I have been attending film fests for about 20 years now, starting just after college thanks to how approachable the Philadelphia Film Fest was to a budding cinephile. It is unfortunately true that both attendance and success rates for Short Film programs can be hit or miss. I love the art of short film making, and when they are curated with care and attention, a short film program can be a gift. On Saturday May 4th I hustled my way down to the Music Box Theater in Chicago to catch Short Film Program 1 at the Chicago Critics Film Festival. Lately when I have been able to get to a festival, it has been under a press pass, and too often thinking about what films I would like to see to cover for this site can become a guessing game of what I suspect might interest readers down the line. While as a film fest attendee I have often been delighted by taking a chance on a short films program, I know as a writer that I have rarely gotten much attention when covering such films. However, like many people who attended, I was drawn by a short film from one of my favorite animators, Don Hertzfeldt. Imagine my joy when his new film Me was not only great, but not the only awesome film I saw that morning.

Me– Dir. By Don Hertzfeldt, 23 min

It might seem odd to begin my coverage with what might ostensibly be the highlight of the show, but this film did kick off the festivities so I am just going in order. Me has been described as a musical but it reminds me more of something in the Fantasia realm of animation, and is that a musical? Actually, maybe it might be, what do I know? If you are familiar with Hertzfeldt’s work like It’s Such Beautiful Day then you know the vibe of this new piece. We are in a representation of a world we are familiar with, there is a narrative but it is more of a parable, and what we are shown is personal and political. Things are bleak and depressing, but occasionally beauty and hope break through our cacophony of suffering. Only Hertzfeldt can create pieces that feel connected to his other work in a way you can predict, while avoiding predictability. This piece surprised me at multiple moments while still feeling like his work thematically. I loved it, but I will need to see it again to full understand it. It was funny and sad, and it made me want to cling onto what I love.

Trapped – Dir. By Sam & David Cutler-Kreutz, 15 min

A janitor at a private high school has one of the worst nights of his career and has to navigate the judgment and privilege of students and colleagues. I very much appreciate the effort to show a human experience of a Latinx service worker, but this felt a bit basic in its depiction. The students feel a bit 80s villain, bordering on The Goonies level caricature, and the scenario felt relatable but basic. Still, well executed over all.

If I Die in America– Dir. By Ward Kamel, 15 min

I have to commend the effort to wade into a cultural minefield with insight and nuance towards two very othered and sensitive communities. A young queer man negotiates with his Muslim in-laws shortly after his husband passes for more time to mourn his partner. The tension between the lgbtq community and more traditional Muslim communities is real, but has also been exaggerated in quite a few contemporary contexts. How does one represent with respect and compassion to groups that could legitimately find themselves at odds when folks find their identities overlapping? Honestly, I am not entirely sure that this very short piece has the time and depth to handle this tension well. It does make a valiant effort though that displays some definitive skill and insight in directing and editing, and some strong performances from the players involved. I will leave it up to others to determine if the film succeeds ideologically, aesthetically I think it is pretty strong, and while I don’t know if I am convinced it all works, I am very impressed by all involved.

Patient– Dir. By Lori Felker, 19 min

This short film is an interesting piece that blurs the lines of fiction and documentary. In medical education there is a role called Standardized Patient, these are actors who portray patients to medical students so they can test their bedside manner and knowledge base. This film plays like a documentary, almost Wiseman style, showing students interacting with SPs but both the doctors and SPs are portrayed by real life SPs. These SPs were discovered while the director was working on a full length documentary about SPs and how they function. This short piece almost hints toward a narrative while never quite revealing a full storyline, but instead of feeling incomplete, it felt poetic. Is there something here? Am I watching a fictional documentary that never develops a perspective or narrative? If so, why was I so mesmerized by it? Is there something inherent about exploring the space between drama and reality that is in and of itself compelling? No idea, but I kind of loved this.

Bob’s Funeral– Dir. By Jack Dunphy, 19 min

From the Q&A after the screening I got the feeling that Dunphy is an accomplished short film maker whose focus are these entertaining self reflective documentaries, almost like video essays, that combine home video footage with new footage and animation. Do you enjoy a film that is incredibly vulnerable, almost confessional, as well as ridiculous and funny? Then this is right up your alley. Dunphy explores his relationship with his father by telling the story of the funeral of his grandfather, as well as a few other touching and ludicrous stories along the way. From domestic abuse to drunken revelry to phallus size, this short film explores the comedic and tragic with the kind of unflinching honesty that might be difficult at times to process. I am curious about the ethical implications of sharing so much information about ones family without their knowledge or consent, but my concern does not change how hilarious and moving I found this film. I assume no bridges were fully burned as most of his family were at the screening and stuck around for the meet and greet in the lounge, but I acknowledge that for some this might be a bridge too far. It hurt to watch because it was so honest about both the good and the bad of his family’s history, but ultimately I think it is profoundly beautiful.

So, Short Film Program 1 was ultimately more satisfying than disappointing which is always a good feeling. I am glad I got the opportunity to see such an interesting collection of works, and I commend the curator that put it together. Ultimately, Me and Bob’s Funeral stood out as works which, though they may be difficult to find, are fully worth the effort.

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