Sundance Film Festival Shorts Tour is nothing short of captivating

By Nina Ng

COURTESY PHOTO

Known for their notable alumni and hand-picked selections, the annual Sundance Film Festival has long established itself as a place to discover up-and-coming filmmakers. This year, the festival’s self-assembled short film tour was virtually presented to Middlebury students by the Hirschfield International Film Series. Going into the tour, I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially with my limited knowledge of short films. Apprehension aside, I sat down, shut off the lights to simulate a theatre experience, and pressed play. 

‘Benevolent Ba’

The first of six, “Benevolent Ba” opened up with Michael Jackson’s disclaimer for his “Thriller” music video: “Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.” Including the disclaimer was fitting, too: the next shots introduce us to the deeply spiritual and haunting story set on a verdant hillside in Malaysia. The sky is overcast and a family pulls their car to a halt, arguing about sacrificing a goat. Director Diffan Norman creates a film rich with dark humor as the group descends into frenzied discussion, arguing about who will carry out the slaughter. Smooth camera pans expertly utilize the environment’s gloom. In many ways, the film pays homage to “Thriller.” With bated breath and hoarse screams, “Benevolent Ba” creates a sense of sorrow and fear. But where the film hits its stride is precisely where it lost me. In the hodgepodge of offbeat humor, horrific elements and biblical references, I became confused by its direction. While nicely shot and indeed thrilling, “Benevolent Ba” hit the right notes emotionally but left my thoughts overloaded. 

‘Hot Flash’

Following the horror piece was the animated short “Hot Flash,” directed by Thea Hollatz. Gorgeously done, this short film jumps from one pastel palette to another, cleverly using minimal, cute figures. We’re following Ace, a weather reporter, who from the start is struck by a sudden and aggressive hot flash. She soon finds herself in the bathroom, airing her privates over a fan. There aren’t many films that show that type of scene, and even fewer animated shorts that do. But I felt that animation was the best medium for its witty and fun elements. For a short, quippy film like “Hot Flash,” watching Ace’s troubles with hot flashes are odd yet fun to see play out. 

The Deepest Hole

“The Deepest Hole” is third on the setlist, showing us the lesser-known aspect of a political race between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Can you guess what the race was about? That’s right, diggin’ the deepest hole! Hearing the voice-overs and seeing the animations of drilling, I very much felt as if the era were completely contrived. Voiced by Rosalind Fell, the film chronicles the descent into the race through flashing lights and a theory of discovering hell itself. “The Deepest Hole” is every part as wild as it sounds, so I’d suggest you come prepared. 

‘Meats’

Fourth on the list is “Meats.” I’m not going to lie — I spent the first minute trying to figure out where I knew the lead actress from. It turned out to be Ashley Williams, a familiar face from the 2000s sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.” This observation made watching the film all the more interesting. With a different character in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to see Williams, who both directs and stars in the piece, in her own realm. “Meats” focuses on the tumultuous dynamic between a butcher and a pregnant vegan craving meat. The short is honest, not shying away from depicting the reality of butchering in an angry, conflicted monologue presented by Williams. I wasn’t sure if it was trying to be particularly self-aware or satirical, given the stereotypical vegan jokes sprinkled throughout. On the rollercoaster of somber to aggravated, I think the film’s ride does raise a lot of questions and moral dilemmas. 

‘T’

“T,” our fifth film, follows several designers and models as they prepare for their annual T Ball in Miami, where costumes are created and worn to honor their dead. This was probably the most emotional film of the lot: topical and beautiful. We see the careful process of creating designs, with one artist recycling numerous chip bags into a beautiful outfit. The viewer is given an artistic glimpse into this world, but the film also jumps into the political rationale behind these events. In a gorgeous transition, a shot of LED lights on a helmet design fades into the glow of cop cars, linking the depth of creation. With personal anecdotes and individual features, we see dimensions of grief felt by the ball’s participants. Shot from within homes, in backyards and even in special display rooms, “T” gives us an authentic look at the experience of honoring the dead through costume. 

‘So What If The Goats Die’

This festival closes with “So What If The Goats Die,” a short directed by Sofia Alaoui. This film is on the longer side for a short, but it’s worth every minute. Watching a shepherd struggling with his spirituality while trying to make sense of an extraterrestrial event, we hop into a pretty tumultuous story. The film is set on a mountainside, and the cinematography is gorgeous; we jump from rural to desolate areas that frame the characters in golden hues. Shots of the goats are my favorite — within a mottled sea of fur wades our lead, Abdellah. Light is one of the film’s greatest assets. Whether their faces are aglow in the sunset, the fireside or even by eerie green supernatural light, the images we are left with are immaculate. This film is breathtaking to the point that I’d sometimes forget about the overarching questions of religion and human relationships with which it presents us.

The way I see it, short films have the best of both worlds. They can utilize either a high or low budget, use a variety of mediums and still achieve the stories they seek to tell. Each of these films demonstrates that, in spite of shorter runtimes, short films can still have it all.