3 Narrative Short Films That Prove Programmers Love Risk-Taking
by Kate Mason, New Orleans Film Festival Programmer
Between the creative spark and festival submissions, it’s easy for a filmmaker to second guess every decision they make. One of the long-standing problems in the entertainment industry is the proliferation of media that tends to follow the same characters, the same stories, and the same formal conventions. Film festival programmers say they look for work that provides a counterpoint to these mainstream tropes, but I’m not sure if I’m not the only one who has noticed that independent films have their own visual and narrative lexicon that can get quite repetitive. Below are three short films I think about often that have had lives well beyond our festival. I hope they will inspire you to look for and make work that dares to tell original stories in innovative ways. At NOFF, I can honestly say that we constantly challenge ourselves to be open-minded about the films we see and seek out work that feels fresh, exciting, and risky.
- Hapi Berdey Yusimi in Yur Dey, Ana P. Alpízar (2020)
Ana A. Alpízar’s film played in our 2019 festival, and when I first saw it, I knew we’d have an interesting conversation about it in our deliberations. I loved the film but wasn’t sure everyone would agree that it should be selected to screen. The short film follows Yusimi, a Cuban woman living in Miami, on her 30th birthday as she waits for her sugar daddy while talking shit with her best friends. It doesn’t shy away from stereotypes, embraces superficiality, and uses a format reminiscent of reality television to tell its story. To a fault, film festival programmers get prickly when anything smells like reality television. But Alpízar’s formal style reflects her lead character and deceives the audience by leading them to form stereotypical assumptions about her, only to subvert them. The lead actress couldn’t be more natural, and her performance will make you cringe, laugh, and maybe be her best friend. Alpízar’s film played many festivals from Fribourg to Brooklyn, and its success demonstrates how hungry programmers are for films that look, feel, and sound completely original. By telling a story from a place of brutal honesty, Alpízar manages to satirize the classist divisions between low-brow and high-brow in form and content.
2. Greener Grass, Jocelyn DeBoer, and Dawn Luebbe (2016)
You may have seen the 2019 feature film, Greener Grass on Hulu already. What you might not know is that Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe grew their wacky world and introduced us to their lead characters with a short film of the same name three years earlier. While the surreal feature satire expanded the world of its brace-faced couples, the slightly insidious tone and absurdist sense of humor are firmly established in the short film. I tell anyone I meet who can write humor to create a short film and submit it to our festival because sadly, the festival circuit is often devoid of great comedy. Greener Grass immediately stood out to me when we received it because these women clearly know how to write and play funny. That being said, I can’t imagine they had the easiest time pitching a short film like this one: it doesn’t follow a clear narrative structure and it seems to be planted firmly in reality except, of course; for the inexplicable choices of its characters. Still, Luebbe and DeBoer knew they had a strong concept where form follows function. The characters are so afraid of being impolite or provocative in any sense that they’re willing to give up their own children for the sake of niceness. They dance around every feeling or impulse they have, motivated instead only by social conventions and insecurity. Similarly, the short film refuses to elucidate its bizarre nature and requires the viewer to get on board and accept the characters’ choices quickly. These directors used their short to plant their flag firmly in the uncanny valley, ensuring that collaborators, partners, and audiences with similar sensibilities could make their way to the feature without hesitation. Greener Grass screened at SXSW, Sundance, and many more festivals before making its way to Hulu.
3. T, Keisha Rae Witherspoon (2019)
It seemed in 2019 that every person I talked to in film-fest-world was talking about Keisha Rae Witherspoon’s T. Watching the film is a visceral and unforgettable experience. We float in and out of the lives of several black Americans who are grieving the loss of loved ones through costumery and performance at the ritual ‘T Ball.’ You immediately want to know, ‘is this a real event?’ But something leaves you feeling sure it’s not that simple. The T Ball as it turns out is not a factual event, but rather a visual depiction of an emotional and spiritual experience in an imagined future. After a year of death without funerals and loss without ritual, the T Ball feels even more relevant, more necessary, more real. Who couldn’t use a creative, explosive, expression of grief? The first person we meet, Dimples, perhaps says it best, “When you do things with your hands, it heals you in places lower than where you cry from.”
I have to say, I cannot quite imagine pitching this short to anyone. You have to see it to get it. It is the best example of “vision’ that I can think of. Witherspoon knew what she wanted to see on screen and made it happen. The film is wildly ambitious. Themes of black suffering, ritual, love, and healing weave together with meditations on inequity, politics, colonialism, and science-fiction. T’s characters confront the very practice of documentary art itself, refusing to reduce hundreds of years of trauma to a performance, asking “what y’all really wanna see?” We can all take notes from Witherspoon, who committed to her singular vision, one that circumambulates death, slipping in and out of every corner and crevice that those left behind know all too well. While the audience may not always have an intellectual explanation for every visual, Witherspoon demands that they bear witness. After making the rounds at the most prestigious film festivals (she won the Golden Bear for Best Short Film at Berlinale), T can now be seen on The Criterion Channel.
p.s. Film submissions for the 32nd New Orleans Film Festival (November 5–21, 2021) are open until June 18 via FilmFreeway!
ABOUT KATE MASON
Kate Mason is a writer, performer, and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Her artistic career blossomed in New Orleans, Louisiana where she studied improv, sketch, acting, and drag performance. She is a programmer for the New Orleans Film Festival and co-curator of ImageUnionTV. She received a Bachelor’s in Art History and Archaeology from Boston University and a Master’s in Art History from Tulane University. Her alter ego is Squirt Reynolds and her favorite movie is Mommie Dearest.