By Gary M. Kramer.
The shorts programs at the 55th New York Film Festival are divided into three narrative sections: Narrative, Genre Stories, New York Stories, and there are some real gems among the fiction entries. There is also a Documentary program, but the non-fiction shorts were not previewed.
The Narrative film program is uniformly strong and entirely international. Eva Cvijanović’s Hedgehog’s Home, is the sole animated entry. A lovely stop-motion story about the title character who justifies where he lives to a fox, a wolf, a bear, among other forest animals. The animals are rendered in exquisite detail; viewers could practically count the 300 quills on the hedgehog. And a scene of the fox running through the forest is visually striking. The short’s entire narrative is composed of rhyming couplets, but this actually makes the fable of Hedgehog’s Home, adapted from a short story, more charming than twee.
All Over the Place is an ironic title for this Argentine short about Jimena (Agostina Luz López) who processes her break-up with her boyfriend in the apartment they used to share. Director Mariana Sanguinetti composes some interesting shots with her fixed camera, making this short, about the memories and mementos of a relationship, quite poignant and affecting.
A Gentle Night, which won the Palm D’Or for Best Short Film at Cannes this year, is writer/director Qiu Yang’s subtle, compelling drama about a mother (Li Shuxian) whose 13-year-old daughter is missing. Meeting with the police, and tracking down her daughter’s teacher leads to both revelations and discovery. Yang, like Sanguinetti, uses space to create or heighten emotion, shooting parts of A Gentle Night in close-up or from a distance to make the mother’s feelings more palpable and powerful.
Douggy is the weakest film in the program. The title character (Douglas Bottomley) is anxiously trying to reach Nancy (Mik Kuhlman) while working at a towing company. The film has a real sense of place, but its lack of urgency makes this character study uninteresting.
Arguably the best film in the Narrative Shorts programs is Scaffold. Director Kazik Radwanski films a pair of faceless construction workers, revealing their point of view as they repair on a Canadian woman’s house. Every shot provides a telling detail of their work: from passing up ladders, to nailing boards, painting, even getting coffee. There is an especially clever shot of one worker helping his employer hang a mirror. While there is tension that something might go wrong throughout, the only damage is done to a plant and a phone, both of which get knocked to the ground. Radwanski’s short may feel gimmicky – and perhaps it is – but it certainly yields insight into these men who seem anonymous.
Rounding out the program in Bonboné, a Palestinian/Lebanese short by Rakan Mayasi that depicts an unusual practice: that of Palestinian women’s efforts to conceive children by their husbands who are imprisoned in Israel. The film takes a rather conventional approach to its unusual story, building suspense as the man (Saleh Bakri) and his wife (Raya Meddine) exchange the necessary “goods” during a non-conjugal visit, and then creating a “race against the clock” plot with not unexpected drama. But the film’s point is more interesting than its execution.
The New York Shorts Program is an inclusive mix of African American, Latino, queer, and female stories, but the results are a mixed bag.
The darkly funny first entry, Unpresidented, captures the anxieties of New York City in the age of Trump. A man (Mike Swift) tells his friend Jay (Keith Poulson) about a wager he made that Trump would win the election. The story raises the point that New Yorkers might be living in a bubble compared to the rest of America, but there are important opinions expressed about foreigners, as well as reproductive and women’s rights. Director Jason Giampietro wisely keeps the politics on an even keel until the end, when he showcases demonstrators to represent the anger and frustration most of his film’s characters are feeling.
Cheer Up Baby is an impressionistic short about a woman (India Menuez) who is having a really bad day. Her encounter with a stranger on the subway sets off a series of anxieties that are reflected in her exchanges with others. While the film is a bit oblique, even frustrating in its storytelling, there are some haunting moments.
The Layover depicts two male flight attendants who live together as partners getting to spend a night together between shifts. Ashley Connor and Joe Stankus’ film presents the guys’ relationship without emphasizing their sexuality; instead, the focus is on the loss of their pet dog, an event that has them re-establishing the things they share. It’s a sweet, unassuming film that is distinguished by its simplicity, even if it does not amount to much.
My Nephew Emmett powerfully recounts the tragedy of Emmett Till, who was murdered in 1955 in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. This historical drama is well made, and well acted, but it seems out of place in a New York Shorts program.
The Road to Magnasanti is a peculiar, witty documentary by John Wilson that provides a possibility for the future of New York City as a place without sidewalks that turns into a ode to city life, featuring Subway car apartments to Bushwick II, a development of housing, office space, and entertainment that means never having to leave your house. There is even an amusing episode about how to visit the Empire State Building for free. Wilson eventually turns the camera on his current home, which is situated near a former Superfund site, that perhaps may reveal why he imagines a better future for the city.
Lastly, Mr. Yellow Sweatshirt is Pacho Velez and Yoni Brook’s amazing short about the title character trying to get through a New York City turnstile. Shot in one continuous overhead shot, the film is an allegory, a frustration comedy, and a moment of Zen, all in one nine-minute film.
Rounding out the narrative films, the Genre Stories program features mostly chilling tales. (One entry, Drip Drop, was unavailable).
The Australian entry, Creswick has Sam (Dana Miltins) helping her father (Chris Orchard) pack up his house, only to learn “he feels something else living here.” As this slow-burn drama leads to some pulse-pounding tension, Sam discovers a disturbing truth. This effective short may not pack quite the jolt writer/director Natalie James is aiming for, but it is still provides a reasonable explanation for the terror.
The Last Light is a suitably creepy short in which young Izabella (Izabella Limón) wanders off only to discover something that is far more disturbing than it seems. This Mexican shocker is short, sharp, and satisfying. To say more would spoil the film.
Birthday, from Italy, is an underwhelming tale about nefarious goings on at a hospital facility where a nurse (Roxane Duran) behaves badly. This short tries too hard to be edgy and comes off as uninspired.
Program, by Gabriel de Urioste, is a visually inventive short in which a couple (Nabil Vinas and Karen Eilbacher) may be breaking up, but things literally go haywire, with all kinds of technical glitches happening in their apartment. The issue may be a manifestation of their emotions, but, then again, maybe it is something else… de Urioste shows a light touch in his smart short.
Hombre, by Chilean filmmaker Juan Pablo Arias Munoz, has Ral (Daniel Candia) camping out with his son Miguel (Franco Tapia). Their trip gets spoiled after Miguel gets lost in the forest and encounters a monster. Miguel’s bad reaction to being frightened causes Ral to react badly. This story about masculinity culminates in an intense sequence in which Miguel confronts his demons. Munoz’s film becomes squirm-inducing as he artfully depicts the maschimo on display while also creating menacing sounds and claustrophobic visuals – even in wide-open spaces.
But the Genre Stories program’s best entry is Hitchhiker, Damien Power’s incredibly clever film made in 2015 that borrows dialogue from a dozen road movies (like Detour, Freeway, Road Games and The Hitcher) as it tells the taut story of a hitchhiker (Julian Garner), a man (Ben Wood), and another couple (Aaron Glenane and Emilie Cocquerel) who are all travelling on the same dangerous road at night. As various reversals of fortunes occur, Hitchhiker takes some narrative chances that payoff beautifully, if bloodily.
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.