The Kids Will Be Alright: The 26th Curtas Vila do Conde
Curtas Vila do Conde is an example of a festival dedicated to short film that refuses to be restricted to a framework, giving freedom to its shape and content. Its selection celebrates some of the best work from the previous year without neglecting returning artists or the latest crop of talent. A festival advocating risk and discovery, the films in its latest international competition were preoccupied with youth. While some of the shorts glimpsed into the world of adolescence, focusing on heartfelt acts, others addressed issues such as bullying and feeling out of place with inventive storytelling and cinematography. The teens in these shorts are confronted with mature situations that they have to resolve as adults-to-be, be it standing up for themselves while growing up with aggressive parents, or dealing with unwanted pregnancies. They have to make life-changing decisions, like getting into a car full of strangers and deciding whom to trust in a world brimming with frenemies. Their perception of love reveals their hopeful innocent feelings and society’s weakening of them.
Several shorts presented aspects of everyday life and how they affect the protagonists’ personal situations, such as the execution of the serial mass murderer Ted Bundy in Laura Moss’ “Fry Day” (2017) or the consequences of Brazil’s conservative mentalities upon teenage girls in João Paulo Miranda Maria’s “Meninas formicida” (2017). Meanwhile, works such as Mikko Myllylahti’s “Tiikeri” (2018) and Bruno Ferreira’s “Pas de Confettis” (2018) focus more on the individual and less on societal pressures, reflecting on the personal development of youngsters and the challenges they have to face while growing up in dysfunctional families. Other films from the competition such as “La Persistente” and “Fry Day” ingeniously reveal the condition of girls as victims of a patriarchal society with genre-bending methods.
Moreover, in “Fry Day,” the main character, Lauryn, sees an opportunity in a get-together organized to celebrate the execution of Ted Bundy and takes Polaroid snapshots for a few dollars. Reminiscent of a celebration like Guy Fawkes Night or the frenzy of a witch-hunt, the mood is suspenseful. The anticipation is sustained with the help of props, T-shirts with “Burn Bundy” printed on them, and cardboard masks with the murderer’s face worn by locals seeking retribution. Accompanied by television inserts, the townsfolk’s barbecue feels less like an innocent carnival and more like a vengeful gathering, where people hungry for justice turn death into a celebration. The grainy film-like image brings an ‘80s feel to the way this communal catharsis is shot.
The American fascination with serial killers and their visibility within pop culture is only one layer in Moss’ clever story about feminine independence and coming of age in the context of sexism and toxic masculinity. Mirroring one of Bundy’s potential victims, Lauryn is drawn away from the crowd by the charms of her crush, an older boy from her English class, who promises an exciting ride with his friends. Moss exploits the serial killer genre by inserting stereotypes, such as the vulnerable and shy girl, the handsome popular boy who finally pays attention, the woods, masks, and the shabby diner in the middle of nowhere. However, apart from the depiction of teenage hierarchical interactions, Moss isn’t afraid to break horror tropes. Although everything indicates something bad will happen to the protagonist while she genuinely accepts this half-stranger’s proposal, the character building strikes me as multifaceted; she’s a confident young lady, yet her inexperience is her downfall. The audience can feel her reluctance when confronted with dubious choices. She isn’t the dumb fetishized or sexualized victim of many horror films; she hesitates, she asks questions. She is taken to a barn where the celebratory graffiti “Wipe the Smile Off His Face” turns premonitory. Indeed, her confidence in justice is altered. Moss transfers the focus from the historical moment that served as the perfect build-up for a potential tragedy to the personal experience of evil. In a way, what is more unsettling is that, even after eradicating the source of one’s deepest fears, there are innumerous threats to cope with. By the end of the short, which Moss prefers to leave open, one finds out what is so disheartening about the Fry Day celebration: the violence that leads to violence. The unnerving feeling throughout is not found in the impeding danger but in the violence against women, a violence that is subtle and entrenched and far more perverse and dangerous than the radical actions of Ted Bundy.
Societal pressure puts a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of teens in Maria’s “Meninas formicida.” In “Fry Day,” one can put a name and a face to supreme evil, but in “Meninas formicida,” it is Brazil’s conservative state policy that condemns women. A girl works in an eucalyptus forest where she stuffs small holes in the ground with pesticides to kill ants. It is a low-wage job in a town with little possibilities for a girl who comes from a dysfunctional family. In a scene, which sets the tone for her miseries, another girl beats the protagonist for having sex with her boyfriend. The TV inserts play an important role in suggesting the struggles of this girl, not only by establishing the context of an ultra-religious, intolerant society, but also in revealing that she might be pregnant as a result of sexual abuse. On a show watched by the protagonist in her home among Virgin Mary icons, people express their opinions towards rape and unwanted pregnancy, and the verdict is cruel: abortion is illegal and an unforgivable sin, a crime not only before law but before God as well. Circumstance doesn’t change the perception or the lack of consent, so the precariousness and prejudice force teens to ultimately become parents. In this low-key work, the message is conveyed through the characters’ gestures and behavior rather than dialogue. With few lines, this is a smart and subtle depiction of community and the protagonist’s inner state that’s visualized with an extremely shallow depth of field. What Miranda achieves is a portrait of Brazil’s marginalized people. The victim’s condition is doubled by identification with undesired ants, an analogy that enhances the feeling of insecurity throughout. Men rarely appear and the girl’s aggressor is concealed by film techniques, such as back-to-the-camera shots or silhouetting. However, his violently sexual feelings towards women are expressed by his jacket, which features an image of Nicki Minaj’s behind, and by feeling up the protagonist. Her back is filmed as a replica of Minaj’s revealing twerking pose from the jacket, as if women are deliberately provocative. The filmmaker’s attitude towards the obedient behavior promoted by religion is expressed through an ironic karaoke insert of Roxette’s hit “It Must Have Been Love,” an exponent of unrealistic romantic expectations.
While some teenagers revolt against their parents and look for approval among their peers, others take refuge in a fictional world or in a subculture. In “Pas de Confettis,” Bruno Ferreira depicts a teen having an unwanted pregnancy. Unlike “Meninas formicida”’s protagonist, Vanessa isn’t pressured by religious fanaticism to keep the baby but forced by her mother. Calling her future child “it” or “the thing,” “Van” tries to keep up with her former lifestyle before getting pregnant, smoking and doing drugs with her friends. She wants to prove nothing has changed due to her new state, and for that, she is willing to suffer false friendships and mean comments. Set in a neighborhood on the outskirts of an unnamed Portuguese city, this short film’s merit is its realistic tone, featuring vivid camerawork that portrays youthful vitality and carelessness. The protagonist’s struggle as a teen mom is concealed by the denial of her state and her rebellion, skipping school and acting impertinent. In “Meninas formicida,” being prematurely pregnant without the blessing of the Church is considered a disgrace that teens have brought upon themselves, but in “Pas de Confettis,” however, the patriarchal mentality has less of an influence. Ferreira prefers to focus on the changes that a pregnancy forces upon Van’s present and future, and how an event like this alters a girl’s attitude towards life.
A forced introduction to adulthood also takes place in “Tiikeri,” in which Mikko Myllylahti depicts a typical winter night for a family with an abusive father. After a boozy night out with his friends, Markus returns home ready to quarrel with his wife and son, Tiger. Out of rage, he chases them with a shotgun. As they hide outside, the two hear a gunshot and Tiger has to man up and check what happened. Dressed like a big plush toy, the boy carefully roams the house’s labyrinthine rooms in a similar fashion to the previous slow-moving scene in which his gun-toting father pursued them in the hallways. What stands out as effective is, from the laconic dialogue between mother and son, the discreet suggestion that such occurrences are not the exception but the rule. The boy’s association with the furry community is paired with his lack of speech and social seclusion. Emerging from the suspenseful silence, Myllylahti plunges into a moment of magical realism with the help of the atmospheric dreamy synth-pop of Future Islands. The immersion into another world where he is loved and accepted may lead to the interpretation that Tiger’s method of coping might replace his nightmarish reality.
Another short that deals with youthful love and fitting in is Camille Lugan’s “La Persistente” (2018), which impresses with its mixture of biker B-movies and horror. The film presents a revenge story featuring a Latin-American boy whose motorcycle is stolen by a group of bullies. It unfolds as an allegorical romance connecting man and his motorcycle. While Laura Moss explored and pushed the limits of genre movies to portray a girl as a potential victim of abuse, Lugan went even farther with this technique by subtly depicting her central character as a motorcycle — called La Persistente — as a means to display various macho attitudes towards girls. The director successfully borrows from the visual language of advertising by sexualizing the bike and suggesting the Western genre, with the protagonist embarking on a quest along barren roads, lying between mountains, to recuperate his motorcycle. The film starts on a sensual note, with close-ups of the polished machine, caressed by its owner, only to develop its personification by always referring to it as “she” or by rejecting women as a sign of loyalty to his beloved. The horror props are minimal and sometimes consciously tacky, associating oil with blood and the biker culture with death, but Lugan shows talent in bringing together such elements with a self-conscious aesthetic that avoids ridicule. As if in a Western in which the cowboy is looking for revenge and for traces left behind by the person he’s tracking, the protagonist examines the asphalt while the motorcycle itself plays its part in rejecting her new conquistadores. Seen in the key of a possession and submission story, the film depicts the sexist attitudes towards women that are seen as objects, or in this case, as trophies that are owned and used as men please. However, like Lauryn from “Fry Day,” the motorcycle is rather independent. But even though the bike has its preferences and can impose its will, the story of devotion and commitment is less appealing than its sense as a lead-and-follow tango with death. Set in a mountainous abyss, the feeling of danger is enhanced by the extraordinary dark cinematography, which favors landscape shots, and a weighty instrumental score — both of which give the right amount of drama.
Although diverse in approaching the concerns of young people experiencing adult hardships, there was a general emphasis at Curtas Vila do Conde on breaking away from norms and amplifying voices that are typically silenced. All these protagonists from these shorts are outcasts searching for a sense of self, and the whole world gets in their way. They can’t find a refuge in either family life or in society’s rules. While depicting adolescents determining who is worth listening to, where is it safe to go, and deciding what is best for themselves, the directors show empathy and a pertinent freshness of approach. After all, that is what short films are about — to dare and to be dared.
The 26th Curtas Vila do Conde International Film Festival took place between July 14 and July 22.