The sixth annual Seattle Shorts Film Festival played at the SIFF Film Center this past weekend. I had a chance to preview some of the festival selections, which you can read about in my previous post.
Streets Don’t Love Me
Directed by James Winters
Music performed by TNT, Sir Mix-A-Lot, L.K.
The video is a competent execution of some pretty standard hip-hop tropes – a floating, spinning camera in front of singers with gold records and awards on the wall behind them. The subject matter? Get money, get fame, any way you can. We also see slick footage of the men driving around in cars, with a bit of amber-tinged overhead drone photography of Seattle streets for good measure. And I’d be lying if I said that all of this didn’t please me as a Seattle critic for sheer novelty’s sake, even if it might not impress the spoiled critics from NYC or LA who have presumably seen such a thing before. TNT is a capable and genuinely catchy performer, but Sir Mix-A-Lot is what makes this song truly special. And if there’s one thing that the the man born as Anthony Ray makes abundantly clear the moment he starts smoothly blasting into the mic with his stylish top-hat and signature goatee, it’s that he’s still got it. Is he suckin’ up game? Yes sir. And he’s expounding some history for these youngbloods. The song, and its smooth-voiced chorus by L.K., get downright wistful by the end – these men lament the passage of time and think upon an uncertain future. The themes may be common, but they feel sincere – and sorely needed right now.
Watch it here.
Directed by Jeremy J. Hawkes
Music performed by Adalia Tara
I’m not a music critic, but I’m going to try my best here, because this is an odd, mostly a cappella, song that I quite liked in the end, and I think I’ll struggle to explain exactly why. The singer, Adalia Tara, appears in a series of shots wearing various face paints, forming a minor-keyed, percussive harmony with herself (in that deliberately unnerving YouTube-style). The background effect is genuinely ominous, so when Tara bursts out the heroic choral vocals, it creates an instant catharsis as she commands the listener’s respect and attention. And yet, she delivers this demand from multiple vulnerable stances, backlit, kneeling in a robe, and alternating with another interesting shot, which featured no visible singing whatsoever. She writhes and dances, alternately in a squat and on her knees before a black curtain, with a slightly soft focus, her hair unnaturally attacking her head to the beat of the song as she floats out of focus and into the background. The full effect – that of a human as a herky-jerky puppet – set against vocals that proclaim that the broken singer was “never yours to fix”, is hauntingly beautiful.
Watch it here.
Music performed by Derek Reckley
The singer identifies himself at the outset as a pile of clichés. As the guitar twang’d to life, I initially couldn’t argue, and waited for the aggressively generic country song – featuring a middle-aged singer with an awkward mustache making upbeat love to a muscle car in the desert – to be over. This song actively irritated me even as I hated myself for finding it catchy and shared it with my Carolina wife when I got home. And then he hurtles his wedding ring, it lands in a tight closeup, and one silhouette fades into another and then another. The tires grind, the fighter jets soar overhead, the preposterous poetic voiceover begins, and the perils of Poe’s Law become apparent as always. As the singer wipes the sweat off his brow with the American flag, I was 80% sure it was a pastiche, like Zladko or Gunther or Dewey Cox or Borat. He’s in on the joke. Come on. He has to be. Maybe 70%? This is ridiculous and enjoyable. 63% tops. To be continued? Fuck, I have no idea.
Watch it here.
Calling Me Home
Directed by Tonya Skoog
Music performed by Jessica Lynne
Odd juxtaposition of an upbeat Northwest country song – performed by Jessica Lynne with some slick guitar work standing beside a pickup truck at a lake – with a harrowing dialogue-free drama about an imminent high school grad (Rachelle Henry) finding out that she’s adopted, and embarking on a search for her birth parents. The drama is essentially a silent film playing beneath the song, relying entirely on visual beats (notes and printed materials) and the actors’ performances to carry the emotion of the story and song, starting from the happy family and imminent graduation to the adoption twist. I’ve never quite seen a music video like this – except perhaps attached to a feature soundtrack in the ’90s – it’s a odd hybrid, which is, frankly, exactly the sort of thing I hope to find at a shorts festival. The parts and the whole work quite well, and it all adds up to a tale that feels real enough to be autobiographical for someone involved.
Watch it here.
Directed by Kyle Woodiel
Music performed by My Body Sings Electric
I’ll skip to the meat of this- much of this video takes place on the gray-sand beaches of the Pacific Northwest, and virtually all of the beach cinematography actively bothered me. The soft focus, speed-ramping, and color manipulation conspired to make a place I love look as generic and bland as possible. I couldn’t connect with the singer’s long lost love when she was in this place, because the artifice of the entire shoot took me right out of her performance. Everything at the police station worked much better, including lead singer Brandon Whalen‘s powerful vocals in front of a suspect line of visibly silent backup singers and catchy, but entirely off-screen electric guitar riffs. All of the on-the-nose imagery seemed determined to drag the love interest back to the beach – as the singer says, “You pick me up”, bam – she’s back on the beach picking up sand. Some of these shots (such as the one above) looked difficult, and probably took a talented cinematographer to pull off. But they amounted to nothing more than a giant, ambiguous distraction. This is a solid song inside of a video that actively and repeatedly made it worse.
Watch it here.
Directed by Brady Hall
Music performed by Ephrata
This song starts as the very definition of background music – wispy, Enya-type stuff that plays over the emotional climax of a Grey’s Anatomy episode. Then there’s blood dripping sideways from multiple hands, the lead singer is a vampire, everyone’s covered in blood, and a series of shots ensue, oscillating wildly back and forth between hilarious and grotesque. The rotating four-way split shot of heads dripping blood in all four directions was particularly bizarre (and I resisted the temptation to include it above). While grotesquerie isn’t a dealbreaker for me (see my previous praise for the manic weirdos of Die Antwoord), it doesn’t hold any intrinsic appeal for me, and the imagery got a bit repetitive over a song that was equally tedious. As the bridge says, “They don’t know what to say to you, they don’t have the slightest clue.” That ably sums me up.
Watch it here.
Behind the Wall
Written and directed by Bat-Sheva Guez
This experimental short features an injured ballerina (Alexandra Turshen) who has just moved into an old apartment building as she recuperates from a twisted ankle (or some other injury which requires wearing a surgical boot). Having worn one of these boots personally for six weeks once, I immediately bought into the impact on this woman’s life, but the film accentuates it further with the odd, but apropos choice of having her remain completely mute for the entire film. This device is clear, and functions quite well as a mechanism to explore the dancer’s isolation and artistic stagnation as she tackles the long, boring process of recovery. And this is before she discovers the magical holes in her apartment wall that allow her to see her neighbors (Karen Lynn Gorney and Lou Patane) and…herself (also Turshen) in whimsical dance-o-vision. The sound design during these sequences is masterful (and made me glad to be seeing the film in a theater with surround-sound), with the building’s creaks and bangs providing a rhythmic soundtrack for the characters to dance to. This is quite literally the premise of a horror or psychological film put to downright delightful use. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but as Turshen meets her neighbors (who live down the hall, not through the wall she’s been surveilling them through), I just found myself smiling the whole time as the actors performed the delicate vocal dance of interrupting Turshen in perfect cadence to prevent her from responding to the barrage of well-meaning questions for the new girl.
More info here.
Directed by Natali Voorthuis
Music performed by The Kik
Simple, fun, and incomplete. The Kik, a Dutch band, reminds me – like Japan’s The Wild Ones before them – that the ’60s beat rock style is catchy in a way that transcends language and time. The song is the upbeat lament of a poor young man with the misfortune to fall in love with a woman already in a relationship. It has the added dimension – only modern insofar as it’s discussed in the open like it ain’t no thing – that the object of his affections is a lesbian (or at least is in a same-sex relationship). And that’s about it. The singer rails merrily against Cupid for being so mischievous as to inflict a doomed crush upon him, and it feels like there’s a third verse missing where the singer gets on with his life. But then, I suppose The Beatles were never really about the three-act structure either. The animation, in a crude Flash-style, was quite fun, and included amusing renditions of Cupid’s other misfired arrows, including one that forces a whale to fall in love with…the planet Mars? Douglas Adams would approve.
Watch it here.
One of them Days
Directed by Cole Brewer
Written by Brewer and Baylee Sinner
Music performed by Lanford Black
This airy college-rock anthem is fine, but the video made it better. The film tells the story of a band having a house party and going on the road, but each shot contains a multitude of implied stories. We meet each band member (and perhaps a few strays), identified on-screen by a single stereotype (The Douche, The Flirt, The Caretaker, etc.) – but every shot of these people told a bit more about them through their performances and invited me to speculate further. One member of the band is clearly not enjoying himself, which is an odd thing to see in a party video, and kept me wondering. I particularly liked the moment when the group mom/Caretaker (Kyle Sinner) squirts everyone with hand sanitizer for an impromptu road bath before a very brief (literally 30 seconds long) performance beneath a freeway overpass that caps off the video. And everyone looks very put-together for it, for having had such a long day and night.
Watch it here.
Before I Die
Directed by Katherine Joy McQueen
Music performed by South of Roan
Look, I love a harmonic duet, particularly with a wide gulf in vocal pitch (usually, but not exclusively, male-female), and this was no exception. South of Roan are a pair of lovely and complementary voices, and the video has significantly better cinematography than some of the others here. That said, I didn’t care for the song or the video. I’ve always found this sort of upbeat death-worship a bit cheesy and off-putting – and this is a song that literally ends with, “And I pray she dies right next to me.” Not exactly the proclamation of love that the video – a great big pile of narratively-ambiguous backwoods imagery, plus furniture-building – is trying to sell me on.
Watch it here.
Lay Me Down
Directed by Tatjana Green & Nazar Melconian & Matt Barnett
Music performed by Fortunate Ones
Now that’s more like it. This video was shot in a static location – a church blooming with almost entirely natural light – but as I seek to describe it further, I find I’m hitting many of the same beats as South of Roan‘s country ballad above. This is another upbeat harmonic duet that’s ostensibly about death – but between the two, this one seems like it actually has something interesting to say. This Newfoundland pair stands back-to-back and belts out the chorus together, but then they perform alternating solo verses. The lyrics – which seem to tell the tale of a mother and father reassuring their daughter that her long-lost love will safely return – evoke a kind of hope amid desperation, like some calamity is waiting to descend upon the family, that they’re desperately and futilely trying to escape. And it’s all very catchy and performed with just the right mix of aggression and sincerity. The vocals are rendered in AM radio static, and the upbeat folk rock style that lands somewhere between The White Stripes and at least one version of The Decemberists. Most enjoyable.
More info here.
So it Goes
Written and directed by Justin Carlton
In this short, Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays a singer-songwriter dealing with a bout of writer’s block in her home studio. After staying up all night and blowing off plans with her sister (clearly not for the first time), she wanders to a lovely park and finds her muse – an unnamed puckish figure in a suit who is attached to a bicycle with a U-Lock. The stranger is played by Ryan Kattner, who also wrote the film’s original music – and the magical realism ensues quickly, as Winstead and Kattner immediately begin a choreographed song-and-dance number set to the music of Van Morrison, and it is magnificent.
My only real beef with this film is that it changed its title from its original Kickstarter pitch. It’s not that Studio Apartment was such a striking title, but a cursory google search (which I used to find the website below) indicates there are approximately ten billion gazillion short films called So It Goes already in existence, and it’s not a title that says very much. This film is a taut little musical delight – and the filmmaker shouldn’t have gone out of his way to make it sound trite. I didn’t mean to rhyme there, but…so it goes.
More info here.
Last Night in Edinburgh
Directed by Bita Shafipour
Written by Shafipour and Christopher M. Boyd
Before I discuss this film, here’s a little free advice for any festival programmers out there. This film was the first in a block called Raising Awareness. It may just be the glut of fake news on Facebook during this election cycle, but I’m just gonna go ahead and say, “awareness” is overrated. Empathy, rationality, understanding, intellectual curiosity? All fine. But people’s attention spans are finite, and by announcing “awareness” as the highest ambition of this block, you’re essentially telling me in advance that all of these films will be Very Special Episodes that I can watch, feel feelings about, and immediately forget. Message films are fine. But in my experience, it’s better when they sneak up on you a bit.
Case in point, Last Night in Edinburgh is a solid family drama about an Indian family in Scotland, and it announced its intentions in the very first scene as a film with an Important Message. That the message is about human trafficking didn’t make it any less clunky. In the scene above, one of the daughters, Zahra (Hiftu Quasem) has a bizarre back-and-forth with her Scottish boyfriend (Ikram Gilani) about a lesson they’d apparently learned recently, that forced marriage and abduction are “still a major problem in certain communities”, and that if you’re about to be abducted out of the country as a young UK girl, you should carry a spoon in your underwear so that it will set off the airport metal detector, as a final salvo to alert the authorities. It’s an entirely useful and helpful message that lands much better when it’s revealed naturalistically at the end of the film. And amid laughing banter between a pair of teenagers, it felt about as naturalistic as product placement for Subway on this blog. That’s Subway. Eat Fresh (Alternate slogan: “Look, we didn’t know. We make sandwiches. We’re not detectives”).
I feel as if I’m harping on this point, but the fact is, this was part of a block of semi-didactic films that mostly managed to deliver their messages less awkwardly, and the film is a pretty well-rendered family drama apart from this. Zahra and her younger sister (Hannah Ord) are about to be shipped out of the country to marry much older men, and their parents (Amir Rahimzadeh and Maryam Hamidi) are not only complicit in this sale of their flesh and blood, but they spend much of the film trying to convince the girls that it is an honor, and they should be happy. It’s disturbing to behold, and all of the actors pull off the tension marvelously.
More info here.
Directed by Long Tran
Let’s have some real-talk here for a second. Transgender people aren’t new, but they’re conceptually new to a lot of people this year, and the cisgendered community is still learning the proper language to talk about (and to) them. And against this backdrop, I’ve seen more than a few documentaries of this sort – essentially biopics of a young trans person who is exploring or explaining their new identity. At this point, I’m just happy to see one of these portraits where the story being told is mostly a happy one. Brooklyn (née Bruce) Sabado Buenaventura is a recent high school grad from a Seattle suburb who identifies as a transgender girl, and as told in this 4 1/2 minute documentary (also made by high school students), I’m left inescapably with the impression that she has had a decent life so far. We even see footage of her being made homecoming king and also queen to a cheering gymnasium. And this was immensely satisfying to see, even if, “Teen girl has a mostly okay childhood” really shouldn’t have to be such a “man bites dog” story in 2016.
The most compelling monologue is when Brooklyn explains how she reconciles her faith (and the various people within it who treat her badly) with her gender identity. And she seems to have a healthy attitude about it – that being yourself isn’t a choice, and can never be a sin. We see much of the story filtered through Brooklyn’s YouTube and Instagram channels, and she uses a bit of that characteristic language as well (“I still have my haters”), and what I was left with was an overwhelming hope that she’s as happy as her warm smile suggests. This is a simple story, told mostly from Bruce/Brooklyn’s perspective (she goes alternately by both names). I have to know, as both an optimist and a jaded adult, that Brooklyn’s life is far less simple than a short documentary can tell, but Trapped is ultimately satisfying in its simplicity.
And Long Tran? Let me speak directly to you for a moment. I also made films in high school, but the tools were much cruder, and the results were far less polished. Your lighting, composition, and sense of pace are solid. Keep learning and keep making films.
Watch it here.
Written and directed by Steven Murashige
This is obscene. As I watched this story, a well-acted, well-shot drama about a family struggling to deal with the mother (Ashli Dowling)’s Multiple Sclerosis using an ineffective, unscientific, painful, and dangerous treatment of applying bee-stings to her spine, that was the phrase that popped to mind, and stayed in mind as I glared at the screen for the duration of the film. It didn’t matter to me that the child (Nikki Hahn)’s pain and courage, or the father (Kenzo Lee)’s love, felt unwavering and authentic. That the family’s desperation felt real. Because this played like propaganda, and I kept waiting for the moment when the mother would suddenly get up and start walking as the treatment miraculously starts working.
That moment never came. After a well-rendered dramatic climax in which the child is forced to drive both of her parents to the hospital, what popped up instead was a title card from the writer/director, dedicating the film to his parents, who battled MS by each other’s side for 47 years. And the film instantly went from obscene to tragic to…kind of poignant. I should probably mention, the internet has put me relentlessly on guard against unscientific medical practices ever since Andrew Wakefield first lied to the world about vaccines causing autism. As people bandy about the disingenuous rhetoric of “What’s the harm?” in order to peddle their own nonsensical “alternative” miracle cure to an intractable disease, I can provide innumerable real-world answers – the blood of needlessly dead children and adults who could – in most cases – have been saved or had their life improved with real medicine. What I’m admitting here is, my opposition to this film was transparently ideological. And in that opposition, I did the film a disservice. Venom Therapy depicts a labor of love in the service of family, and it never crossed the line that I assumed it was edging toward – inventing a fictitious happy ending.
I’ll let Murashige explain himself.
“It can be so isolating for those with MS and their family members because the experience and life-changes brought on by MS are so profound and so unique. I hope this film allows others to feel that they are not alone in their struggle and that it sheds a sliver of light on the experience of life with MS. If this film can do that in some small way, perhaps my parents can feel that their suffering has not been in vain.”
I feel anger and pity for the pain that the fictionalized mother endures. Perhaps some of it was needless. But much of it was inevitable. There is truth and poignancy here, even if the level of objectivity is uncertain. And that truth is in the love depicted between these family members who are doing the best they can, and the son who is struggling to tell his family’s story.
More info here.
Kayla (Lizzie Lee) is a Chinese-American high school senior at a mainly white high school who is considering getting double eyelid surgery. This was a beauty standard I had been aware of, as there are many East Asian pop stars who have famously (allegedly) gotten the surgery to look more “Western”. I have no earthly idea whether this standard of beauty originated in the US or Asia, but I will say, the film depicted two things masterfully as it explored this cosmetic notion in the context of an American high school. First, Asians are seemingly the last group remaining in the US that it’s relatively socially acceptable to mock, stereotype, alternately sexualize or desexualize depending on the context, etc. And second, white people can be real experts at gaslighting minorities. Make a racist joke, lament political correctness, then tell em to calm down as they react like humans. It’s easy to see the resonance of this pattern this year, and the film makes this point well without feeling didactic. Indeed, the dialogue feels quite naturalistic, and this plays mostly like an ordinary coming-of-age film amid Kayla’s dilemma. Apart from Lee herself (who ably sells it), Rachelle Henry (who also appeared in Calling Me Home above) is a particular delight as Kayla’s best friend, and it is between these two that much of the film’s emotional range comes into play. These two are able to be more honest with each other than with anyone else in the film, and that level of candor isn’t always pretty.
More info here.
Piece of Cake
Written and directed by Ella Lentini
This is a satisfying love story told through flashbacks, right as it starts to get rough in the present day. Ever since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this media res romantic storytelling has been a favorite tool of mine, and the film manages to sell a meet-cute at a costume party quite well in a limited space of time, owing a great deal to the ambiance and chemistry between the characters, Alex (Lentini) and Jessie (Shannon Beveridge). The editing is quite slick, cutting seamlessly between the dour present and blissful past (my favorite cut was from Jessie cracking an egg…to Jessie cracking an egg in happier times). Their conflict is that Jessie is still in the closet with her parents, who are about to visit them in New York. They know about her significant other, Alex…but they think she’s a man.
The film’s website prominently mentions National Coming Out Day, so it’s pretty clear who the target demographic is for the film’s message. The dilemma is ultimately quite satisfying. Explicit metaphors always put me on guard, but the titular piece of cake works rather well for the short-form medium. Cake is a fine stand-in for home, family, and domesticity – and Jessie’s choice to either reinforce or blow up her parents’ expectations of her as a young [straight] woman living on her own is essential to the character’s dilemma. She can still deliver that cake to her parents, even if it doesn’t quite meet their old-fashioned expectations. And if they love their daughter, they’ll take a bite and be glad of it.
More info here.
Bunee: The Boy from Constanta
Directed by Bunee Tomlinson
A compelling personal narrative about a boy adopted from Romania at the age of six. Under Ceaușescu’s communist government, all forms of birth control were banned in Romania, and the entirely expected result was a glut of overcrowded, substandard orphanages. I visited a handful of these orphanages myself in 2001, and – at least for the ones I saw – the conditions had improved significantly. But this is a look back to the early 1990s, right after the communist government had fallen – and things were in bad shape. The story is mostly told through home movies (which gradually improve in quality and resolution over the course of Bunee’s childhood), intercut with interviews with his parents explaining what it was like raising a child plucked away from everything he had ever known. It’s a harrowing tale of love, made so by the parents’ confident retelling – in fact, the film feels mostly like Tommy and Susan Tomlinson‘s story, since Bunee is a child having a tricky upbringing for most of it, and he doesn’t really take the reins explicitly until he is revealed (through a series of photos) to have a escalating interest in film as he becomes a teenager and then an adult.
Bunee Tomlinson is the director of this film, so it’s entirely his story. But by telling it in such a third-person, hands-off manner for so much of the film’s runtime, he invites introspection on his parents’ part about what the hardest parts were about raising him. Some of the film’s most touching moments come from his parents’ moving reflections on Bunee remembering or rehashing something from the orphanage, explicitly or implicitly. His mother tells of him throwing a sippy cup on the ground, and looking at her expectantly, as if – she tears up while saying this – there had been no one to do that for him at the orphanage. It’s unclear whether this is true or not. It’s unclear whether Bunee left it in as confirmation, or because his mother’s love for him was the truth of that scene. But either way, the moment was powerful. There was a full cycle of appreciation and backlash on Richard Linklater‘s 12-year opus, Boyhood, but what ultimately makes that film so poignant is not its script, but rather our instinctual and cultural affinity for watching a child grow up, even when it’s fictionalized. That’s the monomyth – family, life, and a dream of a happy child becoming a happy adult. It’s the only story that we all strive to experience personally, and it’s a powerful thing to see rendered in short form, with the storyteller revealed to be its very subject. This one stuck with me.
More info here.