Fantastic Shorts by Women at Fantastic Fest

With everything that’s gone down with Fantastic Fest these past few weeks, there’s been a hyper focus on how we can make the film industry more welcoming towards women. At the festival itself, only 11 feature length films out of over 80 were directed by women; three of those films were co-directed with men, meaning films helmed solely by women represent only 10 percent of all features offered. In light of those statistics and the recent events, I thought it appropriate to review all of the short films that were created by women, as a way to boost their voices and create space for them in an industry that often proves to be unwelcoming in various ways.

Fantastic Fest provided screeners for a variety of shorts. Shorts with Legs is a collection of short films chosen for their eccentricity and experimentalism; Short Fuse is about off-kilter horror; Fantastic Shorts is a mixed bag of short, single subjects; and Yalla! Arab puts a spotlight on Arab filmmakers, keeping in line with this year’s Arabic theme. A few other shorts were shown as preludes to other feature length films. All of these short films push boundaries, and many leave you feeling unsettled. These are not easy or comforting films, but they show the creativity and breadth of perspectives that women have to offer. Here’s hoping that Fantastic Fest and other film festivals will make a greater push to be inclusive to women creatives in the future.

Shorts with Legs

Call of Cuteness by Brenda Lien

Lien’s brief animated short mixes electronic music, disturbing audio noises, and surreal imagery to explore the ways we treat cats. The cats are drawn in a mosaic style, and the art becomes increasingly more psychedelic and then outright unsettling. The short seems to be a condemnation of the things we do to animals both aesthetically — tail docking and ear cropping — and then for our own advancement, like using them as cadavers. As we see these cats getting caged, mutilated, and murdered, it’s like Lien is asking us where we draw the line. Is caging animals and manipulating them to our will a sign of our own lack of humanity?  

The View from Here by Sofia Bohdanowicz

The short is described as a puppet theater libretto. Paper puppets sing opera in front of a finger-painted, constantly moving background. A monotonous choir chants somewhere off stage and everything shifts and swirls together. The couple in The View from Here sing-argue over how to furnish their house; they get tired of the banality of it, and wish “we could go back to the lake, to the beginning of time,” before arguments about curtains and bed spreads existed. As the couple sinks back in time, the music breaks down, like a warped record. And their bodies warp too, with the man becomingly increasingly hideous and fishlike, and the woman becoming like a mermaid. They end up entirely transformed into fish. The message here seems to be existentialism, and what the point of modern trappings is. An off-kilter film that veered a little too into “puppet show for children” for me.

Short Fuse

Cerulia by Sofia Carrillo

Cerulia employs stop motion animation with pinks, greys, and sickly turquoise greens used as the main shades for Cerulia and her world. Cerulia is a wide-eyed, wispy adult who is haunted by her abandoned childhood home. “No one will buy that house,” she tells herself. It appears death permeates the walls, and it haunts her even in sleep. And yet Cerulia is drawn back there, back to her dust-covered belongings and her identical imaginary friend who’s been waiting for her the whole time. Carrillo’s animation is smooth, and she does incredible work with the lighting and the depth of field and design. You can see individual specks of dust, the broken angles on toys, the wear and tear in the wood. Cerulia ends abruptly and on an unsettling note, and begs the question: how do you know the people walking around you are who they say they are?

Creswick by Natalie James

Creswick tells the story of a father and daughter who are packing up their family home. Her father works as a carpenter, and while he seems content to stay at the house, the daughter is clearly perturbed at being back there. She finds childhood sketches of a long corridor in the forest, with a figure looming in the distance. Items that she boxes up suddenly appear back in drawers. James often focuses on the color green in this short, and it creates an atmosphere of danger: green is the forest; green represents whatever is haunting her. The short tailspins out quickly as the daughter discovers what her father is really working on, and that he hasn’t been alone while in his workshop. The film ends abruptly with a line and a final shot that leaves you feeling lost and rattled. Probably the scariest short for me, and one that’s sure to stay with viewers for days.

Earworm by Tara Price

Earworm is focused entirely on the acting of Ernest L. Thomas, who does an excellent job of quickly showing a man becoming unhinged. Thomas’ character is jolted awake because he keeps hearing random, perky pop music, and he can’t figure out its origin. The short is a study in color mixed with sound. His room is awash in orange and yellow tints, while the bathroom is bright and sterile. The thing in question that’s causing the music is neon colored and something else entirely. Pop music and squelching noises intercut the film as Thomas’ character gets increasingly more distressed. A short film that seems to be a statement about the terribleness of pop music more than anything; while Thomas did a good job, I was left wishing for more.

Highway by Vanessa Gazy

A young hitchhiker played by Australian actress Odessa Young walks a vast, empty mountainside in Highway. She sports an old fashioned cassette tape player and headphones, and it’s over these that she suddenly starts to receive incoming messages of doom. A voice on the radio warns her of her own demise, and suddenly it’s a rush for her to somehow avoid her own tragic fate. The film has a bit of a Twilight Zone feel, with the voice just as inexplicable as the reasons for why she’s wandering the country alone. Gazy mixes in absolutely gorgeous mountainside imagery with some colorful characters who add to the not-quite-right feeling of this world. Is this real life, or is she trapped inside of some world like Welcome to Nightvale? Young acts convincingly panicked as a young woman suddenly faced with her own impending death.

Fantastic Shorts

The Burden by Niki Lindroth von Bahr

The Burden is an affecting stop-motion animated musical that explores the meaning of loneliness in all its permutations. The short features a bunch of well-dressed animals who are as cute as they are dissatisfied with their lives. The short opens with a sardine inviting you to stay at Hotel Long Stay, a hotel for “if you are alone, or if you don’t have anyone, or if you don’t want to be with anyone, or if you can’t be with anyone, or if nobody wants to be with you.” You watch janitorial mice tap dance, telemarketing monkeys sing, and a late night convenience store shelf stocking dog all bemoan the fact that they do their best and yet society devalues their work, and thus them as people. A soft, sweet, and sad film that features soothing electronic-tuned music. Lindroth von Bahr pays incredible attention to the details in this film, and it’s clear how much work she put into every grain of fur and every shade of color, as well as the smoothly transitioning animation. A short that’s sure to have you humming its tunes afterwards.

Yalla! Arab Genre Shorts

Fear: Audibly by Maha al-Saati

Maha al-Saati is an experimental filmmaker interested in how the women in the Middle East express themselves, especially through visual narratives. Fear: Audibly tells the story of Amal, a media instructor who fears the end of days. Amal is convinced that sound will be what signals the final judgement day, and she’s haunted by how and when we’ll hear the “trumpet of doom.” Quick, jarring flashes of imagery speak to Amal’s crumbling state of mind, and when the sound of mewling cats inexplicably fills her office, she becomes convinced the time is near. al-Saati films in black and white, and it lends to the feeling of old-fashioned Biblical disaster. This short is a heavy study in sound, with the sound of crickets, the splash of milk in a bowl, and the frying of food all taking on weight and significance. Fear: Audibly features what appears to be a hinted at queer love interest, but Amal treats it as traitorous desire, and it’s too fleeting to hold on to. An experimental film to be sure, but one where I wish there was less focus on cats and more on the human connections.

Paired with Features

Nothing a Little Soap and Water Can’t Fix by Jennifer Proctor
Paired with 78/52

This short precedes a documentary about Hitchcock’s Psycho, and appropriately it’s an exploration about how films abuse women in bathtubs. Composed simply as a montage, Proctor herself does not lend any narrative voice, but the message is clear enough: women in bathtubs is a common film trope, and all too often that place of comfort becomes the place of death. Proctor traces how common the beats are: dipping the toe in the water, the slow disrobe, and the girl slowly relaxing to read or nap. And then her violent end, where all too often she’s posed artfully, even sensually, in death. It’s clear these are all filmed for the male gaze, and all seem to take pleasure in turning a woman’s joy to ashes. Sound is sparse in the film, with the faucet running and lapping water giving way to screams. A small film that could easily be expanded upon.

The Drop-In by Naledi Jackson
Paired with JAILBREAK

The Drop-In is a gorgeously lit sci-fi short that begs the question of what Blade Runner and other sci-fi films would be like if they weren’t so overwhelmingly white and male. Filmed in neon pinks and yellows and with a vibe that would feel right at home as an episode of Black Mirror, The Drop-In tells the story of Joelle, a hairstylist whose immigration status is suddenly put under a microscope. The tension rackets between actresses Mouna Traoré and Oluniké Adeliyi as Joelle realizes the cover she’s crafted for herself means nothing to this late-night drop-in. Jackson captures the women’s emotions beautifully, with each facial tick giving away that neither are quite who — or what — they appear to be. This short features some quick, thoroughly enjoyable fighting choreography, and by the end of it I mourned the film’s brevity. Jackson’s creation can easily be spun into a full episode or movie, and I’m eager to see more from her.

Catherine by Britt Raes
Paired with RADIUS

Catherine is an animated short that explores loss, loneliness, and love. On a more superficial level, it’s about a woman who can’t seem to keep her pets alive. It’s a film where the music marries beautifully with the imagery. While the images you’re presented with are sorrowful, the music carries the viewer through it. You understand, deep down, that all things must die, and Catherine teaches you to accept this transience with a quick cry, shrug, and a smile. The animation feels soft and gentle, with pinks surrounding the protagonist and baby blues representing the things, people, and creatures she loves. Sometimes Catherine suffers from grey clouds or the bullying of people in yellow, but all these pass quickly and Catherine always returns to her space of comfort. Catherine is a film that will surely tug at your heartstrings; just go with it, and let the music buoy you along.

Gretchen Smail

Gretchen Smail

Part time Bay Area journalist, full time loungewear enthusiast