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.
Documentaries Hour 2
- Artsquatch (Director: Taylor Grigsby, USA, 22 minutes)
Ryan Henry Ward, artist and visual arts curator for Washington’s annual Sasquatch Music Festival, says in a talking-head segment that he selects artists based on their ability to communicate effectively about their art to the public. This is one of several selection criteria he gives over the course of the film, but it certainly the most ironic, given that his interminably long interview segments are extremely rambling and repetitive. As a film, Artsquatch is visually interesting because the Sasquatch festival is visually interesting, made so by both the natural scenery of The Gorge amphitheater, as well as Ward and his fellow installation and costume artists featured here.
But this is some sloppy filmmaking. The featured art doesn’t make the wobbly cinematography or sound mix any less awkward. If the film does anything consistently well, it’s to capture the wandering chaos of attending a music and arts festival in the middle of nowhere. But the structure is quite loose, and it encapsulates maybe 10 minutes of material in a 22-minute wrapper. Each interview could be improved by cutting the first 3-5 sentences while the subject figures out what they’re trying to say (or in at least one case, literally performs an on-camera mic-check). This looseness is evident in the editing, with random interstitial shots and a torrent of all-caps name introductions that add little, if nothing to understanding the art featured behind them.
In the final minutes, we see footage of a man shooting footage from atop a UHaul truck (seemingly the pan of the emptying Gorge that we saw earlier in the film), followed by footage of two men on the back of a truck debating whether the joke that was just (not on camera) constitutes sufficiently “important shit” to be included in the film, followed by one last monologue from Ward explaining how great it would be to have a time-lapse of the festival setup and teardown – a time-lapse that does not appear in the film.
There’s a fine line between free form and self-indulgence, and this amateur doc leaps across it several times. Art is perilous and bold, but the patience of its audience is not without limit. Many sacred cows needed to be butchered in the editing room to make this watchable.
- Bounce, this is not a freestyle movie (Director: Guillaume Blanchet, Canada, 5 minutes)
Where the hell is Matt?-style musical travelogue featuring a man (Blanchet) traveling around the world and shooting a few seconds at a time of himself in beautiful spots around the world. Rather than toddler-dancing, Bounce features its subject knee-bouncing a soccer ball in time with a strong musical beat, making its editing a bit trickier, as it had to both sync with the beat of the song and seamlessly transition from starting an action in one location to completing it in another.
It’s quite fun, if a bit more inwardly focused than Matt, with which it draws inexorable comparisons*. It’s a subtle difference, but Matt Harding seemingly performed his goofball dance in order to connect with the people and places he was visiting, whereas if this film has any abiding message, it’s just… Look at all the cool places I’ve been. With few exceptions, nearly every frame of this film is devoid of any other people besides Blanchet himself. Travel is seldom as bereft of purpose and connection as depicted here, and I have to imagine that in the course of making these videos, Blanchet interacted with a great many peoples, cultures, and places along the way. We get the occasional hint of this during the actual film, then the floodgates open from a final hug into an end-credits reel that’s nearly as long as the film itself, and far and away the most entertaining segment. This is a smaller criticism than it sounds like. I enjoyed Bounce overall. But to boast so proudly in the title about what it is not, the film needs to be able to more clearly answer the question of what it is. Otherwise it’s just a stunt, however enjoyable that might be for a minute.
- Tomgirl* (Director: Jeremy Asher-Lynch, USA, 15 minutes)
This doc tells a tale of a kid named Jake – born a boy, and acting like a girl. There are other terms that get mentioned – transgender, transvestite, homosexual, etc. – that may eventually describe Jake as well. But seeing a kid just be himself at the age of 7 illustrates just how useless these terms are until the kid is old enough to adopt them (or not) for himself. Kids will be kids, and this film is a well-balanced mix of both a professional explaining trans issues and gender non-conformity from a psychological standpoint, and a family that is so open and accepting of their atypical son that they hardly seem to need such help. This doc is well-paced, adeptly shot, and never lingers too long on any of the adults talking about Jake before cutting back to him doing his thing and feelin’ fine. The film ably sells the notion that kids like this are never “the problem”, until other kids or adults in their lives decide to make them such. In a world where the risk of suicide and homicide is so high among transgender people, the film’s easygoing attitude about such kids surprisingly feels like the best approach. It doesn’t elevate this to the life or death issue that it may eventually become, but it takes the situation appropriately seriously.
More info and trailer here.
Best of the Northwest 2
- Chasing the Sun (Director: Jeremy Mackie, USA, 12 minutes)
A pair of Northwest hippie siblings are on a roadtrip across Washington State to visit their long-lost even-bigger-hippie mother, who left them many years earlier. Mom is a ghost in this film, as the only real relationship on display is between brother and sister. And while not every piece of dialogue worked, their performances certainly did. Caleb (Jesse Lee Keeter) is angry at his sister Celeste (Samara Lerman) for dragging him into a reunion that he didn’t want or need in his life, but she gradually draws out his willingness to go along with her mendacious plan. The mix of frustration and familial affection between them is clear and evident on-screen – and when they reach the point of shouting back and forth at each other, it verges on melodrama, but never took me out of the film.
Not for nothing, but I’ve driven the stretch of Thurston County interstate highway where this film was shot many times. Looks like a beautiful place for a family crisis.
More info here.
- Julia’s Farm (Director: Sudeshna Sen, USA, 16 minutes)
There’s not much to this story. It features a pair of women who embark on an ill-conceived scheme of insurance fraud together. Like the Coen Bros, it’s a morality play of greed, crime, and punishment. Unlike the Coen Bros, it’s simplistic and obviously rendered, has an awkward and implausible script, and features an overbearing afterthought of a musical score.
More info here.
- Luchadora (Director: Amber Cortes, USA, 8 minutes)
After Artsquatch, this film was a welcome guide for how to tightly edit a documentary – it’s colorful, shot well, and gets to its point quickly. The main player, a budding Northwest luchadora named La Avispa (“The Wasp”), is a compelling interview subject, speaking with eloquence and enthusiasm about ditching college in favor of “joining the circus”, in the form of a Renton, Washington training gym for lucha libre (Mexican wrestling). It helps that she delivers this entire monologue in her luchadore mask, with all the flare of American pro wrestling (something she’s apparently not a fan of herself). The film effectively introduces a little-known Northwest take on an out-of-town sport (one that I’m rather interested in seeking out now) through the lens of a budding theatrical stuntwoman who’s thoroughly entertaining to watch.
On a personal note, I’m glad I liked this film. The director, Amber Cortes, was literally sitting next to me as I typed the first draft of these notes (in the back row, over the end credits – I’m not a monster), so it might’ve been terribly awkward otherwise.
More info here.
- Signs Everywhere* (Director: Julio Ramirez, USA, 12 minutes)
A man wearing earbuds (Tony Doupe) wanders around Seattle. Everywhere he goes – from home to work to his commute – he sees people in pain, as rendered by simple cardboard signs held by each person, summing up their particular pain or baggage. His own family isn’t exempt – his daughter hates her body, his son is being bullied at school, and his wife longs to feel desired again. Without exception, each person that he comes across is experiencing pain and misery. After twenty or thirty of these uniformly miserable people, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this simplistic storytelling dynamic – literally the stuff of sitcoms – was striving for anything greater than blasting subtext at the screen without having to earn it in character or script.
But there were two things that made this film work so well. First, the performances were uniformly strong. Even if the character only has a single line of text to work with, each actor or actress spells out real pathos and depth even in just a moment of screentime. The film’s emotional tapestry, spelled out in a nearly complete absence of dialogue, is thorough. But its second strength was casting reasonable doubt on the clairvoyance of the man at the center. If he is really just this adept at sensing the misery around him, he wouldn’t be much more than a facile storytelling device. But the film ends on a note of uncertainty, perhaps revealing what’s really happening with this character – that his grand insightful tableau of sadness may just be a projection of his own miserable life. There’s something gravely amiss with him, and by the end of the film, he seems just about ready to stop dealing with it alone.
More info here.
- Best Man Wins* (Director: Stéphane Dumonceau, USA, 20 minutes)
This film features a spurned husband, master chef Edward Stiles (Tim DeKay) setting an elaborate trap for his wife’s secret lover, master vintner Jean-Louis Vachon (François Vincentelli). I don’t hesitate to reveal that setup, because this film is not shy about revealing its intentions, and it remains an absolute delight after doing so. From its initial setup, in which Stiles manufactures a “chance encounter” with Vachon on a flight from Paris to New York, every moment and line of dialogue is filled with palpable and escalating tension. The best phrase I have for this is “Tabloid Hitchcock”, with a subtle spritz of Edgar Allen Poe for good measure. Its premise is over-the-top – lifestyles of the rich and famous put through a tense filter of infidelity, friendship, and cat-and-mouse betrayal, serenaded by a grand and zany musical score from newcomer Luca Ciut. The script, co-written by Dumonceau and Frederick Waterman, is certainly one of the finest that I saw today – a feast of intrigue and tension and humor so decadent that I fear to see in a feature-length version, which would surely collapse me into a deep and diabetic slumber before the digestifs are poured. Magnifique.
- Hole (Director: Martin Edralin, Canada, 15 minutes)
This film is utterly mystifying. Its final scene is so far on the fringes of human behavior that it’s an outstanding reveal that I dare not spoil here. The film is a successor to a film like The Sessions, presenting the unexpected experiences of a severely disabled man while somehow avoiding gawking at him. Here he is, watch how he lives. It’s not boring, and the reveal is worth it.
More info and trailer here.
- The Mill at Calder’s End (Director: Kevin McTurk, USA, 14 minutes)
This film almost feels like the product of a dare. Can puppets be used to tell genuinely terrifying gothic horror? The film features many intricate carved characters, each with a subtle look of sadness and worry on its face. And the rest of the emotional range is accomplished by a mix of talented voice-acting (mostly in the form of Jason Flemyng‘s voiceover narration as the lead, Nicholas Grimshaw) and an elaborate interplay of light and flickering shadow across the carved faces (kudos to cinematographer Kenton Drew Johnson). They don’t look alive, per se, but they nearly look animated. The result is something akin to Japanese Noh theatre, where the emotional interplay is slow and deliberate, and reflected across the faces of masks that are never removed (the director mentions bunraku puppetry as an influence). At a certain point, we do see a few of the puppets’ lips move. And while I’m still undecided whether I consider this a misstep, it is at least a jarring change in look and technique that amounted to a slight distraction.
But did I mention that the film is terrifying? The Mill isn’t just a technical marvel – utilizing a mix of what appear to be models, live actors (shot from a distance or in shadow), and real-life skies and backgrounds – but it’s also a taut and effective piece of Gothic horror. Director Kevin McTurk, a model-maker with an impressive array of special effects credits from the Stan Winston Studio and others, builds tension marvelously through increasingly tricky camera angles in and around the mill, often looking straight up or down from impossibly close angle on a model or puppet.
More info and trailer here.
- Stealth (Director: Bennett Lasseter, USA, 22 minutes)
I recall earlier this year when a whiny filmmaker at a college festival complained that the “SJW” crowd had coopted the film festival process – that any story featuring an oppressed minority would gain traction and receive awards and accolades, while his [genuinely unwatchable schlock] would be ignored and shunned. I mention this because this is the second story I’ve seen today about transgender issues, and two is by far the most of these stories I’ve ever seen at once. One could certainly take that to mean that my objectivity in judging the film will fly out the window in the face of novelty and social pressure, but one would be profoundly arrogant to do so.
Yes, this is all pretty new to me. And if the national media is any indication, it’s pretty new for most of us. But merely presenting something novel is not enough to make me feel something as a viewer or critic. Merely prodding my prejudices and forcing me to experience a way of living that’s different from my own is not enough. Emotional resonance doesn’t exist in a cultural void, but it’s still something that must be judged from within the text of each film. It’s what allowed me to adore Cloud Atlas and (so far) find Sense8 a bit preachy and self-indulgent. To hate myself for watching all of Entourage, but still masochistically enjoy the films of Michael Bay. Knowing that someone might be judged unfairly by smallminded bigots doesn’t make me shy away from judging them as fairly as I can.
So when I say that these performances feel utterly real, and that this film was alternately touching, provocative, and devastating, you should know that I mean exactly that. The main character, Sammy (Kristina Hernandez), is an eleven-year-old transgender girl dealing with life at a new middle school. She has a close relationship with her mother (Liana Arauz), with whom she shares many of the film’s most tense and touching scenes. We get a hint that some serious unpleasantness befell Sammy at her old school, and while we never quite learn what it is, it hangs as a persistent threat for the rest of the film as she gets to know a pair of new girlfriends. Hernandez is affecting in the role (which is apparently a semi-fictitious version of herself). I’ll repeat what I said for Tomgirl above – these kids are never “the problem”, until somebody makes them so. This girl wants the same things as any other child – and the freedom to seek them out. And this film illuminates just how complex that process can be.
More info here.
- Unleaded (Director: Luke Davies, UK, 8 minutes)
A delightful, coincidental yarn about a gas station robbery colliding with stoner drama. Veers into the slapstick violent realm of Guy Ritchie, even if the scenario and details strain credulity a bit more than his stuff – but none of that matters while watching this. It’s still a ton of fun.
More info here.
- Walls (Director: Miguel López Beraza, Spain, 10 minutes)
A tenement building in Budapest narrates a day in the life of its two favorite residents, a pair of elderly neighbors named Mr. Istvan and Mrs. Magdi. In English, with a Spanish accent. It’s perhaps a testament to this film’s sensitive and resonant portrayal of its subjects that I was left unsure whether this is fiction or not. After the film, it identified itself as a documentary, but all I can say with any certainty is that it’s a pleasant and touching slice of life – the embodiment of a happy ending to a life well-lived. We only learn a small amount of each of them, but Mr. Istvan and Mrs. Magdi each live lives that are active, social, and surrounded by people who enjoy their company. The film uses a literal embodiment of “if these walls could talk” to add to its sense of warmth and closeness, but it never feels like a salve for the loneliness of its main characters. The building doesn’t express its love for them because no one else will – the building cares for them because it sees how many others do so as well. We should all be so fortunate.
More info and trailer here.