By Gary M. Kramer.
On March 10, the Miami Film Festival will premiere ten short films in two consecutive programs screening at the Tower Theater. The first program, The Things They Left Behind and More Short Films, features three live-action shorts, reviewed below, and one animated short, (Fool Time) Job. All four films address people’s devotion to objects and each other.
The Things They Left Behind, directed by Sara Werner, adapts a Stephen King story about Scott Staley (Tom Frank) grappling with the aftermath of 9/11. He survived because he played hooky from work that day. A year after the terrorist attack took the lives of his boss (Terrance Murphy), his colleague (Chaz Mena), and his girlfriend/co-worker (Juliana Harkavy), objects – a baseball bat, eyeglasses, a doll – belonging to each of the deceased that appear like magic and trigger Scott’s memories. These talismans prove to be quite powerful; they reveal much about their former owners and that tragic day.
The Things They Left Behind tackles the issue of survivors’ guilt, which extends beyond Scott’s experiences to the other victims’ families. Werner’s short is competently made and well- acted. She tells King’s tale efficiently and effectively. However, the result is more sentimental than scary.
Another film about objects and their meaning is Unfinished, 2017: Mixed Media. This excellent film, written and directed by Rafale Salazar Moreno, has Elena (Isa Feliu), a broke artist squatting in her studio against her landlord’s wishes. Her boyfriend Alex (Alex Mallis) wants to help her and have her move in, but Elena is stubborn. As she tries to create giant sculptures with her possessions, she feels the pressure of these objects, their creation and consumption, as well as social conformity. Unfinished, 2017: Mixed Media portrays Elena’s struggle with visual panache – a shot of Elena lying naked under one of her sculptures, or another scene in which one of her works falls from the sky, are terrific metaphors. Feliu deftly conveys Elena’s emotional strain as well in her body language and expressions as she must face a reality she is trying to avoid.
Also in this program is the gripping drama, Mother, written and directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen. When Marta (Marta Nieto) enters her apartment with her mother (Blanca Apilánez), she gets a phone call from her six year-old son, Iván (Álvaro Balas), who says he is alone on a beach somewhere. His father has gone and not yet returned. Marta goes into panic mode, and Sorogoyen ratchets up the tension, never leaving Marta’s apartment as the drama unfolds. Mother plays out various scenarios that Marta and viewers imagine, which is what makes this intense short so terrific, and terrifying.
The other shorts program is titled, Fight Like a Girl and More Short Films. This mix of documentary, animated, and live-action shorts is a strong collection of films about difference and breaking barriers. The program includes six films, including The Human Face, which was not available for preview.
Fight Like a Girl, co-directed by Augustin Gonzalez and Nicole Wulf, chronicles the experiences of female video gamers, including Victoria “VikkiKitty” Perez and Priscilla “Port” Sortino, who compete in tournaments and attend conventions. They, and other interviewees, speak eloquently about the fear and excitement gaming brings them, but also the discrimination female gamers face in this highly competitive and male-dominated scene. Statistics presented in the film further indicate the harassment women face in the gaming world. The subjects are engaging, and the film provides a peek into an important, underknown facet of the subculture.
Likewise, Paul Stavropoulos’ documentary, Sexual Being, chronicles two people with cerebral palsy who refuse to let society or their disability define them – especially when it comes to sex and romance. Chandler, a business student in Toronto, is looking to establish himself as a porn performer named Daniel James. He visits clubs to promote himself, does a shirtless photo shoot, and arranges to film a sex video.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Meaghan is a psychic teacher and spiritualist who aspires to become an actress. She wants to see more disabled performers in film and TV and is shooting an experimental short to gain experience in front of the camera. Sexual Being documents both Chandler and Meaghan’s efforts to connect with their co-stars and find a sense of empowerment and achievement in their creative pursuits. The short shrewdly resists making its subjects “inspirational”; Stavropoulos just lets them be and show who they are. Chandler and Meaghan express their hopes and insecurities, as the film captures their success and failures. If Sexual Being only shows a portion of their stories, the subjects are engaging enough to make viewers want to see more of both performers.
Holy Hill is a potent narrative short from the Dominican Republic, directed and co-written by Rodney Llaverias. Ana (Olga Valdez) is a nun taking care of a dozen orphan boys. One of the older youths, Sebastian (Victor Arcturus Estrella), taunts Ana. He deliberately exposes himself in her presence and creates mischief to catch her attention. She is, it appears, attracted to and repelled by him. Ana is also determined to figure out why he is being so provocative. As she tries to remain composed and focused on her duties, the palpable heat and Ana’s curiosity lead her to a shocking discovery. Holy Hill is an intense and atmospheric short, well played by the two leads.
Skin for Skin, from Canada, is the animated entry in this program. This short is set in 1823, when the “Emperor of the North” dominated the fur trade. A montage of a dead beaver being repurposed into goods for trade shows the value of animals and skins. Skin for Skin later shows a parallel sequence where humans are killed and their organs and bones are reused. This violent short may be difficult to watch at times, but it is absolutely beautifully made. The imagery is spectacular as a river’s surface, or a man’s and an animal’s eye provide reflective surfaces. The animator’s use of light and shadow is also wondrous. The film features no dialogue – just some singing in French – as it tells its powerful tale of greed.
Also screening in this shorts program is #TheConnectedMan, writer/director Fabian Cardenas’ narrative short about Carl Dean (Caleb Scott), a salesman who reconnects with Sofia (Paulina Gálvez), a choreographer he once loved, over social media. The film uses text messaging and direct address by the two leads to reveal the past, present, and potential future of their relationship – a stark contrast to the intimacy of real life. Cardenas floods the screen with messages at a fast and furious rate, and he accelerates filming when Carl and Sofia meet for coffee, a visual metaphor for speed dating, and how quickly time has passed since the lovers last met. Visually striking, and at times quite poignant, #TheConnectedMan is a wistful romance about love and time lost – and possibly regained.
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.