SFIFF Spotlight: Experimental Shorts

Photo: Tommy Lau, courtesy of San Francisco Film Society. Closing Night of San Francisco International Film Festival at the Castro Theatre.

PopMatters takes a look at why experimental short films are such an essential part of film festivals—and how they work to create meaningful dialogue between film creators and viewers.

SFIFF Experimental Shorts Program

City: San Francisco, CA
Venue: New People Cinema
Date: 2013-04-30

Artifacts and Artificial Acts. These broad concepts of relics, ideas and artifices inform much of the work we see in theatres. Whether it's a mindless romantic comedy or a challenging documentary, we must grapple with questions about how the truth is vetted and what makes the stories or pieces that we watch meaningful. The experimental shorts program at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival aptly uses those two broad concepts as its title. As the audience watched the nine selections in this portion of the shorts program, they were asked to grapple with ideas of meaning and presence.

I'm the first to admit that experimental shorts aren't the biggest draw at American film festivals. After all, these pieces are generally entirely devoid of the narrative structure that even more 'challenging' feature-length films tend to use in some way or another. It's often the case that the audience feels somewhat lost while watching some of the short pieces. We might not understand what they're about or even know if we're supposed to understand what's going on or if that's just another way of missing the point.

The friendly SFIFF volunteers at the door handed out a program with short descriptions of each of the films as the audience entered, but I try not to read these little overviews before the show. To my mind, what's important about experimental shorts as we watch them is grappling with the visual and sonic information that they are presenting. As we watch, we must ask questions about how we can place the material or what it might mean. I often feel like I've learned something about how I perceive the world when I deal with these films. When I read the descriptions after watching the films, I discover new layers of meaning and have plenty of "a-ha!" moments that make the experience all the more joyful.

This year's SFIFF experimental shorts selection, curated by Kathy Geritz and Vanessa O'Neill, was a challenging program. Confronted by diverse yet stylistically different pieces, the audience was asked to give their attention to a blur of images and sounds whose meanings can take a long time in emerging. The shorts "A Few Extra Copies" (Bobby Abate), "Bloom" (Scott Stark), "Verses" (James Sansing) and "Artificial Persons" (Katherin McInnis) in particular stood out. These pieces used either archival footage and videos or actual artifacts to craft and communicate meaning in ways that were emotionally intelligent and challenging. It was delightful to feel the audience response to each of these pieces. Whether through a tilt of the head or a thoughtful hmm, the fact that experimental shorts are important because they deconstruct the process of making meaning was felt.

What's interesting about seeing such experimental films isn't just that they can be visually stunning. It's that even the ones that a viewer doesn't like can lead to a constructive dialogue about communication and meaning. (This is something, I'll point out, that particularly crappy Hollywood romantic comedies simply can't do.) Although I rather disliked the short "The Indeserian Tablets" (Peter Rose), I was still engaged in understanding what the creator was communicating and dissecting what about the style I found ineffective and irritating. It's this sort of triggering of engagement that makes short films well worth the while for festival goers.

I absolutely encourage those folks who have the opportunity to see experimental shorts at a festival to do so. Those who aren't near a festival or theatre that shows experimental shorts will find a treasure trove of experimental films streaming online. Take some time to check out some of these films and interact with their creators when possible. Watching experimental shorts offers a fresh frame of reference that will serve as a way to evaluate and understand any film, no matter how serious or silly.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.