An image from the short film "Dawn," directed by Rose McGowan. (Starr Whitesides, Sundance…)
Donkeys who stare, salesmen who pester, filmmakers who prod, killers who smile and kids who run wild are just a few of the weird, wacky and wonderful ideas that drive the indefinable 66 that fill this year's shorts program at the Sundance Film Festival.
With technology making it relatively inexpensive and easy to go from idea to execution, the outer edge of creative invention can often be found in short films. From my sampling of this year's lineup, the further out, the better.
Take "Rat Pack Rat," from filmmaker Todd Rohal ("The Guatemalan Handshake"), for example. In pairing a Sammy Davis Jr. impersonator with a bed-bound, ventilator-dependent fan, Rohal created an 18-minute caustic comedic drama that is both tough to stomach and impossible to forget.
PHOTOS: Sundance Film Festival 2014 | Photo booth
More than 8,100 entries jockeyed for a coveted spot at Sundance. And while there is a great range of styles, the finalists are dominated by two distinct groups — artists, from playwrights to sculptors, turning their aesthetic eye to film, and feature directors shifting from long to short.
Whatever the driving forces, Mike Plante, one of the festival's short film programmers, believes the baggage of the past — that shorts are merely the path to something else, something longer — is finally being left behind. More filmmakers are going short because that is what the subject calls for.
"Imagine if video had come around for Orson Welles," Plante says. "He would make one-minute films, five hours too.… What is driving the growth is not the technology but people figuring out the form."
Now about those donkeys. In "Choreography," directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin spent time in the Scottish and Irish countryside filming donkeys as they go about their day. It is minimalist, naturalistic and mesmerizing to watch the way the creatures move. There is the running and standing you'd expect, but what grips is the way they seamlessly shift to accommodate each other. And when the camera catches their eye, they engage. You'll swear they are trying to look into your soul.
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For feature director Musa Syeed's ("Valley of Saints"), a different sort of serendipity provides the framework for "The Big House," a lovely lyrical study of clashing class issues.
Shot on a whim during a visit with his wife's family in the village of Hayfane, Yemen, the film came about when he spotted a well-appointed house that looked like the perfect backdrop for some of the themes he likes to explore. We follow a young boy's adventure as he sneaks into the deserted home — jumping on beds, rearranging the couch, and all the while wondering why nothing he touches is within his reach. Intercut with news footage of protesters in the street, it is a potent political statement made in a mere 4:43 minutes.
"The Big House" was an interlude for the director as well. Unlike his feature work, "with shorts there is no pressure," Syeed says. "This one allowed me to be creative in my own bubble."
"Charmed" actress Rose McGowan's provocative first stab at directing is "Dawn," a drama about a sheltered 1950s-era teen trying to shed her parents' mores. It's slowly seductive as lines are crossed and boundaries broken. Though it's a period piece, what McGowan has captured is the timeless power of peer pressure, as scary then as now.
Not surprisingly YouTube is a believer in shorts, stepping up as a sponsor and showcasing 15 of the Sundance finalists. For the growing audience who want more, Plante will again be taking the shorts on the road for the SFF Short Film Tour starting in March, hitting 75 cities for one- to three-week runs, with 35% of the box office going to filmmakers.
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Often it is the story rather than the technique that captivates. "Community" actor Danny Pudi, in his documentary directing debut, explores the "untucked" basketball jersey rebellion at his alma mater, Marquette, in the 1970s. From the sight of towering player Bo Ellis, the creative fashion-designing force behind the now-banned style, to the team's magnetic coach Al McGuire, it's a great ride.
In "Fe26," sculptor and University of Virginia professor of art Kevin Jerome Everson works with iron and film; both are abstract art forms and he's been mixing his mediums for a while. In this short, the title drawn from the periodic table symbol for iron, he follows a couple of metal scrappers who spend their days stripping abandoned houses. A crowbar, made by Everson, takes center stage, prying up manhole covers for this off-center look at deconstruction and discards.