Having signed up primarily for the music events, one of the unexpected highlights of SXSW online 2021 was the excellent selection of short films on offer. Running the gamut from serious mini-docs to bizarre animated humour, there was plenty to get your teeth into amongst these bite-sized features, and I’ve rounded up a selection of my personal highlights below.
The Unlikely Fan
The simple, beautifully told real-life story of Gita Selvarajan, a retired teacher from Sri Lanka turned mega-basketball fan is heartwarming without ever being cloying. Having moved to the US from Nigeria to escape the civil war in her home country, Gita became hooked on the game after witnessing the majesty of Michael Jordan in his prime. Watching her detail her dream team, backed up with archive footage of on court action and pictures and videos from Gita’s home over the decades, her passion for the game is infectious and her knowledge encyclopaedic. Moments like hiding in the kitchen when the tension of a close-run play-off game will resonate with fans around the world, regardless of their chosen sport.
Cast: Gita Selvarajan
Director: Sai Selvarajan, Jeff Bednarz
The Beauty President
Another fantastic micro-doc which looks back at Terence Alan Smith, aka drag queen Joan Jett Blakk’s run for the White House in the 1992 presedential elections. Set against the inaction of incumbent George Bush Sr. (Blakk’s campaign slogan of choice was ‘Lick Bush in ’92!’) in the face of the AIDS epidemic and his opposite number Bill Clinton’s unwillingness to make it a campaign priority, this 10 minute wonder is about far more than eye shadow and fabulous dresses, telling an important and (to me at least) unknown chapter in the fight for gay rights in the US. Mixing archive footage with contemporary interviews with Terence, it strikes a delicate balance between the poignant, as he recalls friends lost to the disease, and the humour with which Blakk attacked the failure of the main candidates to take the situation seriously and left me wanting more – this story could easily stretch to a full-length feature. I’ll end with a quote that could easily be the tagline for the film: “I’m bringing queer issues to the campaign, right here, right now. In a dress.”
Cast: Terence Alan Smith
Director: Whitney Skauge
Marvin’s Never Had Coffee Before
I must admit the title of this eight minute comedy short didn’t fill me with confidence, but what unfolded onscreen confounded my expectations. Socially awkward Marvin struggles to join in with the workforce Zoom banter, having not seen any of the latest hit TV shows, so when the conversation turns to coffee he spots an opportunity to connect and orders a coffee machine to make his first cup, setting into action a warm and subtle meditation on lockdown isolation and the urge to fit in.
Cast: Charles Rogers, Annie Sertich, Aaron Lamarr Burleson, Nirav Bhakta, Elizabeth Franco, Grant Reed, Malgosia Tolak, Malcolm Nicholas
Director: Andrew Carter
This mini-horror opens with a young woman in her bedroom at night playing on a handheld games console before things take an unexpected twist. The use of the blue screen glow uplighting the protagonist’s face brings The Blair Witch Project to mind, while the themes of something evil lurking within the safety of the home had a touch of Paranormal Activity to it, particularly in the bed scene (you’ll know it when you see it). Safe to say you’ll approach Animal Crossing with caution after watching this short.
Cast: Katie C’etta, Alexander Anderson
Director: Julian Terry
A musical about human taxidermy. Yes, you did read that right.
Stuffed is a wonderfully dark comedy treat; opening with a crack of lightning which illuminates a macabre collection of stuffed animals to the strains of a Phantom of the Opera pipe organ, we’re led into the story of a female taxidermist for whom these creatures have ceased to be enough. Turning to the internet, she finds a willing volunteer for her ghoulish scheme, and sets her plan in motion.
The melodrama is ramped up to eleven throughout the excellent score, and the contrast between the overwhelming power of the songs in which the characters’ dreams and emotions are expressed and the embarrassed mumbling of their real-world conversations is pitch-perfect. Stuffed‘s visual mix of the gruesome and the quirky recalls Jean-Paul Jeunet’s excellent Delicatessen, and there are some brilliantly framed shots as our taxidermist is crowned by a pair of wall-mounted antlers, and her subject’s fear of aging is caught in a tiny hand mirror.
A frightfully enjoyable horror-musical in the gory singalong tradition of Sweeney Todd.
Cast: Alison Fitzjohn, Anthony Young
Director: Theo Rhys
Written by: Theo Rhys, Joss Holden-Rea
Play It Safe
But if I had to pick a single short to recommend from the festival it would be Mitch Kalisa’s excellent Play It Safe, which rightly walked away with both the jury and audience prizes for best narrative short.
Set in an English drama class, Jonathan, the only pupil of colour amongst the group, is approached by two classmates to take a leading role in their play ‘Ghetto Gospel’, its script a collection of cod-gangster slang and lazy stereotypes, and then encouraged to take this ‘opportunity’ by his teacher, who spends much of the film encouraging students to “take up space… don’t play it safe”. When a random card drawn from a hat in a class exercise throws up the opportunity to embody his fellow pupils’ implicit racism, Jonathan does just that in a brilliantly framed climactic scene, focussed less on his performance than on the faces of his classmates, which only heightens the near-unbearable tension.
It’s a powerful and beautifully constructed piece, which unlike many of the shorts I’d seen that seemed to ache for a feature-length runtime, feels perfectly at home within its chosen form.
Cast: Jonathan Ajayi, Heather Alexander, Kate Ovenden, Charlie O’Connor, Louis Richards, Grace Daly, Lauren Raisbeck, Emily Seale Jones
Director: Mitch Kalisa
SXSW 2022 has been announced for 11th-20th March – get all the latest details at sxsw.com
Interview by Paul Maps