Cooped up inside like the rest of the world, I found myself doing the same things everyone else was doing: puzzles, books, listening to music, and watching loads of TV and film. As I juggled streaming options, old black and white films, and monster movies I was pretty excited to get an online pass for Vienna Shorts 2020.
Held from May 28th to June 2 and featuring over 280 short films from around the world, there was a lot to dig into. One of the things I love about short films is that they force their creators to channel their creativity into delivering a story that doesn’t drag on or suffer from heavy editing by a studio. They are raw, they are inventive and, thankfully, they are able to be digested in short bites, allowing the viewer to come and go as they want.
Normally a live event, the fest moved online this year because of you know what (COVID-19). Its 50 programs were spread out online, allowing folks like me–passionate lovers of movies–to watch without having to get on a plane and deal with customs. It also gave viewers the freedom to pick and choose a little more recklessly since we didn’t have to worry about the rudeness and inconvenience of getting up and moving across an aisle to exit. The online format also allowed me to experience the work of many filmmakers who do not get widespread exposure here in the States.
One of the downsides of any film festival is plotting out a personal schedule without feeling overwhelmed. Here, because it was online, I had a little more room to breathe in planning my viewing. I even could watch something at two in the morning without having to worry about wandering home. I know going online was probably a big nightmare for the staff to plan and execute, but for me it was an opportunity to explore something totally new.
For the sake of brevity, here is a short list of the some of the interesting things that I watched at Vienna Shorts 2020.
The opening programming for Vienna Shorts was a nice blend of the old and new.
Powers of Ten
I was excited to see a restored version of Charles and Ray Eames’ educational short, Powers of Ten. Despite being made for IBM and used as a way to teach math visually, it has become both a work of art and a cult film in recent decades. I had not seen this in a decade or so, so it was nice to see it again.
In the Company of Insects
If Marvin the Paranoid Android made a short film about bees and insect life, you would get In the Company of Insects. Gloriously grumpy and at the same time glum, Duncan Cowles’ film takes on themes of grief and environmentalism with an intimate and elegant short that uses stunning images of ladybugs and bees going about their business with narrator Cowles laying down an apocalyptic vibe about how we are toast if the bees are gone. Commenting on how we want to go to Mars, he adroitly retorts with “there are no bees on Mars.” Hilarious, dry and emotionally dense, it is a terrific film. Richard Luke’s score is also outstanding.
Jo Goes Hunting – Careful
Vienna Shorts’ opening night also featured Alice Saey’s trippy music video for Jo Goes Hunting’s Careful. I know nothing of the band other than the track gets annoying after about 45 seconds. But Saey’s composition and synchronization of bold and vivacious colors makes the video entirely her own. Shedding the music video framework, she has made a short film filled with intensity, derangement and wonder. Her visuals are perfect for glitchcore music because her cut and paste aesthetic lends itself to the genre. As a result, Saey does not shy away from underpinning the music with vibrant layers of psychedelic imagery, building a sensory experience that is jarring and textured.
Another film I had not seen in a while was Tango, the Oscar winning short film from Polish experimental filmmaker Zbigniew Rybczy?ski. Despite looking a bit dated, it stands as a historical record for both the development his work and the use of collage in animation. Rybczy?ski is more widely known in the West for making music videos for The Art of Noise, Propaganda, Lou Reed, Blancmange, Grandmaster Flash, Jimmy Cliff, a guy named Mick Jagger, and a posthumous film for Imagine by John Lennon. As a film, Tango features a flurry of activity, all of it taking place in the confines of a small room. A few characters enter and then gradually more and more are featured until the room is filled with people, places and things, all of which never touch or interact. Esoteric yet comedic it is still a very clever short film.
Another thing I did with this year’s festival was make an effort to really get a feel for the scope of the films presented. To do this went out of my comfort zone and watched movies across multiple categories.
The Animation Avant Garde selections were intriguing. They oftentimes balanced the strange and the surreal while exploring the darker sides of human existence. What is interesting about this block of programming is that the festival included both experimental works and animated films, making for an interesting juxtaposition of styles.
Anna Szöllösi’s minimalist film delves headlong into a world of nightmarish anxiety as a woman’s therapy session literally takes her to unexpected places. Cleverly sparse and unnerving, Helfer made me uneasy from start to finish. Technically, it was also well paced and didn’t suffer from trying to be too clever.
Hideouser and Hideouser
You cannot really have an avant-garde category without a little bit of Dada, can you? Using cut and clip animation, Aria Covamonas gives a playful nod to Dada artist and photomontage creator Hannah Hoch with a story so grim and creepy that even Guillermo del Toro would be weirded out. It was almost eight full minutes of messed up oddness that I could not stop watching. Drinking milk will never be the same again.
Juana Molina’s music video for Paraguaya Punk is a barrage of bright colors that replaces images of band members with childlike character doodles. It was refreshing to see a music video that gave a shout out to the classic music videos of my youth without adhering to all of their tropes and redundant themes. Dante Zaballa’s hand drawings perfectly frame the famous Argentinian actress and singer’s spastic vocals.
Lumping the fiction and documentary shorts into one concise category really made sorting out my schedule a lot easier. With 28 films from 19 countries, there was a lot of stuff to chew on. Many of the docs were sobering, many of the fiction themed shorts were fun or engaging.
Touching on many themes and ideas, there were several films on the current geopolitics of Brazil, one about a guy obsessed with cats, and several interesting ones about isolation, art, recovery and trying to survive after experiencing a hardship.
Mila Zhluktenko’s short provided an interesting twist on watching the Kiev opera by making the working stiffs, (coat check ladies, bartenders and ushers) and audience members the focus of her doc. Using them as a lens to document the behind the scenes action and comment on the upper crust of society, her short film lifts the veil on a world many people do not get to see. Filled with plenty of dissing and snark, there is also a wonderful bit about how Russian leaders have alternated between full heads of hair and baldness from the Bolshevik Revolution to now.
War in Academia
Every student knows they are smarter than their teachers. This Swedish short film proves it by having two art teachers square off with their students over an assigned project. The students have been given three hours to complete an assignment but have been given no detailed instruction on content, context or even structure. A clash of ideologies ensues as passive-aggressive teaching methods are challenged by students looking for wider engagement. Well-acted and brutally honest in assessing how arts education often misses the mark in preparing students, War in Academia is a tense and cerebral look at how college professors connect with students. It also demonstrates how freeing it is to knock aloof artists down a peg or two.
A twenty-minute mashup of genres, BBQ is a dystopian short film built around a world filled with cannibalism, politics and video games. Like any good dystopian tale, freedom is a dangerous thing, which is why Alex, the film’s protagonist, wants to check it out. However, things get complicated when he meets a girl. Despite all of the jumbled styles and threads, director Jeanne Meyer ties it all up with satire and biting social commentary. She has built an interesting place to visit: an intense and foreboding reality that sucker punches the viewer at every turn.
Obviously with the festival encamped in Vienna, the inclusion of an Austrian shorts category is a given. Having seen almost no Austrian short films, ever, I decided to try and see as many of these films as I could, mostly out of curiosity. I was glad I did because there was some interesting stuff here.
Raphaela Schmid’s Fische was tabbed by audiences as the fest’s most popular film. Gorgeously shot and well-paced, her film about a contentious evening in a Chinese restaurant features some intriguing characters. Witty and smart, the film cleverly turns up the intensity as it progresses, leaving viewers guessing what is next.
Veronika Schubert is an animator whose work I was unfamiliar with but am now going to make a point of checking out. Just under four minutes, her film Contouring is a kinetic short that stitches together online make-up tutorials with a flurry of blue and white shapes to present an audacious statement on consumerism and the glorification of appearance in society. Contouring was the winner of the most popular Austrian film category.
The Washing Machine
Anyone who has ever sold or given anything away on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace will understand the anxiety at work in this comedic short film. At the heart of everything is Simon, who unloads his crappy washing machine online only to be consumed by paranoia that it’s dissatisfied buyer will hunt him down. This was the funniest film I saw during the fest.
Mega Sexy Robot Dinosaur
Moving into more stylish terrain, I was relieved to see some really other really fun films in the Tres’ Chic category. Basically, this was a collection of motley shorts designed to entertain and be silly. This bring us to Mega Sexy Robot Dinosaur, a short film that is exactly what you have just envisioned in your mind. Really. It plays with the audience all the way through and delivers lots of laughs. It was a huge hit with audiences who awarded it the festival’s Most Extraordinary Film.
One of the other things that always happens at film festivals is alternate programming. This usually includes a lot of speakers, forums, networking events and opportunities for filmmakers to share the tricks of their trade. In addition to all of this, Vienna Shorts 2020 also tackled the issue of how streaming will affect the more traditional methods for seeing films. Through a series of webinars, workshops and online meetings, the festival’s Industry programs gathered filmmakers, producers, and distributors in one virtual place to discuss, plan and comment on the future of film production, presentation and distribution.
As someone who spends way too much time in the dark watching movies, the Vienna Shorts Film Festival was the perfect tonic for being sheltered at home. Offering a lot of everything, it was well curated and just the right size to keep it from being unwieldy. It also was pitch perfect in presenting short films that were relatable to a wide audience.
The festival also is a celebration of indie filmmaking that comes at a time when the movie industry is on life support. Under these circumstances, short films offer a way out in that they remain rebellious, adventurous, informative, creative and experimental at a time when films are more needed than ever. Thankfully, festivals like Vienna shorts are around to fly their flag and champion their necessity.
For more information on the Vienna Shorts Film Festival visit https://www.viennashorts.com/en