From Wartime Horrors To Cherry Trees, L.A.’s Short Shorts Film Festival Offers Eclectic Program
by Darren Spurr
With cherry blossoms in full bloom under a canopy of palm trees, hostesses in kimono amid carved walls, and sushi free-flowing in a courtyard where the biggest fish in moviemaking have dared dart or tread, Hollywood’s historic Egyptian Theatre, home of the American Cinematheque, played host to the Short Shorts Film Festival from April 29-May 1. Committed to finding creative new talent on the international film scene, the Short Shorts Film Festival harnesses the energy of U.S.-Japanese partnerships for cultural and artistic exchange. In only its second year in Los Angeles and kicking off to a larger program in Tokyo, Short Shorts this year commemorates the 150th anniversary of the commencement of U.S.-Japan relations after the landing of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853.
The festival began with presentation of the fest’s Fujifilm Award to Gustavo Moraes for “Baseando em Estorias Reais” (Based on True Stories). Intertwining three characters who experience Brazil’s dictatorship period (1964-1985), the film in just 15 minutes conveys the complex attitudes confronting such oppression. Moraes revealed that his film, one of the few to address this period in Brazil’s history, has “generated vigorous and passionate discussions among the press” as well as an appreciation by the public for addressing the injustices of the past.
Another dramatic standout was Gabe Torres’ superbly acted “Last Stand,” in which humanity triumphs over intolerance during wartime. Two warriors — a wounded U.S. Cavalry soldier (Jason London) nursed to health by a Lakota boy (Joseph Saul) just trained to fight — discover empathy and friendship but ultimately pay a heavy price for defying convention. The longest of the festival’s offerings, “Last Stand” is skillfully paced and artfully shot, incorporating elements of nature to convey the idea of renewal. Following a similar theme, Italian entry “Rosso Fango” (Red Dirt) by Paolo Ameli places a frustrated British soldier and a soon-to-be wounded German in a flooded trench under heavy fire. With impressive economy, Ameli captures the horror of warfare during World War I and the helplessness of a man who cannot escape his conscience or ignore human suffering. Just as the audience feels certain the best qualities of humankind can surface in the worst of circumstances, a shocking twist questions that certainty.
From the plain of Spain, literally, comes “El Espantapajaros” (The Scarecrow) by Gonzalo Zona. Using the special-effects makeup talent of Dream Factory’s Colin Arthur to create a ragged talking scarecrow that “enjoys being repulsive and ridiculous,” Zona critiques society’s embrace of the new and unspoiled at the expense of the unpleasant or unsightly. Needing a place to store their new crucifix while taking down the old, village priests provide the lonely scarecrow with an inexperienced partner who turns out to attract a most unexpected flock.
On the lighter side, a contingent of compelling animated shorts produced a variety of visual styles. “Night Out,” a dialogue-free entry using a unique combination of shadow and light, plays more as an animated music video than a conventional story. Still, Jason Tammemagi of Ireland’s Monster Animation and Design manages to tell a one-night-stand story where love, unknowingly, is passed by. In “Fish Never Sleep,” Gaelle Denis uses rhythmic timing and charmingly simple animation to tell the story of a Japanese sushi-making insomniac who is fated to discover why fish seem never to be at rest. “Work, work, work,” she drones, perhaps commenting on a society in which consuming is living. Also focusing on the phenomenon of the consumer, Andrew Horne’s “Supermarket Trolleys” is a hilarious mythology of the origin of the shopping cart. Based on Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig’s work, the trolleys become animated in a way Safeway supermarket never intended.
Finally, Short Shorts’ program ended on a surreal note with Koji Yamamura’s animated “Atamayama” (Mt. Head). Based on a traditional Japanese Rakugo, or folk story, “Atamayama” utilizes partially sung narration to tell the tale of a very frugal man who sees tossing cherry pits as a terrible waste. When a cherry tree grows out of his head, to the delight of salarymen, office ladies, and other drunken springtime revelers, he reaches his limit, learns to let go, but loses himself in the process.