On Nitehawk Shorts Festival’s Opening Night
Brooklyn-based moviegoers were thrilled at the news of Williamsburg’s Nitehawk cinema opening in the summer of 2011. Before the theater’s launch, the most pragmatic way to attend a repertory screening required either a trip to BAM in Fort Greene, or to Manhattan. The Nitehawk theater was not only fundamental in exemplifying the many different ways a movie house could prevail in a borough, but it also inaugurated a steady rise in the dine-in movie theater options in New York City, which by now include the Alamo Drafthouse, iPic, and Syndicated.
Established in 2013, the eponymous Nitehawk Shorts Festival is an indispensable occasion for New York City’s art scene to unite as a community over the course of its six-day run. Director of programming Caryn Coleman draws together everything from the work of emerging film-school students to prestigious Academy Award-nominees. There is a clear egalitarian outlook ingrained in the festival. Coleman’s programming stays away from the focus on stars, or the obsessive culture of selfies, photos ops and autographs. Nitehawk Shorts Festival shows instead a generosity of ideas that endeavors to spark a communal feeling and discourse.
The Opening Night program commences with Patrick Bresnan’s The Rabbit Hunt (2017). After premiering to great acclaim at Sundance in January, the film has amassed praise on the international festival circuit. Those attending the Nitehawk Festival may want to hold off on cutting into their table d’hôte until after the conclusion of the introductory short, as its narrative becomes structured around a family’s collective — and often gruesome — efforts to hunt down rabbits during one harvest season in the Florida Everglades. After taking home the award for Best Short Film at the London Film Festival, Bresnan touched upon how this region of central Florida is truly a special place to raise one’s family. The area boasts long-lasting rural traditions, from the harvest of sugar cane to hunting rabbits. Ironically, the impoverished area that Bresnan depicts lies only a mile away from Donald Trump’s Palm Beach mansion, and the filmmaker isn’t sparing about how hard this group must work to put food on the table. After following the laborious process of catching rabbit after rabbit, it then documents the process of cooking and preparing each animal to be sold. As members from the entire community travel to the family’s doorstep to pick up their dinner, it encapsulates how not a single ounce of the household’s work ever goes to waste. In fact, Bresnan’s study of the proletariat family is so crystalline it may evoke a sense of privilege in some viewers.
Transitioning from the caliginous corners of the Florida Everglades to Nitehawk’s Bedford Avenue subway station, Jason Giampietro’s Unpresidented (2017), is the high point of the festival. The Greenpoint-based filmmaker and photographer is amongst the key voices in the contemporary art scene in New York City. An early Instagram user, Giampietro has culled together an encapsulating pictorial portfolio of everyday encounters over the past five years.
Self-absorbed personalities are ubiquitous in Giampietro’s work, from a shirtless man staring at his phone in the middle of a sidewalk to idiosyncratic characters with narcissistic personality disorder. If acquainted with his photography, in all likelihood you’ve speculated at some point how he’s able to capture all his imagery with such precision—Giampietro pretends to be on the phone when he is actually taking photos of persons The first scene of his latest short is a key in point: a 2016 Brooklyn Magazine profile aptly deemed Keith Poulson (star of Unpresidented) as the “That Guy” of New York indie film. Even with over thirty credits to his name just within the ongoing decade, there’s no trace of Poulson winding down anytime soon. Collaborating on a total of seven different projects — five of which being features — throughout the course of this summer, Poulson managed to balance acting as a side gig to his forty-hour work week.
A number of films this year have served as a coping mechanism to grapple with the new political regime. Yet nothing comes close to Unpresidented’s unembellished confrontation set in Union Square, in which the lead character, Keith (Swift), bombards Jay (Poulson) with a barrage of anecdotes revolving around the after-effects of being coerced into a one-hundred dollar bet against Hillary Clinton. As the two walk around the historic intersection, the narrative alternates with flashbacks of Keith’s torment over his bet, in the aftermath of Trump’s victory.
Since his debut in 2001, Giampietro has built a repertoire of faces that regularly reappear in his filmography. His use of a quasi-non-actor has given rise to some of the most striking performances in contemporary cinema. Despite feeling more akin within the methodology of Ronnie Bronstein (Frownland), it is also reminiscent of Pedro Costa’s immediacy. Mike Swift’s fifth collaboration with the director, as Keith Poulson’s counterpart, is just one example. Swift’s off-the-cuff pattern of speech naturally enhances the propinquity with Donald Trump, a president that seems to rattle off thoughts on Twitter as they come to his mind.
An early flashback begins with a close-up of the infamous Hamilton tweet that engulfed the news for days on end and then reflects the exact dialogue that scourged social interactions after Trump’s victory. The story’s three characters show the lack of inter-communal discussion in a time when it was needed most. This is perhaps the most appropriate motif within the context of the festival, as Nitehawk’s core mission stems from a spirited yearning to establish a dialogue.
One of the striking elements of the Nitehawk Short Festival is Caryn Coleman’s curatorial approach. Short programs notoriously clump their selections together under a single unifying characteristic, which often feels reductive to each individual project. But by bringing together short films in all forms (animation, experimental, documentary, narrative, non-narrative, artist films, music videos, and genre), Coleman resists putting her selections under an umbrella. Indeed, the program ranges from an animated Tolstoy adaptation (And the Moon Stands Stil by Yulia Ruditskaya, 2017) to a collection of childhood Hi8 videos churned together into a film (Adolescencia, Jose Fernando Rodriguez, 2017).
When she sat down with Kinoscope to discuss her approach after a preview of the Opening Nite program, Coleman noted, “offering diverse stories allows for each film to stand on its own while also informing the one that comes before or after. I think it also creates a much more interesting and satisfying viewing experience.”