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Experimentation in NYC: NYFF Shorts 2019

Mthunzi

Mthunzi

By Gary M. Kramer.

Two shorts programs at this year’s New York Film Festival are designed to provoke audiences. This is a welcome approach to short films, where the format encourages experimentation. As many of the films here attest, short films can yield some strong emotional responses by not following conventions.

“Shorts Program 3: Narrative” is a collection of seven international short films, several by notable feature filmmakers.

The program opens strongly with Emma Doxiadi’s Automatic, an intense short about two friends (Rommana Lobach and Katerina Zisoudi), who meet up one afternoon, see something disturbing, and suspect something sinister is afoot. As the young women become unsettled, Doxiadi ratchets up the tension. Just crossing a street creates considerable anxiety. It would spoil this terrific short to reveal any details, but the film, based on an actual event, has a nifty payoff.

Likewise, Mthunzi, directed by Tebogo Malebogo, from South Africa, has the title character (Nala Khumalo), passing by a house when a woman, Charity (Inge Beckmann), has a seizure. Helping Patricia (Jame-Lee Money) bring Charity inside, Mthunzi is asked to further assist Charity while Patricia tries to sort things out. Of course, no good deed goes unpunished. Malebogo’s sharp short create a real sense of unease but it never carries things too far, which is why it is so impressive.

Control Plan, from Brazilian filmmaker Juliana Antunes, is an amusing short about a woman whose phone’s teleportation app is on the fritz. Wanting to go to New York, she remains up in Brazil, where she meets another man whose service plan is also faulty. This witty commentary on technology features snippets of media images that are contrasted with a scene of nature that emphasizes the modern world’s dependency on digital experiences.

Nimic by Yorgos Lanthimos of Dogtooth and The Favourite fame, is an absurdist comedy about a cellist father (Matt Dillon) who ends up in a kind of loop with a woman (Daphne Patakia). Gorgeously lensed—Lanthimos employs several fish-eye camera frames—the film may not make complete sense, but it is hypnotic nonetheless, and viewers will have fun unpacking its symbols and meanings.

Arguably, the most stunning film in “Shorts Program 3” is Please Speak Continuously and Describe Your Experiences as They Come to You. Canadian filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg’s (Antiviral) remarkable sci-fi drama features Emily (Deragh Campbell), a psychiatric patient, describing her strange dreams to her doctor (Neil Bennett). This short achieves a hallucinatory quality that teases viewers with striking words and ideas. Filled with vivid and visceral images, and shot with color filters, and in-camera effects, this dazzling short creates an extremely sensory experience that is impossible to shake.

Also excellent is Tomas Woodroffe’s absorbing Chilean import, Austral Fever. When Octavio (Roberto Villena) is wounded during his visit with his friend Dani (Nicholas Sobarzo) in the mountains, Dani’s mother, Amanda (Francisca Gavilán) cares for him. The relationship that develops between them, however, is both soothing and eerily sexual. Woodroffe magnifies the drama with every shot, artfully framing the characters in ways that speak volumes about their hidden desires and emotions—despite very little actually being said. This moody film is especially gripping when Amanda tends to Octavio’s wound in a taut bedroom scene, but every sequence—from the fantastic opening shot, to a visit to a hot spring, or a car ride—is spellbinding.

The Marvelous Misadventures of the Stone Lady is Gabriel Abrantes’ (Diamantino) playful live-action story about the titular Louvre sculpture that comes to life (courtesy of CGI) and unwisely leaves the museum. The animation is well done, and the story, which involves the statue attending a protest rally, and having a subsequent encounter with the police, is both timely and clever.

The New York Film Festival’s “New York Shorts” program may feature films set in the city—four of the five boroughs are represented—but it’s less about the location and more about the filmmakers. The eight world premiere shorts are certainly a mixed bag, but this eclectic, experimental grouping should delight and frustrate viewers in equal measure.

The Program begins with Good News, Joe Stankus’s amusing comedy about Evan (Ben Fisher), a writer who is anxious to tell his husband Dan (Robert Spence) and their friends Andrew (Logan Cunningham) and Kate (Mariola Figueroa) some good, but his efforts to share his information get sidetracked. Stankus provides a nice set up, some genuine suspense, and a poignant payoff as this comedic drama unfolds. Fisher delivers a nicely calibrated performance.

Caterina, by Dan Sallitt, chronicles a series of encounters the title South American character (Agustina Muñoz) has in the city. These range from a tense situation in a bodega with a rude man (John Magary) to her helping a woman (Fran Smyth) with some paperwork. While Caterina is largely an examination of small moments and mini-dramas that inform a New York City transplant, Sallitt imbues his film with heart, and he coaxes a lovely, sympathetic performances from Muñoz.

Moving, by Adinah Dancyger, is slight but winning short about a woman (Hannah Gross) trying to single-handedly get her mattress up a curved staircase in a new apartment. It’s a one-joke story, that benefits from Gross conveying her exasperation and determination.

Foreign Powers also stars Gross as woman who recounts her dream, which takes place in a foreign city (that resembles New York). Director Bingham Bryant creates an interesting world that is both familiar and strange at the same time, and viewers who lean into this peculiar story may appreciate it as more than just a whimsical tale.

Two shorts in the program are quite challenging. the thing that kills me the most, by Jay Giampietro, is a mélange of people and voices that recount an off-putting experience. Likewise, The Sky Is Clear and Blue Today, by Ricky D’Ambrose, features an examination of the 9/11 tragedy through the lens of a (fake) German television production, complete with a chorus of children and a diorama-like tableaux.

Rounding out the program is Fit Model, by Myna Joseph (which was not available for preview) and Laying Out, a hyper-verbal, deadpan, and crude short by Joanna Arnow, about two mermaids (Michole Briana White and Arnow) having a candid conversation about oral sex, misogyny, and penis envy. Arnow makes her points about women’s roles and expectations in society in a blunt but forceful manner.

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2

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