At least that's the thought that occurred as I was watching the stunning, nontraditional "Primate Cinema: Apes as Family," one of the festival's more intriguing entries. A slim 12 minutes from Los Angeles-based mixed-media artist Rachael Mayeri, whose work more frequently turns up in museums around the world, the film is a wildly provocative meta meditation on media, monkeys and humans dressed as monkeys. Essentially a soap opera about the social dynamics of chimpanzees, it was made for chimp consumption and played to the primate inhabitants of Scotland's Edinburgh Zoo on TVs scattered around their space. It is strangely funny, yet absorbing to watch them watch — and like so many of the shorts, leaves you pondering the implications long after.
That audiences are increasingly open to embracing "six minutes of weird," as Sundance's current shorts programmer Jon Korn puts it, is one of the more gratifying shifts he and co-programmer Mike Plante have seen take place. There are fewer "shorts as calling cards" from feature director hopefuls and more making the most of a few minutes in the entries the two personally screened during the selection process this year — roughly 3,000 between them, a record 8,127 submissions in all screened by the team of eight.
Plante believes the democratization and proliferation of digital bits on the Internet have not only empowered more artists but served to whet the appetite and sharpen the aesthetic taste of audiences as well. Sundance's own democratic process helps, I'm sure — anyone, literally anyone, can submit a short for festival consideration.
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Perhaps that is why the surprises of this year stand in such sharp relief. There are wordless triumphs in "On Suffocation" by Swedish filmmaker Jenifer Malmqvist and "Century," from Ohio-born Kevin Jerome Everson. The chilling "Suffocation" makes its surreal study in a pristine prison inside an unnamed Islamic state where being gay comes with lethal consequences. In complete contrast, "Century," set in a quintessentially American auto wrecking yard, is a requiem for the discarded told with the exceptional eloquence found in the crushing of auto bodies.
There are narrative treatises on the difficulties of coming of age — such as the question of abortion in "Magnesium" and deflowering in "Social Butterfly." But it is an exceptional examination of power and provocation in the hands of children who spot a tryst in "The Curse" that rocked me in the way Michael Haneke's very different thematic take, "The White Ribbon," did some years ago. "Curse" comes into the festival with a win from Cannes already in hand.
And then there are the documentaries, typically the longest of the shorts, often close to the 50-minute cutoff. Among the standouts is "Outlawed in Pakistan," tracing one girl's fight against the rape that brought her, not her attackers, a death sentence by tribal elders. From filmmakers Habiba Nosheen and Hilke Schellman, it is a story of courage wrought in tears, persistence etched in pain.
If anything, the general mood that runs through many of the films is one of reckoning and the many ways in which social conventions define, destroy and, at times, empower. In the documentary "Fall to Grace," filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi picks up former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey's story after the married politician publicly came out, resigned and divorced. The conversations are provocative even as they swing between the serious and the absurd, like the literally and metaphorically explosive silliness of the end-of-days "The Apocalypse," characterized by director Andrew Zuchero's countless small, smart choices.
The shorts are, quite simply, seductive; even the ones that don't hit all the right notes are intriguing. As Korn says, "It's great to see something on its way to being something special."
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