Narrative Short Films Highlights — NOFF 2018

Miniflix staff and guest writer Caleb Adams choose their favorite narrative short films from this year’s festival.

still from “And We Stood Still”

As the 2018 New Orleans Film Festival comes to a close…the Miniflix staff looks back at all the great short films screened over the last 9 days.

Whether it was a World Premiere or the last stop in a long festival run, this year’s short films truly exemplified the creativity and possibility inherent in the short form. The narrative shorts were especially strong. With other 2,800 entries in this category this year, we’re proud to present the special few that especially stood out for their sense of craft and originality.

A Year — directed by Jisun Jamie Kim

still from “A Year”

In a Himalayan village a woman longs to give her children the chance she never had. While her husband and mother-in-law seem satisfied with having their children continue the same cycle of farming, she will have none of it. However, her only option to make the money needed to make her dream a reality is surrogacy. Doing this will require her to leave her family for an entire year.

The film is built around this moral quandary: is it better to leave those who depend on you to eventually give them a better future? Or is it better to remain present always, no matter what the cost? Director Jisun Jamie Kim effectively captures the isolation of the village; we know what kind fate awaits the children if the mother turns down the surrogacy opportunity. The film doesn’t choose any easy answers, instead laying the weight of the decision at the feet of the audience. In the end, the film manages to be both challenging and empathetic. It refuses to make heroes and villains of its people but rather asks you to join with them and ask difficult questions. It’s an important reflection on not only what is valuable in our lives but about the cost of protecting those things.

Fence — directed by Lendita Zeqiraj

A true slice-of-life film, Fence follows Genti, a young boy stuck roaming in an out of the chaotic house where his extended family is simultaneously celebrating and bickering amongst themselves. It’s already won the Best Short under 15 minutes at Palm Springs (and been featured at several other major festivals), and from the opening minutes, you immediately see why. To capture the tension and the exhaustion of a boy trapped in an oppressive adult’s world, Zeqiraj and cinematographer Sebastien Goepfert go for a hand-held one take shot that comprises the entire film’s running time.

Not only is it an extraordinarily executed piece of art (this camera covers a lot of ground), but it’s also the right move for the story. The film’s geography literally goes back and forth between the house and the neighborhood on the other side of the fence, echoing Genti’s own ambivalent feelings. This award-winning short is a master class in using visuals to communicate the character’s journey, with the film’s ultimate climax depending on what direction our protagonist chooses. This just scratches the surface, however. There’s the perfectly dreary color palette, the sociological themes running beneath the family drama and other little moments that are best revisited on subsequent viewings. One of the strongest showings by an ensemble cast for a short we’ve seen all year.

Yoshua — directed by Matthew Castellanos

production photo of “Yoshua” (source: Fullscreen and AT&T)

Four teenagers befriend a blue alien…what could possibly go wrong? Matthew Castellanos’s Yoshua starts with the trope of the “young kids encounter supernatural entity” but ultimately makes it into something unique. Small town America is replaced with South Central, Los Angeles and kids on bikes are replaced with high school seniors (band members) in a beat-down van. The world in which the kids live has outlawed supernatural creatures like Yoshua. It’s implied that this world is used to having encountered these kind of creatures before, so hiding Yoshua is less about keeping him from the public as much as it is about running from the law.

As the teens celebrate their one year anniversary since having encountered Yoshua, they realize that reality is catching up to them. They face the possibility of going to college and starting a normal life, one that is not possible while keeping Yoshua around. The four leads are able to add a depth and humanity to their characters that make the audience truly care for their dilemma. While the dialogue can be a little too on the nose at times, the story manages to be heart-warming and exciting. The design and visual effects for Yoshua are excellent, surpassing expectations for most low budget, sci-fi, short films. The film ends on a decidedly bittersweet note; it’s hopeful, but more pessimistic than similar films in the genre. Castellanos is able to execute a fun and affecting genre short that builds on its influences for something wholly unique.

And We Stood Still — directed Ilana Coleman

Terrence Malick. Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Abbas Kiarostami. If these directors mean anything to you, we think you’ll really love this incredibly atmospheric piece of short cinema. Taking place deep in the jungles of Mexico, two adults look together to find children they believe to be missing there. Along the way, they confront strange people (and strange experiences). We as the audience share in this journey with some superb camerawork and high on-location production value. Not unlike another short made by an incredible Australian filmmaker, And We Stood Still has a finale in beautiful, but unforgiving, cane fields.

You won’t find easy answers or the typical elements of a thriller with this same kind of premise. However, you will find some incredible short filmmaking. Its minimal dialogue allows for maximum visual impact (and a hypnotic soundtrack), as you soak in this world run completely by nature. Mexico’s past and present collide too, with the short making subtle allusions to political and economic realities. It’s the most transcendent short film experience at the festival, and we’re so glad we got to see it in a theater with other silent, transported viewers.

My Home is a Dog that Lives Inside Me — directed by Adam Briggs

A wandering folk singer walks through a small Japanese seaside village as the snow falls around him. This is the place he originally called home. Now years have passed and the singer has returned to reconnect with people from the past and play a small concert at the local bar. From the opening frame, director Adam Briggs sucks you in with a wonderful sense of atmosphere. You feel not only the cold of the weather but also the familiarity and nostalgia that our protagonist feels.

The film is shot to have an old-school, grainy aesthetic making it look like an old movie dug up from the past. At times it feels closer to a documentary than it does to a narrative short. Briggs’ love for the setting is evident in every shot: whether it’s a lone man staring at the cold winter ocean, reflecting on his life or a small tavern thick with cigarette smoke. The film finishes with the performance at the bar. As he plays his song for the crowd, we feel the community and history that the inhabitants of the town have with each other. The scene makes us reflect on how the places and communities we come from truly shape us. It’s a poignant reminder that no matter how far we go or how long we travel, we can never fully get away from our pasts.

Nice — directed by Andrew Ahn, created by Naomi Ko

Another one of our favorite narrative shorts actually came in the form of a short series pilot. Creator, writer and star Naomi Ko already has plenty of film and television credits to her name, so it’s no surprise to learn that the main creative team is looking for a key streaming partner to produce a full first season.

It follows a 23-year-old Korean American as she attempts to balance her writing life with her personal life and her family life…all while dealing wit her just-diagnosed breast cancer. Despite the serious themes and scenarios this show gets into with only 22 minutes, most of its runtime plays for laughs. Ko and cast shine here, taking the sharp dialogue and really running with it. Director Ahn keeps the story zipping at a good pace, showing us both the iconic and the lesser-known aspects of Minnesota culture. You know the episode worked when it makes you immediately want to hit that “Next” button….too bad we were in a theater!

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