April 1, 1999

The 32nd Annual New York Exposition of Short Film and Video

Clockwise, top-left: <em>Rat Woman, In the Course of Human Events, Black Ashes</em> and <em>Knittelfeld</em>

Founded by filmmaker Nick Manning in 1966, the New York EXPO of Short Film and Video hasn't missed a single annual session in 32 years. Anne Borin is the current Director, succeeding Robert Withers (1994-97). Panels of New York professionals served as jurors, to consider 650 submitted titles; they culled 56 from 9 nations for the showcase. These were categorized into 4 groups: documentary, animation, experimental and fiction. EXPO's rules stipulate 60 min. maximum, and many titles were in the single digits, timewise. In addition, other committees of professionals acted as jurors to select the 4 winners in each category: Gold, Silver, Bronze and Best Debut.

Manning's original dictum remains intact: EXPO is committed to be the show­ case for original talent in shorts, a neglected field. (The recent action by the Oscar® folks in eliminating documentary shorts from the Academy Awards® simply adds more neglect.) The short film or video can be complete and satisfying in itself, not just a training exercise for an emerging artist who aspires to move on to "real movies" in Hollywood. Rather, the short can be an exquisite miniature, making a single strong swift statement, like the 14 lines of a Shakespeare sonnet; we can't all make—nor want to make—a long opus like Tolstoy's War and Peace. Of course, some young producers of distinguished shorts indeed moved on to the feature format—Alain Resnais, George Lucas, Werner Herzog, Spike Lee, Martha Coolidge, Agnès Varda, many others.

Anne Borin last December debuted as Director of EXPO and scored with an increase in attendance of 34%. She is also the U.S. Coordinator for the International St. Petersburg Film Festival, "Message to Man," where she has curated programs of short fiction, documentary and animation since 1989. More than 200 films from the U.S., Canada and Australia have been screened in Russia per her efforts.

In addition to the EXPO screenings, two panels explored issues relating to shorts. "Directions in New Media" dealt with the variety of innovations within cinema and video, discussing (indeed, debating) CD-ROMS, websites, interactive movies, etc. Panelists were Diane Bertolo, Tennessee Rice Dixon, Kristin Lucas, Seth Thompson, Sue Johnson, Alison Cornyn, Kathy Brew. "Film Preservation for Independents" was a panel of top archivists, curators and preservationists working to save "Orphan Films," a precious legacy of ephemeral works of all genres made outside the Hollywood system: Patrick Loughney, Library of Congress; Anne Morra and William Sloan, Museum of Modern Art; Dominic Angerame, Canyon Cinema; M.M. Serra, Film-Maker's Cooperative; and a spokesperson for Cineric, Inc., one of the foremost labs dedicated to preservation.

The Best Debut short in the documentary category, Rat Women (9 min., 16mm, color, 1997, U.K.) is an incredible short about an apartment of young women who cohabit with—how many?—perhaps 30 rats, which crawl over everything and everybody. Luckily, cameras cannot record odors. Is this a cult? There are 600 Brits who welcome rats into their abodes, apparently the rattus norvegicus species. These human members of the National Fancy Rat Society share their digs and lives with these rodents. A Fulbright scholar, young director Minkie Spiro of the U.K. graduated school with honors in graphic design, later winning other honors documenting the airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel and child-victims of the Bosnian wars. She has a working tie with the BBC while continuing with graduate work.

I Stare at You and Dream, by Susan Mogul, 57 min., 16mm, color, 1997, U.S.), co-winner of the Bronze, is like a fiction opus, as Mogul's real-life characters from Highland Park, Los Angeles, are captured so intimately. How could her adopted Hispanic community not be collaborating specifically with the filmmaker? And yet it's their real lives, tears and heartbreak and all. Such as, the gal will soon be beyond the marrying age, but the guy just doesn't want to settle down. End of yarn. Mogul 's film was co-produced with ITVS.

Look at Me, I Look at You: Koji Inoue, A Deaf Photographer, by Brigitte Lemaine (19 min., 16mm, B/W, 1996, France), is a charming profile of a Japanese photographer who, late in life, finally achieved some measure of renown. Curiously, his silent world benefited his art, as is explained in the narration, in sign language. Inoue's life and work were made difficult by his deafness, but he learned its advantage in deeper understanding of human suffering, expressed pictorially. "I would like to prove that deafness is not a handicap but a special feeling which engenders its own philosophy," states director Lemaine. Almost all of her work deals with the handicapped and multi-handicapped. A sociologist with a Ph.D. in Aesthetic Philosophy, Lemaine is also a journalist, widely recognized for her photography and films. Also, she works in theater as a sign-language teacher to hearing actors.

Ajit (28 min., video, color, 1998, India) is an eight-year-old boy in an upper-middle-class Calcutta household, an indentured servant, a domestic, who works for food and is glad to have the job. At home with his parents, he had been one of nine children, often going hungry. Because of his endless duties washing, sweeping, cleaning, laundry, even taking care of the master's children, he never attends school. He regards himself happily as special, because he has food and a corner for sleep. A charming boy, a sad film, a document of poverty in half the world—by Arvind Sinha, who has screened the film frequently in Europe, to great success, while being shunned in his native country for producing documents of criticism.

Egypt (10 min., 16mm, B/W, 1997, Austria), by Kathrin Resetaris, also deals with deprived children. Poverty, yes, plus the difficulties of being deaf and dumb. What place awaits such children in impoverished Egypt? Nevertheless, they are full of joyous expectation, with hands and faces of rich expressiveness. Among their games, their little contests to express themselves and amuse others, are dumb-shows of Marilyn Monroe, James Bond, a silent musical interlude, and a gentle satire of tourists. Critic Isabella Reicher writes of "the richly textured sign language of the deaf and dumb." In Reicher's opinion, Resetaris confirms "the implicit agreement, that documentaries are first and foremost concerned with the tristesse of human existence." Resetaris, a casting agent and stage actress, and a 1994 graduate of the Vienna Film Academy, has made six films, at the young age of 25.

The André Show (43 min., video, color, 1997, U.S.), by Beverly Peterson, the other winner of the Bronze award, is made with and about her adopted son, André. Vilma, mother of André, had struggled with addiction until her death from AIDS. Her son Andre also struggles with AIDS, via his deceased mother. When he asks neighbor Beverly to film his eighth birthday, a bond begins to grow. At length, Beverly adopts André, and he promptly learns the video camera, making video diaries of his life and his art­ work, affirming his life despite poverty and deprivation. The film has a long pedigree, was touted at the Sydney festival in these pages (Jan.-Feb. 1999) and has been aired by HBO.

Bann Roy came from New Delhi to study Visual Anthropology at USC. Earlier, he had earned his first Master's degree in India, where he'd made shorts and documentaries for TV. His partner, Gillian Goslinga, also has her Master's, plus experience within India and in Southern California with inner-city youth. They are together at EXPO with Pepi no Mango Nance (11 min., 16mm, B/W, 1998, U.S.) about untrained Pepino Mango youth in Los Angeles, one an immigrant street vendor, the other a Latino composer writing a symphony from the calls of hawkers on the street. The film was a class project made under the strict rules of USC: "The film had to be non-sync 16mm, the number of shoot days could not exceed 10, the shooting ratio could not be more than 1:3, only two sessions of 4 hours each were allowed for the sound mix, and the finished film could not be longer than 400 feet, approx. 11 mins." Quote/unquote, USC. The filmmakers are now at work on a feature script based on Pepino.

Knittelfeld: A Town Without a History (35 min.,16mm , color, 1997, Austria), by Gerhard Benedikt Friedl, is a strange account of a family with particular predilections for crime and violence, within an Austrian village. "Austere" , is not adequate to describe the film's style—perhaps "remote," "distanced," "ironically understated" in its chronicle of horrors. Even the voice-over is cool, factual, unemotional. Nonetheless, the film has impact, whether because of its impersonal style or in spite of it. It's the second effort for Friedl, who is a student at Munich's Academy for Film and Television.

In the Course of Human Events (23 min., 16mm, B/W, 1997, U .S.) is a compelling study of the destruction of a huge San Francisco freeway overpass, damaged by an earthquake and now being demolished. An ordinary nuts-and-bolts job for the simple Bolex... except that director Dominic Angerame is an artist. He omits humans, except perhaps a distant solitary figure. A wrecking ball takes down the freeway, but we never see the operator high above. Man's engineering feats are reduced to rubble, impersonally, a comment on the fragility and vanity of human aspirations. Angerame is Executive Director of Canyon Cinema, San Francisco, an archive specialized in avant-garde cinema. He's also a teacher and a pro­ducer of thirty personal films, some internation ally honored. Human Events is one part of five, a "city symphony" in the tradition of German (Ruttmann), Soviet (Vertov) and French (Vigo) documentaries of the '20s and '30s.

Bread Day, by Sergei Dvortsevoy (55 min., 35mm, color, 1998, Russia), has been featured in these pages a lot in the last year. The film continues to receive honor after honor. Its focus is the day that bread arrives from the government to an isolated village—delivered in mid-winter some kilometers away, one freight-car with its precious bread ration left on a sid­ing. A half-dozen ancient villagers, men and women , turn out in deep snow to push the freight-car, heroically, to their village. Apparently abandoned, the village is so oppressed by poverty, by hopeless despair, that only the skills of the filmmaker, and his sensitivity and selection of exact images, including starving animals, redeem the film. We admire the film even as we are saddened by it. Like so many shorts, its compact and specific statement becomes metaphor for so many other conditions. It received the Gold Award at EXPO.

Another work from that part of the world, Black Ashes (14 min., 35mm, B/W, Uzbekistan) looks at the stark and desolate world of Uzbeki shepherds, who raise lambs only to slaughter them for their skins. Director Shukhrat Makhudov—a graduate of YGIK, Moscow's film school-mentions that the condition for filmmakers in the republic of Uzbekistan is deteriorating, and word is that this film has been censored by the government.

One of the most interesting films of recent memory is Human Remains, awarded the Silver prize at EXPO, and featured on the opening night schedule. The film is copping recognition all over the place, including an IDA Award this past November. Director/producer is Jay Rosenblatt (30 min., 16mm, B/W, 1998, U.S.). Five dictators are profiled in their own words, that's six minutes each for Hitler, Franco, Stalin, Mussolini and Mao. The voice-over in English speaks in first-person-singular, lines patched together from the private utterances of each man, from fragments of diaries or letters, from conversations remembered by others, and so forth. Visuals from home movies concern primarily the invisible lives of the 5 dictators, never seen by their subject peoples. Their peculiar eccentricities and habits and aversions and diversions, their favorites foods and films, their sex lives, their medical maladies, their secret pleasures, all that and more are packed into the narration, or self-narration, of the five monsters. "Banality of evil?" Of course, plenty. Total self-absorption, yes. Capacity for cruelty, yes. Rosenblatt has created a fascinating structural device, but the film is cramped and its historical value is debatable. It's best understood, I think, as a poetic impression or approximation of its subjects. Rosenblatt has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and other honors for his dozen films.

Closing night 's awards festival included a prize of $500 in film stock for In the Course of Human Events, from Kodak for excellence in cinematography. Other awards came from Barbizon Light (for excellence in lighting design) and Open-I-Media (for free instruction in Avid, Quark, Illustrator, etc.).

"This year, the emerging themes at EXPO seemed to be the idea of home and memory, also the fleeting nature of human endeavors and relationships ," commented director Borin. "As always, the short film gives us a glimpse into the future of our media-savvy culture."

 

GORDON HITCHENS is Contributing Editor to International Documentary. He was found ing editor for Film Comment's first seven years. As a stringer for Variety, he's reviewed more than 200 films for that newspaper. A former faculty member at C.W. Post/Long Island University, he serves as consultant to numerous film festivals throughout the world, including Berlin and Yamagata.

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