On Oct. 6, a jam-packed theater #6 at Kentlands Stadium greeted this year’s program of short films in the Manhattan Short Film Festival. Only at Kentlands in Maryland, the festival is shown in more than 100 theatres around the world over the course of one week. It even plays in 27 theatres in Russia.
This year’s finalists represented films with run times of 3:41 to 17:58 that originated in six countries. They were as varied as you can imagine. A pathetic yet funny audition for Hamlet in Australia by a young woman turned into something else near the end of the film, while a frantic family from Finland kept the audience in stitches as they prepared to go to a wedding after their alarm clock went off late. A particularly effective performance by Reece Noi as a non-Muslim Arab mourning the loss of his mother in a terrorist bombing in London and bent on revenge was next. A slight French sketch involving two Englishmen who cannot speak French while meeting Alexandra Naoum, who also directed the film, came next. Like one of the other films in the festival, things turned out to be not quite what they seemed to be. A charming and imaginative animated documentary about Irish furniture has a charming finish as old Irish pieces are renovated and turned into lovely and serviceable new works in new Irish homes. A dark, unresolved American film, Black Metal, features the lead singer of a heavy and very dark metal band whose logo adorns the site of a brutal murder. The singer contemplates his daughter’s question, “Were you to blame, Daddy?”
One of the winners from earlier years, Bastien Dubois, made the finals again with an animated feature called Faces From Places. Presented as inter-cuts between other films, it maintains the whimsical tone of his earlier travelogue, Madagascar.
The least successful of the films, I Am a Great Big Ball of Sadness, was born of Manhattan and portrays a typical cocktail party on a rooftop there. Three self-absorbed hipsters trade depressive stories about themselves, of course, with one of them ending the conversation by screaming, “I am a great big ball of sadness and I want to jump off your roof.” This film’s handheld technique reeked of intentional “modernism” and only made audience members reach for their Dramamine. I was surprised it made the finals, but this is the “Manhattan Shorts,” after all.
An absolutely brilliant and utterly romantic film followed, — Kismet Diner, in which a young waitress in a diner enthralls her clientele by singing to them. Frankly, her voice was not all that interesting, but the personality of Ilinca Roe as Laura, the waitress, the simplicity of Lotte Mullan’s songs and the surprise that happens halfway through delivers a heavy punch. Laura has everybody enthralled except one handsome customer at the diner. She, of course, falls for him but is puzzled as to his complete lack of interest until she sees a friend come into the diner to meet him and they start signing! A mysterious stranger leaves behind a book of BSL (British Sign Language) lessons, and she ends up singing her last song to him using BSL. Pure romance, but beautifully done. Roe is touchingly lovely, even without much of a voice, and the film never gets maudlin.
The festival closed with an emotionally powerful and beautifully filmed American entry, Pale of Settlement. Based on a true story from Russian history, it involves a 10-year old Russian Jewish boy and the attempts of the Khappers, army kidnappers, to conscript the youngster, played by Kyle Catlett, for a term of up to 40 years. Stylistically, the film is old-fashioned: steady camera, scenically perfect (especially the chilling effect of a black steam locomotive roaring out of a tunnel toward the young boy) and meticulously planned and executed. I voted for it as the outstanding film in the festival, as I voted for Ilinca Roe as best actor. This was a new feature of the Manhattan Short Festival and made the challenge of selecting between styles even more complex.
How do you weigh the quality of a bit of fluff like the Finland entry against the power of Pale of Settlement? How do you rate the manic Hamlet audition in #30 against the powerful work of Reece Noi in Friday? Yet that is part of the fun of the Manhattan Short Festival and, from the noisy discussion among the audience members at the end of the 10 films, it is a successful feature of the festival. Final worldwide tabulations of best film and best actor were announced on the Manhattan Short website manhattanshort.com on Oct. 7. The winners were Best Actor: Reece Noi (Friday); Gold Medal for Film: Kismet Diner; Silver Medal for Film: Pale of Settlement. Bronze Medal for Film: I Am a Great Big Ball of Sadness.