The Manhattan Short Film Festival is a cherished hidden gem in the local Reno community, as well as in the cinephile world at large.
Sept. 30 marked the opening of the annual festival which was presented in complete, 20-foot-tall projection glory at the Joe Crowley Student Union Theatre.
The festival was first held by KUNR in 2014. Since then, the self-proclaimed “First Global Film Festival” has brought best-in competition filmmaking to Reno audiences on an annual basis. This included last year’s iteration, at a time where widespread caution surrounding the pandemic hindered in-person theater attendance.
While the event’s claim of being the “First Global Film Festival” sounds dubious, it’s surprisingly true. While the vast majority of festivals take place at one exclusive location, Manhattan Short holds screenings at locations across six continents over a two-week period. During Reno’s first day of the festival, there were concurrent showings in France, the United Kingdom, Bermuda, and Australia—all happening mere hours apart.
In a pre-recorded introduction that preceded two hours and 20 minutes of content, festival director Nicholas Mason noted that this year’s festival received 970 entries from 70 countries—a respectable leap from 2014’s 589 entries from 47 countries.
Like the few other festivals of its kind, those who attend any of the screenings are asked to fill out a ballot nominating their favorite film and actor among the 10 short film “finalists”. The festival then tallies hundreds of thousands of votes to determine the winners in both categories.
Regardless of the festival’s competitive aspect, every film featured in this year’s program succeeded in conveying the sensibilities of filmmaking’s past to the realities of today’s multi-faceted social culture. Deeply rooted in their respective stylistic influences and national backgrounds, they each represented a singular triumph for the universality of narrative cinema.
The only entry that outwardly addressed the pandemic was also the opening film, “Death by Handshake”.
It’s a Gen Z love letter to New York City that dually serves as a chaotic snapshot of the first wave of lockdowns. Director Hudson Flynn stated in his video introduction that he was only 16 years old when he completed the short film for a class assignment, which he claimed accentuated the longevity of the public health crisis.
As opposed to other NYC-centric filmmakers, Flynn’s compassion for his city and his feelings toward pandemic life mesh together. At best, his fluid stream of thoughts and developments are relatable; at worst, they’re mundanely idiosyncratic. He collides his crafty filmmaking style with frequently brilliant anecdotes, but just as he reaches an inflection point in his musings, he sharply pivots to the next idea and leaves the viewer wanting more.
Immediately upon the conclusion of “Death by Handshake”, which features an electrifying compilation of New York City images set to a jazz rendition of “My Favorite Things”, the tonal trajectory of the lineup changes immediately.
“Ganef” from the United Kingdom and “Bad Omen” from Afghanistan set an early dramatic standard that was seldom matched for the remainder of the evening.
In “Ganef”, an aristocratic household in post-WWII United Kingdom sets the stage for a generational trauma-fueled misunderstanding between a Holocaust survivor, her daughter and her maid.
The sheer technical polish of the film was a realigning moment at that point in the program. Supported by solid production values, director Mark Rosenblatt left no particularly weak link in formulating a contextually tense narrative.
Its abrupt ending, however, left many viewers perplexed. Two viewers openly guffawed upon the hard cut to the credits, and, considering how “Death by Handshake” featured a fake-out ending, there was a shared stillness among the audience as they waited for the story to play out further.
“Bad Omen” experienced a similarly quiet reception, but for radically different reasons.
For context, the short was written, filmed and released well before the Taliban takeover of the country in August. It documents a day in the life of a single mother who recently lost her husband during a Taliban attack and chronicles her struggle as social barriers—not institutional barriers—prevent her from obtaining widower benefits, a functional pair of glasses and a humane line of work.
In one particularly impactful scene, Pari walks to the cemetery to grieve her fallen partner. For several seconds, her figure is blurred as she slowly approaches. When her face comes into focus, it becomes clear that she has been staring intensely at the center of the camera and by extension, at the audience.
Director Salar Pashtoonyar strategically affords that one moment to the character to express her abject judgment toward the viewer, and actress Faruq Afghan delivers in every possible sense. Her hopelessness is palpable and tragic all at once, serving as a haunting indicator of the decline the country suffered during its final days.
Two more shorts, “The Kicksled Choir” from Norway and “Out of Time” from France, were similarly serious, complex pieces.
The first was a coming-of-age vignette that dealt with the treatment of refugees. Its timely topic matter and mainstream approach made the entry the most accessible by far. Notably, the happy ending, which involved the reconciliation between a refugee and the main character’s racist farm-owner father, prompted significant amounts of applause among theatergoers.
Unlike how they responded to other movies that evening, many audience members turned to fellow attendees during the credits to briefly discuss the story’s themes.
Contrastingly, “Out of Time” abandons all story convention as it presents a poignant interaction between an emotionally embattled young dancer and his catatonic, dementia-stricken grandmother. Both actors’ detached and spooky performances are captured in intimate detail through director Delphine Montaigne’s close cinematographic eye.
Another short that subverted traditional storytelling to its advantage was the transformative “Closed to the Light” from France.
It’s a short film that picks up where experimental filmmaker Chris Marker left off, as the camera freely travels through a world frozen in time. While the audio remains untouched, the camera pans, ducks and gets close at critical areas in the still image to confront the fascism-era of Italy and the country’s record of human rights abuses.
On a fundamental level, the short film challenges how reality can be portrayed through the moving image.
Is it motion that gives depictions of real events a semblance of reality? Or can the viewer find truth in the narrative by processing one single frame of a vastly longer sequence of frames?
It was questions like these that left many audience members silent in their seats, just as frozen as the suspended images of human brutality investigated in the film.
On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, the festival also provided a highly gratifying selection of comedies.
“Rough” from Northern Ireland, “Archibald’s Syndrome” from France and “Monsieur Cachemire” from Canada brought ferociously dark humor and irreverent style to the forefront of the program. These three charming works overflow with exaggerated music scores, fantastical narrative devices and genuine meditations on the human condition.
Adding to the variety of styles, the presence of “Aurora” deserves a shout-out because it was the only animated short film in the lineup. It was also written, animated and directed by a Nevada resident, Jo Meuris.
The children’s book-inspired animation and presentation is off-putting at first, especially considering the rigid professionalism of the live-action shorts. However, Meuris’ breezy storytelling abilities and emphasis on her main message effortlessly resonates in the psyche of the viewer despite its audiovisual shortages.
To many viewers, the balance of serious films with these titles acted as a cinematic palate cleanser. The JCSU theater undoubtedly saw more laughs shared than tears shed that evening. Still, the machines of human empathy behind all of these films were fully operative—whether viewers knew it or not.
Though limited in runtime, these shorts graciously carried the dramatic weight of their respective stories with natural ease. It was perhaps more effective than the average feature-length project.
Such is the main takeaway from Manhattan Short’s two-weeks-a-year festivities. International filmmakers can use the opportunity to offer bite-sized portions of their perspectives to audiences, conditioning them for what filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho refers to as the “1-inch barrier” of watching foreign-language cinema.
Two of the short films, “Bad Omen” and “The Kicksled Choir”, provide excellent examples of this expedited globalization of cinema. They work to break down that barrier by condensing their time on-screen and concentrating on their core message.
In doing so, they shine an invaluable light on the history, tragedy and beauty of the world’s diverse cultural consciousness.
Wyatt Layland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.