Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Review: The Ultimate Lesbian Short Film Festival

(Link) Before you win that Oscar, ya gotta earn the street cred. Here's a preview of dyke directors to watch out for, contestants in this year's Short Film Fest, and reviews of their entries.

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JIC Post:
By Shauna Schwartz

Who among us can resist anything with the words “ultimate” and “lesbian” in it? On January 31, Wolfe Video will release The Ultimate Lesbian Short Film Festival, a DVD featuring ten favorites from the film festival circuit.

In a break from lesbian short film tradition, not all of these selections are comedies; many of them have comic elements, but only two strictly fit the genre. Half of the films deal with family relations, and while all of them feature lesbian protagonists, only a few of these characters interact on screen with a love interest. More strikingly, only one of the ten films has a sex scene. Mostly these films are about lesbians and important moments in their lives, where being a lesbian isn't alone the most salient aspect.

First up is the glossiest, funniest of the bunch and the only Australian contribution in an otherwise All-American field: Blow. (No, not that kind of blow. Or that kind.) Here we have a high school kid who wakes up each morning and sneezes—according to her mom, exactly nine times. Becky resigns herself to the melodramatic and surly teenage idea that she's allergic to life—that is, until she finds a girl-shaped cure for what ails her. The short (7 minutes) coming-out tale from director Marie Craven charms without being overbearingly cute.

The Black Plum (15 minutes), directed by Meredyth Wilson, is a fairy tale that follows a motherless young tomboy on a fantastical adventure that leads her to glimpses of her possible future. The symbolism is doled out with a heavy hand, but the story is told with a certain restraint and a delightful dose of magical realism. And, for what it's worth, this film arguably has the best titles in the lot: sinewy storybook vines that drape from the text like wisteria.

Frozen Smile (7 minutes) is the latest from Silas Howard, co-director/star of the critically lauded By Hook or By Crook (2001) and former and founding member of dyke punk band
Tribe 8. This film offers a humorous peek into the lives of three women: a young faux-hawked dyke, her disapproving straight-laced mom, and her drag-fab grandmother/ally. The trio pays a graveside visit to the recently departed grandpa, a grumpy man with a perma-grin courtesy of his advanced Parkinson's disease. Howard says that several of her own relatives provided inspiration for much of this delightful film's quirkiness: “My grandmother's car only worked in one gear, reverse. So she'd drive backwards to the store when she had to pick up her medicine.” There was even a family headstone mishap similar to one depicted in the film: “That's how it goes if you can't afford better. The funeral home actually gave out ice scrapers with their name on it as souvenirs.” Revel in the inanity (flowers made out of soap?), wince at the all-too-familiar motherly jabs, and keep an eye out for a lesbian icon who makes a brief, non-speaking appearance.

Continuing with the dead relative theme, Half Laughing is a 12-minute window on the life of a buzzcut lesbian who goes home for a funeral. Director Michelle Ehlen stars as said dyke, who has to suffer her homophobic mother's equal disdain for her daughter's “lifestyle” and hairstyle. Here the maternal disapproval is more painful than humorous, and our hero complies too long with the charade her mom would have her enact, long enough to elicit sympathy as well as frustration from the viewer. The film concludes with the standard all-characters-are-fictional disclaimer, but the palpable feeling of rejection running through the film makes you wonder.

Third in the deceased patriarch series is Saint Henry, a 19-minute film directed by
Abigail Severance. Henry is a 17-year-old tomboy with a pretty boy sidekick called Twiggy, who indulges Henry in her hobby of imagining random passersby to be the father she never met. Once the pair kicks it up a notch and embarks on an active search for the man, Henry releases a surprisingly violent aggression as she tries to live out her fantasized notion of a masculine identity. Soon the teenagers find themselves in the midst of something neither foresaw. When asked about the recurrence of sailors, drifters, cowboys and bandits in her films, Severance says she's drawn to the very American tradition of hobo stories and campfire tales, and how people define themselves through such vehicles. In Saint Henry she succeeds at evoking a spiritualism she likens to bluegrass music. Further inspiration for her: “I spend a lot of time reading fairy tales,” she says, “and that gets woven into what I'm writing.”

The collection's shortest short is Kerry Weldon's Transit, which runs a wee 4 minutes. The dialogue-free film captures the lingering looks exchanged between two strangers on a subway. We're not talking suggestive glances, but bold-eyed cruising more commonly
of the boy-on-boy variety. So it isn't necessarily subtle, but the film will satisfy viewers who like things ambiguous and succinct.

The only documentary in the collection is Tina Paulina: Living on Hope Street
(10 minutes), featuring a homeless lesbian living on the streets of downtown L.A. Shot with a fisheye lens in both color and black-and-white, the film mainly consists of Green interviewing her subject from behind the camera and providing brief voiceover narration. Tina often challenges the roles, asking personal questions of Green, who answers some and dodges others. At one point Tina is so genuinely thrilled to get confirmation that her interviewer is gay that she reaches into the frame to give her a hug. The film works best when Tina succeeds at framing her own life rather than relinquishing that right to the filmmaker, and the brief musical interlude that lets us watch but not hear Tina borders on schmaltz. But Tina herself anchors the movie with her frankness, and she'll break your heart and warm it at once.

The next film stands out for production value alone but also delivers on content, leaving it to the viewer to determine the actual sequence of events. With vibrant cinematography and nearly no dialogue, A Woman Reported depicts the moments that occur just before a woman is about to be attacked by two homophobic thugs. Tension builds and abates as the film gracefully shifts between heart-thumping predation and escapist fantasy sequences—all in just five minutes. The subject matter may be brutality but Director Chris Russo wants to communicate hopefulness rather than doom, to show that “we can gain strength from our relationships and all that we find is beautiful in our lives to overcome really difficult situations.”

She cites the film-school classic An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge as the inspiration for the narrative structure of her film, which was an official selection at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and won a “Sapphie” for best lesbian short film from Girlfriends magazine last year. With a BFA and an MFA in photography and more than ten years of experience in the cinematography field, this filmmaker takes a self-professed “old school” pride in making the most of the visual aspect of the medium. Russo's previous work includes Size 'Em Up (2001), a short film featuring Leisha Hailey (The L Word), as well as five others shorts, and she has feature film plans in the works.

The attack theme continues with Dani and Alice, this time with violence that's graphic rather than just implied. This gripping, emotionally complex 12-minute film depicts the final hours of a domestically violent relationship between two women. Writer/director Roberta Munroe is adamant that “it's not an abuse film; it's about love and our abilities and inabilities to negotiate love with one another as lesbians and as people.” Because of the film's violence many viewers have expressed surprise that it ever got made. “But it was really important for me to honor women's experiences that are somewhat difficult to deal with,” says Munroe, who wanted other black lesbians to see themselves on screen “in a way that's not token but not fluffy.” The visually smooth but emotionally jarring film showcases talented stars Lisa Branch and Yolanda Ross, with Guin Turner and Honey Labrador in supporting roles.

In Everything Good (17 minutes), by Elizabeth McCarthy, a ring-wearing lesbian is in Amsterdam, away from her partner, when she decides to order a call girl. Apparently Lila and her old lady back home suffer from that infamous affliction supposedly unique to lesbian relationships, “bed death.” But Magda arrives as ordered and delivers more than the usual happy ending for her American client; she also teaches Lila to appreciate her own beauty and to open herself up to “everything good.” The film's wincing humor and palpable self-deprecation give way to healing and hopefulness—a perfect ending note for a collection that offers up unease with a generous side of comfort.

Although some take a lighthearted approach, these films share themes of disaffection, alienation, and emotional (and sometimes physical) pain. Several contain scenes of striking violence. But ultimately the collection offers a variety of affirming takes on the complexity of lesbian identities.