SXSW ’11: Spotlight on Shorts – Texas High School Shorts and SXGlobal Shorts

With attention at film festivals is frequently showered on spotlight premieres, star-studded panels and beer-drenched parties, it’s often easy to forget the short film line-ups programmed throughout the festival.

At most film festivals, these carefully selected line-ups showcase short films from across the globe — featuring emerging talent who have something just as important to say as their feature-length counterparts but with a fraction of the time to say it. South by Southwest is no exception. This year the festival will feature eight different categories of short films — ranging from music videos to documentaries to films made by high school students to the always-popular selection of midnight shorts.

While its easy to fill your schedule with the red carpet premieres and the much-buzzed about indie films that have already made their mark at other film festivals, this year don’t ignore South by Southwest’s selection of short films.

Here are a few selections from this year’s line-up:

TEXAS HIGH SCHOOL SHORTS

The History of Nikola Tesla — A Short Story

Created in under 24 hours by Dallas native Jermiah Warren, The History of Nikola Tesla is a very clever outline of the popular inventor’s life. Told through crude animation, a sharp wit and a loving attention to detail, the inventor’s life is given a through once-over by the young animator. As Inside Pulse editor Scott Sawitz might say, not making school presentations like this is what kept me out of the good colleges.

The Doorman

Ryan Kline is an accomplished young director — having had short films play at several Texas film festivals. His latest movie, The Doorman, is a nice throwback to classic ’80s horror — with a twist. When a couple stops for the night in a mysterious motel, the wife decides to go against all common sense and investigate a odd noise emitting from somewhere in the room. Kline utilizes the talent of his crew (especially composer Eriq Robinson) to create a palpable tension to the story — eventually paying it off with a great gag that should catch audiences off guard.

Z

Duel directors John Fernandez and Austin Loving show a real familiarity with the zombie genre in their tribute Z. The two (who also act in the film) fill the short with a great atmosphere and style — paying respect to the forefathers of zombie cinema that have come before them. More than just a simple aping of other films, though, the two’s short manages to establish its own tone and identity — giving a hint at the great promise both show as directors in the future. I’d love to see an extended film from the two — horror or not.

Coonpipes

Madeleine Mathis fills her short film Coonpipes with so much rich attention to detail that it boggles the mind. The story of a raccoon’s run-in with a dog, Coonpipes is a simple yet sweet story that gets extremely high marks for its DIY feel and charming Etsy look. A stop-motion animated film, the characters of Coonskin have a home-made look to them that gives the animation a fluid feel that reminded me of some of the great ’70s animated specials from yesteryear. If this is the type of film Mathis can cook up while still in high school, she has a promising career ahead of her as an animator. Keep an eye out for Mathis — she’s going to be somebody whose career is worth tracking.

Superior

The Julian Moreno-Pena-directed video for San Antonio band Buttercup’s song “Superior” is very reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s early work with Weezer. Footage of the band performing on a sound stage is intercut with a romp in a local watering hole. Moreno-Pena gives his short a nice, fun tone – reflecting the band’s upbeat pop sound. The young director certainly seems to have a knack for music video directing — creating a video that is very close to being a peer to any one of the music videos that can be currently watched wherever the hell it is they play music videos nowadays.

Joe the Clay Guy and the Crystal Skull

In what feels like a nice, weird mix of Masters of the Universe and an Edgar Wright film, writer/director Jeff Novaez shows that it just doesn’t take a firm grasp on technology to be a young filmmaker today — it takes great imagination. Novaez’s short stop-motion animated cartoon tells the brief story of a Gumby-like traveler who discovers a crystal sword and uses it to fight off an array of monsters. Novaez’ film is very raw but it exudes an impressive amount of creativity — a clue to the type of work that is in the young filmmaker’s future. Full of kinetic action and great comic timing, Joe the Clay Guy and the Crystal Skull is great work from emerging talent.

Circuit Breaker: Episode III

No lie — with just a few minutes worth of story, directors Matthew Cunningham and Whitney Bennett show more imagination and raw creative power than most professional science fiction filmmakers do in their entire careers. In the third episode of Cunningham and Bennett’s awe-inspirignly artistic television series, viewers are thrown into the middle of a story. Those who had not had the opportunity to catch the first two episodes may be a little lost — which is a shame because the series’ writers (a team which includes co-director Cunningham) have created a nice blend between Phillip K. Dick, Douglas Adams and Frank Miller. Tobias is a nebbish young robot — in love with a co-worker and desperate to impress her — who gets caught up with the wrong crowd and becomes addicted to illegal “experiences.” These experiences — memories that can be directly uploaded into Tobais’ hardware — involve everything from shoplifting to running with scissors. Addicted to the rush, Tobias puts himself into a position where he owes bad people a lot of money and finds himself creating new illegal experiences. To bring their ambitious story to life, Cunningham and Bennett go all out in combining various filmmaking techniques — throwing live-action, animation and puppetry into a blender and giving everything a fresh coat of paint thanks to the magics of computer technology. Circuit Breaker is an ambitious showcase of talent and a glorious peak at some of the talent just waiting around the bend from tomorrow’s superstar filmmakers.

Sun and Moon

JJ Rubin’s short film betrays an intelligence that runs deeper than the young filmmaker’s age might suggest. A melancholy examination of the effects of Alzheimer’s’ on a relationship, Sun and Moon deals with some pretty heady subject matter for a short film directed by a high school student. The greatest surprise (perhaps unrightfully) is that Rubin handles the subject matter with a poise and artistic temperament that suggests a great understanding of the human condition being emitted by the director. Between the impressive acting courtesy the film’s leads and a beautifully written script, Rubin’s short film hits all the marks it sets out to achieve — reminding audiences that big ideas can come in small packages.

Volition

Marqui Gaona writes and directs this quasi-cerebrial look at fate’s grasp and second chances. When a pair’s love affair ends tragically, the story is rewound and an escape chute searched for. A sound knack for dialogue and an interesting perspective on a time-worn story total up to equal a damn impressive short film from a genuinely talented high school student. Gaona, who also composed a mood-apporpirate score for the film, seems to have something to say that’s worth listening to. While Volition is all to brief, audiences will be advised to keep an ear to the ground for any future full-length or extended project from Gaona — there’s something special brewing inside the young filmmaker.

The Texas High School Shorts line-up premieres Saturday, March 12 at 6:30 PM at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center. It’ll screen again Saturday, March 19 at 11:00 AM at the Alamo Drafthouse — Lamar.

SXGLOBAL SHORTS

Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul

Filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel explores the spreading sea change in Afghanistan — growing out of the country’s youth.  Focusing on the Skateistan youth program, the mini-documentary follows a group of Afghani teenagers who have begun to recapture a hope for their country’s future thanks, seemingly, to the presence of skateboarding in their lives. The Skateistan program is a charity that offers the youth of Afghanistan — both boys and girls — the chance to spend time in a fully stocked skate park that features training, ramps and equipment. By juxtaposing the confident, ambitious youth with the weary, world-beaten down adults who have spent so much time under the rule of the Taliban, the filmmaker attempts to shine a spotlight on some optimism from a country not normally known for any. The short is beautifully shot and edited — making the visual experience a perfect match for the ambitious charity project the film spotlights.

Screening at Tatry Cinema

In Igor Chojna’s portrait of a small-town Polish movie theater, proprietor Dariusz Ambroszczyk is a depressingly defeatist stand-in for the decaying state of Polish cinema. The owner and sole employee of a tiny cinema, Ambroszczyk works a variety of jobs for the theater — between securing the delivery of films, selling tickets and even acting as a manual, low-tech version of Polish Moviefone. Unfortunately, most of Ambroszczyk’s work amounts to nothing as on average the increasingly cynical theater owner serves as few as two customers a weekend — most of his fellow city dwellers having forgotten about the theater. Chojna does not attempt to construct a hard-fast narrative out of his portrait — preferring to let the small snippets of Ambroszczyk’s life that his camera captures speak for themselves. Between growing more and more frustrated at his theater’s lack of business to negotiating with his two canine companions in the tiny apartment he lives in, Ambroszczyk does not have too exciting of a life at first glance but, as is the case with most things, scratch at the surface and the theater owner’s story is a fascinating microcosm for a larger picture — one that explores the decline of art and culture.

The SXGlobal Shorts line-up premieres Sunday, March 13 at 1:30 PM at the Alamo Drafthouse — Ritz. It’ll screen again Thursday, March 17 at 2:00 PM at the Alamo Drafthouse — Ritz.

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