Sin Cielo ()
Sin Cielo (Jianna S. Maarten)

By Gary M. Kramer.

There are 40 shorts screening in six programs (as well as in front of features) at this year’s AFI Fest presented by Audi. Here are ten highlights from the festival, which unspools November 14-21 in Los Angeles.

Sin Cielo is writer-director Jianna S. Maarten’s quietly powerful short, based on “true stories from La Frontera.” In a Mexican border town, teenage Memo (David Gurrola) is attracted to Delia (Fenessa Pineda). They hang out, much to her grandmother Josefa’s (Sofia Santi) chagrin. When the youths arrange to meet one morning, something unexpected happens. What makes this short so absorbing is not just Maarten’s immersing the viewer in this authentic world, but her masterful way of framing scenes to create emotion. Several shots take a child’s point of view, and when Memo and Delia meet under a parachute, it’s romantic. One of the most touching moments has Josepha and Memo embracing. But the tension builds as tragic events occur outside the frame and things get unsettling. Sin Cielo is beautifully photographed (by Marcin Banasiak), but ultimate quite disturbing as the story unfolds.

Anna, written and directed by Dekel Berenson, is a fantastic, slow burn drama about the title character (Svetlana Alekseevna Barandich) a heavyset, forty-something mother who works a dreary job in a butcher shop in Eastern Ukraine. She decides to participate in a matchmaking party, where American men look for lovers. However, while there is the possibility of a relationship, something gets lost in translation with the man Anna meets. Berenson provides a strong sense of place, and Barandich creates a palpable sympathy for the lonely Anna – watching her dance to lure a man’s interest is both sincere and heartbreaking. But when a conflict develops, Anna sneaks up on viewers and delivers an unexpected punch.

Another surprising short – albeit in a different way – is Deep Tissue. Viv (Meredith Alloway, who wrote and directed) is waiting for Sebastian (Peter Vack), her massage therapist. When he arrives, ominous music plays, and as Sebastian unpacks needles, Viv gets uneasy. However, as the massage begins, it is more sensual than sinister – until things take a turn that may not be as unpleasant as it seems. Deep Tissue has its tongue placed firmly in cheek and will delight audiences who go along with its uneasy ride.

Docking, by Trevor Anderson, is a slight and silly animated short that uses some rather graphic sexual imagery to reflect upon its filmmaker’s anxiety about dating. At 4 minutes, it’s a one-joke film, but most viewers will laugh at the payoff.

Wax Paul Now, is also a one-joke short, made by and starring Sophie Mann, Val Bodurtha, and Rebecca Shaw. These three friends campaign to get Madame Tussauds’ wax museum to house a statue of Paul Giamatti. They make some pretty shaky efforts to achieve their goal—including having fake delivery guys smuggle a wax Paul Giamatti they made into the museum. If this short feels amateurish, it does benefit from an amusing coda.

The playful Spanish import, Your Last Day on Earth, by writer/director Mark Martínez Jordán, is one of the best shorts in the festival. An inventive time-travel fantasy, it has a Zorro (Enric Auquer), a man with a fox head, going into the past to be with his wife one more time. While dubious at first, he agrees to certain conditions – breaking them, of course, as he comes to understand things more clearly once in the past. The film has smart engaging visuals, and is simultaneously heartfelt, charming, and even suspenseful as it becomes clear that things are, perhaps, not what they seem to be.

Another excellent entry is the observational documentary, Black Bus Stop, which takes place exclusively at the University of Virginia site that African American students describe as being “like a black red carpet.” It was a place to be seen. As a cacophony of voices emphasize the importance of the location, there is silence when the sound of a bus arrives. Soon, black fraternity and sorority groups gather at the space and perform songs and choreographed dances to commemorate the space. Directors Kevin Jerome Everson and Claudrena N. Harold keep their camera mostly fixed on the performances with a few close-ups from time to time. The result is both reverent and a revelation.

Elivia Shaw’s compassionate, vérité documentary, The Clinic, is an unflinching look at the admirable work of Dr. Marc Lasher who provides a much-needed free service – a needle exchange program from IV drug users in Fresno, CA. Lasher and his colleagues (all volunteers) counsel and care for various patients, treating everyone from a woman scared by her high blood pressure to a Vietnam vet looking to stop using with respect. Shaw’s impressive documentary puts a human face on the nation’s drug epidemic as it captures some very raw, painful, and emotionally powerful moments.

Exit 12 is a slick but important documentary short chronicling the efforts of marine Roman Baca, who founded a dance company, “Exit 12” in New York City, to help others make sense of the effects of war. His troupe’s work is impressive as excerpts of a performance featuring American soldiers and Muslim women on subway train illustrates. Moreover, as a mother of two deployed sons talks about her anxiety, or a veteran describes his addiction, depression, and suicidal thoughts, the healing power of Baca’s work (and workshops) comes across; dance gives expression and even liberation to the emotions that can overwhelm servicemen and woman and their families.

Carne, from Brazil, is an excellent animated documentary short that give five women the opportunity to talk about their body issues. All the stories are poignant and revealing. One woman reflects back on being fat as a young girl and her pride at long-distance running and the shame her mother made her feel about her body. Other women discuss puberty and menopause, and issues of aging. A black woman describes the hyper-sexualization of bodies like hers, as well as the dangers she has being a transwoman and the “pyramid of tolerance” in Brazilian society. The affecting voice-over narratives are accompanied by stop-motion and other stylized animated segments that put the universal stories these women recount into bold relief.

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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