Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Adam Hartzell: SF Shorts Festival

After an August with comparatively few film festivals here on Frisco Bay, September is bringing the beginnings of an Autumn onslaught of them. Though the September staple Madcat Women's Film Festival is transitioning from a Frisco Bay-based event to a national touring program this year, a screening on Sept. 16 of festival favorite filmmakers including Kerry Laitala, Samara Halperin & others carries the tradition of El Rio outdoor music & film forward in 2009. The 2nd Annual Iranian Film Festival runs September 19-20 at the SF Art Institute. In San Rafael, the Global Lens Film Series runs September 25th through October 7th, after which the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center becomes one of the venues for the Mill Valley Film Festival. The 32nd annual program for the latter festival will not be fully revealed for another week, but in the meantime the festival has begun teasing us with announced special guest appearances: Clive Owen will be in Marin for the opening night screening of the Boys are Back, and French New Wave icon Anna Karina will be on hand to present her scarcely-seen recent directorial effort, Victoria on October 16th. Jean-Luc Godard's muse will also be represented at the festival by an October 13th showing of one of their most well-known collaborations, Pierrot Le Fou.

But before all this, the Red Vic is just about to play host to the 4th Annual SF Shorts festival, featuring six programs of short films over the next four days. Arya Ponto has a written brief write-up on the program. Here at Hell On Frisco Bay, Adam Hartzell has also previewed a few of the offerings and provides his take:

There’s a wonderful moment of Deaf storytelling that takes place in Cynthia Mitchell and Robert Arnold’s short All Animals. It goes on at length sans subtitles and is mesmerizing. Just a young Deaf woman (actress Sheena McFeely) sitting on the back of a pick-up truck signing with her whole upper body and the space that surrounds it, including the facial expressions so important to all Sign Languages, and the authentic Deaf voice John S. Schuchman has noted is so important to (Hearing) Children of Deaf Adults (aka CoDAs). It truly takes over the film, levitating the viewer trance-like into a completely different film from the larger short film that surrounds it. All Animals involved one of the California Schools for the Deaf. Perhaps the focus on Deaf storytelling germinated from this collaboration or was the very reason for this collaboration.

This subtitle-less scene reminded me of the screening of Deaf director Peter Wolf’s I Love You But... (1994) at the Deaf Film Festival in February of 2003 at the Pacific Film Archive at the University of California, Berkeley, where it was explained that no subtitling or translation via headphones would be provided for Hearing viewers, in order to give Hearing viewers an idea of what it’s like for the Deaf to attend the cinema. Outside of the beauty of signed languages in general, the moment of expressive Deaf storytelling in All Animals is inaccessible to non-ASL fluent viewers just as the dialogue of English-language cinema is inaccessible to Deaf Americans. Rarely are subtitled or close-captioned prints of English-language films available for U.S. theatres and this limits the experience Deaf viewers can have in the cinema. And based on the screener I watched, I’m assuming the spoken dialogue will not be close-captioned at the Red Vic screening, making this film only partially accessible for the Deaf community. Whether or not that’s an oversight or due to limited funding options, I don’t know. But since the Deaf storytelling is so prominent, it appears its inaccessibility to me and other non-ASL fluent viewers is intentional. Yet in spite of that ‘inaccessibility’, I am still deeply affected by it.

Unfortunately All Animals also utilizes what Gallaudet University professor Jane Norman refers to as a ‘gimmick’ of Hearing-centric films where the sound is cut off as a false attempt to lead us into the Deaf character’s experience of the world. As the Hearing character notes when discussing the Opera, Deaf people do not experience the world in total silence, for vibrations are felt through other parts of the body. Such sensation of sound through the vibrations of the body is not the same as through the ear, but such is not total silence either. The sappy (but I love it nonetheless) Japanese Deaf film I Love You (Osawa Yutaka and Yonaiyama Akihiro, 2000) demonstrates this beautifully, but to write how it represents sound as ‘heard’ by Deaf people would be to ruin the tear-jerking moment up to which the film builds, so I’ll leave you to the difficult search to find that film to see how such clichés can be avoided.

Along with being a calling card for directors, actors, and others film industry folk to garner future projects, short films can also be a space for experimentation, which makes All Animals both compelling in its highlighting of Deaf storytelling, and disappointing in its reliance on an overused Hearing trope of Deaf characters. Of the few films I was able to see for the festival, nothing else jumped out at me as ‘experimental’, but the animated films The Mouse That Soared by Kyle T. Bell and Prayers for Peace by Dustin Grella both kept me transfixed by their drawings, Bell’s through digital rendering and Grella’s through the washing on and off of dreamy charcoal images.

Another film I was able to watch was Molly Snyder-Fink and Kiran Goldman’s Fast As She Can. With Usain Bolt dashing through the headlines as of late for his World Record 100 meter time of 9.58 seconds at the recent World Championships in Berlin, it’s nice to see a short film focusing on the amazing female athletes of Jamaica. Although there is some repetitive narration early on, the short serves its subjects and the topic well by showing the constant training in which these women engage and the encouragement and support many provide for these endeavors. The details of their training regimen offer a counterpoint to the speculative ‘reasons’ that are often given to Jamaican track and field success. In this way, we can see the self-serving claims of the yam seller in the film who claims ‘it’s the yams’ just as we doubted Mars Blackmon when he proclaimed ‘It’s gotta be the shoes!’ More disturbingly, but not mentioned in the film, sometimes the hard work that propels the success of black athletes is downplayed by the Pat Buchanan-esque racist assumptions about their bodies. And now these athletes must also confront the constant suspicion of doping, based, as a San Jose Mercury News reporter admits in the documentary, on little evidence outside of the record-breaking record-breaking. Everyone is looking for the secret to their success as if it were one simple thing proving their prejudices, rather than a complex network of things.

And like that journalist, I will proclaim on the little evidence of these four shorts that it looks as if the Red Vic will have much on offer for those with the heavily-concentrated attention spans and precise mental-compartmentalizing that short film watching requires.


  1. The film All Animals is playing again on October 24th as part of SFFS's Cinema By The Bay festival - at the Clay at 2PM.


  2. Let me make a delayed thank you for that tip RDA.

    Also, let me make a correction in the first paragraph. After an email exchange with the director of ALL ANIMALS, he clarified that the involvement with the California School for the Deaf was solely in an effort to recruit actresses and actors for the film. So I'm not correcting a mistake, since I was just wondering about CSD's part in the production. But I think it's ethically important for me to make that clarification.