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Short Films in Review: Arkansas Shorts at FILMLAND 2019

The Saturday afternoon sessions at FILMLAND 2019 consisted of a diverse set of 8 short films that included documentaries, comedies and human dramas.

The Saturday afternoon sessions at FILMLAND 2019 consisted of eight short films broken into two blocks followed by a large group discussion with the filmmakers. The short films were quite diverse in subject matter, and included documentaries, comedies and human dramas. Some of the directors were screening their first short, so the Q&A included questions about what they learned in the process and whether they planned to continue working in film. They all had one thing in common: a connection to Arkansas.

Here’s the full list with breakdown of each below:

(click a title to jump to the full review)

Purple Monster

Dragonslayer

Odd Happenings in a Tiny Tent

Shelter

The Bench

Unos Huevos

Into the Green

Mike the Birdman

 

Purple Monster poster

Purple Monster

dir. by Damon McKinnis

Three friends prepare for a carefree night of relaxing and getting high only to end up discovering the deeper problems weighing on their minds.

Purple Monster is a Superbad-style raunchy comedy, but with a heavier focus on friendship. The three characters at the center of the story, which mostly takes place over a single night, talk about the things weighing them down emotionally, and we see flashbacks to various experiences that have affected their lives.

It’s perhaps a bit unbalanced, giving a little too much time to the lead up to the “night of hanging out,” but the laughs throughout this film really work, and most of the emotional moments land as well. This is mostly due to the three talented performers in the lead roles, but the direction and editing play a big part as well. This is absolutely worth a watch.

It’s perhaps a bit unbalanced, giving a little too much time to the lead up to the “night of hanging out,” but the laughs throughout this film really work, and the emotional moments all land as well. This is mostly due to the three talented performers in the lead roles, but the direction and editing play a big part as well. This is absolutely worth a watch.

Film still from Dragonslayer

I described this film to my wife as “queer metal cinema,” a term I made up. I then discovered that “queercore” is already a thing and has been since the 80s. That’s what I get for trying to put gay culture in a box.

Whatever you want to call it, Dragonslayer is a powerful force of a film, and one with an incredibly strong, steady directorial vision driving it. There’s a confidence from the first frame that isn’t always present in the things that play at a short film festival, and this made it a standout in my mind and my very favorite short of Filmland 2019.

The story follows two young men in 1990s Arkansas as they navigate love, online hookups, and their own friendship in the midst of a culture in which they must often hide for their own safety. The film does an excellent job at showing experiences and a subculture that the vast majority of Arkansans completely overlook. And, like the best works of cinema, it not only depicts that experience in a way that feels real and true, it also helps the audience to have empathy for the incredible challenges gay men and women faced then and continue to face now. It also covers a lot of ground by having a diverse set of characters interacting in tight, intimate scenes that may make some audience members squirm.

This is all soaked in a gritty, grey-tinged realism and set against intense metal tracks, giving it a wholly unique feel; certainly nothing else at the festival was in the same vein stylistically and it seems like a different direction for director Thiedeman, whose previous films include the Catholic school-set short Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls and the feature-length drama Last Summer. Lots of visuals of rural Arkansas make Dragonslayer feel distinctly Southern as well, though not in a charming sort of way. It’s a bleak film and a challenging watch in many ways, but a memorable and an important one.

Odd Happenings in a Tiny Tent poster

dir. by Jesse Burks

A family of mimes encounters darkness

This eye-catching short features a bunch of mimes, a guillotine, a baby, and no dialogue. Like the best experimental films, this one breaks down cinematic language to its basic parts and puts them to use in creative ways. When you have no dialogue, the other elements have to be heightened in order to tell a compelling story, and that’s just what the team behind Odd Happenings pulled off.

The elements that really stand out here and carry the weight are the physicality of the (mimed) performances and the sound design. What begins as a seemingly lighthearted family vacation of some kind turns sinister when they encounter what appears to be a mime school. There’s a lot of ambiguity here, which works in the film’s favor, but it becomes clear that the father of the mime family is facing a difficult decision at the behest of the school’s leader.

What follows becomes elevated as the audience realizes the whole thing is a fun and frightening way to explore the theme of following a calling when there’s a high sacrificial cost involved. Should you chase your dreams if you have to sell your soul to do it? Director Jesse Burks forces that question on us, but it’s so entertaining that it goes down easy despite its dark, and ultimately horrific, tone.

shelter poster

dir. by Daniel Hanna

A female prison inmate works to socialize a dog deemed unfit for adoption at a local animal shelter

Shelter was a standout among the short films initially just because it featured the most recognizable actor of the afternoon in Clea DuVall, but in the end, it was among the most memorable because of the incredible thematic depth and high quality of filmmaking. The film follows DuVall’s character Petra, a prison inmate who spends days working for an animal shelter. She finds herself drawn to the dogs who have been labeled “un-adoptable” and who are all scheduled to be put down on what is essentially doggy death row.

The parallel between Petra and the condemned dog she becomes obsessed with might seem too on-the-nose if it wasn’t so poignantly handled, both by Hanna’s capable direction and DuVall’s performance, which is emotional and relatable with touches of wry humor. Shelter works well and seems like an excellent candidate for a feature-length adaptation, which director Hanna revealed is his intention in the Q&A after the film. There are a number of threads touched on here that could very well carry a feature and this is the type of story that could make a great starring vehicle for DuVall, who is fairly well-known but is not the household name that her acting skills are capable of making her.

Shelter also had the honor of winning the audience choice award for FILMLAND 2019.

dir. by Bronson Crabtree

After the heaviness of Shelter, the breeziness of The Bench was a welcome change. This is a little love story about employees at neighboring shops, told without dialogue. The two meet at the start of the film, sitting side by side on the titular bench, and we follow their friendship as it grows over what is seemingly many months during the course of the film’s short runtime.

The camera never moves, and the plot progresses through frequent cuts carrying us forward in time. The familiarity between the leads becomes stronger as evidenced solely by the wordless performances of the two lead actors. Visually, the single shot that we get continuously during this film is wide, symmetrical and blocky, in the vein of Wes Anderson. After the screening, director Bronson Crabtree revealed that logistical issues forced him to shoot the entire film in a single day. Despite this constraint, and the self-imposed filmmaking limitations of a single repeated shot and no spoken dialogue, Crabtree manages to capture an incredibly sweet and happy tone in a 5-minute package and sets himself up as a young Arkansas filmmaker to watch.

dir. by David C. Cruz

The old adage “write what you know” certainly applies to screenwriting. David C. Cruz, who wrote and directed Unos Huevos, took that to heart with this short, which depicts a young boy in a low-income household struggling against the authority figures in his life. The setting was likely unfamiliar to most of the attendees, but the film did a good job of drawing us in and building anticipation for what might happen to our protagonist next. It’s ultimately a reflection on growing up and the fact that we can’t change the past, no matter how we might like to.

A lot of ambiguity plays into Unos Huevos, in a good way, and the story is fairly diverse and doesn’t fit a typical story structure. This is to its benefit—if it had wrapped up in a neat bow it would have risked being forgettable. Its narrative messiness really helps it stick.

into the green poster

dir. by Mary McDade Casteel

Eleanor, a high school principal in rural Arkansas, is a queen in her kingdom of concrete walls and vinyl floors. What will she do when her perfect world is threatened?

As Hollywood has been shining a light on gender inequality in the movie industry, there has been chatter amongst filmgoers and critics about how the gender of a filmmaker affects the final product. Discussion around this question will probably never end, but it’s pertinent here because Into the Green has an unmistakably feminine energy to it, and that is absolutely to its strength.

into the green office still

This isn’t simply because romance features heavily into the story or because it has a female lead, though those aspects are a part of that energy. There’s a certain abstract quality to Into the Green that feeds into this, and a freedom to its structure that goes against the obvious filmmaking choices moviegoers have grown accustomed to. The film cuts between two settings: one is of a high school principal searching for her missing lover, and the other of the same character standing in a river, experiencing the outdoors.

The nature cinematography in these portions is one of the standout parts of this film, but they are also memorable in their mysteriousness. Is this happening later, and she’s flashing back to the main narrative? Are the nature scenes a past memory? Is it a dream? The film doesn’t clearly answer these questions, but the answers don’t matter in the end. These scenes evoke a feeling more than they move the plot, and that made Into the Green a uniquely emotional experience amongst the other shorts.

mike the birdman poster

dir. by Paige Murphy

Mike “The Birdman” Mlodinow has meticulously recorded bird data for decades without the convenience of a car, a computer, or even a phone. To the Fayetteville, Arkansas local, birdwatching is more than a hobby–it is his life.

This documentary tells the story of Mike, an eccentric man in Fayetteville, AR who might seem at first glance to be a lonely hermit. He is in fact so much more than that, and the film nicely paces the revelations it contains about Mike, who it turns out has an incredible wealth of knowledge about birds. The film contains unusual stylistic touches including title cards, locally-recorded folk music, and some beautiful animation of birds that appears to be hand-drawn. This serves to add interesting moments and an overall naturalistic tone to what could have been a much more straightforward (and probably more boring) film. The unusualness of the Mike the Birdman elevates it.

mike the birdman film still

The real core, though, is Michael and his story. His impact on the culture of Fayetteville is gradually revealed in bits and pieces as well, and this serves to give more and more dimension to the endlessly interesting subject of this film. This man, who many would not give a second glance to on the street, has a rich history and we can all learn from his lived experience if we stop to pay attention. The filmmakers do a nice job as well of pulling out the universal truth here—that everyone has a deeper story than what we see on the outside, and it often takes compassion and empathy to really see someone.

Andrew Sweatman

Andrew Sweatman

Andrew is a writer, podcaster, and film lover who wants to help people think critically about movies. He lives in central Arkansas with his wife Allison and two children, Rosie & Beau. Find him on Twitter and Instagram: @ArthouseGarage.

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