of a great man, as they stare up at the bright full moon – a celestial body which, at that exact moment in 1969, has two great men walking on it, as a nearby radio helpfully informs us. These boys engage in the sort of Stand By Me risky exploration emblematic of this time period (at least in cinema), including dares and dangerous stunts. There’s an axiom in population studies that males slightly outnumber females at birth, but by age 25 or so, it all evens out. Because boys, the axiom says, are more likely to do stupid things that will get themselves killed before they come of age. This axiom is likely not actually borne out by statistics (boys are more likely to be victims of violence, for instance), but it’s fair to say stunts and dares do inform society’s notions of greatness and masculinity to some degree. Great men do dangerous things, the story goes, sometimes for no reason whatsoever. And as these boys debate jumping from a 50-foot waterfall, the adult in me was certainly saying “hike to the bottom and check the depth first!”, even as the teen boy in me said I should go for it, or more likely, chicken out, get called a pussy, and get on with my day. This film captures something very real about boyhood, even if it’s just the legend of great men that we grow up with, and never fully realize in the real world.
Show Me The World
- The Queen (Director: Manuel Abramovich, Argentina, 19 minutes)
After watching this film (a documentary?), I just hope there’s a teen beauty queen out there who’s doing it by choice. Because this film depicts an Argentinian carnival beauty (who is perhaps 10 years old) in a manner that is nothing short of child abuse. The film is told almost entirely through an extended close-up on the girl’s face, as frigid stage mothers dance around the periphery of the frame strapping a 10-pound rhinestone monstrosity to the top of her head. They thread zip-ties through her hair, offer lidocaine creams to numb her scalp, and eventually, just straight-up pills to pop (which she refuses, despite no longer being able to feel or move her head and neck). We hear about the various scars borne across the backs of these beauty queens by the end of their teenage years, even as we see them forming across this girl’s face. This film made its point effectively, even if I’m torn as to whether the mere act of making it was despicable.
More info and trailer here.
- Mother Corn* (Director: Guillermo Lecuona, USA/Mexico, 16 minutes)
If nothing else, this film demonstrates the sad truth that as any culture approaches extinction, it becomes, at best, a thing to be packaged and sold to tourists. This dilemma is addressed through a grandmother and granddaughter who struggle between their linguistic and cultural identity – Trique vs. Mexican. Infused with Pan’s Labyrinth style imagery, this film mingles the girl’s uncertainty with images of death, floating souls, and fantastical creatures.
- The Man Who Knew a Lot* (Director: Alice Vial, France, 20 minutes)
It’s the ugly truth of every specialized touristy shop that the knick-knacks contained within – the authentic Southwestern pottery, the deer antlers, the gargoyle statues – won’t look nearly as good on your apartment shelf as they do in a perfectly lit store surrounded by similar crap. They’re selling an image, not an object. And this film takes this idea to the nth degree by taking place inside a dystopian IKEA store called Paradesign. On the show floor, scenes of everyday life and household situations in various disembodied rooms are expertly staged, complete with human beings who spend all day – indeed, live their entire lives – sitting in the chair, laying on the bed, and so forth. An old man on the first floor, Mr. Beranger (André Penvern), teams up with a little girl (Naomi Biton) who was born on a €59.99 bassinet, both of them desperate to break free from Paradesign and find out what lies beyond. The result is somewhere between WALL-E and Dark City – an oppressively well-rendered piece of short science fiction.
More info here.
- Deadbeat (Director: Danielle Morgan, USA, 12 minutes)
Still a better love story than Twilight. This film acts as an unofficial sequel to the inexorable love story between a perpetually 17-year-old vampire (John Brodsky) and his now upper-30s human lover (Melissa D. Brown). Great fun made at the expense of a genre that richly deserves it.
More info and trailer here.
- Syndromeda (Director: Patrik Eklund, Sweden, 22 minutes)
A naked, bloodied man (Jacob Nordenson) is found wandering in the middle of nowhere. What ensues is a fascinating dramatic parable about how our minds deal with trauma and uncertainty. From its non-linear storytelling to outright confabulations on the part of the main character, this film depicts a man utterly perplexed about what has happened to him, filling in the details of ambiguous sensory input with his own culturally informed ideas. And the result is a smart, solid, visually stunning horror short.
- The Fall (Director: Kristof Hoornaert, Belgium, 16 minutes)
A couple debates what to do when they accidentally hit and kill a child in the middle of the woods. Because everyone knows the road less traveled is the easiest spot to dispose of a body. This film is beautifully shot, but existentially unpleasant. And that may have been the point, obliterating Eden with original sin and all that – but the experience wasn’t exactly enjoyable.
More info and trailer here.
- We Wanted More (Director: Stephen Dunn, Canada, 16 minutes)
Just add water for instant body and existential horror, as a singer (Christine Horne) loses her voice the night before a concert tour, and imagines it appearing before her in the form of a creepy child (Skyler Wexler). Her angst about her career is compounded by having just dumped her boyfriend (it’s implied, because he proposed). This is a simple, effective premise with stirringly disturbing imagery, bringing to mind the likes of Black Swan. And it turned out to be the perfect recipe for a personally high-stakes horror short that comes to a swift and pitch-perfect conclusion.