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Slamdance: There Were Four of Us

Who did it? Four figures are in a room that is enclosed yet constantly shifting in shape, form and color. The question appears “who did it?” and one of the figures confesses. The vision of the room shifts into other shapes and imaginings. Everything and everyone is awash in bright ’80s retro colors. A narrator whose barely registerable voice becomes clearer as the dream continues tells us a story of loss and the need for closure. Dreams help us process trauma and pain. Even when they give us no clear answers.

Cassie Shao’s experimental short film There Were Four of Us transports the viewer into a chaotic dream world that is sad, beautiful and hypnotizing. Inspired by the passing of her grandfather and a dream she had about four people in a room, Shao’s film gives us a filtered lens that peaks into her mind and soul.

“In the dream we each shared a moment in our life and realised that the symbol of death connected all of us together; that we were essentially one. This dream served as the structure of the film.”

Cassie Shao

There Were Four of Us is an animated short, just under 7 minutes and Shao combines digital 2D characters, 3D graphic elements, pastels, silkscreens and paint and sand on glass to create her visuals.

I love experimental short films because they allow me to dive into the mind of a creator and watch their imagination at work.

There Were Four of Us screened at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival.

Slamdance: Jasper Mall

I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, the heyday of the American mall. Indoor malls were everywhere. They reinvigorated the retail business and gave the community a place to shop, eat, socialize and even to exercise. With the advent of online shopping and the birth of new retail concepts, the indoor mall is rapidly losing its appeal. Countless videos on YouTube show tours of abandoned malls that only have a few businesses running, are on the verge of foreclosure or are just days before shutting down. It’s quite depressing to watch especially for those of us who remember these malls as bustling hubs of activity. 

Bradford Thomasson and Brett Whitcomb’s new documentary Jasper Mall, chronicles one year in the life of a declining mall: Jasper Mall in Jasper, Alabama. What used to be a happening place swarming with teenagers is now a quiet space with only a handful of shops and eateries still open. What keeps the mall going is the dedication of the mall’s manager, whom the film follows closely throughout the year, the elderly visitors who walk the length of the mall for exercise, the Army recruitment center, and the mall’s one remaining anchor store. Despite all the manager’s attempts to keep the mall going, including hosting community events, a Santa Claus meet and greet and inviting a traveling carnival to use the mostly empty parking lot, the mall continues on its steady decline. It’s not a hopeful documentary but there is something inspiring about watching someone fight for something they care for even when our culture threatens to leave that behind. 

Jasper Mall is a fascinating look at a dying enterprise: the American mall.

Jasper Mall had its world premiere at the 2020 Slamdance as part of their Documentary competition. 

Slamdance: Big Fur

by Ally Russell

Big Fur chronicles World Champion Taxidermist Ken Walker’s attempt to build a believable Bigfoot replica—specifically the “Patty” from the infamous Patterson-Gimlin film, which shocked viewers back in 1967 when it showed an unidentified bipedal hominid walking along a riverbank in northern California. Home videos and interviews with Ken’s family, friends, and colleagues give viewers an intimate look at his personal life and beliefs, all while he builds his monstrous masterpiece in the background.

Director and producer Dan Wayne became interested in the subject of taxidermy because of its unique blend of art and science. It wasn’t until Dan met former Roy Orbison impersonator turned Bigfoot believer and Taxidermist Ken Walker that he decided to film a documentary to shine a spotlight on an underappreciated art form and its misunderstood artists. Not only did he spend five years researching, camping in the secluded wilderness, and filming Ken as he built Patty, but Dan also began practicing taxidermy. Big Fur is Dan’s first feature documentary, and it was made in collaboration with producer and award-winning writer and filmmaker Jon Niccum, and writer and editor George Langworthy, producer and director of the award-winning documentary Vanishing of the Bees (2009)—a project on which Dan also collaborated.

Ken Walker creates a life-sized Bigfoot in the feature documentary Big Fur. – Photo Courtesy Millennial PR
Ken Walker stands next to a tree structure, possibly built by Bigfoot, in the feature documentary Big Fur. – Photo Courtesy Millennial PR

For those looking for an intimate and educational look at the art and science of taxidermy, Big Fur covers the subject with extreme care and attention to detail. Skeptics beware—you’ll find no Bigfoot mockery in this documentary. Considering that the main subject of the film believes in Bigfoot (so fervently that he keeps not one but TWO bags of alleged sasquatch scat in his freezer), it was a bit of a disappointment that Ken never shared his encounters on screen. Its creators describe the film as a “comical portrait of an eccentric artist-hero.” Sure, there are funny moments—like Ken singing Hello! Ma Baby! while stomping around his workshop with two Styrofoam sasquatch legs—but other moments, like the revelation of a very questionable personal relationship with another subject featured in the film, feel tacked on and detract from the focus of the main storyline. Watching Ken build his rendition of Patty is certainly enjoyable, but the task lacks tension. Ken alludes to hurdles, but viewers don’t get to witness those hairy moments. Perhaps Big Fur’s most important subplot is its insightful commentary from author and naturalist Robert Pyle and retired outfitter and activist Mike Judd as they call for hunters and environmentalist to collaborate because of their mutual goal of preserving and protecting the wilderness from industry. Overall, Big Fur may lack tension and focus as it nears its conclusion, but the film is still a worthwhile watch for those with a healthy interest in taxidermy and cryptozoology.

A quiet and thoughtful film that heralds the importance of environmentalism, art… and Bigfoot. An enjoyable watch for Bigfoot believers, taxidermy enthusiasts, and environmentalists.

About the reviewer: Ally Russell occasionally creates content for the Horror Writers Association’s Young Adult & Middle Grade blog, SCARY OUT THERE, and she hosts the FlashFrights podcast on iTunes and SoundCloud. Ally lives in Boston and works at an independent children’s publisher. She enjoys talking about cryptids in her free time. She can be found on Instagram at @OneDarkAlly.

Big Fur is screening at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival as part of their Documentary Features series. Learn more about this film by visiting the official website.

Slamdance: A Dog’s Death/La Muerte de un perro

A routine operation on a dog ends in tragedy when veterinarian Mario (Guillermo Arengo) makes a crucial mistake. Whether it was negligence or an error in judgment we’re not sure. What we do know is that the dog is dead and the owner is mad.

Mario and his recent retiree wife Silvia (Pelusa Vidal) live cushy lives in Montevideo, Uruguay and they want to keep it that way. The dog’s death is a catalyst for the chaos in their lives. Protestors make a scene outside Mario’s clinic. Someone has broken into their home and Silvia suspects their maid. When Mario and Silvia stay at their daughter’s home for a while, paranoia sets in. A violent act sets Mario and Silvia in motion to preserve their status quo.

Written and directed by Matias Ganz, A Dog’s Death/La Muerte de un perro is a quiet and subversive thriller that demonstrates the lengths people will go to keep their comfortable lifestyles. There is a clear message about the social and economic inequalities of present day Uruguay. The subjects who suffer the most are the maid and her boyfriend who are lower on the social ladder as indigenous blue collar workers. Mario and Silvia as more prosperous Caucasians benefit from their status and can easily cover up their irrational behaviors. 

Ganz was inspired to tell a story about the social and political turmoil of his home country with an influx of immigrants and a strong culture that takes pride in their European ancestry. In his director’s statement he says…

“A large part of the country’s population is of European descent and does not feel like they belong to those who have been wrongfully named Latinos… Politicians latch on to any petty crime to enhance their electoral chances… thus feeding the people’s growing sense of insecurity.”

A Dog’s Death/La Muerte de un perro captures the social turmoil of a country in flux through its focus on the absurd actions of a microcosm of its upper middle class culture.

A Dog’s Death/La Muerte de un perro had its North American premiere at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival.

Slamdance: Shoot to Marry

“I was hoping to be married by my next colonoscopy.”

Steve Markle

Steve Markle wants to get married. After his disastrous Christmas day proposal to his longtime girlfriend ends in heartbreak, the 42 year old filmmaker goes on a journey to learn more about women, relationships and himself. Over the course of a year he interviews a variety of interesting women, either to date them or to be educated by them. These women include his elementary school crush, a lumberjack, a pilot, a heart transplant recipient, a professional cuddler, a hat designer, a sensual massage coach, a dominatrix, a tattoo artist, another filmmaker, a sex club owner, etc. Steve is willing to try new things and put himself outside of his comfort zone. In traveling to meet with these women, he finds disappointment and enlightenment along the way. Of all the women he meets it’s Erin, the serial date who blogs about only dating for the free meals, whom Steve finds a meaningful connection with. Ultimately, Steve has to learn that his desperation for marriage won’t get the final result he desires. Instead he has to be content with the present if there ever is going to be a future.

Shoot to Marry is a heartfelt documentary that is equal parts introspective, quirky, funny, sad and joyful.

Usually in a review like this I would refer to the filmmaker by his or her last name. But this is such an intimate documentary that in a weird way I felt like I really go to know Steve and through his film I made a new friend. I found myself rooting for him from the very beginning and even felt second hand embarrassment at his failures and sheer joy at his accomplishments. Steve is genuine and funny. I found myself heartily laughing at his one liners. Going for a routine colonoscopy he jokes “it’s probably just cancer.” While filming a tattoo artist named Danielle tattooing another Danielle he observes that what he’s doing is “fucked up” and quips, “I should be making a real documentary about climate change or spelling bees.”

Steve wrote, produced, starred, directed and edited Shoot to Marry. The film chronicles his year long pursuit, which is fascinating on its own, but it’s the coda that comes 5 years later that really makes the documentary something special. And I’ll admit it, I had a good cry by the end. Bring some tissues for this one.

Shoot to Marry premieres at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival. You can find out more information about this documentary at the official website.

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