“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds, and other minds, and other dreams. They’re journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”
– Neil Gaiman, M is for Magic
One of the most inaccurate and condescending misconceptions about short stories is that their length makes them easier to do than their longer counterparts. Sure, shorts (be they films, plays, stories, what-have-you) often exhaust fewer resources and can be re-absorbed more often due to their small capacity, but the idea of short pieces are easier because they’re short shows an ignorance of the artistic process. Short pieces can be just as wrenching as any full-length piece.
Yet, they can also be more rewarding. Some works (including other works I saw for this very festival) would do well for their creators to not stretch them out just to hit feature-length. After two-full-years-and-counting of an interminable pandemic, I find that short pieces work well to break up the monotony. We all entered this thinking we’d finally have time to… do whatever, but finding the motivation to do so is more trying than most of us will admit. That’s why I haven’t seen most of the tv shows and movies I said I would.
As is often the case, this year’s SF Indiefest collection of shorts was a mixed bag. Still, it’s a bag that had one or two gems inside.
Bay Area film-maker Matthew Riutta has two films in this round-up. Each is defined by its unabashed sincerity as much as its basic-as-can-be execution. Across, which was coupled with festival-opening feature The Sleeping Negro, telegraphs its twist from the outset, but refusing to expand upon one key detail.
It features a Black man driving from SF to Oakland across the Bay Bridge as he listens to melancholy voicemails. Against his instincts, he picks up a homeless(-looking) Black teen hitching in the same direction. Between the passenger constantly asking for a coin and a road-rager who won’t let up on their horn, our man is lucky to make to the other side with his sanity intact.
The moment our man started listening to apologetic voicemails, it was clear who the passenger was. What’s not clear is why the rainbow flag was used? Its presence suggests a direct relevance to the driver, his passenger, and the destination, but it’s something on which we can only speculate because the film won’t say. Not in a “figure-it-out-for-yourself” way, but a “just toss this in because reasons” way.
The film comes off like a film school final: competently made, but nothing about it memorably stands out.
Anxiety-Proof: The Mothership
Another trip across the Bridge. This is doesn’t have a “film school” feel so much as an iFilm[dot]com feel of an early-2000s frat-boy short, throwing in shit like puppets and CBD bacon and random sci-fi shit; the sort of thing that just might have made it onto a Spike & Mike roster. When done right, that can kick the career of the next Mike Judge, Genndy Tartakovsky, or Trey & Matt.
When done wrong… it’s this.
And back we go to the overly-sentimental world of Matthew Riutta (a fact I didn’t know when I agreed to watch both this and Across). The best that can be said of this one is that it features the Bay Area’s own Krystle Piamonte. I’m a fan of her work (something even she’s noticed), so it’s obvious when she’s not being used in a way that compliments her potential. Granted, she’s not the central character here, but still…
This one centers around a clash of protestors in Oakland, outside the Grand Lake. Two LGBTQ+ protestors clash with two (Asian) Christians counter-protesting. The dialogue is incredibly pedestrian and the “both sides” approach to the material doesn’t help anyone. That argument always tries to put no one at fault, which is not the proper way to confront any problem.
The cast is okay and it’s nice to see an Oakland landmark (inexplicably) almost never featured, but this and Across both hop over the line from “optimistic/sentimental” to flat out “pedantic”.
The Letter Room
Whereas the above Riutta films take a “We are the World” approach to social issues, director Elvira Lind and her husband Oscar Isaac take a more realistic approach to a system that thrives off misery. Namely, the US prison system.
Isaac stars as Richard, a Latino corrections officer who lives alone and tries not make waves, not amongst his co-workers or the prisoners under his watch. Having asked for more responsibility, he’s given the job of screening the incoming mail of the inmates. This gives him a more intimate view of his charges than even he expected, and eventually puts him on the trail of a woman (Alia Shawkat) connected to a man on death row.
The ending of the film is a bit irritating in how it seemingly tries to force a happy ending, but that itself is subverted by one character refusing to fall for another’s bullshit. As a whole, the film works best when illustrating just how different is the world behind bars from that outside. One could argue that Richard’s solitary existence is a prison unto itself, but at least he’s able to come and go as he pleases. He doesn’t have enforcers watching his every move because he didn’t fit into society’s plan. (Isaac’s use of a thick Latin accent to emphasize his role in the system is an inspired choice.)
Not quite perfect, but definitely the sort of thing one should watch if they don’t understand the push for prison reform.
When you’re from a marginalized group, it sucks to be stereotyped by those with all the power, but it’s expected. When that stereotyping comes from a fellow marginalized person, it feels like a slap in the face from someone who should know better.
The Phoenix has such great promise that is almost hurts: a Latina girl who loves superheroes one day discovers she has the power to stop and reverse time, thereby altering events. Naturally, she wants to use her power to help her mommy and daddy stop fighting. But, as she eventually learns, “some fights are inevitable”.
The Phoenix is written and directed by a woman (Regina Pigsley), yet it has one of the most misogynist portrayals of the “nagging wife” trope anyone will ever see. I mean, this is beyond the shrill caricature of Alan Ball’s American Beauty script (played by a slumming Annette Bening). No, “shrill” is too kind a term for the shrieking harpy Pigsley has written here: every word – and I must emphasize every word – that comes from her mouth is done so with an ear-splitting screech and is done in anger; every action she takes is one of violence; and every interaction with other characters provokes her to extremes. Her husband, on the other hand, is portrayed as patient to the point of sainthood.
Have I mentioned that the mother (Liza Stephanian) is Latina and the father (Michael J. Ward) is white? I can’t even count how many century-old stereotypes are on display here. Even when the dialogue tries to take the “both sides” approach – with main character Charlie referring to it as her parents arguing when it’s always the mother angry at the father – only one of those sides incessantly assaults the other with words, a frying pan, and a knife.
Pigsley’s own intriguing premise is ruined by gross woman-bashing that I always hope to avoid from women film-makers like her. It’s a stomach-churning display of anti-female hatred that torpedoes an otherwise creative story about childhood fantasy clashing with harsh reality. Everyone involved deserved better.
Official site: https://www.thephoenixshortfilm.com/
The Loyal Betrayal
This film is one that actually is conscious of how its marginalized characters (Japanese-Americans) have been poorly treated in the world, both real and celluloid. Set on the 4th of July 1943 at California’s Manzanar internment camp, this is a noir-inspired that weighs itself down by trying too hard to hit the marks of the genre.
Oh, the tropes are all there: murder; crooners; a love that won’t last – all detailed by an omnipresent narrator and monochromatic visuals. The problem is that as well-done as it is (scenes in the dining hall particularly make good use of a limited number of extras) and as much as one easily cares for the characters, the dialogue quickly leaps from “hard-boiled” to “self-parody”.
It’s a contradiction in what it represents for the genre. Those who think WWII veterans are “the greatest generation” do so ignoring both the harm the US caused with interment and the atomic bombs (the US is the only country to have used atomics in active combat), as well as the fact that the noir genre was borne out of post-WWII disillusionment.
Given the unique role Japanese (the only recipients of an atomic attack) and Japanese-Americans played in the war, making them front-and-center of an American noir story is something long overdue. But it’s the film’s devotion to its own purple prose that prevents it from being something truly great.
This is the sort of flick I’d expect to see at a Scary Cow film fest. I say that as someone who did more than one Scary Cow flick. (Don’t ask me which ones ‘cause I honestly don’t remember. They were shot forever ago and I never got my promised copies.) What I mean is a film that can’t decide if it wants to intentionally look cheap or if it wants to be grand and the cheap look is just something that can’t be helped.
Writer-director Ryan Gerberding seems to certainly think he’s written a great statement on the human condition, and the hills of Marin are as fine a place as any to set it. Yet, the artificiality of both the props and the cinematography (shooting in 60p instead of 24 comes off as anachronistic and distracting) give the whole thing a “just trying out my new camera” feel that doesn’t do any favors.
The whole film is available in the embed you see, but the only thing worth recommending is the performance by Isabel Siragusa, who does her best to elevate the material.
This should have taken Across’s place. Not only is it closer in theme to The Sleeping Negro, but it’s better than both that feature and the short film accompanying it. In fact, this was one of the best films I saw during the festival. Plus, it’s by a Black woman film-maker in the Bay Area (Shandaeya Caldwell).
The mental health toll of being marginalized and targeted is only now beginning to get recognition. Combine that with the toll of being Black during a seemingly-endless pandemic and it’s a wonder we all haven’t gone off the edge.
Such is the struggle for Black millennial Kiana (Jasmine Robinson). As if the uncertainty of pandemic lockdowns hadn’t already taken their toll, her anxiety is only exacerbated by news of a frontline medical worker murdered by police; a frontline worker with a name similar to her own: Breonna. Kiana finds herself so gripped with fear that her relationships begin to strain and she’s haunted by the thought of outside dangers forcing their way into the small safe space of her home.
I’m glad I can embed the full film below for everyone to see for themselves. I don’t consider the film absolutely perfect, but it certainly shows the power of the short subject as a storytelling device. What’s more, it eschews the aforementioned pedantic nature of Riutta films above.
I’m not even entirely sure what the hell happened in this film, but it’s beautiful to watch it happen. This dialogue-free piece takes place in a matriarchal society of a world supernatural in nature. Our central character is a young woman who is tethered to another as the elders women send them to the woods. The main character has some ability to create light at a whim, which may or may not be a defense against something out in the woods.
That’s the best I can tell you about what happened. A lot of Damiana Acuña’s narrative is left purely to interpretation. But, if nothing else, she and cinematographer Olivia Segarra masterfully show off that faded, “old-world” look that’s become popular in the last decade (think The Assassination of Jesse James or a more washed-out Midsommar). A viewer easily finds themselves lost in the world presented and wanting to know more, which makes the lack of concrete answers all the more frustrating.
Though it comes off as more of an exercise than a proper story, it’s an exercise performed masterfully.
Looking back at my comment about Scary Cow, I can’t help but wonder if indeed SF Indie “inherited” (for lack of a better term) some of the leftovers from when SC shut down in late-2020? Not that such a thing would necessarily be bad; after all, the co-op SC was as much a film school as a film screening festival, so the idea of its now-former students finding a place for their work is something to congratulate. Nevertheless, those of us who worked with and/or watched SC films knew that a lot of the output wasn’t all that better than that of any other film school. But then, even that has value in that it separates the truly dedicated artists from the hobbyists and narcissists boasting “I could do better than that”.
Although SF Indie returned to in-person screenings this year, I limited my press access to online screenings only. On the one hand, I miss not having been amongst a cinema audience for two years; on the other hand; the safety of at-home viewing grants one an objectivity that would likely be missing amongst audience reactions. They might not all be winners, but a collection like this is an eclectic showcase for talent of all levels.