Kinoscope Challenging Short Film Experimentation at Warsaw’s Cinemaforum
Unless you’re the Walt Disney Company, or are lucky enough to get an Oscar nomination, the chances of screening your short film outside of the festival circuit, in a theater for an extended theatrical run, are next to nil. Even being a highly established filmmaker won’t guarantee wide theatrical exhibition of a short, as world-class auteurs like Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Jia Zhangke can attest. Still, there’s a lot to be said about short films from an artistic standpoint, offering enterprising filmmakers a relatively pressure-free playground to sketch out ideas and experiment with form in ways that may not always be possible at feature length. The program of shorts that Kinoscope is screening at Warsaw’s Cinemaforum Film Festival serves as an example of such experimentation: An especially varied lot, both in individual films and collectively, it conveys a thrilling sense of risk-taking.
Some of the shorts selected for Kinoscope’s program scintillate with their formal idiosyncrasies. With Six Cents in the Pocket, writer/director Ricky D’Ambrose channels, to some degree, Robert Bresson’s rigorous style in the deliberately non-demonstrative acting, the stationary camera shots, simple gestures, and the use of offscreen sound to suggest actions and states of mind. D’Ambrose’s story is as far from Bresson’s spiritual concerns as possible, though. Essentially, it’s about three weeks in the life of a financially strapped young man named Clyde (Michael Wetherbee) who is house-sitting for a friend, Risa (Caroline Luft, heard but never seen), as she and a significant other travel in Europe—a three-week period includes a brief fling, a trip to the movies, and an errand that leads to a sudden, tragic revelation (that will remain unspoiled here).
Under D’Ambrose’s direction, such relatively mundane events carry an offhandedly dislocating feel. Surely the Brooklyn movie theater he goes into at one point, for instance, isn’t showing some classic Hollywood Western—but that’s what we hear on the soundtrack as D’Ambrose’s camera remains fixed on the ticket-booth slot. And the use of anachronistic Baroque classical music on the soundtrack either speaks to Clyde’s own stringent mindset, or is simply a tic D’Ambrose felt like throwing into what feels like a highly experimental mix. Whether or not it adds up to more than the sum of its parts, Six Cents in the Pocket is consistently fascinating.
I Remember Nothing is even more formally ambitious. The five stages of an epileptic seizure—preictal, tonic, clonic, postictal, interictal—provide the structural backbone of Zia Anger’s short, but though its main character, Joan, eventually does have a fit at the climax, the film is less about the affliction than about evoking the main character’s confused state of mind. To that end, Anger also borrows a page from Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire and casts five different actresses—Eve Alpert, Adinah Dancyger, India Menuez, Lola Kirke and Audrey Turner—in the same role, each inhabiting Joan in a different seizure stage. The only concrete detail we know is that Joan is a softball player in college; otherwise, I Remember Nothing swims in visceral suggestion instead of a comprehensible plot, with dreamlike asides, Julianna Barwick’s surreal score, and an opening classroom discussion about “chaos” all clueing us into the fractured nature of the character’s psyche. It’s debatable whether this intriguing mix of disorienting sounds and images ever quite coheres, but in Joan’s case, perhaps coherence is beside the point. Anger’s film closes with images of Joan with her head out a car window smiling as the breeze hits her face, and a subsequent blurry image of the protagonist waving a white cloth out the window; both images in tandem suggest a woman basking in a sense of freedom that comes with a deeper awareness of her troubled self.
If the two shorts by Americans D’Ambrose and Anger make their formal innovations explicit, their European and South American counterparts experiment in relatively quieter ways. Kiro Russo’s Nueva Vida is technically little more than a series of lengthy overhead exterior shots in which the camera slowly zooms onto the rooftop and window of a couple and baby as they go about their daily lives. But the glimpses into these lives these shots provide are vivid in their implications: In one shot, the wife and husband will be lovingly tending to their newborn, but in the next the husband will storm away from their bed in a frustrated huff as his wife and child try to sleep. “Nueva vida” translates to “new life” in Spanish, but the final shot of Russo’s vignette-like short leaves us with a discomfiting sense that these parents may not necessarily be prepared to deal with the challenges of raising this new life in what looks to be a difficult lower-class existence.
More overtly experimental is Manon Coubia’s L’immense Retour (Romance), which opens with a slow panning shot of what appears to be a glacier—voiceover narration speaks of a woman waiting for a lover who is trapped in ice on a mountain—before one realizes it is, in fact, a snow-white bed sheet with a woman lying on it—possibly the woman waiting for the lover. The patience with which Coubia reveals this bait-and-switch extends into the next two sections: an extended time-lapse of seasons passing and snow melting on a mountain, and a lengthy single shot of a frozen body slowly revealing itself to the camera as the snow covering it gradually clears away. In Coubia’s film, time turns out to be as much a formal strategy as it is its subject, with the filmmaker cleverly using duration to ultimately make us more aware of its passage.
By comparison, João Paulo Miranda Maria’s The Girl Who Danced with the Devil adheres to a fairly standard art-house aesthetic of extended master shots, stationary camera set-ups, and a reliance on gestures and expressions to tell a story and evoke character. The story that emerges is a spiritual morality play, following a girl (Aline Rodrigues Costa) from a deeply religious family who flees home and is tempted by forbidden secular pleasures. Miranda Maria is a sharp-enough filmmaker that all he needs are carefully placed posters on walls—a Justin Bieber poster at her friend’s place, a “Corinthians” poster at a bar—to suggest the different milieus this girl traverses, or a shot-reverse-shot of a scantily clad sexy young man and the girl’s head turning to imply the sinful temptation brewing underneath her silent exterior. It all leads to a seemingly out-of-nowhere immolation that could be read as either God’s jokey judgment on the girl, or a wittily surreal acknowledgment of the moral minefield she’s threatening to traverse.
At 27 minutes, Manodopera is the longest of these shorts but also possibly the simplest. Loukianos Moshonas’s film alternates between observational scenes of two characters renovating an apartment, and more dialogue-heavy stretches set on a rooftop in which a group of friends pontificates at length on the state of the world (the short is set in Greece, which is still in the midst of a debilitating economic crisis). Whether you find their musings profound or pretentious, the philosophical and political exchanges do enhance the construction scenes, giving them a tragic aura that gradually gains in poignancy. This unexpectedly dialectical short doesn’t so much reach a resolution as simply breaks off in a ruefully open-ended fashion, the construction workers left to continue working and lamenting their existence.
The dialectical quality is even more pronounced in Lampedusa. The starting point is a volcanic eruption in 1831 off the coast of Sicily that led to the geographic creation of Ferdinandea, a new land mass that led a bunch of European nations to compete for ownership—at least until Ferdinandea sunk into the sea six months later. But while the voiceover narration recalls this conflict among nations, directors Philip Cartelli and Mariangela Ciccarello stage their own conflict through their images. Black-and-white Super 8 archival footage alternates with color high-definition video, which by extension suggests a conflict between past and present, the modern-day images overlapping with historical footage of the same areas. With the film framed around a fictional explorer trying to explore the political history surrounding Ferdinandea’s short life, Lampedusa also suggests a dialogue between fiction and reality, with the grainy Super 8 footage contrasting with the crystal-clear hardness of the HD image. An extraordinarily dense work, the film demands repeat viewings, yet suggests vast cinematic possibilities, even in the short format.