By Gary M. Kramer.
The Tribeca Film Festival sadly did not take place this year because of the global pandemic, but the festival’s shorts programs, curated by Sharon Badal and Ben Thompson were available for press. Badal, Thompson, and their team winnowed more than 6,100 entries down to 64 shorts from 20 countries. There would have been 46 world premieres and 40% of the directors are women.
The curator bemoans that not only did the pandemic cause her to “Lose out on the chance to meet these filmmakers and share this experience with them.” Badal said, “They become friends, alumni, and connections. We so carefully curated these programs and were so excited to have the filmmakers here. That’s so disappointing. After having all of their films in my heart for so many months, I will miss not meeting them in real life.”
The programming this year included a strong mix of documentary profiles, music-themed shorts, international films, narrative shorts, comedy shorts, a science fiction program, and the annual New York shorts program.
Badal chatted via Zoom about what should have been.
We’ve talked about diversity before, but this year was amazing in terms of stories featuring people of color. Don’t Look Now is a narrative collection with several excellent films. The Cypher, about a rapper who comes into conflict before a big battle; No More Wings, about two friends meeting before diverging; Last Ferry from Grass Island, which was an intriguing thriller. These shorts thatshows people in moments of crisis or change. Can you talk about these entries?
I really like the fact that with the accessibility to technology, we’re getting so many voices, and these voices can now be global because of the way we deliver film. These voices also reflect the diversity, not just of the directors, which we have a good representation, but also the characters, that are written fictionally—like the rapper in The Cypher or the two friends in No More Wings. What we are seeing now, which is so amazing, is authenticity in storytelling because the story is coming from the worlds of these writer/directors who can bring these stories to fruition. This was not the case when you needed money and equipment to make films. That is consciously reflected in our programming. We want to tell different stories.
Last Ferry from Grass Island was a student film. I like that in our programing, you don’t know which films are student films. If you can seamlessly integrate it, and not marginalize it, that gives the filmmaker a great deal of potential. We never segregate them, and I like that they and play a part in the regular programs.
Likewise, the doc program No Surrender, and the narrative program Without Borders,showcase people and worlds that are often unseen. Both the documentary Tā Moko and the narrative short, Liliu, transported viewers to New Zealand indigenous cultures, revealing tribal practices and laws, respectively. Another narrative short, The Black Veil, concerned a woman in Qatar. Do you feel a responsibility to showcase works that reveal something new or different?
Yes! I was on the jury for Hawaii Film Festival in November, and I was interested in going there and see films from the Pacific Rim and indigenous cultures. That’s where I saw Tā Moko and Liliu. Ben found The Black Veil. We feel our jobs are not to educate people, but to come up with a program of diverse stories and that should include work from regions that audiences don’t necessarily have a chance to experience. I think it’s really important to get out of our bubble and especially our “entertainment bubble,” and oftentimes, shorts are the first experiences audiences have with a film from a particular region—like a Middle Eastern film with a woman as a main character. But you don’t want to force-feed an audience. You want them to have a great experience. We have to consciously think about interweaving unusual international stories with ones in English and a familiar location, so the audience doesn’t get put off. That is a delicate balance. We spend a whole month curating after we make selections putting them together and thinking about them. It is so delicate because you want your audience to have a great experience and want to see another shorts program. It’s an art.
What films pushed the envelope for you in terms of form or content?
I don’t know if we [Ben and I] considered that consciously when we are programming. It’s all about feeling the film gives us. Then we look at them as a group and see what works or doesn’t. But we’ve always been looking for different ways of storytelling. Documentaries are usually traditional, and linearly constructed. Solitary had interesting camera angles that makes for interesting storytelling. The way it is shot is part of why we like it, but that’s not the whole reason.
Solitary put a face on incarcerated in lockdown and captured their mindset in a palpable way. But this is what I appreciated about Live and Learn, the doc program showcases lives not generally seen on screen. I loved Mr. Somebody, which humanized a gang member in Watts; Betrayal told a true story that one would think would only happen in a movie; and Crescendo! and Unnur were heartfelt portraits. These films showed me people and worlds I’d never see otherwise. What inspired you about these films?
I think it’s about the subject of each one of these documentaries are interesting people that I’d like to sit and talk with and ask more questions. For documentary shorts, like the ones in this program, if you can grab me that quickly and, like you said, get me into your world—a world I’m not privy to—and I feel such a connection that I want to learn more about their life, then these portrait pieces really work. They give you a feeling. If I met the Solitary filmmaker, or the subject of Mr. Somebody, I would want to ask them more. It’s hard as a filmmaker to do a short documentary portrait piece without telling too little or without there being enough of the person—or personality—to engage you. Portrait pieces are very hard. The question becomes, “Why should I care?”
That’s a great point, because many of the shorts were films that I actually wish were longer. From the New York program, three come right to mind: Sloan Hearts Neckface, arguably my favorite short this year—it’s epistolary, and a triumph of style and editing, featuring a shifting point of view; Gets Good Light,which packs so many themes about immigration and class into 16 minutes; and Shadows, about the fraught relationship between two siblings. Thesewere all really absorbing, thoughtful films—again, featuring minority characters we don’t often see as leads in films. What were your thoughts on this?
Sloan Hearts Neckface is great because it tells a story in a way that is different and unexpected. The shorts were shorter this year, and I like that filmmakers are embracing efficiency in storytelling. Don’t tell it in 20 minutes if you can tell it in 12 and get the same impact. That’s the hardest thing—to self-discipline. If a scene doesn’t propel the story, I don’t care how hard it was to shoot it, take it out. I’ve seen deliberate thinking about making the film efficient and getting rid of the fat. Tell the story! Get in, hit me, and get out. That’s why some of the most formidable contenders are the ones with a contained running time.
Another film I didn’t want to end was the enchanting When I Write It, about two friends in Oakland. Filmmaker Nico Opper has such an engaging way of telling this story. I loved hanging out with these people. This short was in the fabulous music doc program Rhythm of Life. I also enjoyed My Father the Mover, about an African dancer, and I shamelessly loved Motorcycle Drive By, about Third Eye Blind’s singer Stephan Jenkins titular song, because it just leaned into all these rock and roll tropes. Can you talk about putting together this program?
I love that Jenkins wrote that song at French Roast in the Village—it had such a New York connection. He was going to perform it acoustically at the screening. That documentary is beautifully shot. He’s in quarantine in San Francisco, and did an acoustic version on his front stoop and posted it on Facebook. My Father the Mover and When I Write It could have been longer. I wanted more time with those characters.
We didn’t go in anticipating a music program but once we had one or two that we felt this is coming together. The programs don’t create themselves, but in a way, thematically, they do. When you see the gentle transition from film to film, Welcome to a Bright White Limbo in this programis a different character, and one we don’t see. That film has an unusual cadence. The music in each film in this program is very different from the others. We program hope and optimism and good vibe, and we want audiences to feel good. That doesn’t mean no drama, but there is hope at the end of the harshest drama. In the past two years, given the climate, and try to stay buoyant with these programs and look for a journey within each program that is texturally different and thematically hopeful.
That is a good segue for Choose Your Battles the program of political documentaries. From Vote Neil, about a gay marine campaigning in Arkansas, to The Undocumented Lawyer, about an attorney who fights for an immigrant client’s justice, to USA V. Scott, about humanitarian rights, these films are all very inspiring, and they provide calls to action. Do you think these films are being made to address political polarization in our nation?
Maybe this program wouldn’t have come to fruition if it wasn’t an election year. We had a lot of political docs come in. We want to respect the zeitgeist, and there are so many issues to be concerned about. They came together nicely because each film was about courage. Each situation is different, but they reflect something important. But that wasn’t why we liked each individual film. It’s just how they came together. USA V Scott has people in the town saying why wouldn’t I give someone food or a drink of water? I think we want to respect bravery in the face of difficult circumstances whatever they may be.
Another theme, of technology malfunctioning, was a thread in the narrative sci-fi program, Update Required. System Error, A Better You, and TOTO, were variations on this idea, but then you included Abducted, a nifty spin on a bad date; and Jack and Jo Don’t Want to Die, which was a sentimental, life-affirming story about two lonely souls. What can you say about this program?
Technology is manageable for shorts now. It’s not too expensive for filmmakers anymore. They have the tools to match what their imaginations are writing. They can create the work without looking amateur, low budget, and cheesy. That’s been such a change. The production design in System Error was terrific. That short and TOTO are my sense of humor. That’s what’s evolving—sci-fi short films don’t have to be desperate and cataclysmic. These are simple stories set in a time that’s not today. They are funny, and poignant, and about relationships and not about technology. That’s been an interesting thing that’s evolved over the past several years. This is a human program. It wasn’t about technological failure, but how we connect with AI and computers, whether that’s Alexa or a Michelin-man robot helping grandma make pasta in TOTO. What’s interesting is how dependent we are on technology and how it becomes a lifeline. The thread to me is loneliness and connection.
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.