Most film festivals feature short film programs, but by the time viewers get to the end of a lengthy collection, its earlier contents can feel like a distant dream. The Maryland Film Festival, which kicked off its 15th edition last night, has hit on a different formula: Each year, the festival invites a noteworthy individual from the film world to select and introduce a handful of shorts on opening night. Rather than lumping them together, the host introduces each work one by one, resulting in a smaller, more readily digestible lineup that allows each film to stand out.
This year, the festival invited “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” director David Lowery to host the evening. Lowery’s movie, an expressionistic tale of romance and crime starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, premiered to acclaim at Sundance this year; he stopped off in Maryland this weekend while en route to the Cannes Film Festival, where his movie will screen at Critics’ Week. Despite this prestigious direction, Lowery owes a major debt to the more insular world of short films: In 2011, his short film “Pioneer” played the festival circuit, beginning at Sundance and making several other stops (including one at Maryland’s opening night event). “Pioneer” helped Lowery gain recognition in the industry and led him to find the cast and resources for “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” On Wednesday, Lowery acknowledged the debt he owed to shorts by praising a few more. Here are excerpts of his introductions to each film along with brief synopses for each one. The first film on the program may also be viewed below.
JUJITSUING REALITY (Director: Chetin Chabuk)
DESCRIPTION: Despite living with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), screenwriter Scott Lew maintains his voice in the world through his scripts, giving added meaning to the expression “living to write.”
LOWERY’S NOTES: It’s a really wonderful look at the creative process of a certain individual. It does something that short films do very well — it gives you a very small, brief portrait of something and then carries it away. It changes your perspective a little bit on things. It’s not a huge, epic story, but because it’s told so well, it feels as full and as rich as a feature film. It’s a really wonderful glimpse into one person’s experience.
THE CUB (Director: Riley Stearns)
DESCRIPTION: Wolves make the best parents.
LOWERY’S NOTES: Audiences make a different sort of commitment when they sit down for a short film because they know it’s going to be short. But the hope is that by the time it’s over, you’ll have an experience completely irrelevant of running time. For filmmakers, the thing I love about making shorts is that you might spend a shorter amount of time making them, but you put the same amount of time, care, attention and hopefully attention into a short. You treat it just as you would a feature. Running times are irrelevant. But sometimes you just feel like telling a really good joke. This film is a terrific joke. What’s great about it is that, on its way to its punchline, it uses some really fantastic formalism to push the boundaries of that joke further than you would necessarily expect them to go. If you tell people about this film, if you ruin it for them, they say it’s funny. But the filmmaking is so wonderful that it takes it from being a joke to just being a film. That’s what short films should do.
BONESHAKER (Director: Frances Bodomo)
DESCRIPTION: An African family, lost in America, travels to a Louisiana church to find a cure for its problem child.
LOWERY’S NOTES: This film questions religion in a really heady way that’s tough to pull off. It does that in a way that gets its hooks in you. It doesn’t give you easy answers about what it’s about. It’s a really rich, wonderful film — also notably as the second film starring Quevanzane Wallis from “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” who gives another terrific performance.
SOCIAL BUTTERFLY (Director: Lauren Wolkstein)
DESCRIPTION: A 30-year-old American woman arrives at a teenage party in the South of France. Some of the guests wonder who she is and what she is doing there.
LOWERY’S NOTES: I’m a little biased in presenting this film because when I was here two years ago [with the short film “Pioneer”], there was another film called “The Strange Ones” directed by Lauren Wolkstein. We were up here together onstage. Tonight she has another film here. To call this film a delight would perhaps misrepresent it. You start with the title, then the first shot, and a direction I did not anticipate it going — with a really wonderful central performance. It’s great to see this film back-to-back with “Boneshaker” because both films have mysteries; they’re great films because of the answers they choose to provide. The next film is also a mystery.
THE CHAIR (Director: Grainger David)
DESCRIPTION: A mysterious outbreak in a rural Southern town leads one young boy to a hauntingly poetic consideration of the wonder, mystery and menace of the natural world.
LOWERY’S NOTES: Last month, I was a judge on a short film competition for Hammer to Nail. The jury unanimously chose this work. I’d never seen it, but it’s quite acclaimed — it played at the Cannes Film Festival and many other places. It uses uniqueness to get at something universal that might not seem that way on the surface.
FLUTTER (Director: Dara Bratt)
DESCRIPTION: There are over 17,540 different types of butterflies in the world. John has only 4,641.
LOWERY’S NOTES: I love movies to an unhealthy degree. When I see a movie like this, about a person with a passion — even though it’s different from my own — it makes me feel closer to the world. It conveys the vicariousness of passion.