In 2020, SXSW was sadly and expectedly canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to a partnership with Amazon, much of the festival’s collection is available for a limited time on Prime Video, giving me a chance to indulge my longtime love of short film for the first time since 2016.
There are 29 in total, and I’ve included links and runtimes with each review. As with many of you, my life is currently chaos, but I do plan to review as many of these as possible (Update: As it turned out, this was all I had time for!), but I’ll offer my apologies in advance to those at the end of the alphabet.
Directed by Travis Wood
Runtime: 4 min
This documentary makes two succinct points: The first is that Wood is a black director that you should definitely hire, because quickly achieving a tone that is equal parts comedic and dystopian is no small feat (and owes as much to both Wood’s slick editing as to Brendan Moriak‘s topsy-turvy score). The second is that digital creative companies in NYC and Los Angeles never run out of ways to describe the various dogs they have on their “Meet the Team” pages to sit between all of the mostly white people they hire. It’s bittersweet to watch this film during a pandemic-induced depression in which I can only assume Wood’s employment situation has gotten worse along with the rest of Hollywood, but his point about racial inequities in hiring is well-made nonetheless.
Watch it here.
A Period Piece
Written and directed by Shuchi Talati
Runtime: 12 min
It’s always good to see awkward first-time sex used for storytelling. I’m not talking loss of virginity here (that’s a whole separate genre that’s rife with both quality storytelling and heightened nonsense), but to see a couple have sex for the first time with each other, but not for their own first time. It’s been said that stories should begin on an interesting day in the life of your characters, and first-time sex is, if nothing else, reliably interesting. To see such an act in cinema is not only to peer as an interloper into an intensely private moment, but to see two people indulging in an act that is ostensibly universal, but with which they might have very different experiences and expectations.
In her pre-roll intro, director Shuchi Talati spoke of a desire for inclusivity and universality in her storytelling – to showcase a pair of South Asian characters in a story about love and sex where, as she put it, “there isn’t an arranged marriage subplot lurking in the background”. As an editorial aside, while I’m not too annoyed that Amazon and SXSW chose to include these director intros before each short, I think I’ll be skipping the rest of them, as I’ve never had a film experience where it improved my enjoyment, and I’ve had at least a few where it had the opposite effect. And in this case, I think it’s fair to say that the work speaks for itself when it comes to a desire to showcase a mix of Indian and American sexual mores. These are clearly Indians, and also clearly Americans, and also clearly having sex that would be frowned upon by the more conservative parts of both societies. Fair enough.
Here we see a pair of Indian-American twentysomethings having an illicit afternoon rendezvous while dealing with the minor complication that Geetha (Sonal Aggarwal) is on her period, and Vehd (Nardeep Khurmi) accidentally gets some period blood on her couch while pulling out. Whoopsie! He’s also married to someone else, which adds a layer of subtext to their condom negotiation. Whoopsie! Unless I missed it, there’s not really any metaphor to speak of here. The blood is just a practical matter to deal with, and gives us a chance to learn a bit more about these characters both through how they navigate an intensely intimate moment, and how – as a practical matter – they deal with both the impediment and potential mood-killer at the heart of their sexual encounter. The mood-killer being – not the period blood as a rule, but the chance for either of them to ruin the mood by not quickly getting on the same page about it.
Watch it here.
Written and directed by Chelsea Devantez
Runtime: 3 min
This short is simple, twisted, and speaks to a place of profound insecurity and rage. So naturally, most of it is spent lying in bed in the dark scrolling through happier times on Instagram. I wouldn’t have thought a line like “I’m a pool THOT” could crack me up so much, but Devantez, who also stars in the film, pulls it off. Tara Trudel‘s score, the final track of which includes a lot of 90s grunge-metal screaming, makes a lot of this work as well.
Watch it here.
Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business
Written and directed by Christine Turner
Runtime: 9 min
Betye Saar says early in the film that she prefers to create art that doesn’t include a specific story, so that the viewer can invent their own. Then she proceeds to tell her own story, about how the art she produced, as well as the art produced by people who looked like her (both African-American and ancestral African art) was not regarded as art at all when she started her career. At Chicago’s Field Museum, it was kept in the basement, and as she put it, “It was weird down there.” On the surface, Saar’s own work is all over the place. It encompasses everything from collages of found objects to paintings and sculptures. Some of it is, as she puts it, just “stuff put together”. And there’s also an entire series that explores mysticism and the occult. She’s 93 years old – she’s had a bit of time to explore. And she speaks with a voice of experience that retains the vibrancy of a much younger woman. Not only is her work widely varied, but it still pops. An entire segment of the film is devoted to her series in the 1960s and 70s lampooning and remixing derogatory images of black people, which includes a vintage image of Aunt Jemima, taken directly from the older “mammy”-stereotype (often with exaggerated lips and features taken from minstrel shows with white performers in blackface), but…turned into a figure of battle with rifles and grenades, who is “taking care of business” (roll credits!). In an accompanying magazine caption from the 1970s, Saar even discusses turning an Aunt Jemima syrup bottle into a Molotov cocktail. Yikes.
“It’s been forever. Racism hasn’t gone away. Has sexism gone away? No. So you still have to keep repeating things,” Saar puts it simply. Compressing so many decades of artistic creation into a 9-minute short is no small feat, and Turner and editor Mengfan Yu do an admirable job of pulling it all into a coherent narrative of both the random craftiness of a figure who struggled to even view herself as anything but a junk collector until she received an NEA grant, and an experienced and admired artist whose voice and themes retain their relevance in a world that is often frustratingly static. Saar is a figure I’d simply love a chance to sit down and have a chat with, but I suspect she’d be too busy making stuff to bother with me.
Watch it here.
Written and directed by Bridget Moloney
Runtime: 12 min
I love my kids. They provide me with daily joy. They are also a laborious plague, and as I write this, my wife and I are home with them 100% of the time, just like you, perhaps! If A Period Piece strove for universality, this one took an accidental shortcut, because there’s nothing more universal than the struggle of raising small children during a pandemic, even if that wasn’t our reality when the film was made. As such, there was a ceiling to my enjoyment of this well-made film, which features a busy mother of two (Claire Coffee) vomiting up blocks. This metaphor gets literally strained as she rinses them and puts them back in the Various Bins, and her daughter dutifully informs her that the new blocks smell funny.
There’s a good lesson for me here about how to be a supportive husband and father and divide up the household labor and mental load and be on the same team amid a patriarchal economic system that makes it far more likely that women will bear the brunt of all of the above (a lesson that is literally read aloud to a child in the opening lines of the film, which is as pedantic as the film ever gets). I really do try to think about and practice this stuff as a parent, because I have a wonderful wife and co-parent who would accept nothing less, and it’s still a constant struggle. And honestly, at this moment, Blocks is a bitter and familiar fucking pill to swallow. And that is not the movie’s fault, but my recommendation is that you should feel free to watch if and only if you’re kid-free and on reliable birth control.
Watch it here.
Written and directed by Rachel Harrison Gordon
Runtime: 10 min
This short is not only a triumph of storytelling through production design (there are three credited set dressers, but no production designer, so I have to assume Gordon took the lead on that) – but it manages to convey a great deal of emotional subtext in a short space of time, and owes a lot of that to the fine details of its central trio of performances, particularly father and daughter. Birdie (Indigo Hubbard-Salk) is the black (mix-raced) daughter of an estranged or divorced couple – she lives with her mother Eileen (Mel House), who is white and Jewish, and has her studying the Torah as she approaches her bat mitzvah. We also see Birdie getting her full and naturally curly hair chemically relaxed and straightened, and it is left unspoken whether this was her idea or her mother’s – and honestly, watching the film, I could go either way on it. Then she goes to visit her father Andre (Chad L. Coleman). She wears a Star of David around her neck, and the way she handles it, it clearly means something special to her. Her dad is supportive, but clearly not religious himself. Then she tells him that she hates the Torah portion that her rabbi has picked for her to read, and doesn’t really want to go through with it. Then she invites him to attend anyway, and he agrees without hesitating. Then they go pick out a bootleg purse from a car trunk. These habits feel familiar and comfortable to both of them, just as Birdie looks comfortable in her room at home, listening to her dad’s old records and studying scripture.
This soon-to-be-teenager’s life and identity are messy, and questions of who she is and where she belongs are certain to be an ongoing project in her life. Every moment of this film is a simultaneous process of acceptance and dissection, with the fine details of one identity bleeding into another, and forging something new. It’s hard not to feel excited by it, because as painful as this process clearly is for Birdie, she has two parents who each love and support her in their own way, and she is clearly asserting herself as thoroughly as they are each shaping her identity. This film left me wanting more, and also feeling as if it has more to tell, and that’s all I ever want from a short film.
Nina Simone‘s live performance of an Israeli folk standard, “Eretz Zavat Chalav“, appears at the start of this film. I mention that in the hopes you’ll go check it out – it really is an outstanding performance, and it fits beautifully in this film.
Watch it here.
Directed by Charlie Tyrell
Runtime: 12 min
A caption at the start informs us that over the course of a decade from 2007, the Philadelphia School District’s arts funding dropped from $1.3 million per year to $50,000 per year. As has been the case with many state and local budgets, arts funding was a budget line item that was deemed inessential and cut, never to be restored even as the economy recovered. I’m playing a broken record here by saying this, but I shudder to think of what the next ten years will look like for arts programs if we fail to learn the lessons of the last recession and our current quarantine, which is that the arts are absolutely critical to our continued existence.
But…you knew all of that, and that’s not really what this film is about. This film isn’t about what’s broken, but is rather a clever rendition of how it can be fixed. As a single camera wanders the hallways of a disused high school, the story of how Philly SD’s music program was resurrected, via a concert of broken instruments, is laid out by talking heads on a series of CRT television sets on AV carts appearing seemingly by magic, with some stop-motion floating instruments ticking into the center of the frame and vanishing in-between. The one-shot storytelling really is quite engaging, and while a couple of hidden cuts are evident, my overriding feeling watching this is that this film was as clever a logistical feat as the project that it showcases. We learn how 1,500 broken instruments were found in various storage locations, an entire orchestra of volunteer adult performers was brought in, and they put on a concert making whatever sounds they could manage. And it was a rip-roaring success, raising enough money in donations to get all of the instruments fixed and back in the hands of the young learners who needed them. It was an act of true grassroots community philanthropy, and the filmmaking that was used to tell this story is quite as admirable as the act itself.
We’ll need a lot more of this.
Watch it here.
Call Center Blues
Directed by Geeta Gandbhir
Runtime: 25 min
A young man is interviewed in the middle of this film who says of Donald Trump, “All I can say is, may God bless him. And maybe someday he’ll regret what he has done.” This provoked a swell of deep pity from me.
This documentary is a real bummer, as it fucking should be. It focuses on a group of deportees in Tijuana, many of whom live in a squalid tent city, waiting to be scooped up for employment by either the cartels or the call centers who each only prize them for their English skills and economic desperation. One man, Roberto, was born in TJ and brought to the United States at age 6. He went to school, went to college, went to work for an airline, and eventually worked his way up to be an airport manager at LAX. One dalliance with recreational drugs later, he was deported. Later in the same year, his wife back in the United States left him. Another man with a similar story, who was only ever in Mexico as an infant, said it took him fully a decade to stop being depressed about losing his American life. He’s now been in TJ for 20 years. It’s home, but not really. And what’s unspoken among these veteran deportees is that not everyone makes it past that depression. Mauricio, a priest, addresses a congregation of deportees in his native language, English, as an interpreter echoes him in Spanish in real time. He cautions his flock against despair, against losing hope, against suicide. Even as he knows they’ve all been ripped away from their lives already. Because outside of material support (which the church also offers), what else can he provide besides a loving community and faith that he believes has the power to transcend borders, even if its recipients cannot?
Call Center Blues is a showcase of a group of people doing their best to survive a bad situation, and that bad situation is a result of being economically scapegoated and deported from the United States so that rich people can convince poor people that the real reason why they’re getting economically fucked is because of other poor people who were brought here against their will as children. Because the price of a minor run-in with the law is a life sentence of exile because of the accidental circumstances of their birth. These people are the abused detritus of a lie – a lie so powerful that it sweeps aside every other lie that has been told to them. The lie that if you work hard in school in the only country you’ve ever known, you’ll have a chance to succeed. The lie that if you serve your country in the military as it blunders across the world on another ill-advised resource conquest, you’ll be protected against deportation and have a path to American citizenship. And the most powerful lie of all: that deporting you will do anything whatsoever to help the people who voted for it to happen.
Because that’s the lie of Donald Trump and ICE. They were never protecting jobs and never preventing crime. And they were never going after the “Bad Hombres” – at least, no more than local law enforcement was turning over to them on a silver platter. Because it turns out deporting violent felons is pretty uncontroversial even among liberals, and also requires very little effort by the feds. And now, with the gloves off, they’re relentlessly and lazily deporting…the lowest hanging fruit. The one-time DUIs. The people in family court. The parents showing up to pick up their kids from school. The patients showing up at the hospital for an injury or illness. The workers reported by their employers after making a fuss about abuses in the workplace, whose ultimate fallback is to simply make the troublemaker disappear with a phone call, invoking the awesome and corrupt power of the state, and knowing they will face no penalty whatsoever for the legal violation of hiring that “troublemaker” in the first place.
That young man turning the other cheek at the start of the film is a wishful dreamer. And he’s also better than me. Because I know Donald Trump doesn’t do empathy or regret, and sleeps like a tiny-handed baby every night. And he’s already been blessed quite enough. Damn Donald Trump. Damn his enablers. And damn every other cynical plutocrat who thought that amplifying that inept, gilded shitcan was a useful path to lower corporate taxes and higher rent from the serfs. They all made this happen. Their propagandists and supporters made this happen. America’s raging decline and ouroboros of racist lies made this happen. And we dare not look away from its victims.
Watch it here.
Directed by Casey Wilson
Written by Wilson and Laura Kindred
Runtime: 18 min
What a weird, honest, funny, and touching portrait of grief this is. One year on from the unexpected loss of their beloved wife and mother, Abby (Wilson) and her father Paul (Michael McKean) are…not doing well. Abby is in a deep depression and sleeping in the closet, and Paul seems to be an exceptionally manic version of himself. Chipper, upbeat, and getting a perm so he can look like President Andrew Jackson to commemorate (and spend) the $20 bill he found on the ground, he comes to Los Angeles to visit Abby, and a significant faux pas finally gives them the chance to have an honest conversation. This story is based on the loss of Wilson’s real mother Kathy, who died of a heart attack on vacation at 54, and the details of what ensues with her father…are apparently also based on true events. And what can I say about it? It just makes you want to give them both a great big hug. McKean is pitch-perfect in his role, and the personal and confessional nature of this tale is spelled out by Wilson’s own performance and soft directorial touch.
Watch it here.