By Gary M. Kramer.
Two worthwhile narrative short films – Supermarket by Rhonda Mitrani, a Miami-based filmmaker, and Canoe Poems by Adrián Cárdenas – premiere March 13 at the Miami Film Festival as part of the program, Supermarket and More Short Films. Both take mind-bending approaches to their stories and play with time and space.
Supermarket is Rhonda Mitrani’s satiric short film about Jasmine (Heather Lind) entering a supermarket where she is confronted by images and ideas about pregnancy. One of several intrusive women is Eve (Helène York), whose perkiness belies condescension. As Jasmine tries to navigate the crowded, colorful aisles, she encounters issues and individuals that influence her thinking about being pregnant. Mitrani spoke about how she crafted her super short film.
What prompted you to tell this story and take the satiric/comic way that you did?
After having incredibly surreal experiences with pregnancy and miscarriages, and becoming very involved in that community, my instinct was to make a documentary. But this story came to me quickly, and I thought, Wow, what a different approach to telling a story about something that’s very serious! It’s more dynamic and fun to tell a serious story with dark undertones in a comedic way. It was a lot of fun for me to make fun of the pregnancy industry in this way.
Being pregnant is a positive, wonderful experience, but you are constantly coming to grips with it. You can’t give it back. You have moments of anxiety. It’s like a job that continues through the night. Every woman experiences this when they are pregnant.
Did you have any particular cinematic influences?
Alice in Wonderland, Amelie, and Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich. Those kinds of films that lend themselves to a more creative way of telling a story. The writing was originally more absurd.
Your film uses space and visual effects to make the shelves look colorful and the aisles claustrophobic. There are symbols (eggs) and metaphors. Can you talk about your visual approach to the material?
I wanted the film to be overwhelming in respect to all of the items that appear to Jasmine, but also to be a fantasy world. The objects relate to the issues, so I had rows of books piling in like a train pulling into a station, because even if you read 26 books on how to bring a child into the world, there’s no one right answer
How did you design the supermarket?
I knew there was this supermarket in Miami, and it was clean, color coded, and organized. It was too brilliant. A lot of it what is in the film was there and it was how I envisioned things in terms of how women and the industry approaches pregnancy. Mostly, pregnancy is viewed from a medical point of view and as a consumer industry. I find that the industry monetizes pregnancy. It’s catered to the masses. What do I need to buy to be a good parent? This industry capitalizes on these needs, and this for first time parents, they are navigating through this life experience.
Your film follows the standard setup, suspense, payoff approach to narrative, yet you throw viewers into this situation that is as surreal for them as it is for Jasmine. Can you discuss that?
It’s like Scrooged. Here’s this person who is the farthest thing to where she is in her life to becoming a parent. I wanted her to have the experience of what to feel like if you felt pregnant and have to navigate that world. It doesn’t have to be that complicated. It needs to change. She’s not in that place in her life. I wanted it to finish with where she is in touch with what’s authentic and most important. One of the things I wanted was for the central character to have a strong character arc with conflict and resolution.
The film’s editing is key; you play with time, fantasy, and reality. Can you describe how you developed the story?
I did not want it to be as if time had stopped in the film, and I didn’t make it like no time had passed. I wanted time to bleed everywhere. I let time bend. I wanted to allude to a fantasy world and we keep it ambiguous about how much time has passed.
What was your goal in making this short?
I am more an editor than a director. I wanted to make a short film about a social topic that I’m passionate about. I wanted to tell a story that is close to my heart.
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Canoe Poems is Adrián Cárdenas’s surrealistic and affecting short about Justin (Justin Mark), a young man who going through a bad patch. A mouse has invaded his apartment and he is still recovering from his breakup with his girlfriend, Lauren (Lauren E. Banks). Through memories, realistic scenes, and flights of fancy, Justin tries to come to terms with his frustrating situations. He seeks wisdom from his late father, Arcadio (Arcadio Ruiz-Castellano), who speaks Spanish and perhaps inspires him to create poetry. The filmmaker made Canoe Poems at NYU, where he is now completing his thesis. He spoke about making his short film via Skype.
Before you made films, you played professional baseball. How did you go from being a pro athlete to becoming a filmmaker?
I didn’t think I was going to go into film when I left baseball. School was important to me, and I bypassed school to play professionally. I loved the game, and I got to take care of myself financially. But that decision not to go to school weighed on me heavily over the years. I was always interested in writing and telling stories, so when I decided to go to school, I wanted to study philosophy and creative writing. NYU was a top school for that, so I thought they’d be interested in my application, and letting me study learn and pursue this other goal of mine.
Your film eschews a conventional narrative, which I like. Can you describe your approach to the material?
It was about trying to create an experience. It was about throwing these ideas out. I was pushing myself to places I never thought I’d go. In undergrad, I studied poetry, so that’s what I thought I could contribute. I was into this idea of coming up with images and putting them together and having it create a third [meaning], so that over time, you could hold on to something.
The film stemmed from a line I wrote in a poem that never materialized. “A kiss is silent, it’s the pulling away of lips that make a sound.” I liked that idea, and the thought that brings. I had this line in the poem I wanted to explore. I gave it to my friend Katarina [La Poll], an MFA student at Columbia to finish the poem, and we talked about loss and confusion and hovering between two stratospheres. I got the poem and crafted a story from that.
I love structure – I get excited about writing that. For example, the relationship between protagonist and his father: You can make it clear in the external world that as Justin deals with his girlfriend, he thinks about his father. In the writing process, that was too easy, and reductive, and I didn’t like that. Canoe Poems will lose viewers who don’t have the patience to watch the film again or pick up the details – especially how we watch films on our phones. I wanted to mimic my experiences creating and writing and reading a poem and then re-reading it. That was something very interesting to me. A poet might spend years working on a poem that is one page. That’s the beauty of the short film. There’s a lot more opportunity to go to these places where you don’t have to choose the safe route.
You are of Cuban heritage. How did your nationality influence the content of your film?
I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. I grew up Cuban in South Florida, but my parents were atypical. They are Democrats and vegetarians. They were into music, art, and politics, not baseball. When I went outside, the juxtapositions that butt heads with my parents views – about masculinity, homophobia, etc. are part of the culture – so it was important to me to address that. I very actively wanted to turn that on its head a bit.
That Justin listens to his father, who speaks in Spanish in the film…. My native language is Spanish. It creates a jumbled-ness, and that creates identity issues. When I grew up, I didn’t want to speak English because I had an accent. I have fair skin, so I look American. But I felt inferior. It’s not explicit in the film, but that he listens to his father in Spanish is another layer that goes a long way to present this idea of Justin being inaccessible, or confused, or insecure. It was important that Justin stay in his boxer shorts and never changes costumes even in the dream. It suggests the opposite – here’s a guy who is confused, jealous, vulnerable, insecure, and stuck in this place. His girlfriend changes. They are his dreams, but she wakes up in a new outfit.
Can you talk about how you created some of the symbolism in the film?
Like English and Spanish in the film, the duality of the old school mouse traps vs. new school traps. Both are traps in many ways. I wanted to tap into real emotions. If you live in New York, you have experiences with mice. They take on a meaning with the story straddling reality and daydreams and the couple in a relationship. The cringe-worthiness of mice is what the film feels like – especially for Justin’s character – this mess he finds himself in. He’s trapped whichever way he goes. That was my take on the mousetraps. It doesn’t matter if it’s modern or old school – it has issue and there are pitfalls you can find yourself in.
You play with fantasy and reality and time in the film. Can you discuss how you represented realism and a dream world?
It was this idea of playing with dreams in an unconventional way. He’s awake every time we go into these transitions. It allowed me to manipulate the dreams he has. When I am awake and daydream, there are all these memories that I get mixed up. How can I find this balance and jumble them to stay true to what it means about daydreaming without alienating the audience completely? I never imagined that he dragged his girlfriend in a canoe with his father by his side, but I’m sure the canoe meant something to this character at a particular time. For whatever reason, his mind is taking him to a place where his mind is combined in this interesting way. There are no concrete or definitive answers.
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.