Amazon Prime x SXSW: Short Films

Out of 6,000 films submitted, the best were selected. And then the festival was canceled. Some went to MailChimp, where they may still be viewed. Many flourished for a week on Amazon Prime, leveling the barrier to bringing these stories to a thirsty audience. It showcases a potential future for platforming shorts, for streaming services to curate and help with exposure for the severely underseen festival darlings. During this quarantine, this year’s selection happily has a lot to say about how we process relationships in the modern age, what it means to grieve our losses, how technology has made relationships challenging but all the more open, how artisanal crafts have become niche interests for documentarians. There is a lot to chew on and a lot to love. As always, we encourage supporting all shorts and are proud to present a roundup of the latest program.

Basic

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Basic. Dir. Chelsea Devantez.

You basic little trash can.” A woman sits in bed criticizing the bright, cheery lives of an Instagram couple. As the plot unravels over a very, very, very short runtime (as advertised), a punchline is revealed, and a twisted high concept emerges. Basic is comedy gold and the funniest piece selected. The funniest thing I saw at the festival was director Chelsea Devantez’s intro PSA about not cutting your own bangs during quarantine. She’s not just a cool director wearing a hat but had her own bangs incident. It helps that her short is as funny as it is brief.  It also has the best log line of the online show: “Basic is a very, very, very short film about a dumb lil’ ho doing lil’ ho things.” She is a treasure and we must protect her comedy at all costs.

Modern Whore

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Modern Whore. Dir. Nicole Bazuin.

A former sex worker, Andrea Werhan gives privileged access to her accounts of escort work. Most amusingly, she combs through her reviews on an escort review forum and then tells us how the activities really went down (political conversation and erectile dysfunction). It imparts a kind of sex positive wisdom and compassion for workers, understanding it’s a useful and provocative perspective that ought to be shared with an audience. Big plus for its sex positivity and alternative viewpoint.

Summer Hit

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Summer Hit. Dir. Berthold Wahjudi.

The feel good hit of the summer. It sure is that. A boy from Iceland meets a girl in Munich. They have nice summer flings that transform into bigger feelings. The film feels supremely of its place. It feels like a German summer ripe for love. The development of their chemistry is really nice. Both are good actors and they compliment each other cutely. And that blasted song keeps coming on the radio, the kind that has defined all our summer affairs, and will always bring us full circle, back to that moment and that unique feeling, that this short so wonderfully conjures. An excellent brief piece of romantic filmmaking.

Mizuko

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Mizuko. Dir. Kira Dane.

Mizuko is profoundly reflected spoken word poetry. It explores Japanese traditions around the mourning of abortions. Director Kira Dane has created a vivid portrait with occasionaStill quirky animations. A labor of love, so to speak, it all looks astonishingly good. It also has depth and a real message that goes beyond its audiovisual intrigue. A novel little surprise stuck in an unassuming package. Beautiful visual metaphor and contextualizing of a pressing social issue.

Still Wylde

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Still Wylde. Dir. Ingrid Haas.

“You do not spark joy! You’re not wanted here anymore,” Gertie unloads on her boyfriend. They had an accidental pregnancy that tragically ended in a stillborn. Everything up to this moment proved the rocky road their relationship has been on. Shoutout to both actors, the director herself, Ingrid Haas and Barry Rothbart for perfectly understanding the pitch of emotional intensity every moment called for. They get it all right. We must sympathize immediately because the film is all empathy and loves its viewer that has been here before. Well done.

Blocks

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Blocks. Dir. Bridget Moloney.

Oh, dear God, please absolve me of my sins. I have done my best. Was it something that I did or said before? I wish to escape this purgatory. Watching a parent vomit toy blocks is maybe the worst thing I could have watched during the quarantine. Through therapy, I’ve just overcome my Phagophobia — my fear of swallowing, an unindented consequence of watching this year’s Swallow. I could finally breath again, feel at peace without the thoughts of parental body horror, and now this? I would ask what hell is to come but the question is stuck in my throat like so many toy blocks. Ultimately, as a parent of the quarantine, the whole affair is too stressful to be enjoyable, but it could not be planned for.

Face to Face Time

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Face to Face Time. Dir. Izzy Shill.

In a remarkable stroke of luck, Face to Face Time is a short about social distance. A couple play out their relationship over video chat. While our actress falls over herself trying to please her partner, he’s become preoccupied by work, and can only pretend to be turned on by the scenario. He feigns masturbation till the camera falls and reveals he’s been faking it the whole time, and then there is a moment for him to reveal his true feelings — only for the signal to cut! It’s a clever use of modern tools to tell the story, if not very slight. I feel for the director — Izzy Shill of The Big Sick (2017) — that current events have really reshaped her narrative beyond any potential control and make the movie play in a way it could not have been intended for.

Waffle

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Waffle. Dir. Carlyn Hudson.

Somewhere between Tinder and Uber, social engagements are now decided by a card processing service. The gig economy has invaded every facet of our personal lives. It’s the kind of short where I knew everything about it between the title and the logline and then it does exactly what we think it will do. A girl has another girl over for a sleepover, wants to buy more time, they have waffles, and their social contract begins to break. It’s very high production, atypical for a short in its neat design. Worth a quick watch.

Vert

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Vert. Dir. Kate Cox.

The product of a one day shoot, it always impresses me what burgeoning filmmakers can fit in. This one burns with pressing relevant themes about gender identity, framed by the use of virtual reality. A couple enter a virtual space where the man is freed to become a woman and present his idealized self, and his partner is very accepting. The film is a nice gesture that wishes for development. Image what they could make with two days, a month? There are happy moments at festivals where you realize someone is doing what they’re meant to do.

Broken Bird

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Broken Bird. Dir. Rachel Harrison Gordon.

“Toot toot, hey, beep beep.” Birdie is reaching that point in a young Jewish woman’s life. It’s time for her Bat Mitzvah, as the story presents a very literal bite-sized coming of age. Birdie balances the demands of her Jewish background with the cultural artifacts of her biracial experience of the world. This comes into play in the way her father reenters her life. She hesitantly allows him back in. She is a woman of her community now and can make these decisions properly. There is a well-balanced textural quality, giving both traditions equal weight. The tune of her Bat Mitzvah songs is eclipsed by the Donna Summers song her father has brought back into her life. She has regained balance and oneness in her world. It’s a sharp little portrait that gets stuck in your head like a fun little lyric — “toot toot, hey, beep beep.”

Hiplet: Because We Can

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Hiplet: Because We Can. Dir. Addison Wright.

“There’s an old African proverb that goes, ‘Plan with a purpose, prepare with a prayer, proceed with positivity, and pursue with persistence.’ That is what hiplet is all about.” I’ve never seen this form of hip ballet, so the doc/music video hybrid gets to fulfill its greater purpose for me. Instantly, we see the tremendous appeal of blending the classical elements of ballet with the swagger of hip hop. It’s sexy and it makes a grand statement. Worthy festival viewing when it comes to you.

Affurmative Action

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Affurmative Action. Dir. Travis Wood.

Director Travis Wood noticed a troubling trend while searching for a job. Many of the company pages he browsed brought dogs onto the team well before they employed people who looked like him. We scroll through the painfully plain and white corporations with him and it’s revealed he has a fair point. “As a core value we practice inclusion,” one website says, before it’s revealed that their staff only includes white women and dogs. The mocking titles attached to their positions, while cute, just pile on frustration when the job search shows the deck is plainly stacked against people of color.

Call Center Blues

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Call Center Blues. Dir. Geeta Gandbhir.

We rarely get to hear what happens after folks are deported. The best case is Call Center Blues. The locals consider deportees criminals. Working with their English in call centers is about the best they can do. An alternative is getting snatched up by the Cartel. We never get this perspective and this doc presents a really special opportunity to follow up and see what life is like on the other side. The longest of the bunch, it earns its time and would be absolutely welcome as a feature length expansion of what’s already here. There’s a lot left to say and it leaves us wanting to explore all the lives it touches on.

Reminiscences Of The Green Revolution

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Reminiscences Of The Green Revolution. Dir. Dean Colin Marcial.

The prospect of producing a ghost story and a love story with political nuance in the confines of a short is a big enough goal. With an imprecise realistic framing, it stretches itself thin with ambition. It has tons of ideas about the youth and group politic identities. It has waaay too many ideas and requires about twice the length it has. I hope the crew do get to expand it, so they can say what they needed, because they have a lot here.

Lions in the Corner

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Lions in the Corner. Dir. Paul Hairston.

Like Fight Club (1999), the function of Lions in the Corner is that men beat the hell out of each other so that, for once in their life, they can feel peace. In the Virginia streets, violence and addiction have sourced a deadly lifestyle. A caring community member, going by Scarface (or, to my mind more intimidating, “Face”), is the leader of the lion’s den. They have repurposed streetfighting into a more careful expression of community. Here, those with “streetbeefs” get the opportunity to settle it in a controlled fight, under the premise that any pairing with escalating outside tension really just wants to dissolve the anxiety of the situation and settle their rivalry. Good community function.

Single

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Single. Dir. Ashley Eakin.

A one of a kind romantic short by necessity. A one-armed woman goes on a blind date with a one-handed man and is very upset about that. A lifetime of resentment builds in her: why would her matchmaking friend do this, as some sick joke? It plays out as expected, the good thing is this situation gets some representation. Most of the short I found it hard to attach to a character that did not show their positive attributes, until, in the end, they showed strength and resilience. The readings and tone here are all over the map, so that it’s very hard to even get intentionality from the actors. If we cannot measure that, what can we really know about their work?

Soft

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Soft. Dir. Daniel Antebi.

Soft highlights a pet peeve of mine. It’s so hard to see anything. Half the film is spent in the dark. I’m genuinely here watching movies for visual information and find myself grasping at straws without a lot of it. The premise may have potential, of a boy molested by his martial arts instructor, but for the meantime, I’d just like to be able to really see the movie.

Dirty

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Dirty. Dir. Matthew Puccini.

The short coming of age sex story will always be ripe for festival exhibition. These narratives have the largest capacity to tell resonant stories over the course of a small, hugely relatable human experience. Even when the premise is to extol the virtues of pre-sex enemas. This short has the nice mission statement of reducing shame over common shame areas around early gay sexual attempts. Its heart is firmly in the right place.

A Period Piece

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A Period Piece. Dir. Shuchi Talati.

Don’t let the title fool you, this is a piece about a woman’s period. Occasionally, I find it’s important as a critic to say “I don’t know.” I don’t know why the film was made or what it says. We watch people have sex while the gal’s on her period. They get some blood on the couch and it takes them so long to clean it up. I don’t know.

Daddio

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Daddio. Dir. Casey Wilson.

Very cute twenty minute father and daughter show about grief and resilience through familial empathy. We sit with the characters as they grieve the loss of the family matriarch. They have to make new memories and find their new normal. It never gets any easier and the film does well never to paint a rosey picture, yet still finds optimism in that the characters have each other. It’s such a sweet sentiment. And really funny when the dad busts out pictures he took with his wife just as after she passed. I’m glad this story got to reach a larger audience.

Father of the Bride

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Father of the Bride. Dir. Rhys Marc Jones.

Weddings are always a blast at the movies. Once the ceremony begins it means we’re about to have a great time! Or a heated blow-up! Coppola will bring you right back to the motherland. Maybe Kurosawa will wheel in a threatening wedding cake. Anything can happen. That is the special heightened allure of one of the most significant moments in a person’s lives, the perfect diorama for drama. This one is very different from others I have seen. The best man is targeted by the bride’s father in the bathroom and some very awkward tension arises during the following toast. I thought the actors handled this well, even given such potentially strange material, they sell the weirdness of it sufficiently.

Run On

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Run On. Daniel Newell Kaufman.

Daniel Newell Kaufman has crafted a grungy little short, cracked out on speed. A boy and his reckless mother sit at a bus station, destitute, pained with a real hunger that his daily snicker bar would never satisfy. The boy requires more than the mom could ever give; she can barely care for herself as it is. They are stuck in a loop and the film is structurally circular too. Utilizing handheld shots, it feels real, pulsing with pain, like every reaction ought to trigger some fight or flight response. Can the boy ever break the circle?

Figurant

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Figurant. Dir. Jan Vejnar.

Jan Vejnar has found a cool, unique concept. An older gentleman is off to seek daywork at the employment center. He signs the sheet and is shuttled off to a changing room. He changes into military clothes and is promptly deployed on the battlefield. It takes a surreal turn from here but is thematically consistent and finds a nice way to spin the story out as it moves. We could only wish for more.

The Voice in Your Head

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The Voice in Your Head. Dir. Graham Parkes.

We can be our own worst enemy. Everyone has a little voice inside, vocalizing our worst fears and insecurities about ourselves. In Dan’s case, his voice is loud and abrasive, dressed like Sandler from Uncut Gems (2019), for some reason. His voice is personified by this gruff man who shouts him down. The only difference with Dan’s voice is everyone else can see him too. His office finally calls the voice out and asks him to leave — “you know we can all see you right?” I wish there were laughs or a feeling here, but the whole exercise feels ugly.

No Crying at the Dinner Table

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No Crying at the Dinner Table. Dir. Carol Nguyen.

Occasionally, family interview docs can feel like we’re imparting on someone else’s personal space. They can feel vouyeristic, like we’ve zoomed in too close, and have really opened someone up beyond what they were probably game for when they sat before a camera. Every family has its traumas, its dirty laundry, and if framed right, could probably produce its own staggering, interesting doc — it’s just that some people find that story right away. That’s Carol Nguyen, creating an immensely personal portrait of her own family. They’re lovely, and it’s both difficult and honoring to be let into their space, both physical and emotional.

Quilt Fever

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Quilt Fever. Olivia Loomis Merrion.

My wife spent about twice the time of the documentary trying to explain to me how quilting works. I have a basic grasp now that people sew things together. Everyone should have a quilter in their lives. Mine is my beloved grandma and the quilt she gave me is one of my most used objects. It’s really a nice thing. I can see how enthusiasts would flood Paducah, Kentucky every year, a good 30,000 of them for what the Documentary dubs the “Academy Awards” of quilting. All the quilters seem nice, and I figure that is a universal quality that comes with a hobby that requires such patience and close attention to detail. This is a nice little look into their hand-stitched world and why it’s the event of the year for those who attend. My favorite part is when the old ladies are looking at fabric and say things like “stinking cute.” I assume that expression guarantees their status as high level quilters.

Betye Saar: Taking Care Of Business

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Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business. Dir. Christine Turner.

Betye Saar is a legendary recontextualizer of the arts. At 93, we visit the artist, still hard at work, finding and reinvigorating forgotten crafts, weaponizing mementos of African American pain as renewed cultural artifacts. She can take a minstrel work and make it feel important and new. Until she received an art endowment, she says, she did not understand herself to be an artist, just a person who made things. Like the things she makes, the doc functions as an assemblage, a piecing together of a long life fruitfully lived, a celebration of found and rediscovered artifacts that still have a lot left to say for themselves.

Dieorama

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Dieorama. Dir. Kevin Staake.

I greatly appreciated the way Dieorama engages with its subject, a woman working within the gov’t, who happens to make macabre miniatures, recreations of the kinds of deaths she experiences at crime scenes. It is the exact length it needs to be, too, reflecting the fun-size death dioramas the woman makes. It’s a local Washington story and one that broadly succeeds as an informative little curiosity piece. Would really have liked to have watched how they’re made and get a little more access to that process.

Broken Orchestra

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Broken Orchestra. Dir. Charlie Tyrell.

”No matter what is broken, we can fix it.” Broken Orchestra is a clever use of talking head-type interviews. We track through the halls of an abandoned Philadelphia school. There are no students, only standard issue school televisions. Filmed as though it were an unbroken shot with crafty hidden cuts, we navigate the halls as the televisions come to life with teachers telling the story of an enriching program for their community. There is a project where broken instruments are repurposed and gifted to these schools in dire need of resources, a beautiful recycling of the arts. The unique way it’s shot and how it moves between interviews would make any story captivating, but the resourcefulness strikes home in this story especially. The doc crescendos with a final heart-warming interview: one man brought a recycled instrument in to play with the students only to find all of their instruments featured the same red tag, all sourced from the same project. He surges with emotion and so do we, feeling that an abandoned community has been cared for and loved in the best and most healing way of all: through music.

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