September 2, 2015 at 4:52 pm EDT | by Brian T. Carney
D.C. Shorts offers succinct cinema
D.C. Shorts, gay news, Washington Blade

‘Barrio Boy’ was originally planned as a teaser to raise funds for a feature-length production, but took off as a short on the festival circuit. (Photo courtesy of Dennis Shinners)

It’s time for one of the highlights of the D.C. arts calendar — the return of D.C. Shorts.

Under the direction of out filmmaker Jon Gann, the festival brings dozens of fascinating short films from around the world to Washington Sept. 10-20 at Landmark E Street Cinema and other local venues. Full schedule and ticket information can be found at dcshorts.com.

As always, the logistics of the festival are staggering. Gann and his dedicated volunteers screened more than 1,300 short films from 54 countries that were submitted through an open competition. From this pool, 125 were selected. These films (each between two-29 minutes in length) were organized into 14 separate showcases, each approximately 90 minutes long. There are also several themed programs, including LGBT shorts, documentaries, movies by local filmmakers, a family program and free lunchtime screenings at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

The festival website has a complete schedule with details of all the flexible ticket options, a searchable database with synopses and trailers for the individual movies and detailed listings for all showcases. D.C. Shorts also has a special option where viewers can watch the movies online. With more than 24 hours of films to watch, that’s a convenient feature.

In addition to the showcases and themed programs, there’s a wide variety of related events. There’s a screenplay competition where local actors will perform a staged reading of six original screenplays (and the winner gets some serious production support from D.C. Shorts). There are workshops for beginning and advanced filmmakers. There are opportunities for audience members to meet the filmmakers and chances for audience members to vote on their favorites which will be shown in two special “Best Of” showcases during the festival’s closing weekend. And there are also the parties for which D.C. Shorts has become infamous.

Films with an LGBT focus can be found in each of the showcases, but this year they will also be highlighted in a special LGBT program at the E Street Cinemas on Thursday Sept. 17. The eight films selected for the program highlight the incredible richness of contemporary queer cinema.

For example, “Election Night” by American director Tessa Blake, is a political drama that combines suspense and humor with a deft touch. Filmmaker Blake says her film, which stars Peri Gilpin (“Frasier”) and comedian Jake Johannsen, “follows a politician’s family in Maine as they wait for the final 350 votes to come in on election night. Trapped in a hotel kitchen and waiting for the ferry to arrive with the last ballots, nerves rattle the family into a comic whirlwind of wild theories, long-held secrets and a revelation that nobody saw coming.”

According to writer and director Dennis Shinners, the wildly inventive “Barrio Boy” is the story of “a Latino barber who secretly falls in love with a handsome Irish stranger over the course of a haircut during a hot and sweaty summer afternoon in a macho Brooklyn hood.” The short was made as a pitch reel to help secure financing for the feature version, but has become a hit at film festivals across the country.

“Stella Walsh” is a riveting documentary by Ohio filmmaker Rob Lucas that combines sports, gender, scandal and murder. Walsh first made headlines when she won a gold medal at the 1932 Olympics and made further headlines when an autopsy after her 1980 murder raised questions about her gender identity. Director Lucas says, “The 15-minute documentary explores the life of Stella, her death and her gender controversy through interviews with friends, trainees, members of the media, and a geneticist, as well as photos and archival footage from years of in-depth research.” More information on Stella’s story can be found at stellawalsh.com.

“The Bench Project: Lost and Found,” written by gay novelist John W. Bateman and directed by Oriana Oppice, is part of a larger film series produced by Steven Bidwell. “The Bench Project” is a series of five short independent films guided by a few simple parameters: a three to five page script, two actors and a bench. “Lost and Found” tells a fascinating story about gay life from a fresh and unusual perspective.

“The story focuses on two elderly widows — neighbors and old friends,” Bidwell says. “When one of them discovers a locked box in the closet full of her husband’s things, the two discover clues to a past that their husbands shared with each other and kept from their wives.”

The LGBT showcase also includes “The Last Girl,” a Danish film that takes an unusual look at coming out, and “A Last Farewell,” a Swedish film about a man grieving the loss of his husband and looking back on their legacy, as well as “Strings,” a British drama about a young boy who suspects his father is a spy but discovers a different family secret instead, and “The First Session,” a funny film about two women who turn a chance meeting at a therapist’s office into a passionate first date.

Other festival highlights include “Gender Bender,” a comedy by D.C. filmmaker Austin Bragg about a heterosexual couple who magically swap genders, and “The Stutterer,” an Irish comedy about a young man who speaks eloquently in his head, but whose interactions with the world are hampered by his stutter, one of several movies that focus on people with disabilities.

D.C. Shorts, gay news, Washington Blade

‘Gender Bender’ explores what happens when a straight couple switches genders. (Photo courtesy of Austin Bragg)

“Breakin(g),” which won the 2014 Screenplay Competition, is about an elderly woman who uses cunning and some unexpected skills to foil a robbery. “We Can’t Live Without Cosmos” is an animated Russian film about two men training for the space program and “Screened,” is a comic look at America’s addiction to cell phones. “The Bridge Partner,” based on a short story by Peter S. Beagle (who also has a cameo), is a delicious story about the murderous tensions between card players Sharon Lawrence (“NYPD Blue”) and Beth Grant (“Sordid Lives”).

Besides being an incredible way for D.C. filmgoers to sample a smorgasbord of international short movies, D.C. Shorts is also an important forum for independent filmmakers to connect with each other and hone their craft. This is especially true for the LGBT filmmakers whose work is included in the festival.

“D.C. Shorts is committed to bringing lots of different voices of filmmakers to audiences who are underserved by mainstream culture, which allows an opportunity for LGBTQI films to reach an audience they might not find anywhere else,” Tessa Blake says.

Dennis Shinners echoes her observation.

“For a filmmaker to experience the immediacy of reactions from a live audience is a rare and incredible opportunity,” Shinners says. “For a fest like D.C. Shorts to exclusively celebrate short films is a really encouraging boost to filmmakers of any background or discipline to continue to share stories important to them.”

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