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October 2, 2002 2:00 AM
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FESTIVALS: Like the Main Program, NYFF Shorts Exemplify "World" Cinema

FESTIVALS: Like the Main Program, NYFF Shorts Exemplify "World" Cinema

by Guy Cimbalo



Seventeen shorts are featured in this year's New York Film Festival, the most in the event's 40-year history. That number reflects the enormity of the talent pool out there, as each of the festival's shorts brings its own fascinating and unique vision to the screen with great success.

The biggest premiere in the shorts program is Spike Lee's "We Wuz Robbed." Concerning the Presidential election snafu in Florida, the film serves as a visceral reminder of events that have been overshadowed by more immediate concerns. "We Wuz Robbed" is a remarkable documentary, and the short's ability to turn the wonkish Gore into an action hero makes you wonder why Lee wasn't running the ill-fated campaign. Amazingly, Lee creates a white-knuckle suspense through nothing more than a series of talking heads, most of them members of Gore's election team. That many of them are backed by an enormous American flag would appear redundant -- these are fervent (and, yes, patriotic) politicos who convey the magnitude and energy of election night. Gore's campaign manager Donna Brazile, the least restrained at the bunch, comes off as the most forceful, striking personality. Whether talking about "Governor Jeb Crow Bush" or urging on the Gore camp, Brazile is a prime example of the conviction and energy Lee ably recreates.

Ultimately, however, "We Wuz Robbed" fails to satisfy entirely. The robbery of the title -- the Supreme Court's 5-4 vote to stop the Florida recount -- is only discussed in the last minutes of the film, and even then only perfunctorily. After the intense blow-by-blow of the election night and early morning, there is a sense that Lee glides over the heart of the matter. It's like watching a heist movie where the actual robbery happens in the last minute. Despite its abrupt resolution, "We Wuz Robbed" does accomplish just what it intends. By the end of the doc, you're swelling with the righteous indignation that Lee wants us to experience, and fairly well convinced that George W. was elected by network TV.

"Candidate," from Iran's Mohammad Schirvani, doesn't involve politics but matchmaking. I'm not sure under what conditions "Candidate" was made, but I was left with the impression that it could have been a segment on an Iranian "Candid Camera." That's actually a good thing. An old, burkha-clad woman lurks around the campus of a women's college in Tehran. Stopping young women, the desperate mother pushes a photo of her only son on them -- she's trying to find him a suitable wife before his imminent return from the army. Mom gets a mixed reaction from the women, most of whom appear to be unaware of the camera's presence. While a few of the students explain they don't believe in the "old ways," more engage the mother, and it is only a matter of time before the apparently cross-cultural "So what does he do?" rears its ugly head.

The film is book-ended by two segments that call into question the reality of "Candidate"'s premise, and though the enigmatic result might not be intentional, it works well in its favor. With "Candidate," the hidden-camera prank becomes an anthropological experiment, providing unusual entree into a culture. The film is marred only by its miserable subtitles and its running time. Most hidden-camera segments seem to lose their breath after five minutes, and the 15-minute Candidate definitely pushes it. In all, however, it is excellent entertainment.

"A Social Call" could be described as "Seinfeld" meets Guy Ritchie. From the U.K.'s Jonathan Romney, the short isn't as funny as "Seinfeld," but it's endlessly more appealing than anything Ritchie has ever touched. In a typically dreary, suburban Britain, a balding thirtysomething invades the home of another bleak looking older man. He kills the man, and fixes himself a cup of tea. As he drives away from the crime scene, however, the killer realizes that he left the gas running on the stove and he returns to shut it off. I won't ruin the punchline, but suffice it to say that "A Social Call" is a well-told joke.

Dania Saragovia's "Jealousy" is a serious film, in which a shopping trip becomes, in the mind of a possibly cuckolded husband, the perfect opportunity for betrayal. Based on the novel "La Jalousie" by Alain Robbe-Grillet, "Jealousy"'s successful distillation of the book into a five-minute film is probably more reflective of the nouveau roman style of plodding obsessiveness than it is of successful screenwriting. But that doesn't take away from the frantic, claustrophobic sense that "Jealousy" accomplishes, creating the cinematic approximation of an anxiety attack with great proficiency and understanding.

"Tango de Olvido" (Tango of Oblivion) is the adaptation of another high modernist fiction writer, Julio Cortazar. "Olvido" is the sepia-toned story of a French immigrant rediscovering his Argentine heritage. And while that makes it sound like some dull exercise in post-colonial self-exploration, "Olvido" is anything but. Director Alexis Mital Toledo invests the film with a deep reliance on chance and mystery -- it's never clear where the story, or the narrator, is going. Chris Marker is thanked in the credits, and it is surely a sign of success that Toledo tries for a live-action "La Jetee" without falling flat.

Young Ali is the center of "200 Dirhams." While herding his family's sheep outside a small Moroccan village, he finds the titular money among the brush. I've got no idea what "200 Dirhams" translates to in U.S dollars, but it's enough to send Ali and his friends into hysterics, feeding Ali's dreams of escape to the big city. "200 Dirhams" is a familiar story, though it is deftly told and beautifully photographed. Director Laila Marrakchi creates an understanding of a rural village that is complete and illuminating.

In sum, the Festival's shorts reflect a fascinating portrait of contemporary, international filmmaking.

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