What makes the 'World According to Shorts' Festival so satisfying year after year is the variety and excitement of the program.
The most wonderful thing about the The World According to Shorts Festival, now entering its fifth year, is that in the space of a few hours and in one convenient location one can see films from Norway, Germany, Burkina Faso, Switzerland, Brazil, Estonia, and many other countries. Just on these merits, the Festival is well worth attending. Combine that with the general appeal of seeing films at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The borough's wonderful arthouse theater boasts spacious seating and a meticulous attention to the needs of the serious cinemagoer (like espresso at the concession stand), which borders on the obsessive. If you live in New York, there really isn't any excuse for not going.
The second most wonderful thing about the Festival is that it showcases what could be the next wave of important filmmakers. Unafraid to take risks that might not be possible (or advisable) in a full-length film, the directors of these films, nevertheless, often fail in their attempts -- but the attempts are almost always ambitious.
Last year's Festival was a kaleidoscope of style and substance, and succeeded overwhelmingly in inspiring and exciting attendees. This year, BAMcinematék offered a scaled-down production with only two nights of highlights. While the decision to shorten the program made this year's Festival a little easier to sit through, it also made for a less vibrant and more staid experience.
This is mostly because this year's films took fewer risks. Furthermore, even when they veered away from the mainstream, many did so in rather archaic ways. Transposed Bodies (Germany), for example, Katja Pratschke's still-photography and narration piece, relies on La Jeteé and the films of David Lynch to come up with a short that feels rather out of date and more like a philosophy student's late-night mutterings. In the film, Jan and Jon, the two protagonists, end up in a horrible car accident, where both are decapitated. When their heads are reattached, they are accidentally switched. The film's consideration of where the mind/soul lies, in the body or in the head, is too flippant, and the issues too large to be dealt with in the confining story and space.
Recently 3 (Germany), which, unlike Transposed Bodies, intertwines narrative, emotion, and philosophical discussion within a defined, succinct space that fits the story, was one of the Festival's standouts. Jochen Kuhn's pen-and-ink animated short depicts a man waiting at a bus stop and observing the beginning, middle, and end of a very short relationship between two lovers standing nearby. The lovers gaze at each other, never having met before, declare their love, spin headlong into ecstasy, and decide to part because they can never live up to the expectations they have set for one another. Kuhn's fatalistic exploration of the temerity of love is filled with beautiful animation and elegant, mature emotion; the piece is original, thoughtful, deliberately paced, and deeply moving.
A certain thoughtfulness also permeates The Old Woman's Step, a selection from Brazil. This film, directed by Jane Malaquias, tells the story of a grandmother in rural fishermen's village who journeys to the city to sell a chicken and buy her grandson a birthday present. The main appeal of this film is the old woman herself; she speaks and moves so naturally and is a delight to watch. The Old Woman's Step employs what are almost definitely non-actors, a risk that sometimes leads to failure and sometimes, in the cases of films like David Gordon Green's George Washington, to huge success. In this instance, the non-actors bring a depth of emotion to their performances that transcend their sometimes stilted deliveries.
The film has very little in the way of narrative, and ends rather abruptly, but watching the old woman interact with her beloved grandson offers a joy that few major films are able to produce. Additionally, it's rather refreshing to see a young man onscreen who so obviously adores an older female figure and who acts out of compassion rather than violence. This stands in stark opposition to the violence between young men reaching adulthood in Le Combat.
In Le Combat (Switzerland), Fernand Melger's short documentary on a young teenager's preparations for his first boxing match, scared adolescents cluster in tight little circles, listening to older teens' takes on the mythos of the sport and the coaches' admonitions to punch harder, to keep fighting, to go down a champion. Randy, the film's subject, is a scrappy fellow who ends up beating his opponent, a small guy himself who has the bad luck of being just slightly more intimidated and freaked out than Randy.
After the fight, Randy and his opponent hug each other, letting loose the floods of emotion that have built up over the boxing match. In the end, the match seems less of a fight and more of some perverse way of showing each other they care. In its final scenes, Le Combat becomes less of a sports documentary and more of a subtle observation of how males are taught from a very young age the only acceptable way to show their affection for each other -- by disguising it in violence.
The final film shown in the Festival, Anolit (Norway), also deals with male adolescence and the violence it inspires (or the violence that young men are taught). The film, directed by Stefan Faldbakken, takes its audience through a defining night in the life of a young factory worker in a small Norwegian town. Stefan learns of his unknown father's death and, the night before his funeral, spends his time driving around with his rebellious friends, drinking and looking for various things to blow up. The three of them pick up a girl at a gas station, and, later, Stefan's almost-affair with her is pre-empted by the discovery that she is the half-sister he never knew.
What makes this little film enjoyable is not the rather contrived incest subplot, but the interactions of Stefan and his two goofy friends. (Evidently, sophomoric young guys are a global phenomenon.) But Anolit can be read as Le Combat's lessons reiterated a little later in life. These guys' love for each other must also be disguised as violence; here, it's not directed at each other, but at their depressed, boring town. It's almost like a marriage through explosion -- by blowing things up together, the three friends are linked inextricably. When Stefan decides to leave town and strike out on his own, the parting is painful and familiar. Anolit is such a pleasing film not because it breaks any new ground, but because it offers a window into the ways young men relate to one another.
And what makes the World According to Shorts Festival so satisfying year after year is the variety and excitement of the program -- and, in some ways, the occasional failures of some of the films make them even more intriguing. Anolit is appealing precisely because it's not a polished film, and because it has a sense of reality and urgency that is rarely encountered in major films. Although this is not part of the film's main thrust, it remains a strong impression on an international viewer, showing how similar young men's experiences can be from country to country. In this way, the World According to Shorts can, in its most important moments, demonstrates film's universal language.