Two of the more interesting programs at the “fiercely independent” festival on Saturday, October 1st were “Shorts: Woman” and “Shorts: Man.” The festival creators have expertly realized that shorts capitalize on what Edgar Allan Poe calls the single “consideration of an effect”. Shorts have a limited amount of time to build their narrative and make a lasting point. To this end, the Woodstock Film Festival thematically organized these films around the social and biological constructs of gender. The series opened with the “Woman” shorts about issues of female sexuality and body image, whereas the “Man” series offers insights into men’s understandings of violence, emotion, and loss from a testosterone-driven point of view.
The “Woman” series began with the witty and stylish short, starring the angelic Selma Blair, entitled “The Big Empty.” Based on the award-winning short story “The Specialist” by Alison Smith with a nod to Lewis Carroll’s tales, directors J. Lisa Chang and Newton Sigel tell the story of Alice, her vagina and her quest of self-discovery. Relying on a slew of humorous cameos from “House” doc Hugh Laurie who aptly plays one of the numerous doctors Alice relies upon to diagnose the “emptiness” inside of her to Richard Kind as the Regis-esque talk show host who welcomes Alice and her “Specialist” on his show to discuss her cold and tundra-like womb while Alice is on display in stir-ups, “The Big Empty” is a fantasy about the nature of frigidity and the enduring power of love.
Ultimately the best and most powerful film in the series was “Chaim,” directed by Jonathan Greenfield, which tells the story of an old man trapped by guilt and scarred psychologically from the loss of his sister during World War II.
Another notable film in the “Women” series was “Breached,” directed by Laura Richard and starring Pilar Padilla in which nine-month pregnant-Mexican Maria decides to brave the Rio Grande and US immigration authorities in order to give birth to her child on American soil. Shot and edited with uncompromising rawness, “Breached” offers an intense portrait of one woman’s struggles as a way to symbolize the ultimate culture clash that exists between boarders and the painful journey of motherhood.
Ending the “Women” series were two semi-autobiographical tales about the difficulty of female adolescence. The first, “Twitch,” written and directed by Leah Meyerhoff, tells the poignant story of a young girl torn between two worlds: her domestic life where she must care for her wheelchair-bound mother and her escape into the emerging world of sexuality with her eager, hormone-addled boyfriend. Concerned that her mother’s disability is contagious due to her own twitching leg, the young girl seeks out advice from her gynecologist who feebly allays her fears. The director’s own mother, a victim of MS, plays the mother with a stark reality that is haunting to watch, and Emma Galvin, who plays the daughter, captures the girl’s struggles with an understated command that belies the hidden turmoil of adolescent angst that tortures her character. The final film, “Wet,” written and directed by Hannah Beth King, tells the story of 12 year-old Jane, played with surprising complexity by Alexandra Lowcher. Set in the hot Florida summer of 1985, Jane, who loves Madonna and swimming in her grandparents’ pool, must come to terms with the confusing adult world in which her single-mom lies about her seedy bar job to her grandparents and her strict grandparents have registered Jane for Baptism at a revivalist church. Using artistic underwater sequences and realistic dialogue, King has created a tasteful rendering of a life caught between childhood and adolescence where a girl confronts the shame of sexuality and the reality of redemption.
Offering a sharp contrast to the feminine world, the “Men” shorts begin with the starkly violent “And the Landscape Will Seem to Sway,” directed by Filipe Bessa and Nick Schwartz. This film’s provocative opening sequence shows a recent college grad passively witnessing the road-rage gunning down of the woman in the car in front of him. His response is to yell at the murderer to get a move on or else he will be late, which prompts the audience to wonder has the world just gone crazy or has he? Juxtaposed against what we realize is an increasingly violent world is the normalcy of family and sibling bonds that the young man is begrudgingly a part of due to his girlfriend. While the novice leads competently deliver their lines, the film truly soars in its ability to offer an insightful glimpse into the impact of violence and ambivalence on the male psyche.
Ultimately the best and most powerful film in the series was “Chaim,” directed by Jonathan Greenfield, which tells the story of an old man trapped by guilt and scarred psychologically from the loss of his sister during World War II. Greenfield’s expert editing displays the beauty and violence that comprises Chaim’s work in a Berlin fish factory, the only place where he is in command and at peace in his world. Israel Mirnik, a novice actor, expertly portrays the complex title role of a man on the brink of utter despair. The moving sequence where Chaim imagines hugging his young sister in the woods captures the humanity in desperation and longing that only film can convey.
The issue of loss is also the focus of the films “Crickets,” directed by Matan Guggenheim and “The Natural Route,” directed by Alex Pastor. “Crickets” tells the harrowing tale of a young man who lost his parents in a terrorist attack. Mirroring the unstable world around him, Ido becomes crazed by the sound of crickets in his head, the symptoms of his post-traumatic stress disorder. In an effort to find meaning in a meaningless world, a group of youths, some of whom have also lost loved ones in this world blown apart by terrorists, begin a gambling ring build around the prediction of the place and time of successive terrorist attacks. Ido, played with youthful bravado by Lior Perl, becomes a successful gambler whose addiction to the game threatens his very existence. The next film, “The Natural Route,” directed with surprising originality by Alex Pastor, tells of a life in reverse. Divad, who is unable to get over the tragic loss of his son, dreams of his live in rewind mode after an accident has left him near death in his bathtub. As Divad’s voice-over guides his journey into his past, Pastor captures the pain of loss and grief through stylish cinematography and slow-motion sequencing.
In keeping with the testosterone-driven plot opening, the “Man” series ends with two tales in which deaths by guns show the fragility of human life. “Recoil,’ directed by Billy McCannon, and “Youngster,” directed by Will Canon, tell the story of men who violently take away another man’s life. The Irish tale “Recoil,” offers strong performances and effective dialogue to tell the story of a green IRA member who brutally shoots a family man in his home. “Youngster,” on the other hand, tells the American tale of 12 year-old Marcus who deals drugs and wields a gun to feel empowered in the decaying world around him. Both stories offer an insightful look into man’s motivation and propensity for violence, and remind us all that our survival depends on a world that embraces both genders equally.
Each series ended with an engaging Q&A in which several of the attending filmmakers fielded questions from the audience. Set on a quiet back road in the rustic Community Center where Woodstock’s mountains loom in the distance, the Woodstock festival’s Shorts series offered audiences a chance to unplug and unwind, and the opportunity to pose a question that continues to press at the forefront of our modern consciousness: what is the role that gender plays in our world?