In Short, 2019

By Tim Winterstein

By the time you read this, I’ll be at the 20th Annual Newport Beach Film Festival. Before my first festival in 2012, I had never really watched short films. Where do you see them? Unless you have a small, art house theater, you probably won’t see them in theaters. Amazon and Netflix have some now, but that’s a recent development. So if you have a film festival near you, go watch some short films. It’s totally different from the experience of watching a full-length feature. The filmmaker has to tell a compelling story in a short amount of time. The challenge and difficulty of that is part of what makes short films interesting to me.

This will be my eighth year at the festival (I missed 2013) and my third as a short film programmer. After watching 300+ short films this year, here are my favorites that I’ve seen from the 2019 NBFF. (If you’re in the area and want to get tickets, I’ve linked the films to the blocks in which they’re playing.)

I appreciate any film that can move me in the few minutes it has. All These Creatures looks at fatherhood and mental illness through a child’s eyes. It’s ethereal, poetic, and imaginative, pulling childlike wonder into an unraveling situation. Nursery Rhymes is only five minutes and a single take, but it exerts an emotional pull that was really unlike anything else I saw this year.

Three Pages tells the story of a man who learns he’s dying of cancer. Instead of telling his family and friends about his diagnosis, he decides to use his three months to learn part of a Bach sonata to play for them. The Life Inside (Das Leben in Mir) revolves around death and new life in the midst of tragedy. Fitting deals empathetically with the aftermath of breast cancer, and the connection between two strangers.

There are unique ideas and then there are unique ideas well executed. One that fits (literally) that bill is O.I., which imagines what might happen if someone had an actual Original Idea. It might be too much for a person’s brain to handle. It’s both messy and funny. Regulationis a scary one, examining what would happen if “happiness patches” are invented (and forced on those who are considered troublesome). It makes us ask what we would do in such a situation.

If a film can surprise me, or is particularly strange, I think it should be seen. Makr deals with the reality of evil confronting someone who doesn’t really believe in it, here from an Arabic perspective. It reminds me of a more spare Under the Shadow. Artem Silendi does a lot with a little, taking place entirely during a single meal in the dining room of a convent, showing us the pettiness of human beings, even if they’re dressed in religious habits!

The Ferris Wheel (La Noria) is an impressive piece of adult animation, frightening but, in the end, hopeful. Maybe the strangest and funniest one I saw this year was Making Friends(although Two Puddlesis in competition for strange though compelling), about one man’s dangerous delusions. Men of Visionis one of the few that made me laugh out loud, questioning the limits of our ability to look into the future of invention and need.

Two short documentaries made a particular impression on me: The Burley Farmer and Project Mosul(playing in the same block). The first deals with the slowly disappearing connections with the earth and home. I think Wendell Berry would applaud the family who is the film’s subject. Project Mosul is about a company who has developed open-source software capable of recreating ancient works of art, beginning with the Mosul Museum. When ISIS destroyed ancient art, the software makers are able to use the many photographs taken of the pieces to create a digital and VR museum of those lost pieces. The possible uses for such technology seem endless.

Of course I like all the films in the three blocks of short films that I am programming this year. But four stand out in particular. Royaexplores Iranian-American culture through the lens of a mother-daughter relationship. The stress inherent in that relationship actually strengthens them both against critical assumptions and expectations about what is “appropriate” within the culture. Shadow Cutis a subtle and poetic Australian film highlighting the innocence of youth. #nofilter, among other films I’ve seen recently, explores the difficulties of relationships in a social media world. And, finally, another empathetic film (like Fitting) is The Astronaut (El Astronauta), in this case dealing with dementia. Really, all the films in that block (“Older, Not Shorter”) deal with similar challenges.

Without taking anything away from all the other great films (including films we couldn’t find a place for, though we liked them), these are the ones that made an impact on me. If you’re in Orange County or Southern California this week, come and check out some of the short film blocks, as well as the features.

As an additional note, I would highly recommend Parallel Love, which is a documentary about the band Luxury. If you have any connection with ’90s, so-called “Christian Rock” bands like The Prayer Chain, Stavesacre, or any Tooth and Nail band from that era—or even if you don’t and have no idea what I’m talking about—you should check out this doc. It could have been just another music, rise-and-fall doc, but a car accident and the Orthodox priesthood set this one apart (as well as the storytelling and the music, obviously). Luxury is a band with which I had—unfortunately for me—been largely unfamiliar. This film rectified that for me.