OnScreen Review: Short Film Series at the Downtown Urban Arts Festival

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Anthony J. Piccione

Normally, most of the readers on this blog know me to be someone who covers theatre. That’s been where most of my background as an artist has been, and it’s what first led me to want to write for a website such as On Stage Blog, in the first place. However, after reviewing a number of theatrical productions this past month at the Downtown Urban Arts Festival, I also had the chance to attend their short film series which occurred early this month, which includes a high-quality selection of films that, for the most part, left me quite impressed…

FREMONT – This film series started out on Tuesday with a short but powerful take on the criminal justice system, and how it unfairly targets and makes assumptions about young black men. Directed by Ryo Jepson, it tells the story of a black man being chased by police and blamed for the death of his white girlfriend, with audiences being taken through the scenario of a harsh interrogation and push for a guilty plea, only for the audience to find out toward the end that he was, in fact, shot dead before he even had the chance to even profess his innocence in the first place. While this can be said of the entire film, that final shot of him lying on the ground – in particular – was stunning, and was a reflection of how unfair and unjust our criminal justice system can be toward people of color.

THE REHEARSAL – French director Léa Frédeval hones in on two individuals, their common work struggles, and their different aspirations, in this short film. Taking place in a work bathroom, for the most part, as the toilets are being cleaned, it focuses on how each of these two people – one a struggling single mom; the other an aspiring actor – are only doing this unpleasant labor not because they want to, but because they have to, in order to get by and get to where they want to be in life. It’s a story which has a great deal of universality to it, in that many of us have had or still have work struggles that we must go through, in order to achieve true happiness in life. Anyone who has ever felt that will most certainly relate, to some extent or another, with the characters in this film.

THE SUITCASE – The brainchild of Asian-Canadian director Philip Leung, this exploration of immigration and human trafficking nearly brought me to tears. It tells the story of a prostitute in Asia who secretly sends her young child off in a suitcase to live with relatives in Canada, far away from the brutal life that she lives in their home country. All the while, the child is urged to use her imagination, and pretend her suitcase is flying on a dragon (as opposed to a plane) with animated sequences being used to depict this moments. By the end, I was on the verge of tears, and even though this film was featured at the beginning of the film series, by the end of it, I was still thinking about it – and about the real life victims whom the story was based off of – over and over.

VAGABONDS – The last of Tuesday’s four shorts – directed by Magaajyia Silberfeld – had me hooked, but is left weaker by its abrupt ending. Set in California, after an African immigrant and a former child star are both kicked out of their respective homes, the two ultimately cross paths, with the film ending with a bit of a cliffhanger, and the immigrant taking the child star home with her. This would be the first of a few shorts that I saw that I thought not only could be extended into a full-length feature, but demanded it, in order to do justice to what I thought was a story with potential.

ALMOST SAW THE SUNSHINE –As this film from the UK – directed by Leon Lopez – notes toward the end, thousands of transgender individuals are constantly the victims of domestic violence, rape, and murder. The film follows a transgender woman named Rachel who decides to enter into a one-night stand with a mysterious man with whom she flirts with, only for the aftermath to take a dark turn that leads to a tragic end, which I admit that I had not been expecting. Of the three shorts presented on Wednesday, this first one was easily the most poignant, and also was perhaps the most effective at leaving the audience surprised at how shocking the twist ending was.

AYSHA – Set in the post-Arab Spring Middle East, this film – directed by Fon Cortizo – follows a young woman who uses the power of poetry and performance to spread messages of change to a society in desperate need of it. The film seemingly aims to spotlight a younger, more progressive generation of Arabs that could bring hope to a region that has long been ravaged by war and authoritarianism. I thought it was very successful at doing exactly that, and that it was very refreshing to see perspectives such as this represented in the arts.

ELENA – Another LGBTQ themed film – directed by Ayerim Villanueva – highlights the story of a young woman who is in a lesbian relationship, and is bringing over her girlfriend to her house and keeping it a secret from her disapproving mother. While far from the most outstanding film in the series, it was nonetheless well written and well acted, and I wouldn’t have minded seeing a longer version of this film, with a more fleshed out story.

SOÑADORA – Directed by Maria Altamirano, the first short film on Thursday told the story of a teenager who is hoping to go to college, but might not be able to, due to the immigration laws in the United States. The issues facing the community of “dreamers” in this country deserve to be explored on a more human level, and while I would have liked to see the character backgrounds and personalities explored here in greater detail, it is nonetheless a fine example of a short film that highlights the obstacles facing many aspiring young people in our country.

SONGS OF WILD ANIMALS – The story in this film, directed by Mara Weber, is told from the perspective of a young girl who has just lost her brother and closest friend, with the film rotating primarily from a funeral to flashbacks of the two of them. This was yet another film that I thought should have been longer, and in this case, perhaps should have shown some more vividly emotional scenes, given the subject matter. It’s a fine story, but the pieces are there for it to be even better.

THE VIRGIN AND THE PROSTITUTE – While you might think you know what you’re in for, after seeing a title like this, you quickly there’s plenty more to it, than one might initially think. After a fire in a hospital leaves two seemingly different women trapped in an elevator, the two realize that they aren’t so different, after all, as each slowly divulges on the dark secrets of their respective pasts. Given the nun’s back story, which is revealed later, I found it somewhat odd that she’d be referred to in the title as a “virgin”, despite contradictory evidence. Nonetheless, this film - directed by Maria Jose Noriega Pedroza – was still a very thought-provoking film, with yet another tragic ending, that shows how we – as humans – are often far more similar than different, despite what we might think.

THE SECOND PROVINCE – Anyone who has ever experienced the slow, long goodbye to a dying parent will likely relate, to some extent or another, to this film directed by Zorinah Juan, which tells the story of two estranged adult siblings who reunite as their dying mother moves to end her life prematurely and voluntarily. I was particularly impressed with the emotional depth of these characters, and how well they were performed. I admit that I’m torn over this one, as part of me wants to see a longer version to see more of these characters get fleshed out, while the other thinks that it’s a wonderful the way it is. Nevertheless, this was one of the better ones in the series, as far as the acting is concerned.

AND STILL WE LOVE – I don’t always see too many romance stories that are successful in taking the genre in uniquely potent directions, but this film - directed by Erika Santosuosso – succeeds in not only in exploring a love story between two characters in a short period of time, but also in exploring a vital current issue on a very human level. Set toward the beginning of the Trump presidency, it depicts an immigrant on the verge of deportation, sharing a brief and romance final moment with the woman he loves, before the authorities come to take him away. If the goal of this film was to show how real lives and relationships are being affected by the harsh immigration policies of the U.S., then it certainly was successful in achieving it.

SPIN – Directed by French filmmaker Leticia Belliccini, this first of five films on Friday was also one of the most trippy (and I mean that in a positive way) of the festival. It revolves around a brutal assault that occurs on one man and his wife, and takes place during what appears to be a surreal world where time doesn’t appear to exist. That was my interpretation, anyway. To be honest, I’m still trying to wrap my head around this film, after seeing it. While the concept is an interesting on, I imagine that I’m not the only audience member who might require a second viewing of it, in order to fully appreciate it.

ASYLUM PARK – Directed by Shanu Sharma, this film tells the story of two immigrants living in Germany – one from India, the other from Africa – who share their individual stories of why they fled their respective places of origin, their past lives, and their hopes for the future. The dialogue in this film is probably some of the best not just in this series, but any short film, as it dives deep into the backgrounds of these two individuals who are merely looking for safe and comfort in their lives. It also reminds us that the ongoing refugee crisis – both in Europe, and here in the United States – is one that should be approached with humanity, as there are real human lives involved, which have been taken in a desperate direction that led them to seek refuge, in the first place.

9.58 – Directed by Louis Aubert, this compelling film tells the story of a young teenager from Franch who aspires to be just a strong as a runner as Usain Bolt, but struggles in school as he trains to do so, and must also face with the obstacle of a confrontational father who refuses to believe in his dreams. My one complaint about this film was its abrupt ending, as it should have at least explained whether or not the lead character won his race or not. Nonetheless, I’d certainly be eager to watch a longer version of this film, as I think it deserves it, and that there is certainly a potentially wide audience out there, for a feature-length version.

THREE TIME WALTZ – Directed by Caroline Pascal, this melodramatic romance was probably the least impressive of the series. As eluded to in the title, the film references a couple that dances together, in an equally similar fashion, at various points in their life and relationship: First, at the moment when the met. Second, at their last dance before breaking up. Third, one last time as they reunite years later, with the woman in the relationship pregnant with another man’s child. While I’ve certainly seen worse films in my life, the plot felt cliché, and somewhat underwhelming compared to some of the more heartbreaking and thought-provoking works in the festival.

MECHANISM OR: HOW TO TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF – This German short directed by Michael Chlebusch was another one that probably requires a second viewing, before I can give a definitive answer. If I had to judge it now, I’d honestly say that it was the most confusing of them all. It feels very abstract, and perhaps that was the goal – to some extent or another – but overall, I thought it was a very bizarre film, with a plot that was difficult for me to comprehend. The visual effects, though, were among some of the more impressive that I’ve seen in these short films.

BOB, JR. – On the last day of the festival, this short film by Dilek Ince tells the story of a widowed man who is coping with the loss of his wife, and clings excessively to their pet fish, as a memento of their marriage. Along the way, he struggles to move on and find love once again, without feeling guilty. Anyone who has ever dealt with the loss of a loved one can certainly relate to the pain of possibly having to let go and move on with life, afterwards. If you’ve ever dealt with that yourself, than this poignant film is one that you will especially relate to.

BROTHERS – In this highly powerful, post-apocalyptic drama from Troy Elliot, a young adult man – who has been looking out for his 7 year old brother, ever since the death of their parents – is about to be drafted into the military, and faces the prospect of his brother being left without anyone to take care of him. Even when putting aside the particularly dark circumstances of this scenario, the feeling of being responsible for caring for a loved one – and the nightmare of being separated from them – is certainly something that many audience members could relate to, from this film. As someone with a considerably younger sibling, I myself could relate to that, to a certain extent, as I watched it. In any case, it is a very well-made short film, and the parting of ways at the end proved to be both a heartbreaking and satisfying conclusion to the story, even as it left the audience thinking about what happens to each of the characters next.

IN PRIVATE – In the next to last film of the series, directed by Clem McIntosh, we see an example of how people are “in private” – namely, in private conversations via text messages – and how it differs from the way they behave in public, face to face conservations. This plays out in the form of two couples who meet up for the holiday season…and a meeting which takes a very awkward turn toward the very end. Told in a fitting black and white filter, the tone of the film is rather dark, and shows the mundane reality and hypocrisy that exists within our modern relationships with one another in the 21st century and the era of texting and social media.

THE BRACKET THEORY – Last but not least came a short romance from Katia Koziara, which tells the story of a young, twenty-something year old woman living in New York, who reads the book Freakonomics and essentially applies the same principles of that book to her own dating life. Admittedly, the type of story wasn’t my cup of tea, but it was still well-written, and nonetheless was a film that I’m sure could easily be enjoyed by other audience members.

From New York to California, Canada to India, Mexico to the United Kingdom, France to Costa Rica, the films I saw came from all over the U.S. and all over the rest of the world, and were filled with a wide variety of subject matter, each of which left me thinking afterwards, and in some cases, feeling sad for the characters. Just as independent theatre festivals often show where some of the best, most overlooked storytelling in that art form can be found, the same can be said for independent film festivals and some of the best stories in film. I’m sure this won’t be the last we hear from many of these gifted filmmakers, and I hope to have the chance to see more of their work – at some point or another – in the future…

For more information on the Downtown Urban Arts Festival, please visit www.duafnyc.com.