Students are back which means that fall is nearly upon us—although the weather still doesn’t feel that way! Last week we urged you to enjoy these last remaining days of sunshine with the music and dance of Jazz on a Summer’s Day, but this week perhaps something a little more efficient is in order. So if you’re looking for something you can pick up and set down between trips outside, might we offer you the 2020 Sundance Shorts Tour. The tour has gone virtual this year, but still offers the same quality experience as you have seen on our big screen in the past.

If you haven’t previously experienced the Tour at the Michigan, it features a diverse collection of short films (10-20 minutes each) from up-and-coming filmmakers that have been selected by the Sundance Film Festival, the premier independent film festival for new filmmakers. The collection is always exciting because not only are the genres eclectic and sometimes experimental, but they come from filmmakers on the verge of making their big break.

Sundance has a tremendous track record for debuting feature filmmakers who have since become household names, like Quentin Tarantino, Ava DuVernay, and the Coen Brothers, but the festival’s inclusion of short films gave Paul Thomas Anderson the avenue to premiere his student film “Coffee and Cigarettes” before he moved on to make Hard Eight. Debra Granik’s short film “Snake Feed” also played before she would later make a name for herself with the Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone.

This year’s collection features documentaries and narratives, drama and comedy, as well as international perspectives, but what’s unique and a refreshing update is that four of the six selections in this year’s tour are from female filmmakers.

This year’s internationally submitted films are by far the most personal and have the most unique experiences to witness. This includes the opening title Benevolent Ba from Malaysia, and the concluding selection So What if the Goats Die from France and Morocco, which won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize. These two stories center on Muslim families that remain devout in their beliefs while also finding themselves with questions for their faith.

Beneveloent Ba, from writer/director Diffan Sina Norman, centers on a family that has bought a new plot of land to live and now, per the matriarch’s beliefs, a lamb must be slayed for its blood to touch the soil. However, to humorous effect, nobody seems to be able to actually commit the act. The film opens with Michael Jackson’s quote from Thriller: “Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult” and through its 9 minute runtime comedically juxtaposes the mother’s devout beliefs with the families more westernized identities, concluding with a somewhat shocking visual that leaves the goat’s fate to be questioned.

And in So What If the Goats Die, from writer/director Sofia Alaoui, the collection ends with its most cinematic offering. The story finds a young Muslim shepherd living in the mountains with his father who is forced to brave the elements and head into the city to obtain food that could save his livestock. But upon his arrival, the film finds its title when a supernatural occurrence shakes the plot and deems his mission frivolous, while bringing his entire culture’s way of life into question. As this film’s narrative has the most spoiler potential, I’ll leave it at that…

And the third international feature comes from writer/director Thea Hollatz, our neighbor in Canada, with the Tour’s only animated selection Hot Flash. The film opens on a female meteorologist in the middle of experiencing excruciating hot flashes, who can only find relief in her forecast that calls for -30°C temperatures. Though the short runs just 10 minutes, Hollatz touches on an array of themes that not only includes the experience of an aging woman, but also the female experience and agism in the workplace, as well as the freedom of sexuality.

And moving into the American selections, another woman-centered comedy is Meats, from writer/director Ashley Williams, the story of an “obnoxious” vegan struggling with her newfound pregnant cravings for animals. Set almost completely in a butcher shop, the film opens with Ashley at the counter with a wrapped lamb carcass, waiting to be dismantled. Though this selection offers the broadest example of humor with brilliant writing and excellent delivery from the two leads, the narrative is driven home with a beautifully somber and enlightening moment. A warning for viewers, the film does contain images that some might find graphic if you are uncomfortable with seeing the carving process of a lamb, but if you are able to make it through that, you’ll be rewarded with adorable footage of little yearlings playing in the grass in the end.

Into the documentaries, perhaps the most poetic of all the selections this year is T from writer/director Keisha Rae Witherspoon, which follows three grieving participants of Miami’s annual T Ball, where attendees assemble to model R.I.P. t-shirts and innovative costumes designed in honor of their dead. The matter of their deaths is left mostly ambiguous, and the filmmakers choose to focus instead on their subjects’ descriptions of the joyous characteristics of their loved ones. However, the ghosts of young Black lives that have been lost in recent years hang over a film that becomes a somber, meditative examination of our lives and struggles in this greater universe. It’s mournful and festive all at once, and leaves us with a message to “create or die”.

But finally, what might be the bleakest of all the films is another documentary, The Deepest Hole, which is unexpected because the narrative that it tells is actually a hoax. Director Matt McCormick tells a Cold War era ghost story, giving the history of the Kola Superdeep Borehole in Siberia which was built in another attempt to outperform our American scientists. But in this particular project they succeeded, reaching a depth of 12km and according to some believers, inadvertently opened a connection to Hell itself. This is the infamous “Well to Hell” hoax that has taken a life of its own via the internet and was popularized on religious television around the world in the late 90s. But even given its fictional nature, the documentary proves to be quite spooky, concluding with purported audio recorded from the tunnel that features the screams of thousands of burning souls.

Quite the eclectic collection of films indeed, and well worth your time. And what you might find most exciting is the prospect that each of these films could easily be expanded to feature-length, as Jim Cummings experienced with his film Thunder Road just a few years back. But at the very least, they’re all names you should keep your eyes on.

And if you find yourself enjoying these shorts, don’t forget about the A2 Tech Film Showcase this Saturday, which will feature an equally diverse selection of tech-focused shorts from global artists and curated by Ann Arbor’s own tech community. Let us know which films you enjoy the most and have a great rest of your week!


Nick Alderink

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