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On Location: Sarasota Film Festival (Shorts)

We welcome some thoughts from our Hollywood correspondent, recently in Florida.

This past week I had the opportunity to attend the 14th annual Sarasota Film Festival (SFF) in Florida. The festival was centered in the beautiful downtown district of Sarasota at its Regal Hollywood 20 Cinema, with some special centerpiece screenings at the Opera House just down the street.

SFF offered quite an eclectic offering of independent cinema, documentaries and shorts along with a few celebrity guests to accompany their respective screenings. Frank Langella opened the festival with Robot and Frank, directed by Jake Schreier, while also promoting his new book, Dropped Names. Rory Kennedy was there, too, with her Audience Award-winning documentary Ethel, as well as Todd Solondz to close it out with his latest, Dark Horse, to name just a few.

Having written and directed a few shorts in recent years, I found myself drawn to a few of their many grouped screening blocks (there were 16 in all) in order to see what the medium had to offer. I will share a few of the highlights with some observations.

To me, the great hope is that now these little 8mm video recorders and stuff have come out, and some... just people who normally wouldn't make movies are going to be making them. And you know, suddenly, one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, you know, and make a beautiful film with her little father's camera recorder. And for once, the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed, forever. And it will really become an art form. That's my opinion.
Francis Ford Coppola said that during the making of Apocalypse Now in the late 70s. While Coppola foresaw the emergence of consumer film-making devices and the medium expanding outside the grips of the financiers of Hollywood, I’m sure the innovation of the Internet and its access has exploded his vision in the intervening years. Now with home editing software with digital effects kits, recording suites, and cameras embedded into every phone, there are thousands of wannabe Ohio Mozarts vying for your next click on YouTube.

Watching the array of shorts screened in succession one can’t help but notice that these very innovations can also be used as substitutes for depth or narrative. When the first few shorts began, I was immediately struck by the sophistication available to these directors on limited budgets. Like so many of our features in the cineplexes, however, soon enough one is wondering if there is more to it than a pretty picture and a clever premise. While some revealed themselves to be nothing more than an elaborate music video, pithy joke, or a trailer for a longer project, a few stood out from the crowd for their ability to provoke thought and emotion in spite of the compact medium. Here are a few notables.

Aaron Burr, Part 2 (directed by Dana O’Keefe)
In this unusual and stylish re-telling of Burr’s duel with Alexander Hamilton, history is re-imagined by Burr in a modern retrofitted narrative. Starting out with a James Bond, circa-1970s visual style, the two figures appear as secret agents, with a jaunty jazz score accompanying Burr’s contextualization of the engagement. As each minute unfolds, Burr repeats the engagement again and again while giving his biased re-assessment of the faults of history. Director O’Keefe shoots Burr back and forth through time periods as his contempt for Hamilton climaxes in a hilarious final missive. At the end of this comic, intelligent, and innovative film, I found myself amazed that only nine minutes had passed. Truly, it was my favorite of the festival.

What Happens When Robert Leaves the Room (directed by Zack Godshall)
Shot in a single location, Robert takes place in an apartment where a group of actors sit about, fawning on one another as they wax pretentious about the latest horrible script one of them has an audition for soon. Robert, the outsider and bitter writer invited only because his brother is the host, makes no bones of informing this group how exactly worthless they are. Drinking his whiskey empty, Robert endures the re-enactment of the script as the actors mock the material to absurdity. Reaching the end of his patience, Robert transforms the evening into a provocative commentary on acting and art. (18 minutes)

Thief (directed by Julian Higgins)
Set in Iraq in 2003, this film follows a lonely goat-herder in a small abode in the mountains who receives an unwelcome visitor. The stranger, heavily bearded and with a rifle over his shoulder, makes himself at home and consumes what little there is to offer. Through flashbacks to his childhood, the host has a revelation on who the intruder is, though it seems the armed man has not made the same connection. A tight script and simple, evocative acting carry this thoughtful piece to its illuminating ending. (25 minutes)

We Ate the Children Last (directed by Andrew Cividino and Geoff Smart)
Starting out as an amusing commentary on the pharmaceutical industry and cosmetic surgery, Children devolves slowly into an urban nightmare about politics, racism, and the media. While this short was expansive in its scope it managed to balance its themes with a variety of techniques. Re-creating telecasts on small TVs, music video, gritty street scenes, and limited, poignant effects it covered a lot of ground in a very limited time. Changing tone from dark comedy to tragic commentary isn’t easy to do in any medium, and Cividino manages well without ever losing the viewer. (13 minutes)

While there were simply too many shorts to comment on, these were the few that stuck with me. The Audience Award (we all got a ballot at each session) went to Tick Tock Time Emporium, which can now be viewed on Vimeo. Special mention for Another Bullet Dodged, about a disaffected couple going to an abortion clinic (the most disturbing I saw, for its casual approach), and Method, which follows an actress who immerses herself a bit too far into a role.

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