San Francisco International Festival of Short Films

San Francisco International Festival of Short Films

San Francisco : CA : USA | Sep 13, 2009 at 6:31 PM PDT
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Dustin Grella @ Sf Shorts' Q&A

I had been wanting to check out the San Francisco International Festival of Short Films, or SF Shorts, since it began on Wednesday night, but hadn't had the chance. So Friday I was determined to catch a screening come hell or high water.

I worked throughout the day to make this feasible, and Ben and I took Kimbo for an outing in Alta Vista park as part of the 'Friday is here' preliminaries. The park was full of families spinning on playground funneries, playing catch with their dogs and loved ones, jubilating, smiling and making noise, and all with a spectacular view of east and west San Francisco. We did some tree climbing and relaxed to the extreme until it was time to embark for the Red Vic Movie House on (1727) Haight Street, where the festival was being screened. Ben took the dog home and I began an epochal walk down Divisadero and Haight.

When I got to the Red Vic I had a bit of time to burn, but I bought two tickets and waited outside with a cup of coffee. I knew Ben would be late, so I leaned against the wall and watched street people live unabashedly. Soon a couple named Theo and Katina approached me and tried to offer a free ticket. No dice, you guys—already paid. But we began talking and it turns out Theo Rigby has a film in the set right before the 7:30 (which was the one I was waiting for) called Close to Home. The film follows the father and daughter of Brian Marquez, who was murdered in San Francisco in 2005, as they attempt to overcome their grief and begin a new life without him. Shot on the Day of the Dead, this film is very touching and concise without being sappy or in any way dramatized. In fact, the way Theo is able to convey perspective and feeling without making any comment, really is incredible. There is one scene in which the father is taping a 'Missing' sign along with a picture of Brian on a store window, and we see his face as he does this—it is just overwhelming. If you have a chance, watch: it was every bit as good as (if not better than) any of the films I saw Friday.

Theo and Katina are very sweet people and gave me some tips on places to go for independent films: ATA (Mission), The Roxy, and The Castro. I've known about the last two but still haven't cashed opportunity. I told them we're moving to Oakland at the end of the month and they suggested some places in the East Bay, too: Aurora and La Pena. Hopefully I'll see them around!

Finally Ben got there, but he redeemed himself with popcorn (I was worried we wouldn't get seats—it was packed). There were six different 'film mixes' to the festival, each with a theme spanning between 72 and 76 minutes. We caught mix #3: Imbedded: a mixed-genre program of ambitions and fortitude.

The first film of the mix was entitled Prayers for Peace, by Dustin Grella, and was an SF premiere. This is an 8 minute stop-motion animation drawn entirely on a chalkboard (!!!) and is the author's confrontation with the memory of his younger brother, who was killed after 3 months of service in Iraq. First of all, the process by which Dustin made this film is incredible. The artist worked on this film for 17 months, and has been working with the chalk/chalkboard medium for over 4 years now (Dustin had another film in the same festival two years ago). I can't speak for that film nor for his development within the medium, as this was my first encounter with Dustin or his work, but he is very skilled and at home there. Even knowing, it was hard to believe that the whole film was done in chalk. I know I'm gushing, but it was really that impressive. I wanted to film the whole short, but it did not seem appropriate to hold my cameralight out above the crowd, especially since we sat in the front. The film ends with an audio clip from Dustin's brother containing some of his last moments, in which he says, so sincerely: "This is a big mission. I'm just glad to be a part of it, I guess." There are machine guns going off in the very close distance and he also says, before the last quote: "I was hoping to hear more bombs. It's quieted down now. It's crazy out here, and kind of exciting." I did film part of Dustin's response—there was a QA after, with three of the films' makers—and I have posted that video here.

The next film we saw was called Team Taliban, by Benjamin Kegan, Robert Sickels, and Adeel Alam. Team Talibam is the chronicle of a young American Muslim who wrestles for the thrill of attention—a very nice, likable lad—but who did not earn respect or support from the wrestling community because he has no personality, and although he is a great wrestler, is, without an angle, just another guy. SO he is convinced to assume a persona: a "bad muslim," as he says, and this of course means a member of the Taliban. The wrestler becomes a sensation: some people genuinely hate him and think his act is inappropriate, and others understand and only pretend to hate him (these support the show and the industry). The most powerful moment of this film was when he speaks of a post-show moment in which he was walking through the parking lot to his car. A 6 yr old boy jumps down from a post with his fists drawn, and the wrestler could see a pure, absolute hatred in the child's eyes. "I pretty much realized I had probably ingrained it in that kids head to hate Muslims forever."

Film #3 was an Austrian short called Change, a 2 minute animation of a man on a couch. This was the North American premiere of Change, in which two little birds fly out of the TV screen being watched by an overweight man. He clutches a hamburger in his left hand and a soda - with a straw - in his right. He looks at the birds, hovering to each side of him, and has a eureka! moment: he switches the items in his hand. The audience clapped and hollered at this, but I thought it was awful. Really? Really, you guys? That was awesome?

The Veiled Commodity was next, a film by Dickson Chow and Vinh Chung. This is a concise history of slavery that is punctuated by a cry to end the modern trafficking and victimization of people around the world. Some of the animation in this film was unlike anything I've ever seen—very compelling—and one of the artists was part of the QA. I thought personally that this film over-stretched itself by beginning with the history of slavery; it seemed more like a push to end victimization, and the history of slavery itself—in a 6 minute film—I thought was a little preposterous. Still, it was rich and made a clear point.

Gaining Ground, by Marc Brummund, filmed in Germany and making its SF premiere this weekend as well, is a tale about an illegal immigrant couple who struggle with the decision of enrolling their 6 yr old child in school (at the risk of being caught and turned in). I thought this film was strong, but maybe a little too long (20 minutes). Brummund certainly gets us to the heart of the matter, and to his credit I think he does so faster than he seems to think. Tension at the prospect of the couple getting caught is drawn out by the child's longing to be with other children—at one point he wanders into a nearby school and his father grabs the child and the two run down the hallway and off the property—but the resolution is brought about when a less-than-respectable landlord proposes to marry the man's girlfriend so the child can go to school, and the father then risks everything by explaining to the principal their situation and enrolling the boy anyway. I think this could have made a great feature length, or perhaps shorter, film.

Next was JSY, which stands for Just Say Yes. It hails from Portugal and made its world premiere this weekend here in San Francisco. Summary: "Mix Obama's 'Yes We Can' with the Reagan administration's 'Just Say No' and you get ... a modern-day call to arms on the world and the environment." It was clever and fun—only 2 minutes long.

Last was an evocative film following a couple of Jamaican sprinters and documents the country's rise to Olympic prominence. A 22 minute film, Fast As She Can, by Kiran Goldman and Molly Snyder-Fink, was an emotional and well-shot documentary. There was a wealth of great interview footage (mostly from one of the mothers of the athletes) and the two were able to mesh the personal struggle of these sprinters with the national ambition for respect—this was no Cool Runnings. As one of the audience members remarked (Goldman and Snyder-Fink were part of the QA as well) this film could easily be followed up by a progress report on the sprinters, who are even now competing and training for upcoming Olympic games. I was a big fan of Fast As She Can, but in the end I voted for Prayers for Peace. The artistry of its creation was too impressive to deny.

One final note on the festival: each show was only $10, and this was a great way to start a Friday night. Lasting only 72 minutes (not including the QA), we were out of there before 10PM and with the benefit of being inundated with so many disparate sensations and ways of expression. I had the most pleasant walk home, even though the air was saturated with mist and brisk winds.

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Dustin answers questions on his recent film Prayers for Peace (09).
EvanKarp is based in San Francisco, California, United States of America, and is a Stringer on Allvoices.
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  • Molly Snyder-Fink and Kiran Goldman asnwer questions about their film Fast As She Can, after film mix three: Imbedded.

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