Street Flame (Katherine Propper, 2019)
Street Flame (Katherine Propper, 2019)

By Gary M. Kramer.

This year, the Tribeca Film Festival had more than 5,100 submissions for its shorts programs. With help from an international programming team, curator Sharon Badal has compiled 11 shorts programs with various themes from the annual New York shorts program – this year’s entry, Streetwise is a collection of narrative shorts – to music documentaries (On Tour), to comedy (Funhouse) and a “late night” program entitled WTF (short for Watch These Films).

Badal chatted about some of the highlights of this year’s programs.

What can you say about the curation process this year, which involved more films than ever?

Over 5,100 submissions is an avalanche, and I’m fortunate because we have links. I have a global programming team. People in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, London, Sweden, and Ireland; we have this global community of people watching films. That’s the only way to handle that quantity of submissions. There are so many different perspectives and voices involved in programming that it gives you a different sense. You get to different eyes seeing what people like and don’t like. For the technology to allow to have a global programing team is amazing. If everyone was based in New York it would be way too insular. My goal was to balance laughter, fun, and adventure on one side and identity, community, and humanity on the other side. Those are the six words I’m using to describe the shorts programs overall.

Let’s talk about the New York shorts program, Streetwise. I thought this was a very strong, very diverse program. Since you do a New York shorts program every year, can you discuss the challenges of finding the right mix of films – serious, sentimental, shocking?

What is interesting about the New York program is some years it is documentary and some years it’s narrative. It depends on the strength of the films. This year, I think we were looking for diversity within the New York stories. The Dishwasher is a specific story we don’t see a lot of. Metronome (In Time) has this fantasy-dream quality, which we also don’t see very often. That’s what we liked about the program, the different emotions you go through watching each film. I cried at the end of The Neighbor’s Window. It was very poignant and such a New York story – I don’t know anyone in New York who hasn’t looked out a window and watched someone’s life. In this program, we are watching someone else’s life.

I like how many of the films in this program end on an unexpected note. The filmmakers get us so involved in the protagonists’ lives – the eponymous dishwasher, the heroine of Night Swim, Lorraine Brocco’s acting coach in Master Maggie and even the mother (Maria DIzzia) in The Neighbors’ Window, that we almost fail to see what’s before our eyes. What observations do you have about how these stories are told?

I think in a lot of ways, each filmmaker is letting us think for ourselves, and embrace whatever emotion it is that we feel at the end of each film. When you take Master Maggie and Metronome (In Time), they have surprising endings, or in the case of Metronome – it’s a surreal ending: what is the story of it? I think Rogers and Tilden is the tipping point to the second half of the program. Each short addresses a different aspect of living in New York: friendship, career, aging, the arts, work, and family.

Let’s look at the late-night program, WTF (Watch These Films)

We’ve not done a late night program in a couple of years. We’re testing the waters. Do we have an audience for this? I wouldn’t play this program at 2 pm on a Saturday. It’s for the late-night audience. I’m interested to see how it will play. It will be a fun to stand in the back and watch.

What hooked me with these films is the use of space. Many films are shot in one room/place like His Hands which is set in a house, or Whiteout, which is shot entirely from the backseat of a car. These films create a sense of claustrophobia. Twist does this too in its last third. Short films seem to like to tell stories in confined places. What are your thoughts on that?

I think space, especially in the context of these genre films, helps emphasize the emotions the filmmaker wants the viewer to feel – whether it’s fear, anticipation, or anxiety. Those are all assisted by the way they are shot, and the combination of use of camera and use of the physical location space. Smart filmmakers utilize that to enhance the emotional journey of those films.

In contrast, Snaggletooth, Momster, and 11:50 are all pretty elaborate in terms of how they create and present a world. What are your thoughts on how ambitious some filmmakers have become?

The audience expectations are higher now. A short film has to live up to that and because there is so much on the internet and people stream on their devices. When you go to a festival and see a short on the big screen it better be big—big production values, and big in terms of how they look and feel. The endings should leave the viewer in a solid place, like Hunting Season where you have no idea what to expect and the tension builds in that film, and what happens –

you’re satisfied with that. It surprises you and it’s satisfying. Same with His Hands: What is this relationship? And who are they? What you think at the beginning is not what you think at the end – and the endings are all powerful – either comic, dramatic, or straight out wacky.

The use of sound in these shorts is impressive – the clock in 11:50, the wiper blades in Whiteout, or the sound of the Beast in Hunting Season. What are your thoughts on sound?

The biggest challenge is pulling back on music and letting the scene play out – doing that to engage the audience and letting the actors act. I see films that are overloaded with incessant, underlying music. I want to push it out of the way. I want to be in the world with you and the music is a buffer between me and what’s going on, if it’s not used as emotional punctuation. If you remove that, except where it’s absolutely necessary, what you’re left with is the ability to do a sound mix that enhances the emotional response for your viewer.

The films in the WTF program take risks. What is your response if folks just don’t get it?

I think part of being a curator is challenging your audience a bit and experimenting with them in a way. You can’t program the same thing every year. We play different things – like the surfing program the other year. You show different styles, and thematics. If they don’t get it, and if the program tanked, we say, we’re not going to do that next year. What’s great is that with 11 programs we do get to take chances and I think that’s important to see if they got it. We had some misses over the years, but you learn about your audience. I’m not programming for myself, I’m programming for a New York public audience. We’re going to think about them all the time and that’s what we did: What does our audience need this year. Everyone needs to laugh and release themselves from the drama of everyday life. That serves a purpose for our audience.

That’s a great segue into Funhouse, the comedy shorts program, which like WTF, also showcases a mix of styles. Both I Think She Likes You and Hard-ish Bodies had a low-key aesthetic that suited their humor, whereas Peggy or Lady Hater where more polished and just as funny. People laugh at different styles of humor, so what observations do you have about comedy shorts?

If you go into a program with the “I’m going to have fun attitude,” chances are you will be laughing at it. I think that comedy is forgivable in a way that drama is not. In comedy, it’s about the reaction and the beats, and I think that’s why when you create a comedy program, you buffer films with each other. Hookup 2.0 and Westfalia, which open the program, are straightforward not wacky ha-ha yucks. We looked at this program with an escalation of madness. I Think She Likes You – you’re almost not sure if you should be laughing, but the guy in it is so funny. So when you talk styles of humor, you have to think about the escalation. If I put Westfalia after Hard-ish Bodies, I don’t know how that would have played. They are all American films. I am not sure some films that were international comedies would translate to an American audience. But I don’t know if this program will translate to an international audience.

Again, let’s talk space. 40 Minutes Over Maui is set in a single hotel room. Westfalia takes viewers on a road trip. How do you think these shorts use spaces to create humor?

I never thought of space in terms of comedy. I think the space is part of the world that the filmmaker sets up, so the yoga studio in Lady Hater is enhanced by all these other characters. It would be different with only 2 other people. Or Peggy, having the birthday party in the backyard as opposed to an indoor birthday party creates a totally different style of humor.

Yes! Peggy was hilarious. Sarah Blackman as the title character was “perfect.” Like the character in that film, I, too, thought, “Fuck You, Peggy!”

She’s so perfect, the other characters have to respond to her, She has to be the point around which everyone pivots. Her acting is contained. My colleague Ben and I have been saying “Fuck You, Peggy!” to each other for the last three weeks. The casting in these films is really strong. If you have the wrong casting, it’s not going to be funny. 40 Minutes Over Maui – that casting is terrific. I believed they were a couple on vacation in Hawai’i.  With I Think She Likes You, you believe the guy was sitting at a bar and his fantasy [of sex with two women] is finally going to happen, so when he gets turned around on that, his reaction gets more hysterical. His physical mannerisms are terrific. That actor [Josh Fadem] was in three shorts submitted this year. I’m glad he’s working.

Let’s move on to The Road Less Traveled, a collection of dramatic shorts that take viewers to different parts of the world, different cultures and subcultures. These films are also completely different in their approach. They have offbeat rhythms, but each of them packs an emotional wallop. Can you talk about creating this program?

This is the more traditional film festival program to me: The dramatic short film program.

East of the River, Pearl, and Jebel Banat are all student films. They are very accomplished for student films! They stand nose-to-nose with the non-student films. The emerging generation of filmmakers – their talent, comfort with story, and production, is amazing…. What we were looking for was the emotional period at the end of each of these shorts. It’s the emotion of these films with very little dialogue. Snare has the most dialogue, but it’s efficient use of dialogue. None of the films are overly talky. They let you quietly engage in the world and each film has a very different visual look.

Where I End and You Begin closes this program in a way that sucker punched me….

Everyone’s on a journey in this program, and that’s why Where I End is such an appropriate closer. Not only do you, the viewer, go on a journey through every emotion possible in this short, but it congeals everything before it. Life is leaving home, it’s a journey with friends and family, and finding your place. So, if each film has an emotion period at the end of it, Where I End ends the whole program with an emotion period.

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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