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Sundance 2023: Short Films

The hybrid Sundance Film Festival kicked off this week. I’ll be attending virtually with coverage on a variety of feature films and documentaries. In the meantime, let’s kick off my coverage with some of my favorite short films from this year’s Sundance line-up.

A still from Inglorious Liaisons by Chloe Alliez and Violette Delvoye, an official selection of the Shorts program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by the press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.
Still from Inglorious Liaisons (2023). Courtesy of Sundance.

Inglorious Liaisons (Les liaisons foireuses)

directed by Chloé Alliez and Violette Delvoye

Starting off with my favorite from this year’s festival, Inglorious Liaisons is a superb stop-animation short about attraction and expectation. Youths convene at a party and they go through the traditional rituals of drinking, dancing, flirting and playing a game of spin the bottle. An attraction sparks between two young women but societal pressure forces them to be matched boys they’re only mildly interested in. The characters are all light switches with wigs and painted on clothes. There are lots of small details to enjoy in the form of carefully designed miniatures. But what impressed me the most about this short was how it perfectly captures the subtle intricacies of physical attraction.

Kali Racquel, Deirdre Friel, Nicole Michelle Haskins, Dana Powell, Rachel Harris and Kate Flannery appear in Help Me Understand by Aemilia Scott, an official selection of the U.S. Shorts program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Mike Maliwanag
Still from Help Me Understand (2023). Courtesy of Sundance.

Help Me Understand

directed by Aemilia Scott

cast: Kali Raquel, Deirdre Friel, Nicole Michelle Haskins, Dana Powell, Rachel Harris, Kate Flannery, Ken Marino

When a group of corporate women are tasked to decide between two bottles of laundry detergent, it’s clear that the man leading the study wants them all to pick A. And most of them do pick A. That is until they all realize that there is one outlier. One of the women prefers B. Can they come to a consensus? Help Me Understand is like a modern day 12 Angry Men (1957) in a corporate setting. It demonstrates the dangers of caving to a single mindset and showcases the benefits of female solidarity. Thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable.

Kitoko Mai appears in Thriving: A Dissociated Reverie  by Nicole Bazuin, an official selection of the Shorts program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Still from Thriving: A Dissociated Reverie (2023). Courtesy of Sundance

Thriving: A Dissociated Reverie

Directed by Nicole Bazuin

Cast: Kitoko Mai, Dustin Hickey, Myfanwy Charlesworth, Morgan Bargent, Grace McDonald, Andrea Werhun

As a fan of Nicole Bazuin’s short films Modern Whore and Last Night at the Strip Club, I was excited to see another offering from this director. Thriving: A Dissociated Reverie has the same style and vibe as Bazuin’s previous work—and even includes a small role for Andrea Werhun who was the subject of two of her shorts. Thriving is about a Black, nonbinary , disabled artist and her experience with DID (dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder). Based on Kitoko Mai’s real-life experience, Mai plays the host and alter Cheyenne, while other actors play the remaining alters. Stylish, sex-positive and educational, Thriving treats a sensitive subject with great reverence.

Adina Verson and Michael Braun appear in Troy by Mike Donahue, an official selection of the Shorts program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Ryan De Franco.
Still from Troy (2022). Courtesy of Sundance.

Troy

Directed by Mike Donahue

Cast: Adina Verson, Michael Braun, Florian Klein, Dylan Baker, Dana Delaney

New York City couple Thea (Adina Verson) and Charlie (Michael Braun) share a wall with their neighbor Troy (Florian Klein). The trouble is Troy is loud. VERY loud. He’s a full-time escort serving a male clientele and Thea and Charlie can hear every single sound. The couple soon becomes invested in what’s going on on the other side of the wall. Troy is a lighthearted film about the social complexities of urban life. It does a fabulous job demonstrating how we learn to adjust to our environment.

Still from The Family Circus (2023). Courtesy of Sundance.

The Family Circus

Directed by Andrew Fitzgerald

Cast: Elyse Dinh, Michael Ironside, Scott Subiono, Michael Nguyen Manceau, Blake Dang, Christian Seavey

A mixed Vietnamese-American family faces a crisis when their wayward son gets into a drunk driving accident. No one is hurt but if the police catch on to what happened their son will go back to prison. The father concocts a plan to have their other son pretend to have caused the accident. When they call the police, their plan seems to work. That is, until the police officer becomes a little too comfortable. The Family Circus has a terrific build-up that leads to an incredibly satisfying ending. Pay close attention to Elyse Dinh’s performance as the family matriarch.

Still from We Were Meant To (2023). Courtesy of Sundance.

We Were Meant To

Directed by Tari Wariebi

Cast: Tim Johnson Jr., Amin Joseph, Karimah Westbrook, Jordan-Amanda Hall, Skye Barrett, Luke Tennie

Directed by Tari Wariebi and co-written with Christina K. Licud, We Were Meant To imagines a world where young black men sprout feathers and wings and take flight in a cultural rite of passage. Akil (Tim Johnson Jr.) is a teen in high school who just came into his new wings. He and his friends travel through their community looking for the perfect spot for their first flight. However, No Fly Zone signs are posted all over town and a drone follows their every move. Akil prepares for his big day but unfortunately the odds are stacked against him. We Were Meant To is symbolic of the plight of young black men in American society. Even something joyful as a first flight is seen as a threat by a drone meant to represent an unnamed law enforcement. It’s an inherently political film with a strong social message skillfully disguised as a coming-of-age story with a touch magical realism. This short could easily be expanded to a feature length film.

Sefu Weber-kal appears in Mulika by Maisha Maene, an official selection of the Shorts program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Still from Mulika (2023). Courtesy of Sundance.

Mulika

Directed by Maisha Maene

Cast: Sefu Weber-Kal, Faustin Biyoga, Ibrahim Twaha, Sarah Bahati

When an “afronaut” (Sefu Weber-Kal) emerges from his spaceship, he finds himself in the volcanic crater of Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This mysterious figure travels to Goma where he encounters locals and goes on a spiritual journey of enlightenment. Mulika is written and directed by Africanfuturist filmmaker Maisha Maene.  Sefu Weber-Kal plays the lead role of the afronaut wears a silvery suit adorned with switchboard like plates and an illuminated helmet. The suit suggests that the afronaut symbolizes technology and DRC’s mineral rich land. An encounter with an older man dressed in more natural garb suggests a coming together of both the old and the new. Cryptic and thought-provoking.

A still from Pro Pool by Alec Pronovost, an official selection of the Shorts program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Still from Pro Pool (2023). Courtesy of Sundance.

Pro Pool (Piscine Pro)

Directed by Alec Pronovost

Cast: Louis Carrière, Alexis Martin, Sylvie de Morais, Sébastien Rajotte, Oussama Fares, Louis Girard-Bock

Charles-Olivier (Louis Carrière) recently graduated with a degree in history and a minor in Viking studies. With no real job prospects in his chosen field, he reluctantly applies for a job a pool store. The film follows Charles-Olivier as he becomes purposefully terrible at his job and releases his frustrations by singing to hardcore metal in his car. Written and directed by Quebecois filmmaker Alec Pronovost, who himself used to work at a Club Piscine, this irreverent comedy gives a big middle finger to those meaningless jobs many of us have to endure at one point in our lives. Pro Pool is reminiscent of both Billy Budd and Office Space and offers modern sensibility that Gen Z-ers will easily identify with.

Double Exposure: The Other Little Black Book

“Jeffrey Epstein got away with what he got away with because of who was in his address book.”

— John Cook, The Insider

Directed by Barbara Corbellini Duarte and Mark Adam Miller, The Other Little Black Book is a fascinating short documentary about a recently discovered “little black book” that may have been owned by Jeffrey Epstein. 

In the mid-1990s, Denise Ondayko discovered  the address book on a 5th Avenue sidewalk in New York City. Decades later, collector of the obscurities, Christopher Helali, took ownership of the book, sending it off to Insider for authentication.  That little book is a small window into a world of power and corruption.

The Other Little Black Book was part of the 2022 Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival

Slamdance: The Ritual to Beauty

“What happens to brown girls who never learn who to love themselves brown?”

Dominicans have a long and tortured relationship with their hair. As a Dominican-American woman I know this all too well. My mother and grandmother were both hairstylists who specialized in relaxing Dominican hair to a more culturally appealing state.  Wearing one’s hair “natural” was looked down upon. The pain of not being something acceptable and having to change yourself to fit an aesthetic is passed on from generation and the harm lingers for years.

This is why I’m grateful for the precious gift that is The Ritual of Beauty (2022). Directed by Shenny De Los Angeles and Maria Marrone, is a short documentary that sheds light on the social custom of straightening hair and how it keeps Dominican women from loving themselves. The doc focuses on a young Dominican woman who is on a journey to embrace her natural hair. And in doing so, she examines the stories of her mother and grandmother whose different relationships with their own hair spoke volumes of what they thought about themselves. The doc is haunting and poetic and revealing. A truly amazing film.

The Ritual to Beauty was part of the 2022 Slamdance FIlm Festival line-up.

AFI Fest: Love, Dad/Milý Tati

Any woman who has grown up in a culture that prizes male heirs over female children know all too well the pain of being a father’s disappointment. Diana had a great relationship with her Vietnamese father during her childhood in the Czech Republic. However, when, after three miscarriages, her mother finally got pregnant again, their relationship came to an abrupt end. Diana’s father left the family, looking to start again in hopes of continuing the bloodline with his name. 

Love, Dad/Milý Tati is a heart-wrenching short film about a young girl who remembers her dad and the bond they had before it was cruelly taken away. It’s beautiful, poetic and deeply melancholic. Directed by Diana Cam Van Nguyen, it tells the story through letters, memories and gorgeous cut paper art.

I was quite moved by this 13 minute film. I’m the third of a string of daughters born to a man who desperately wanted a son. I was lucky that my father never expressed any form of disappointment in only having daughters but I did feel the pang of guilt when the family name died with him. 

Love, Dad/Milý Tati premiered at the 2021 AFI Fest as part of their Shorts Competition.

AFI Fest: Meltdown in Dixie

The confederate flag flies boldly in front of Edisto River Creamery & Kitchen in Orangeburg, South Carolina. In a time when other markers of the South’s confederate past were being torn down, the owner of the creamery sought to take down this confederate flag. However, the flag pole and its commemorative marker sit on a tiny plot of land owned by a vocal member of a local Sons of the Confederacy chapter. Meltdown in Dixie is a short documentary directed by Emily Harold, chronicles the legal battle that ensued between the flag opposer and the flag owner. The creamery is now permanently closed but during filming it was open and struggling with backlash from the local community. The documentary treads very carefully, not casting judgement on either side and giving everyone a platform to speak. If anything it offers an insight into a disturbing mindset that still persists today.

Meltdown in Dixie premiered at the 2021 AFI Fest as part of their Meet the Press programming.

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