Short of the Week

Sundance 2011 Short Films Online: Program 3

Festival / January 20, 2011

If I could have somehow avoided the news about Sundance starting today, I would have—today is the start of the 34th straight Sundance Festival that yours truly will be failing to attend. 34 times have films been watched, pitches been made, deals been sealed, without me. 34 times have there been occasions to celebrity-watch, drink embarrassing amounts alcohol, make inappropriate passes at ski bunnies, all with me nowhere to be seen.

Truthfully I don’t carry lingering regret for most of those previous absences—a fair amount I hadn’t been born for—but you, 2011 Sundance—for you I had a hope. For you there was a prayer. After all our short The Thomas Beale Cipher did very well on the festival circuit (gearing up for its online debut, stay tuned!) and could have potentially struck a chord with just that one passionate programmer. Even when that failed to materialize, securing a press pass should have been a piece of cake, this humble site has gotten amazingly large this past year, so thanks to all of you who have been following and spreading the word!

Somebody’s got to bake that cake however, and Andrew and I both sat on our butts and did zero to make that happen. So, like you, we’re going to sit on our butts at home the next two weeks while everyone in our twitter feed goes crazy with the nervous excitement of being in Park City. Meh.

Sundance at least has some benevolence towards us on the outside looking in, supplying us with another batch of short films via the YouTube Screening Room (see Part 1 and Part 2). This week begins the wave of selections that are in-competition films for this year’s fest. First thing one notices is that Sundance has relaxed their rules regarding online distribution—both 8 Bits and Skateistan have been available on the web for a while. Yay progressive programming! Now on to the films!

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8 Bits (Valere Amirault, Sarah Laufer, Jean Delaunay, and Benjamin Mattern)

“A fight between an 8-bit superhero and a high-def boss, in a retro-gaming world.”

8 Bits hasn’t garnered much love from you our dear readers since Andrew posted his feature review of the action-packed Supinfocom animation last month. The film scores a rather abysmal 2.86/5 on our home ranking. I don’t know who you are, but you are all wrong. 8 Bits is a wild, kinetic and visually imaginative work that’s a lot of fun. It hits nostalgia points for a whole generation of gamers, and…well I’ll just let you read Andrew’s review.

Score: 8/10

still image for the short film "andy and zach"Andy and Zach (Nick Paley)

“When Zach decides to move out, his roommate Andy tries to set up a new life without his best friend.”

Andy and Zach is the type of film that usually gets the quick hook from me when I’m weeding through my virtual stacks of short films deciding what to showcase on SotW. It’s a bare-budget affair that, while not embarrassing looking, isn’t looking to grab your eyeballs either. The dialogue, while funny, doesn’t have an easily recognizable quirk to it, and its plot aims to examine relatively realistic interactions between its  relatively realistic characters—a type of short film which has a high propensity towards being boring or trite.

Director Nick Paley isn’t a kid with a camcorder in his high school English class though, he’s a grad of NYU film school, and this fact, along with the presence of Zach Woods, an actor currently on tv’s The Office, was enough to get me to abandon my first impressions. I’m glad I did, as Andy and Zach is a genius bit of filmmaking; well-written, well-acted and though only modest in its aims, by actually achieving and even exceeding those aims, outperforms 99% of the work out there.

Zach is moving out, and sometimes he and Andy fight. There is an understanding that the end of their time together as roommates is something that needs to happen. However  a real tenderness shines through, as the suave, socially competent Zach worries about his misfit roommate, played by Andy Kachor. In dealing with Andy’s dual feelings of abandonment and annoyance at the infantilizing worrying of Zach, and with Zach’s recognition of the need to move out, but still caring for Andy, the film beautifully and subtly depicts the ending of a particular type of relationship.

Score: 9/10

still image for the short film "Skateistan"Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul (Orlando von Einsiedel)

“In a country with innumerable problems, Skateistan represents an oasis where children can be children and build the kinds of cross-cultural relationships that Afghanistan needs for future stability.”

Skateistan, like a lot of short documentaries on the web nowadays, is dangerously interrelated with advertising forms. I’m not referring to the fact that Dazed magazine and the denim-giant Diesel provided funding—I do not accuse this film of a stealth consumerist agenda—but more the fact that the film plays like a commercial for Skateistan, inhibiting one’s enjoyment. Fortunately, in this case Skateistan is an organization eminently worthy of the exposure; as an NGO operating in Kabul it provides skate and sports opportunities for children, encouraging the development of community amongst the youth in its program. Still Skateistan: To Live and Skate in Kabul is a film that bites off a bit more than it can chew.

The film’s positives outweigh its negatives: the craft of the film is strong, with nice cinematography and sound.  The kids are of course fantastic, and the exotic locale is by its nature intriguing. It is remarkable and scandalous that I can live in a country that has been at war in Afghanistan for almost a decade, and have seen so few images of it’s cities and urban residents. However the story is a muddle. We never get a sense of what the children’s day to day is like, or a sense of what they do at Skateistan itself. We don’t get any sense of its place in the community or its reception by older residents. So in the place of these perspectives we get these kind of vague, optimistic statements that sound like they’re from the Skateistan marketing brochure. Perhaps I’m being unduly harsh, a true portrait of the kind I’d like to see done would consume far more time than this film’s brief 9 minutes, thus making it indigestible for the web. However the decision to broadly tell the story of this organization in 9 minutes leads to some superficial filmmaking that a more focused film perhaps could have avoided. Ultimately Skateistan is a film I admire for its heart and its subject, but I cannot be convinced that it actually a good documentary..

Score: 6/10

still image for the short film "The High Level Bridge"The High Level Bridge (Trevor Anderson)

“Trevor drops his camera from Edmonton’s High Level Bridge in memory of those who have jumped.”

I was excited that Canadian Trevor Anderson’s latest short would be part of this online program. I’d heard interesting things about it after it’s recent US debut at AFI Fest and thus went in with high hopes. But I fear I just don’t get it. It’s certainly an interesting concept to take on, creating a film about a bridge, and thankfully we are not subjected to a full-on History-channel style documentary retracing the story of its creation and its engineering specs. Some background is provided, but Anderson’s take on the subject is a mix of the dryly factual and the personal; it contextualizes the bridge’s place in the community, while paying homage to the individuals whom were perhaps blinded by pain from recognizing that community when they chose throw themselves over the side. Two such individuals the director counted as friends, which adds to the personal stakes of the film. However an early line of the film states “…everyone around here knows at least couple of people who’ve jumped” which builds the community angle. This intriguing mix is topped by the stunt of throwing the camera off the bridge, an act rich in cinematic metaphor.

I can see why the film is lauded, it certainly is a unique grouping of narrative tones. They are delivered by Mr. Anderson in his own voice, in what is an assured and amusing vocal performance that is tinted with a trace of dark humor. It is also an interesting place to find a story. Sundance, and festivals in general I guess, go apeshit for films that have a strong relation to where they are from, both in regards to how the film speak to their own communities, but also how the place and community informs the very act of what is filmed.  In that sense the fact that the filmmaker lives near the bridge provides a great narrative, Mr. Anderson is quoted in the programmer notes saying “Sometimes the strongest subjects for films really are right outside your door.”

Perhaps in sitting to write, forcing myself to think about the film, I have managed to “get it”. It is a rather sophisticated juggling act that Anderson tries to pull off, and intellectually the gambit of the camera comes across better than it does in the film itself. However that does not make the film entertaining. It flits between its aims, not really selling any of them, and the promotion of the film draws undo attention to the dropping of the camera, which is really rather anticlimactic in execution. I feel as though a film like this should inspire me to feel, rather than simply think. However at 4 minutes, the film does not indulge itself at audience expense, and for a film that can inspire so much interesting, reflective thought about filmmaking itself, one can stifle the yawn.

Score:  7/10

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Co-Founder of Short of the Week, Sondhi lives in Brooklyn working as a Curator for Vimeo. Follow his musings on online video, direct distribution and branded content: @jasondhi.
  • http://www.shortoftheweek.com/2011/01/21/qa-with-sundance-filmmaker-nick-paley-andy-zach/ Q&A with Sundance Director Nick Paley | Watch the Best Online Short Films

    [...] marked the debut online of 2011 Sundance Competition short films, and in that first batch of 4 films we were treated to the World Premiere of New York-based [...]

  • http://www.georgcfilms.com Georg Csarmann

    I love how honest “Andy and Zach” feels. Additionally I think it proves that you don’t need a large crew etc. – all you need is a good script, talented actors and distinct direction to make the even simplest idea shine.

  • benjamin

    Definitely loved Andy and Zach the best. Interesting how the director said on YouTube it was the easiest project he’s produced but the hardest one he’s directed – in that the story and acting had to be great.

  • Jason Sondhi

    @benjamin — I can believe it, the film is very simple in its construction. A director wears a lot of hats, but film is a collaborative medium, and I think we give directors credit (and blame)for a lot of the wrong things.

  • Jason Sondhi

    If that last comment was a bit confusing, I guess I meant that the things that Nick Paley does with this film aren’t usually the ones directors get attention/credit for, but are integral to a great film

  • http://- Hans J. Eiðisgarð

    andy and zach was the best film in this program, although there was something about The High Level Bridge that really appealed to me as well.