January 27, 2011 | by David J. Hoffman
Succinct cinema

Editor’s note — “Today” in this article refers to Friday, Jan. 28, the Blade’s “street date.”

‘Rewind: The Best of DC Shorts’
7 and 9:30 p.m. in Theatre 1
7:30 and 10 p.m. in Theatre 2
Today and Saturday

Films are also shown on Saturday beginning at noon
including a free show of animation, comedy and drama
at noon for families and kids over 8.

Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St. N.E.

$50 all-access pass for all screening
or $12 per show. Available online
at rewind.dcshorts.com/tickets
or at the Atlas box office.

The “Celebrating Diversity” block of LGBT films is at 7:30 tonight in Theatre 2,
while other blocks, including films defined as local, foreign, comedy, and
documentary, are at different times — see website for details.

'Gayby' (Still courtesy of D.C. Film Alliance)

The long and the short of it is that no one can really agree on what’s a film short.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, annual purveyor of the coveted Oscars and arbiter of film in general, draws the boundary line between feature length and short films at 40 minutes. The Internet Movie Database draws the line at 45 minutes.

The only rough consensus today is that short films are not seen as commercial, that they are typically the first stage for young filmmakers and that the main venue to see them is at film festivals and on Internet sites like YouTube.

But some of the edgiest and most creative film work today is in these short subjects. And the D.C. Film Alliance brings a batch of them for viewing in clusters, tonight and Saturday night, in the D.C. Shorts Film Festival at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, on D.C.’s H Street N.E. corridor. Some of the best from the past seven years of the festival are being billed as “Rewind” and some of those, grouped together under the heading of “Diversity,” focus on LGBT issues. Four of those films are shown tonight at 7:30 p.m.

Short films were the norm until the 1920s and short comedies especially were the norm for early film fare — with a total of 220 shorts alone filmed by the Hal Roach Studio for the “Our Gang” series (otherwise known as “The Little Rascals”), from the 1920s through 1944. Many of Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp’ comedies were shorts and so were the early films of Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy.

In the 1930s, the system of distributing film to movie houses changed radically as studios began to insist on sending out a package — take it or leave it — consisting of a main and supporting feature and a cartoon and newsreel. The so-called “two-reel shorts” promptly went into commercial decline and even Hal Roach moved Laurel and Hardy full-time into feature-length films after 1935.

“The magic of making a short film is in reducing a story line to the bare essentials, getting to the heart fast and cutting out all the fluff,” says D.C. Shorts festival sponsor Jon Gann, director of the D.C. Film Alliance. He acknowledges, however, that “the sad part is that nearly all short films go unseen by audiences and we’re here to change that. Where else can you see around 10 films in two hours?”

He’s glad that with the surge of new interest in filming shorts has also come a spurt of interest in viewing them. One pay TV channel, ShortsTV, is the first channel wholly dedicated to them, and the BBC Film Network also showcases curated shorts. And every year, London-based Shorts International, which in addition to ShortsTV also offers an HD channel of shorts on the Dish satellite network, arranges for the release in movie theaters of the current crop of Oscar-nominated shorts — to be shown this year for one week beginning Feb. 11 at the Landmark E Street Cinema in D.C.

Gann expects the D.C. upsurge of interest in film shorts to continue with a sizable audience turnout for this weekend’s festival. He also hopes that people will be interested enough to ask to join the selection committee for the 2011 festival to be held here in September. This weekend there are specialty blocks planned for foreign films, local films, documentaries and animation, as well as those pitched to LGBT tastes. Free films for the family are also offered at noon at Saturday.

Four of the LGBT themed shorts are shown under the rubric of “Celebrating Diversity” tonight at 7:30. Another two — 13-minute-long “signage” (by local writer-director and actor Rick Hammerly and featuring gay D.C. actor Jeffrey Johnson) and and seven-minute-long “Little Hands” (about a gender change dilemma) — are shown respectively Saturday at 3 and 4 p.m. in the blocks for local D.C. and documentary films.

‘Diva’

A seven-minute short from France, this film (in French with subtitles) from the D.C. Shorts 2007 festival is about middle-aged Vincent, a cross-dresser leaving behind home and a failed romance. His heart is broken when his lover breaks off their 12-year relationship, telling him bluntly on the phone, “I’m not a faggot and I never want to see you again.”

Vincent blurts out that he will leave “this little shit town forever” and move to Paris. Portrayed with poignant grace by Thomas Courcoul, we see him arrive at his Paris hotel ready now for a new life, but still sobbing, sniffling away his tears, until finally relief comes with his sudden laugh at how pathetic he feels. He begins to finger fondly a pink feather boa and then shaves his chest (but only at the bra-line) and applies makeup, lipstick and wig. Next he is strolling a Paris park in a dress and pink pumps and matching pink hat and handbag, conveying a touch of further glamour (as well as to conceal any lingering tears) with Jackie-O dark glasses.

After a park carousel ride in a private reverie feeling so free, a young tough suddenly snatches Vincent’s purse, and the chase is on. Swiftly doffing wig, hat and pumps, Vincent pursues the purse snatcher with preternatural feline grace and in a muscular showdown retrieves her purse, and then stands over him, burly and strong. As the would-be thief slinks away, Vincent looks at first triumphant but then sobs and retraces her steps, until finally she sits alone, her face a mask of feelings but with pride as well as resolve and determination taking first place.

Writer-director Josephine MacKerras, a filmmaker living now in both Paris and London, but with a childhood spent in Australia and China, studied filmmaking at New York University. “Diva” is a work of real cinema skill, a simple story that whets your appetite to see more, leaving you wondering about what came before and about what might happen next.

‘Freedom on the Rocks’

The only gay bar in Jerusalem, Shushan, is a melting pot for LGBT Jews and Palestinian Arabs alike. In this 10-minute documentary by Yun Suh, Korean-American Buddhist and bisexual, a TV journalist and documentarian based in Berkeley, Calif., we hear from the bar owner, 35-year-old Sa’ar Netanel, that “Jerusalem is really a city of borders — there is a border between Jews and Palestinians, between secular and ultra-Orthodox, between straight and gay.” Netanel, a secular Jew, opened the bar in 2003, the same year he won election as Jerusalem’s first openly gay city council member. He admit that “when I read in the Bible that I could be killed for being gay, I understood what it was like to be Palestinian.”

The film features interwoven stories of the daily fight for dignity by five Israelis — three Jews and two Arabs — who navigate the minefield of politics, religion and discrimination to live and love openly, set against the construction by Israel of the separation wall and the struggle for a gay pride parade in the city.

“Everyone comes from  their own ghetto,” says Sa’ar, “and meets at Shushan.” Yun Suh says, of the five, “here’s a group that has been cast away by both sides but is modeling for the larger society what tolerance and co-existence can look like.” But it begins as trouble squared, for each of them is breaking two of the biggest taboos of Middle eastern society — same-sex relations and intimacy between Jews and Arabs.

“It’s hard to be gay in Ramallah,” says one of them, 19-year-old Boody, a nickname for the devout Muslim Palestinian who is shown on his prayer rug but also dancing at Shushan as a drag queen — the self-styled “Queen of Palestine.” With Yun Suh’s camera crew behind him, we also follow the slender and attractive Boody making his way at night from Ramallah, the Palestinian city divided from Jerusalem by the wall which he easily scales, also crawling through razor-wire and dodging Israeli Defense Force border patrols to reach the sanctuary of Shushan. The film ends when Boody decides he must leave home — where his mother cannot accept that he is gay and stills hope he will marry — for the U.S., his eventual refuge, and he now lives in a small town near Cleveland.

The other four profiled also have real stories to tell — in addition to bar-owner Netanel; Adam Russo, a 19-year-old Israeli Jewish settler in the West Bank near Jerusalem, former soldier and now a gay rights activist; and a lesbian couple in their early 30s, an Israeli Arab nurse, Samira Saraya, and a Jewish Israeli doctor, Ravit Geva, lovers for four years who work at the same hospital, who embrace each other but also face tension between them over ethnicity and the Intifada.

‘Gayby’

This 2010 comedy is 12 minutes of droll social commentary and pure film farce about the wish of Jenna, a permanently single woman, to persuade her gay best friend to help her make a baby, the old-fashioned way, not in a test-tube or with a turkey baster. It’s a comedy but it’s well enough written and directed by Jonathan Lisecki that the meeting of the two old friends to discuss this awkward topic and then in the bedroom to consummate it moves beyond the merely topical to the truly human.

Actor Matthew Wilkas portrays the disbelief at first and then the growing discomfort Jenn’s friend feels as the action moves swiftly towards the coital encounter. Yes, he concedes, that they had done it before, in college, but insists that “we were really, really drunk when we did it” then. But when she asks him if he thinks he can still “do it,” his male bravado immediately asserts itself — “What is this, a dare? Yes, I can do it, I can put it in anything. I’m a guy.”

Lisecki shows a sure hand with this short look at a real-life dilemma that could almost be credible, between two old friends each playing on a different team. He lives in New York City among those in the milieu of “Jenn” (well acted by Jenn Harris) and her friend Matthew, and is married to New Yorker magazine music critic Alex Ross.

‘The Queen’

'The Queen' (Still courtesy of D.C. Film Alliance)

This clever-but-touching eight-minute comedy, from the D.C. Shorts festival in 2009, is by another Korean-American writer-director, Christina Choe, based now in Brooklyn where she’s an master’s of film art candidate for writing-directing at Columbia University.  She calls “The Queen” — which was selected as “Best of Fest” at the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival” and has also made the rounds of LGBT film festivals — a film about a nerdy Korean-American teenage boy, Bobby, stuck working at his family dry-cleaning business on prom night.

Instead of doing his algebra, Bobby is doodling a sketch of a superhero, outlining the crotch with hungry relish, while being bothered by his mother (played by Choe’s own mother) who wants only to know about his plans for college and lecturing him that his grades aren’t good enough. When she departs, leaving Bobby to clear the register and lock up, he relents and opens the door when the high school prom queen begs to be let in, claiming a “fashion emergency” with her dress. But he only agrees to admit her after hours when he sees her hunky boyfriend, played by actor Tamir Kapelian.

This leads to a fantasy interlude that’s both poignant and funny. Bobby is well played by 19-year-old Sean Tarjyoto.

1 Comment
  • I luvvitt – that’s so poignant for today:

    “Here’s a group that has been cast away by both sides but is modeling for the larger society what tolerance and co-existence can look like.”
    ~ Gay bar owner in Jerusalem

    Or, as Trey Parker and Matt Stone said in “Team America”…

    “Look! The F.A.G.s are going to save the earth!!” (hehe, Film Actors Guild).
    I Believe! Amen! Praise The Lord!

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