For the last ten years, I have had the honor of being the Short Films Programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, perhaps one of the most satisfying jobs in this endeavor. Every year, I get to discover new talent, see the latest works by filmmakers I’ve gotten to know over the years, and put it all together like a mixtape that gets played for a theater full of curious patrons. When they fill out their Audience Award ballot, every film has gotten someone’s vote as their favorite, and we couldn’t be happier about that. There’s something for everyone.
Our festival works a little differently than most regarding Shorts Programs. Most festivals divide their selections by theme or genre (a narrative block, a documentary block, animation, horror, regional, etc.). We only have one screen at the Music Box Theater, so we only have room for two Shorts Programs. Within those two 90-ish minute blocks (as a rule, shorts programs should never be over 95 minutes), I try to make sure we have a wide range of flavors, genres, representations, forms, and expressions without giving the audience tonal whiplash. A shorts program at CCFF can have a comedy, an abstract animation piece, a horror film, a heart-wrenching drama, a cult oddity, and a timely documentary, all in the same 90-minute span.
How does that formula work? The programs come in two unofficial categories: the crowd-pleasing Saturday afternoon block and the Anything Goes Monday afternoon block. I have to carefully sift through every film in consideration and make “test programs” to see what holds up after first viewing and how each film can work in a 90-minute set. When watching these “test blocks,” I discover how well everything flows together. Maybe a five-minute animated short would work well to break up three quiet dramas. Maybe that film that I thought would be perfect at the end would work better at the beginning. Maybe two films are too redundant to one another in the same block. Then I try out a new order, change out a couple of films and watch them all over again.
I get about 70 shorts sent in yearly, and the challenges are always the same. About a third of them become strong contenders, but I usually have to cut half of those. It pains me to say “no” to certain films that would be brilliant in our program or when a filmmaker has to opt out of being programmed for whatever reason. It happens all the time, but those can also be good problems. I don’t mind saying that what we ended up with this year remains pretty strong.
The Saturday program, now that I step back and look at it, represents so many facets of American life that I didn’t notice before: the American Dream turned nightmare, the wealthy and the struggling, how we treat each other, how we treat mental illness and the disabled, how hard it can be to relax and take a vacation or meditate. When a theme and structure tie all the films together, it’s often by accident and a wonderful bonus.
Shorts Program # 1 (Saturday, May 6, 11:45 am) opens with Nicole Daddona and Adam Wilder’s “The Mundanes,” a truly bizarre PSA that seems influenced by Joe Dante’s “Twilight Zone – The Movie” segment, as well as the “Eerie, Indiana” TV series. Here, a faceless suburban American family is depicted as the ideal life, except for a bizarre twist. I always like to open with a fun attention-getter, and this four-minute treat arrived just in time during programming.
Next, Anna Margaret Hollyman’s “Wüm” continues in that family-based suburban setting as non-binary Bennett (Jack Ferver) joins a mommy group made up of Instagram-ready mothers whose misguided sense of “wokeness” ends up being more patronizing than helpful. Hollyman has recently visited the festival with her equally funny parental comedy, “Maude.” She’s become a director whose l work I look forward to whenever it arrives. I have a rule about Saturday blocks: Saturdays need comedies, and I rarely turn down a short that makes me laugh.
We leave the lily-white confines of suburbia for an urban setting with Jearrau Carrillo’s Sundance award-winner, “The Vacation,” in which a barber and his friends sit in a car that won’t start and ponder whether or not they have control over their destinies, all while clueless patrons keep asking if the barbershop is open for business. Carrillo’s film doesn’t go for huge laughs, but many will smile knowingly as the relatable situation of a day off that goes nowhere plays out.
One person who has little to no control over her fate is Kitoko Mai, the subject of the inventive and fast-paced documentary “Thriving: A Dissociative Reverie,” in which Kitoko, who has Dissociative Identity Disorder, takes us through the day-to-day experience of being, among other things, a sex worker, an artist and other “identities” who unexpectedly take over. There is a dry, very clinical way to approach this subject, but director Nicole Bazuin thwarts that expectation and delivers something simultaneously funny, imaginatively designed, and eye-opening.
The healthcare theme continues with Sam Shainberg’s “Endless Sea,” in which a delivery woman (Brenda Cullerton) learns that the price of her heart meds just skyrocketed beyond her financial means, leading to a most stressful day at work. I have seen this described on Letterboxd as “a Safdie Brothers movie for the elderly,” which couldn’t be more dead-on. Cullerton’s performance stands out in this block and is a real discovery.
We leave the real world for a bit and meditate on a living piece of notebook paper in Han Tang’s “Beyond the Fringe,” a coming-of-age tale of sorts in which a human-shaped bit of parchment explores its life and limitations. It struggles with its place in the world as much as any human characters in the rest of this block do. Tang’s wordless, expressionistic animation style looks extraordinary on the big screen and is the kind of film where multiple viewings reveal multiple layers. I’m excited to hear what people think of this one.
From a tale of paper to a tale of American bureaucracy at its most infuriating, Luis Fernando Puente’s drama “I Have No Tears, And I Must Cry” follows a woman whose meeting with a green card official takes a turn for the worst as she tries to follow the rules and start a new life in America. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that this sort of thing happens a lot in these offices, and Puente expertly builds tension through a singular character trying to hide the ax she has to grind against newcomers to our country.
Finally, we conclude with Amy Bench and Annie Silverstein’s documentary “Breaking Silence,” bookending the White American Family theme that opened the program, but with a whole new slant, as we follow Walker and Leslie Estes, a deaf father, and CODA daughter who work within the prison system helping deaf prisoners who, otherwise, have no representation or anyone to communicate for them or with them in their confines. Bench has also been to CCFF before with her animated documentary “A Line Birds Cannot Sea.” This compassionate piece shines a light on an aspect of our prison system that many have never considered while also a deep exploration of a family with a troubled past and how they use that to help others. The film shows how much can be accomplished in 18 minutes.
Monday Shorts Programs operate a little differently. If any of our festival goers are looking for some daring experimentation or challenging works of art, they can certainly find a film or two in this block that will satisfy that want.
Shorts Program # 2 (Monday, May 8, 5:00 pm) opens with Mike Donahue’s “Troy,” a film that works well in the Saturday block. A couple in a New York apartment lives next door to a loud sex worker and cannot escape the sound of intense orgasms. They also can’t ignore this person’s inevitable heartbreak. There is a fun cringe factor at work here, but the film also has a heart that makes it worthwhile.
Next is an animated film that worked its way into the program at the last minute. Like “Beyond the Fringe,” Zora Kovac’s “Sprout” has no dialogue but tells a more straightforward story about a scientist who accidentally creates a human plant creature. Like “Troy,” this is about a character who inadvertently upends someone else’s mundane existence. The simplicity of the 2-D animation works well with the story, that I ultimately found to be touching and poetic.
From there, we go to another two-character piece called “A Shore Away,” where a homeless woman returns to a shelter where a worker is surprised to see her. Director Gaëlle Graton filmed this in a real shelter. The two leads are outstanding, and the film concludes with a moving gesture centered around something we all take for granted.
If the subject of sex workers appears to be the overriding theme of this year’s line-up, it’s not by any design. It just so happens there were a lot of films about sex this year that were submitted to the festival (I mean, A LOT), and many were excellent. The documentary “Call Me Mommy” follows a 40-year-old single mother named Sinead whose own mother issues are at the heart of this film, as well as her past with an abusive husband. Tara O’Callaghan’s sex-positive film breathes some exquisite cinematic life into a subject that centers mostly around phone and computer screens.
Then there’s Yoko Yuki’s “In the Big Yard, In the Teeny-Weeny Pocket.” Every year, I love to program something I cannot explain. Not for the life of me. And yet, I love it to pieces because it just explodes with colors, sounds, and expressions that are beyond my scope of comprehension, and I know some of our most adventurous patrons will love it. Yuki sent this in as her story synopsis: “When it shrinks, it expands. It floats, and it sinks. It separates but connects. When I think I’m watching them, they’re actually watching me.” Perfect. She should never change this.
Vincent Fontano’s “Sèt Lam” is a helluva closer, a black-and-white meditation on fear and losing a loved one, told through a hypnotic folktale. You could probably program this as an opener to Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” and no one would ever question it.
I’m not doing these movies justice by writing them in small caption summaries like this. They are rich with invention and insightful explorations of the world around us and worthy of a presentation on a movie theater-sized screen before their run on Vimeo or Youtube. If you’re coming to the festival, don’t cheat yourself. Be curious. Be the one who discovers a great director first. A great actor or filmmaker’s journey often starts with a Shorts Program.