The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash
A solid documentary about a great musician, with passages of greatness.
“I’m feeling a bit socially awkward right now,” admitted Floor Adams upon accepting the Best Animated Short prize this past Saturday at the 2019 Indy Shorts International Film Festival in Indianapolis. She had flown in from the Netherlands to present her brilliant internal portrait of anxiety, “Mind My Mind,” which has a serious chance at helping continue the winning streak that has lasted for the past five years, as shorts that earn prizes from Indiana’s Heartland Film Festival go on to garner Oscars. For the second year in a row, Heartland has devoted an entire festival to its curated shorts programs, separating them from its fall fest devoted to features.
Around 3,100 films were submitted by 98 countries, and the selections that screened over a four-day span at Indy Shorts contained numerous highlights with the potential to become awards season contenders, perhaps none more so than Adams’ half-hour masterpiece. Warranting a frame-by-frame analysis, this richly detailed fantasy enters the headspace of its autistic hero, where a phallic librarian with Gromit-like eyes furiously arranges social scripts to aid the man in communicating with a potential girlfriend. In one uproarious bit, the neurotic organism dusts off a binder labeled “FLIRT” that contains only one page reading, “Do you come here often?” It’s as witty and provocative a psychological study as Pixar’s “Inside Out” or the best works of Charlie Kaufman, leading to one of the most ingeniously crafted and achingly poignant sex scenes ever put on film.
Winner of the Best Narrative Short prize was Maryam Joobeur’s “Brotherhood,” a quietly shattering drama from Tunisia that is so assured, it felt as if it had arrived fresh from Cannes. Having earned multiple accolades since its debut in Toronto last year, Joobeur’s film focuses intensely on the faces of Mohamed (Mohamed Graïaa) and his family, framing them in a condensed aspect ratio that achieves a power similar to the visuals in Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale.” The claustrophobic use of screen space also reflects the limited perspective of her central character, whose lack of knowledge regarding his son’s whereabouts cause him to give into his worst assumptions.
I was privileged to serve on the documentary jury alongside Rayka Zehtabchi, the Oscar-winning director of another Indy Shorts honoree, “Period. End of Sentence.” Out of a uniformly strong category, the finalist we chose to award was Sami Khan and Smriti Mundhra’s “St. Louis Superman,” a deeply moving profile of politician/activist Bruce Franks Jr., who recently announced his resignation as a Missouri state representative. The death of his nine-year-old brother due to gun violence has fueled his crusade to pass a bill that will treat this sort of senseless violence as a public health epidemic. Brimming with verité flourishes and unobtrusive music enhanced considerably by violinist Emer Kinsella, this film stands as a fully realized work, rather than a feature-length story crammed into a tight running time. In addition to winning its category, the film also received the Jenni Berebitsky Legacy Award, named after a longtime friend of Heartland diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
9Fest, the short film festival run in Bangkok by Brian Bennett, was the focus of a special section at Indy Shorts, compiling several works from directors around the globe, and like all the festival curation I observed here, it was anything but redundant. Bake Phouikham’s “Fallen Star, Rising Sun,” offers a candid sit-down with Ko Chandetka, the first Lao-American bodybuilder, whose struggles with addiction nearly derailed his life. He told me afterward that he believes there’s no healthy way to participate in any sport on a world-class level, and that one must always weigh the risks with the rewards.
“I didn’t want to be macho in the film, I wanted to be honest about what happened to me,” Chandetka said. “If you’re not battling addiction, you have someone very close to you who is. Opioids are huge now. We didn’t think there was a problem with it 15 years ago. When I was addicted to it, it was so accessible. Doctors were just handing it out like candy because they didn’t know the consequences. Now senior citizens are being robbed of their prescription medications, and people are using heroin because it’s a cheaper alternative. I also wanted to talk about mental health in relation to Asian males, because we don’t talk about depression or anxiety. As tough Asian men, we’re supposed to hold in our emotions, even at funerals. Don’t cry, just have another drink.”
Emotions are withheld for a wholly different reason in Pagorn Jungrungruang’s “The Translator,” a hugely enjoyable comedy about the titular onset linguist, Jonathan (Chen Guan Kang), gifted with sensing the connections between people, though he has trouble connecting with others himself. The director, who journeyed to Indianapolis from Thailand for the screening, likened his protagonist’s awkward attempts at human behavior with that of Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, though a more apt comparison may be Cyrano de Bergerac, as he perpetually finds himself “the cream in the middle,” sandwiched in the center of the frame. This motif also mirrors the slogan of a product amusingly advertised at the commercial shoot where Jonathan is tasked with working, a la “Lost in Translation,” and according to Jungrungruang, the product is a real one.
“I studied film in Thailand, and am a commissioned film director in the advertising industry,” he told me. “Because of online video, our clients want to make long form content for their commission. This is one of the longest films I have made, and it is one of my best because the client gave us freedom to explore the script and the world in the story. It is not easy in this industry to make something that doesn’t look like advertising or end on an expected happy note. I like to be a little bit more realistic. Sometimes you don’t find a happy ending with someone else, but you end up happy with yourself. The character got out of his comfort zone, and he learned something from the situation he had been through. So in some ways, it is his coming of age.”
Elsewhere in the festival, several films burrowed beneath the surface of their subjects in illuminating ways. One surefire Oscar hopeful screening out of the main competition was Tucker Gregg and Austin Gardner’s “Feel of Vision,” a stunning doc about a blind kayaker instructing other wounded veterans on how to navigate their way through white water rapids, refusing to be defined by the absence of their eyesight. Taylor Hess and Erin Sanger’s ESPN gem “Mack Wrestles,” following a trans wrestler forced to compete with female peers, got me thinking about the continued underrepresentation of transgender men onscreen (Sanger cites this as another weird form of sexism). Leslie Iwerks’ essential exposé, “Selling Lies,” also breaks ground by giving a human face to the Macedonian teenagers who are profiting from the viral spread of misinformation, upending global democracies in the process.
I couldn’t help being reminded of the Penny Cartoon segments on “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” while basking in the charm of Rebecca Blumhagen’s “Dream Homes According to Kids: Milo,” where the clever animation is informed entirely by the unfiltered thoughts of an actual child. The dreams of space exploration harbored by the aging father in Manuel Trotta’s tender “El Astronauta” are no longer within reach, much to the concern of his adult son. Karolin Axelsson takes on her father’s lifelong passion in “The Last in a Line of Fishermen,” testing whether a woman could indeed follow in the footsteps of her old man, despite the lingering gender stereotypes. A far more disquieting true story is recounted in narrative form by director M.D. Neely in “Hard to Place,” a modern-day “Night of the Hunter,” with two children attempting to break free from their abusive father (an exceedingly scary Mike Markoff).
Another superb performance is delivered by Cory Kays as a Vietnam vet wracked with PTSD in high schooler Alyssa Andrews’ prize-winning “The Burdens They Carry,” an expert blend of voice-over and visual poetry channeling Malick. Survivor’s guilt also weighs heavily on Siqi Song’s stop-motion triumph, “Sister,” envisioning the life of an unborn sibling lost to China’s One Child policy. Several of the strongest entries at Indy Shorts found innovative methods of conjuring an out-of-body experience, such as the startlingly hallucinogenic finale created by Gold Point Studio and directed by Layne Marie Williams in “Golden Voices,” or the moments when a young woman steps out of her troubling memories, freezing them in place, in Megan Marie Connolly and Claudia Krogmeier’s “Dear Frankie.” On the heels of his feature doc, “Eva: A-7063,” about Mengele twin Eva Kor, winning the Jimmy Stewart Legacy Award at Heartland last fall, Ted Green brought a VR experience to Indy Shorts that skillfully immersed viewers in Kor’s memories. It also expressed how the forgiveness advocated by Kor, who died on July 4th, further prevents Nazis from robbing survivors of their ability to heal.
Apart from my jury service, I was also invited to give two presentations on film criticism, and I eagerly took the opportunity to analyze with participants my favorite movie scene of all time, the Albert Hall assassination attempt in Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of “The Man Who Knew Much.” It remains the director’s quintessential example of pure cinema, impeccably marrying visuals and music without the need for dialogue, and there were some exceptional instances of wordless storytelling amidst the festival line-up. Brian Lawes’ “Rock Paper Scissors,” a family-friendly yarn about two kids in separate cars communicating through gestures at a stalled red light, builds each gag with Pixar-like precision, resulting in some real belly laughs. Putting the execrable new “Lion King” remake to shame, Alison James’ “Judas Collar” affirms that animals need not stoop to the level of “Mr. Ed” in order to hold the screen, convey their story and break your heart. And Faren Humes’ “Liberty” deftly portrays the reconciliation between friends with a final, prolonged shot where tensions—and time itself—evaporates.
I had arrived at the Indianapolis airport for the first time just hours before viewing a short that not only was filmed there, but re-staged harrowing events that continue to haunt the inviting interiors of airports around the country. “Singh” marks the astonishing directorial debut of Jenna Ruiz, a 19-year-old Indiana college student majoring in nuclear medicine, who solidifies her status here as a filmmaker of immense promise. Gurinder Singh Khalsa, the Indian American Sikh activist who has blazed trails for preserving religious freedom, plays himself—very well, I may add—in a dramatization of events that occurred in 2007, when airport officials in Buffalo prevented him from flying to see his ailing mother, simply because he refused to remove his turban. In an excruciating sequence worthy of Paul Greengrass, Khalsa moves through security as the paranoia of all who surround him is conveyed purely through the sort of everyday body language that could easily be overlooked—particularly by those not branded as “the other.” The escalating nightmare that Khalsa gradually finds himself in is Kafkaesque, yet how he manages to combat it had the Indy Shorts crowd going wild. If there’s any justice in the next Oscar shortlist, this one will make the cut.
For the full list of Indy Shorts winners and to find more information on Heartland Film, visit its official site.
Header photo features (clockwise) “St. Louis Superman,” “Feel of Vision,” “Judas Collar” and “Mind My Mind.”
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