Apr 6, 2007

Aspen ShortsFest - Dispatch 3

Tonight the international competition concludes at the 16th Aspen ShortsFest. The final eight of the fifty-nine competition films screen this evening, including Sophie Barthes' "Happiness" which took it's initial bow in Cannes and Guido Thys' "Tanghi Argentini" an intriguing Belgium fairy tale about tango dancing and the statis of white collar work. With such a diverse and eclectic program of shorts in a festival that doesn't group its selections by theme or geography, it's difficult to highlight thematic or aesthetic patterns running through any series of films.

The programmers have leaned heavily toward superbly executed, conceptually sharp animated films ("Guide Dog", "Never Like The First Time!", "The Tragic Story of Nling" and "Love and War") and whimsical naturalist comedies (Isold Uggadottir's wonderful "Family Reunion", Dyana Gaye's "Ousmane", Rob Carlton and Alex Weinress' uproarous mockmentary of a father with very different expectations for his young twins, "CARMICHAEL & shane"). Yet much of the work doesn't fit neatly into the fragmentary nature of the program itself seems to indicate the difficulty of communication and emotional interconnection in a dangerous, exponentially changing world.

Some films have dealt directly with 9/11 and its social and political aftermath, such as Topaz Adizes' "City", a brief, intense glimpse at Middle Eastern cab driver's heated conversation with a bigoted white New Yorker. Shot entirely from the cab's passenger seat in the loose, verite style, Adizes lets his two wonderful performers, who had never met before they embarked on this partially scripted series of monologues, insults and genuine insights, suggest that the wounds which opened that day in both the American and Middle Eastern psyche may never heal. Vineet Dewan's "Clear Cut, Simple", based on the true experiences of Iraqi war veteran Jason Delmarty, tells the heartrending tale of a young soldier whose friendship with his translator is tested when he's suspected of supporting insurgents. Winner of the student Emmy and Director's Guild prize, the USC MFA film has an incredible amount of verisimilitude despite its $10,000 budget and Southern California locations. Its power is directly linked to the crooked ideology of overreactive first response that has been the M.O. of American foreign policy for five years and running.

The most powerful of the films in the festival's second half, Jens Assur's "The Last Dog in Rwanda" takes a penetrating look at a Swedish war photographer's life long obsession with war. Unsentimental and uncompromising, the film is the thematic antithesis of the hip Hollywood treatments of Europeans as agents of change or arbitors of justice in war torn modern Africa that have been seeping out of the indiewood system for the past few years. The desire to aesthetize death that has long been a major ethical concern of for filmmakers is brought to a head by the film's treatment of an ambivalent man whose job is to bear witness to unexplicable horror with unblinking artistry. Flashbacks within the short format are often ill advised, but Assur is concise and clever in his use of glimpses from his protagonist's war obsessed childhood, counterpointing that orderly, savant-like childhood curiosity with the grim nihilism of the Hutus. Its potent and bloody final passage left an unprepared Aspen audience breathless.