Philadelphia Film Festival: Gary M. Kramer on the Live Action Shorts Programs

Philadelphia Film Festival: Gary M. Kramer on the Live Action Shorts Programs

The two Live Action Shorts Programs that screened at the recent Philadelphia Film Festival offered an eclectic mix of narrative and documentary shorts.

Shorts Program 1 included six films:

Every House Is Haunted has Danny (Kevin Bigley) convince Maya (Kate Cobb) to buy their dream home, even though it is haunted. (Danny notes that everyone died of natural causes, so they are less likely to be vengeful.) Maya reluctantly agrees, and after Danny goes away, she encounters Miles (Emmanuel Wood), a 7-year-old whom she befriends, sharing much of her thoughts and feelings with him. Then Maya meets more ghosts. Every House Is Haunted, written and directed by Bryce McGuire, does not play up the scares so much as give Maya an opportunity to release her own inner demons. It’s a canny short that features some striking images, such as a literal Burning Man, and provocative ideas.

Fár artfully depicts a moment of crisis in just over five minutes. A woman (writer/director Gunnur Martinsdóttir Schlüter) is at a business meeting when she is distracted by a seagull flying into the window. Compelled to act, she hopes to put the bird out of its misery, but her decision creates discomfort for everyone around her. Fár excels because it invites viewers to confront their own morals and feelings about the incident.

Puffling is a documentary that follows Birta and Selma, who live on the island of Vestmannaeyjer (near Iceland). They rescue pufflings who are lost and cannot find the ocean. Worries about climate change and the possible extinction of these baby puffins, the young women also consider their own futures. One wants to stay on the island, while the other wants to leave. Director Jessica Bishopp creates a strong sense of place as she examines the lives of her subjects.

Fuck Me, Richard is a clever comedy about Sally (writer/codirector Lucy McKendrick) who is recovering from an injury. She makes a romantic connection with the titular Richard (Nathan Wallace) online and their frequent chats grow increasingly more passionate. However, when they arrange to meet, Sally shows up, but Richard doesn’t. He soon discloses that his mother was in an accident, and he desperately needs money to pay for her operation. Sally offers to help, but that is where the trouble—and fun—begins, leading to a revelation that is more satisfying than surprising.

When You Left Me on That Boulevard has Ly (Kailyn Dulay) briefly escaping her extended family gathering with her cousins—who head out to get high—before Thanksgiving dinner. As Ly is asked about her boyfriend, she explains that she is “talking” with a guy, which prompts various relatives to express their opinions and feelings. Director Kayla Abuda Galang creates a striking mood piece that captures the overwhelming family dynamics, food, and karaoke performances, as Dulay expresses Ly’s fragile emotional state with her silences and anxious dialogue. This is a slice of life short that feels like it could be a calling card for a feature.

Between Earth and Sky is the longest short in the program, and arguably the weakest. Directed by the subject’s nephew, this documentary is a hagiographic portrait of the celebrated ecologist Nalini Nadkarni. Her enthusiasm for her work is infectious—especially when she is in the field—and she is poignant recounting a fall from a tree that seriously injured her or revealing a shameful incident from her past. But these episodes feel haphazardly connected, which makes Between Earth and Sky less than the sum of its parts.

Nai Nai & Wài Pó is director Sean Wang’s charming documentary about his grandmothers. Chang Li Hua is 83 and feels 20; Yi Yan Fuei is 94 and feels 100. These in-laws (her son married her daughter) are best friends and live together. Wang films them singing and dancing, arm wrestling and farting. But they also talk poignantly about hardships in their lives and the death they know is coming. This joyful documentary shows that the secret to aging gracefully is to be silly, and active, and enjoy family.

Padre, from Italy has Luca (Liborio Natali), a priest, returning home to grapple with the death of his father (Giuseppe Balsamo) and his estrangement from his mother (Muriel Trauaillard). Lyrically shot with images of Luca floating in the sea—he is literally adrift—this short captures an painful family dynamic eloquently in 8 minutes. In fact, it could have been fleshed out a bit more.

It Turns Blue, from Iran, has Pari (Leili Rashidi) trying to salvage a bad situation. When her brother Morteza (Mansour Nasiri) physically punishes his 3-year-old daughter Raha (Hana Dezhagah) for misbehaving, Pari tries to mend things between them and get Raha to forgive her father. Pari’s efforts, however, can only go so far as writer/director Shadi Karamroudi’s quietly powerful and emotional films shows.

Breaking Silence is a terrific documentary short that shines a light on the issue of human rights for deaf prisoners. Walter Estes, who is deaf, has become an advocate for deaf prisoners, after he had difficulties communicating when he visited his daughter, Leslie, in jail. He now discusses getting access for the incarcerated while also helping the recently released. Meanwhile, Leslie returns home after completing her parole. Both Walter and Leslie acknowledge their past mistakes and look forward to a better future together in this inspiring film.

Blue Square Heart opens with young Jake (Benjamin Widner) recounting an episode of sexual abuse to a therapist (Shaw Purnell). His mother, Diane (Jessica Lea Risco) is preoccupied with other things, ignoring her son, which frustrates Jake. Cut to 2022 and Jake is now a drag queen named Feryl Crowe (SextiaN’Eight) who is preparing to go on stage when Diane unexpectedly arrives to see his show. The stress Jake feels about this reunion is matched by his anxiety of having to perform his “extreme” show in front of her. Writer/director William Means accomplished short delivers all the feels as Jake experiences a rush of overpowering emotions.

Primetime Mother was also screened in Shorts Program 2, but it was unavailable for preview.

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