Meaningless Sex, Male Bravado, and Thumping Docs Punctuate the Sundance 2003 Shorts Program
by Tim LaTorre
The Sundance Film Festival is one of the premiere showcases for work in the short film format. Every year the festival puts together an expansive program of narrative, documentary, animation and experimental shorts. What is always surprising is that for such a big festival, and Sundance has become quite a gorilla, is that the shorts slate continues to uncover a real commitment by its programmers to develop an eclectic slate of talent. This year was no exception.
As with every category, this year’s narrative standouts are diverse. “Toy,” directed by Abraham Lincoln Lim, presents the story of a young woman who has come to the U.S. for opportunity, only to have to work off the debt of her passage by working as a sexual indentured servant in a Los Angeles brothel. Lim shot “Toy” on digital video, using minimalist production design and oversaturated colors to create a monotonous world of barren rooms and dingy hallways. Effectively, the director pumps up the volume to scenes of meaningless prostituted sex, creating a soundscape of violent creaks and groans, which attack the listener’s ear.
More traditional, yet effective, Seith Mann’s “Five Deep Breaths,” and Sergio Umansky’s “Aqui Iba El Himno” (Here Was the Anthem), focus on masculine pride and power, without resorting to violence. “Breaths” tells the story of a group of urban youths who decide to seek revenge upon a man who has allegedly abused the sister of one of them. Strongly directed and well paced, the story focuses on the true consequences of loyalty and revenge, carefully building suspense up to confrontation.
Uniquely Mexican, “Aqui Iba El Himno” uncovers how masculine bravado impacts class warfare. Two young upper class Mexican men buy drugs in a dingy urban Mexico setting, carelessly castigating the impoverished world around them until they are picked up by “the law.” Suddenly under duress in a corrupt world, the men find themselves knocked lower on the masculine pecking order. Umansky deftly uses the Mexican backdrop to create a definition of power as, very literally, a manmade illusion.
As the title signifies, “Neo-Noir,” directed by Chase Palmer, is a stylish, noir crime story that centers on a man’s death at his own hands via a game of Russian roulette. Thrillers are rare in the world of short films, mainly because the genre usually takes more time to set up. Palmer, however, uses the noir device of narration, in the form of an overbearing Dragnet-style “just the facts” delivery, to push the story along in a succession of short scenes and quick cuts.
Crossing into the documentary domain, Roger Weisberg and Murray Nossel’s “Why Can’t We Be A Family Again?” demonstrates the most basic rule of successful documentaries: choose an interesting subject and let the cameras roll. Their film centers on the struggle of two Brooklyn boys as they cope with their mother’s failure to get off drugs and take on her motherly responsibilities, which she gave up 9 years earlier. A little scrappy and rough around the edges, the film succeeds mainly because of the subjects’ willingness to be open, and sometimes raw, in front of the camera.
Unusual in the documentary format, design and style are the principal factors for the success of two slick entries, “Terminal Bar,” directed by Stefan Nadelman, and “Ocularist,” directed by Vance Malone. With a thumping driving electronic beat, “Terminal Bar” tells the story a dingy, midtown New York bar that was frequented by various drunks and junkies. With narration and photography taken by Sheldon Nadelman, the director’s father, the film relies on the filmmaker s design skills by creating an animated collage of stills moving in rhythm with the ever-present beat.
Similarly, “Ocularist” uses erratic visual cuts and electronic music to profile the art of Fredric Harwin, a Portland, Oregon-based medical illustrator who crafts realistic custom acrylic eyes. The photography, design, and editing work in tandem to highlight the artistry that goes into something that should remain unnoticed, an artificial eye.
Walking the tragic-comedic line, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” directed by Tiffany Shlain, begins with an unexpected light tone regarding its subject, a woman’s right to choose. Appropriating the style of a ’50s school documentary, complete with pleasant, upbeat narration, the film playfully weaves the stories of a shopkeeper, a politician, and a young couple with the decline of the world’s frog populations to make its point about the current political threat to women s rights.
In the animation department, Serguei Bassine’s “From the 104th Floor” is a harrowing visual tone poem focusing on the events of September 11 from the perspective of a woman trapped above the crash zone. A visual rendering of 14-year-old Leda Rodis’ poem and narrated by Rosie Perez, the black-and white-pencil animation distills the conflicting emotions of love and fear in last few minutes of a life cut tragically short. This film is really one of the most poignant and emotionally wrenching works produced in response to September 11.
In contrast, Sean McBride’s “Dreamscapes” and Aristomenis Tsirbas’ “The Freak” take simpler storytelling approaches to present diverse, vibrantly colored animated worlds. “Dreamscapes” takes a series of interviews about specific dreams and weaves them together as flowing stream-of-conscious ode to dreaming. Changing the artwork to suit the dream, McBride finds many humorous moments by transitioning from one unrelated dream to another. “The Freak” focuses on a homogenous, computer-animated world of workers who attempt to destroy the few freaks who pop up from time to time and create a disruption to society’s productivity. Overall, the artistry of the animation rivals any Pixar creation, plus the mannerisms of the freaks are so funny and infectious that it’s hard not to love them.