When triple-degree heat nudges you indoors, there are few places better to end up than a movie theater. The 21st Annual Palm Springs Shortsfest came to a close on Monday evening, concluding a week in the Coachella Valley dedicated to short films from aspiring and established filmmakers from across the globe.
It was a distinct privilege to participate in this year’s jury. Between the finely organized screenings and the bevy of titles available for viewing at the festival’s film market, it was encouraging to see a variety of engaging films in different venues. Another positive sign? The number of student films with an impressive eye for storytelling, a promising foundation for the future of the art form.
Although the following are by no means the only titles worth seeking out at future venues, the sampling below represents the impressive cross-section of talent that was on display this past weekend. (Some of them were our selections for jury recognition at Sunday evening’s awards ceremony
.) From live-action to animation, from the streets of Mexico to an animated horizon above the clouds, these were a few of the standouts.
“Bear Story (Historia de un oso)”
Directed by: Gabriel Osorio
What seems at the start like the day-to-day grumblings of a melancholy bear quickly becomes a rich, complex collection of animation styles. Our main bear stops at a street corner with his homemade nickelodeon, which quickly draws the attention of a passing child. As the youngster peers in, we’re transported into the internal mechanics of the bear’s creation.
The inside is a marvel, both thanks to the wordless storytelling and the pure animation craft. Tiny moments of levity help to offset the sadder moments of the bear’s tale. As the metal figurines inside tell the story of a bear pressed into service at a circus, the film fluidly transitions between vivid poster typography to soft hard drawn portraits of a young ursine family, employing various other animation techniques along the way. It’s a full allegorical picture in a tidy 10 minutes that earns its emotional impact with an impressive visual palette.
Directed by: Brett Garamella and Patrick McGowan
Near the outset of “The Champion,” Chicago cab driver Estaifan Shilaita quizzes a series of passengers on his heritage: if they can guess where he’s from, he’ll give them a free fare. What follows is a 20-minute capsule of an immigrant’s life that proves the full answer may take a little longer than a quick trip down Addison Street.
Garamella and McGowan tell a global story that effectively balances the Shilaita’s personal story with a loving portrait of a family that his actions helped to shape. The bookends of the film emphasize a sense of patriotism that, by reflecting the pride of its subject, avoid feeling blatant or overdone. A crisp, amber-tinted fight sequence reenacting Shilaita’s past exploits as a boxer and an animated world map tracking his global journey give the film a dynamic, sophisticated sense of style. And at its heart, the tiny episodes of domestic life provide a natural, heartwarming look at familial devotion.
Directed by: Barbara Cigarroa Written by: Tania Zarak
“Marta Rosa” takes the classic Hemingway micro-short story (“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”) and respectfully introduces the perspective of maternal grief. Dealing with the loss of her child, the film follows Marta (Adriana Paz), a young woman struggling to pay for the burial services. As she makes her way from the now-empty bedroom to the funeral home, we see tiny, bare glimpses of a town and those in it who can sense her pain.
The contrast between the majesty of natural landscapes and the pitfalls of urban life was a common theme throughout much of this year’s program. Ciagarroa balances the ominous skyline with the small, meaningful details of a Mexican town, using those disparate worlds to illuminate her central character’s struggles. The film closes with Marta’s figurative and literal burden. Despite her trying circumstances, there’s a dignity and resolve to the final moments that allows a mother’s strength to shine through.
Written and directed by: Jörn Threlfall
It’s difficult to recommend a film while also withholding any plot details. Luckily, a short film festival offers the perfect venue for such recommendations, where potential audiences routinely make those blind, 15-minute-long leaps of trust into a fresh story. And with a film that has a close attention to detail built into its thematic framework, it’s only fair that viewers are left to decipher things just as the characters are brought into a neighborhood after an apparent disturbance.
Its atypical narrative style serves the story, playing with time and information in a way that demands the audience to attune their perceptions both during the film and after. Shifting between the immediacy of closeups and the silent remove reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s “Cache,” Threlfall never offers the audience that easy-to-decipher middle ground. The result is a cinematic puzzle with prescient social resonance that’s haunting when the final piece is in place.
“The Story of Percival Pilts”
Written and directed by: Janette Goodey and John Lewis
Even if you can guess the title character’s rhyming mode of transportation from the opening couplet of Mark Hadlow’s narration, Percival’s stilts-bound exploits still has a few charming surprises for those attuned to similar fanciful stories. Goodey and Lewis find a way for the Seussian rhythm to the backing poem and the visual accompaniment work in harmony. The sight gags don’t come at the expense of moving the story forward and the stop motion craft on display never pauses to overly indulge the spoken verse. The tall tale opening, light comic montage middle and wistful finale all flow together at a well-timed pace, even with the varying speeds of each.
One particular sequence, which shows a Pilts-eye view of the townsfolk peering out their windows, feels like a section of a breezy animated theme park ride. Its broad timeline and period setting lend it a real sense of adventure and the varied textures, from clay to cloth to Post-It note give it a lived-in feel, like a children’s book that’s been read cover to cover many a time. The final image is a sweet tribute to the ambiguity of exploration and the beauty in finding spiritual fulfillment.
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