The Long Running Shorts Festival of NYExpo
The Big Apple's crowded festival scene has had room for the New York Exposition of Short Film and Video (www.nyexpo.org) for 36 years, making it the nation's oldest showcase of independent short films. The energetic and always resourceful festival director Anne Borin shifted venues last December from the usual university setting to a theatrical outlet, Manhattan's Cinema Village, where more films could be screened and programs repeated. There were 96 works this year, including 27 documentaries.
NYExpo prides itself on documentary shorts from around the globe in a generous mix of the socially conscious, the deeply personal, the humorous and the borderline experimental. This year was no exception, especially those works imaginatively grouped into four special programs, mostly outside of regular competition. One such ensemble, "Recollections in Tranquility," featured the unique work of Russian virtuoso Alexander Sokurov, his haunting Elegy of a Voyage a warm-up of sorts for his recent, much acclaimed Russian Ark. Here, Sokurov's Digi-Beta, assisted by his own moody narration, drifts across borders and cultures from his native Russia to the Netherlands, coming to rest in Rotterdam's Boijmans Museum. This 47-minute Elegy is a work of astonishing, mysterious beauty.
Another program, "In Loving Memory," offered To the Land of Bliss, winner of the NYExpo Silver Award, an evocative inquiry into a Buddhist way of death by the young Chinese-American filmmaker Wen-jie Qin. Handsomely shot on video in China, Wen-jie's explanations and pictures draw us into the sometimes solemn, sometimes joyous reactions and rituals after the death of a local master. Her film is "anthropological" documentary at its best—it's informative, avoids judgments and lets the images speak for themselves.
"Artists Remembered" focused on some creative figures from different quarters. The Independent Spirits of the title of the film by Sybil DelGaudio and Patty Wineapple were the pioneering animators Faith and John Hubley. The film honors the Hubleys for promoting independent film and striving to advance animation as more than funny cartoons. A very different cultural milieu is revealed from the life and times of the idiosyncratic artist Vasily Sitnikov in Andrei Zagdansky's touching memorial, Vasya. Sitnikov was a weird and charismatic character who garnered a devoted following of non-conformist Russians and some foreign diplomats and journalists thrilled by Soviet dissident art and artists. Zagdansky, himself a thoughtful émigré filmmaker from the old Soviet Union, brings Vasya to life through his paintings and by cross-cutting animation with the fond recollections of friends.
"Taking Time" was the appropriately named fourth special program, coincidentally grouping the work of three Asian filmmakers, Joon Soo Ha (Korea), Kawaguchi Hajime (Japan) and Kuo Chen-Ti (Taiwan). Ha's whimsical split-screened short, Saekjuckshigong, Gongjucksaek, from the Buddhist conceptions of the material and immaterial, focuses on a melting ice cube. Liabangbang, Chig-Wen's Not Here by Kuo Chen-Ti deals with time as unfinished business-a son's uncompleted labors in building a house for his parents, who wait for his return. Hajime's offbeat Variant Phases is one of those films proving that viewers sometimes have to be patient for the pay-off. In one section, after a close up of disembodied hands peeling bird-in-flight color stills, the stills are suddenly brought together in motion, making the birds really fly; this simple device, fundamental to the very premise of motion pictures, comes as a pleasurable surprise.
NYExpo prize winners were more traditional efforts. By traditional, I certainly don't mean less arresting or less powerful: These films address poverty, displacement, racism, violence and other topics left over from the 20th century.
Yasmine Kabir's My Migrant Soul (winner of the Gold), for example, is a harrowing account of labor exploitation in Asia. Integrating audio-taped letters to his family with stills and interviews, Kabir traces the sad trajectory of the young Babu from his Bangladesh home to his death in Malaysia, a victim of hustlers promising rewarding work abroad. In Yvette Pita's Liberty and Bread (Best Debut), the Cuban rafter Omar suffers from another kind of displacement, with another consequence-he finds love and material comfort in New York, but also melancholy and concern over the wife and children he left behind. Ton Vriens' To Live With Terror (the Bronze Award) is a wide-ranging probe into the still unsolved bombing attacks on the Israeli Embassy and the Buenos Aires Jewish Center in Argentina in the '90s. Some striking news footage and interviews make this a disquieting report on anti-Semitism in that country, against a background of political and police corruption. Cosima Spender's Life and Death on Exmoor (the special Kodak Award) is not quite up to the emotional power of these films, but don't tell that to the rueful stag hunters in the West of England who see their age-old traditions undermined by modern attitudes and government prohibitions.
NYExpo's global reach knows no boundaries—either geographic or thematic—and Borin and her colleagues are already casting their net across frontiers for next year's 37th Festival.
Louis Menash teaches Russian History and Film at Polytechnic University, New York, and is an editorial associate at Cineaste Magazine.