Secret City Shorts

Quick takes on 2008 Secret City Film Festival's noteworthy short films

The good thing about short films is that anyone can make one. The bad thing about short films is that anyone can make one. Cheap digital equipment has empowered a generation of auteurs, and YouTube has obligingly supplied an audience. These two developments have managed, in a few short years, to rigorously shake (although not, it has to be said, wholly unseat) the traditional, hierarchical system of actually getting a film made, hitherto an implausibly extensive flow-chart of long-shots. But with the gate to this creative paddock now blown off its hinges, how do we tell the sheep from the goats? Who's making a film and who's just shooting footage?

That fine line is made up of one thing: story. Around 90 percent of short films are unwatchable simply because in her eagerness to remove the lens cap, press the red button, and scamper off, our director has neglected to pack sufficient narrative oxygen to sustain her audience. As old-fashioned as it sounds, that audience is craving—albeit unconsciously—a story with a beginning, middle, and end, with characters who change and learn. We'll forgive almost anything in a film: poor sound, continuity errors, a boom in shot. Indeed, we won't even notice these things if we're plunged immediately into a compelling world in which an individual has an urgent goal that others are preventing him from reaching.

So did the old studio gatekeepers serve a purpose, then, sifting out the narrative wheat from all that plotless chaff? Not really, since even the big boys can get it right only rarely, as any on-spec visit to the multiplex will prove. A high-end Hollywood blockbuster has an almost limitless screenwriting budget, but whereas bad light, low tide, and even the death of an actor midshoot are obstacles that can be surmounted merely by writing a large enough check, the crafting of a decent script seems churlishly resistant to the lure of cash. This, of course, means that although the technology is only newly available to the masses, great stories are as reachable—or as elusive—as they've ever been.

This year's Secret City Film Festival has harvested a bumper crop of shorts, including a handful of real treats that every film-lover and filmmaker should eagerly snuffle out.

Dear Stranger

(Ajit Anthony Prem, North Carolina)

In his quietly aching study of bereavement, Ajit Anthony Prem reminds us that it's the invisible world that is the real one. Not only that but he proves that cinema can portray this inner life as effectively as any novel. Just a few silent seconds spent in the company of a stranger on a subway train are enough for Rosie (Nikki Alikokos) to spiral out of control, losing herself in a deep, grief-stricken fantasy of a life she will never know. Dear Stranger has a voiceover but works perhaps even better as a silent film, illuminating the arbitrary, capricious nature of love, the emotional continents that separate us from our partners, and the virtual impossibility of living just one life. The effect is almost unbearably poignant. Watch the trailer for Dear Stranger.

Cam2Cam

(Davy Sihali, France)

From France comes Davy Sihali's intelligent, straightforward thriller showing what can be done with little more than a couple of actors in a single, domestic setting. When an online conversation turns into something racier—then a little more sinister —Anne Paris' coquettish little heroine soon realizes she is out of her depth and flailing madly. Disturbing and twisted, with its extraordinarily claustrophobic atmosphere greatly aided by a superb score, Cam2Cam is spoiled only by its flaccid, unnecessary third act. This is the classic challenge of writing suspense—fear of the unknown is generally greater than fear of the known, yet at some point the source of the terror must be revealed. It's tough to avoid an anti-climax, and the more skilful you've been in building anticipation, the tighter the corner you'll have painted yourself into. In the final two seconds of Cam2Cam, however, Sihali rises above this obstacle with a brutally amusing return to form. Watch the trailer for Cam2Cam.

Al's Beef

(Dennis Hauck, California)

Dennis Hauck's exceptionally beautiful short boasts an astonishing visual power. A miniature epic, Al's Beef is as much blood-soaked revenge tragedy as it is Western. The cast is not uniformly strong and it all gets a little silly towards the end, but its haunting imagery is unforgettable, most notably when, in a moment worthy of David Lynch, we witness a woman clothed in only a hat washing herself in an outside bath as a little boy marches backwards banging a drum. Watch the trailer for Al's Beef.

Leto

(Luke Dye, Knoxville)

Another visually impressive short this year is a local entry, directed by Luke Dye. What Leto lacks in narrative discipline it makes up for in style and cinematography. Strikingly, intelligently shot with a rich, dusty gold texture, Leto is a great example of a director doing a lot with a little. If you can give the benefit of the doubt to the faintly nonsensical story as it ambles around the space-time-mass paradox genre, there's much to enjoy here, not least Scott Moreno's quirky, off-beat performance as a motel owner who briefly undergoes an ambiguous spiritual renewal. Watch the trailer for Leto.

Kieron Barry also has a short film that he wrote, Bluff Point (directed by Scott W. Lee), screening at the festival. Bluff Point is running out of competition.