New Directors/New Films 2020: Some Thoughts On Shorts Program 1
Miniflix reflects on the humor, the sadness and the depth in this year’s short film lineup.
New Directors/New Films has been one of the most exciting places to see films for nearly 50 years. Focusing exclusively on emerging talent and films that would have otherwise fallen through the cracks, it’s one of the rare high-profile festivals that doesn’t need a star-studded gala or prestige lineup to prove its worth.
And while always having been based in New York City, 2020 has forced new changes, making this the first ever digital-exclusive version of the festival. Now anyone around the world can catch the amazing selections. Perhaps most astonishingly, both curated Short Film Programs are free to rent.
We watched the sometimes intense, sometimes humorous, but always engaging 75-minute Shorts Program 1. Here’s our thoughts.
A Tough Act To Follow
It’s a tall order being asked to put together a curated short film slate deserving of 2020, in all of its obvious importance. Between the coronavirus, the election and plenty of drama within the world of moviemaking and exhibiting itself, it’s nearly impossible to pin down just what to make of what we’ve all lived through.
And wisely rather than tapping too explicitly into the themes (and most importantly the fears) of this year, Shorts Program 1 only obliquely finds reference points, though admittedly always resonant ones.
The most explicit connection to the coronavirus probably comes from the premise of the program-finale SUN DOG. In this passionately constructed short, we follow a locksmith through a literal endless night in the middle of winter (in the middle of Russia). The eerie quiet, the gaping spaces of mounded snow, all feel like scenes from a pandemic wasteland now, only in this case it’s just too cold and barbaric outside to have anything like a mass gathering.
Director Dorian Jespers chronicles the sort of frenzy that can take a town and its people when a force beyond themselves asserts its dominance. We return multiple times to a citizen with a megaphone, speaking in non-sequiturs and trying to provoke an audience. In the penultimate scene, our main character actively avoids being touched as a group of girls are ecstatic over his ability to open their car for him.
COVID-allegory or not, SUN DOG taps into what it feels like to try and outlast the longest period of existential confinement of your life. In a stunning final scene, a cathartic purge hits the locksmith and the viewer, with a twist of a surprise. Sublime or apocalyptic? Jespers lets you choose.
Another film that lives in the night is MONSTER GOD, an Argentenian short and big winner at this year’s Cannes. This eerie, transporting short works mostly in obscurity, where a small town is menaced by a mysterious red-orbed power that visits power lines each night and results in the disappearance of a town member. Icons of modern ingenuity (power lines, electricity) clash with those of nature and agricultural domesticity (herds of cows, open land).
Director Augustina San Martin creates a nightscape that, unlike SUN DOG’s committed realism, traffics in gothic haze and Dickensian fog. While SUN DOG was in some ways about the human spirit, about running out the night, MONSTER GOD is about succumbing to the darkest, most unknown aspects of that very same phenomenon. It’s a real mood piece with touches of the avant-garde.
To Laugh, To Cry, Or To Sweat It Out
The only outright humorous short in the bunch, though a hard-edged, satirical one at that, is WONG PING’S FABLES 2. Using the structure (and at times absurd logic) of a fable and the design elements of a retro video game, the eponymous director guides us through two “morality” tales of greed, glutton and the strictures of a market economy.
It’s funniest moments also come at its truest moments (which can be seen as its saddest moments). The story of a cow who started as an idealistic revolutionary but through the seemingly best intentions becomes a primary function of greed is tragic, inevitable and yet hilariously rendered in its visual representations. Beneath the crazy creativity on display are some hard truths about labor and the sacrifices (both literally and figuratively) that working class subjects (cows, rabbits or humans) must make to press through life.
This sobering truth of the lengths those in need will go to to make of themselves in life is picked up in Iran’s award-winning EXAM. Director Sonia K. Hadad takes us through a social realist thrill ride as we follow a teenage girl who’s been expected to transport cocaine but ends up having to bring it with her to her classroom. When random backpack checks begin, the drama really ratchets up. Exhibiting the limits of the human spirit (and the human body), actress Sadaf Asgari commits to screen a microcosm of the literal and metaphorical forces bearing down on women in the Middle East and around the world. Being tossed here to go there to find this to secure that, EXAM puts the audience through a test of adversity and willpower.
Just Show Us Already
Somehow the most straightforward and the most elusive of the films in Program 1, THE EYES OF SUMMER is a transcendental meditation on generational pain civil war in Sri Lanka. While rooted in very specific events, this is very far from a history lesson. Shot in a haunting black and white and edited to cut between spaces, places and planes of time, one never feels quite settled or comfortable in where they are. Director Rajee Samarasinghe does perhaps the hardest job a director can by just showing us images, camera movements, subjects’ faces and bodies on screen and trusting the audience to make psychical connections. No commentary, no critique, no generic conventions. Just free-floating thought in the way only cinema can deliver it.
If you feel unresolved from THE EYES OF SUMMER, it’s probably because it’s still doing its work in you. Like a summer day, the light will linger in your mind’s eye. You may not even remember all you watched, but you’ll definitely remember THAT you watched, and that you witnessed.
To learn more about Shorts Program 1, New Directors/New Films and how to see this slate of films before the festival ends, go to https://www.newdirectors.org/.