The art of the short: UCR’s annual short film festival

The Department of Theatre, Film and Digital Production’s annual short film festival was held in a small arts screening room this year; the room itself only allows a 78-person occupancy. Perhaps for this reason, or because of the rain that had viewers rushing to the entrance in search of a warm place and not just an entertaining series of shorts, the setting for this year’s festival was one of intimacy and comfort: a place for UCR’s film community and admirers to come together and enjoy the successes and occasional fumbles of their art.

Thursday night premiered with 13 short films. The cumulative effect of these pieces was one of immersion and fascination with the ability of those involved in the making of them to create meaningful stories in such a small amount of time and with limited resources, and of course the crafty ways in which they worked around these restrictions. The opening speeches from UCR distinguished faculty Tiffany Lopez and Rickerby Hinds acknowledged this. In Lopez’s words, the festival was all about, “what kind of stories (we) are bringing into the world.” It seemed a majority of the audience was involved with the production of the films; although university provost Paul D’Anieri was also present with his wife for a chance to see some of the work brought to life by the diverse and thriving artistic community at UCR.

The opening short was “Pimpin’ Molly,” directed by Sam Li, in which a college student explains to the audience the minutiae of his MDMA-dealing business. A majority of the film was shot using a mock-interview style. The format was a sort of pseudo-docufiction in the form of a blog. In this way, it evoked Joss Whedon’s “Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog,” minus the Neil Patrick Harris mad scientist and singing. The format worked well for the story, and made it so that the entire thing was produced using a single actor and minimal technical work. The festival was a haven for films of this variety: mostly low budget, (mostly) underwhelming cinematic movements, but still surprisingly engaging stories told within these restrictions. “Pimpin’ Molly” was for me, the quintessential example of this.

The strengths of the successful films were the acting and the writing. By far one of the audience’s favorite films, “Lucid Dark,” directed by Dallas Harden, mixed a delicate portrayal of a sexual assault victim and paranormal horror. I can’t say that the entire thing was completely original; however, the way in which the subject matter was handled was nothing but professional and insightful. The demonic manifestation of the protagonist’s fear and trauma following the assault was at times a bit melodramatic and caused some laughs from the audience due to the makeup and movements of the monster resembling a cliched horror image, but at other times caused genuine shock. Trying to infuse the paranormal by way of a ghost extermination team (think “Ghostbusters”) could have very easily turned the dark nature of the story into something overdone and campy. Thankfully, the project avoided this. Overall it was extremely well-acted and entertaining.

Unfortunately, two dog movies did make it into the mix. What’s wrong with a dog movie? Well, simply put: It’s a lazy way for a writer to engage the audience because as soon as they see any kind of dog on screen they swoon and it doesn’t really matter if the narrative has any merit in its own right. One of the first things you’ll hear if you ever take a creative writing workshop is, “no crying, no dying, and no dreaming.” This may sound harsh, but the truth is that many times it turns into a juvenile portrayal of serious events. And dream stories, well, they just come off as ways to try and seem clever. Of course by dream story I mean a story in which at the end the audience is shocked with the revelation of, “Surprise! It was actually all a dream! Too bad for you that you spent your time becoming intellectually and emotionally invested in these characters, better luck next time.”

It would seem that a dog story and a dream story would be one of the worst mixtures possible in cinematic ventures. “Nova,” directed by Carlos Viejobueno, was exactly this. Also, as if this wasn’t enough, there was techno music. It wasn’t the worst thing I have ever seen, but I cannot say it was good. Some of the music choices weren’t terrible, and the dream sequence does contain a few absurd and funny moments, but overall it came off as a fluffy (literally) dog/dream story.

One of the more successful films, premise-wise, was a science fiction short with a title corny as they come, “Eyes of Fate” by Andrew Yi. Ignore the title though, because the film itself did contain original ideas and actual narrative value. The plot follows a young man who, ever since a near-death accident, can see by way of numbers floating above everyone’s heads, the remaining days a person has left to live. He meets a girl, and — twist — she only has four days to live. The film could have easily taken many, many horrible turns but managed not to. The visual quality was not the best, but the story accomplished both a touching and intellectually compelling feat.

The festival contained some delightful experimental films such as “Haiku Project” by David Silos, “Rapidez” by Alvaro Lopez and “Who’s There?” by Nathan Goodwin. These were all extremely short, and worth searching out online for a quick look. The only romantic film, “We are Lights” by Oscar Ho, was a surprising treat. A majority of the scenes were filmed during the rare rainy nights on the UCR campus. Other filming locations included the LACMA and aboard a Metrolink train with a fantastic shot of the Los Angeles cityscape.

The gems of the festival were by far “An Unspoken Humanity” by A’Isha Saleh and Taylor Hatch’s “Bad Timing.” The acting for “Bad Timing” was superb. Kirby Marshall-Collins and Anakaren Chable both gave truly great performances way above my standards for undergraduate actors. As for “An Unspoken Humanity,” I could have easily written an entire article about this one short. It tackles Islamophobia in such a mature, compelling and insightful fashion that if you have time to look up even one of these films, this would be the one I urge you to see.

Overall, the festival was a fantastic experience. The full list of films can be found on the department website, and a majority are available on the Internet, ready to be seen.

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