(Costa Mesa, CA) May 2015 – From the 1930s to the 50s, short films actually played an important role in cinema. When movie lovers wanted to catch the latest popular feature, they were in for a treat because they were seeing more than just the said movie and the preceding coming attractions; they entered a cinematic world which began with a short newsreel documentary, 2-3 classic cartoons, coming attractions and a short narrative film that somehow possesses the same qualities as the main feature that would soon follow. During these times, moviegoers got their money’s worth. It was a more innocent time when the artistry of the short film was valued. Now, the skyrocketing inflation which includes only the film and the coming attractions seem to drive audiences away.
But recently, short films are getting more attention in the entertainment industry through festivals. Every year at the Newport Beach Film Festival (NBFF), cofounders Gregg Schwenk and Todd Quartararo, as well as their dedicated staff, choose and screen the best in short films. And the quality was so amazing that it makes one question why we don’t bring short films back into national programming, thereby not only bringing more attention to the talents of the filmmakers, but add more of an emotional return to the moviegoer’s pocketbook. Using the short films at NBFF as examples, Ed Barnes’s riveting gritty western, “Blackwell,” would be a nice precursor to Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming “Hateful Eight.” French director Thierry Lorenzi’s beautifully dreamlike science fiction short “On/Off” would have been an appropriate prelude to the newly anointed classic “Interstellar” (why it wasn’t nominated for the top Oscar categories still baffles many). And then there is Stephen W. Martin’s “Dead Hearts.” Winning an Honorable Mention award in the Short Film category at NBFF, this sweet horror tale could easily precede any film by Tim Burton or Wes Anderson. Regardless, the art of creating short films still makes its presence known to movie lovers around the globe. At the 2015 Newport Beach Film Festival, three short films deliver an emotional punch that matches their full feature counterparts.
In the War & Short Peace short film category, Wyatt Maw’s “Rise” transports the audience to 1918: Revolutionary Russia, where the evils of Communism rise and fuel the Chekas—Soviet secret police—into a blood lust-driven persecution and massacre of the aristocracy. Led by Gavril (a magnificently malevolent Gera Hermann), the Bolsheviks apprehend an aristocratic couple—Ivan (Gleb Kaminer) and Nadya (Elena Caruso)—and suspects them for a murder they didn’t commit. As Gavril tries to force a false confession from Nadya, Ivan takes action to save her, ultimately proving love reigns over all.
Maw’s directorial vision beautifully captures the emotions of the characters in the bunker setting (nicely created by Production Designer Flora Ortega) through subtle applications of light and shade (much kudos to Cinematographer Cory Warner). The claustrophobic atmosphere and the faces of the Chekas illuminated with red fire light seem to magnify the corruption of that time period with frightening efficiency. But when Maw illumintes his leads with soft candlelight, it is as though their love and devotion will slowly burn away the malignancy around them. And when a white light is positioned directly over Ivan in the final scene, it almost gives the character a sense of resolute peace. These creative touches is a demonstration of Maw’s ability as a skilled director. And his stars, Kaminer and Caruso, equal Maw’s artistry from the very beginning to the final frame. Kaminer’s Ivan combines silent, restrained courage (especially against the Chekas) with a chivalrous fidelity and love for his beloved. And Caruso’s Nadya possesses stoic elegance which is laced with a wounded fear not only for her life, but especially for the survival of Ivan. Both actors have a powerful on-screen chemistry together—especially when they slowly dance in a cell—which adds to the emotional foundation of the film even more.
In the All Kinds of Short Love category at the festival, Director Ellen Gerstein conjures a tale of two lovers trying to connect for the first time in 50 years in “Come Away with Me,” a winner of the Platinum Remi award at WorldFest Houston and is now an official selection for the Diversity in Cannes Short Film Showcase. Anne (Gerstein) appears at her high school reunion in search of her sweetheart Michael (Charlie Robinson), an all-star athlete and a war veteran. And when they do meet again, Anne tries to discover ways to connect with her lost love in unexpected ways.
What is truly impressive about this 15 minute gem is Gerstein’s patient direction and detailed attention for creating a perfect tranquil setting for the two stars. The sounds of the distant train and the picturesque Spring countryside (nice eye by Director of Photography Polly Morgan) seem to fuel both characters to reconnect and reignite their love. This meticulous direction by Gerstein not only adds to her own sympathetic, humble performance as Anne—who regrets the mistakes she made in her life, especially abandoning Michael when he needed her the most after he returned from the war—but also harnesses Robinson’s heartwarming portrayal as Michael. In the last few years, Robinson has been setting Southern California theatre on fire with his brilliant performances at South Coast Repertory with “Jitney,” “Death of a Salesman” and “The Whipping Man.” His Michael in “Come Away with Me” is a damaged soul who is trying to heal from his traumatic experiences and live his life once again. And with profound subtlety, Robinson carries that emotionally painful cross until he gives a sign at the end of the movie if Anne’s appearance has somehow helped in that healing. A nice final touch to a sublime work of art.
And in the Better Short then Never screening, Stefan Kubicki’s “Against Night”—National Jury Award winner at the USA Film Festival—gives a gimpse of a turning point for Russian cosmonaut Vitali (Konstantin Lavysh) who fights for survival in the frozen Mongoloian tundra. After he and his crew member (Kaminer from “Rise,” this time in a nice supporting role) crash, Vitali seeks help in the icy wilderness until he comes across the primitive hut of a Mongolian shaman (an benevolently enigmatic Howard Fong). But as he tries to ask for assistance, he experiences visions about his past, especially involving his loving wife Marina (Caruso from “Rise”) and daughter Lenka (an endearingly lovable Eve Korchkov). And when his visions blend into his realty, the truth regarding his present situation will change his life forever.
Kubicki flawlessly transforms his story into a cinematic poem as he makes Vitali’s story less about being a cosmonaut and more about a father’s love for his family and the loss he experiences before being launched into space. This is done courtesy of the incredible tundra set design by Aleksandra Zgorska, intensifying the isolation even more, and the smooth dreamy transitions between reality and Vitali’s visions (much thanks to editor Shayar Bhansali), which bring the viewers closer to the cosmonaut’s point of view, especially a key moment when Vitaly sees Marina holding their newborn daughter with haunting choral music in the background. A deft, empathetic touch by Kubicki, whose talent as a director is multifaceted and insightful. And this can be said by his stars. Lavysh's potent depiction of Vitali speaks volumes through his eyes, which expertly combines guilt, pain, inner strength and especially unconditional love for his family. He’s never a victim, but a fighter to the very end, especially when the visions open his eyes regarding how to survive and, most importantly, how to live. As Caruso demonstrated an earthy beauty in “Rise,” her Marina exudes an ethereal magnificence in her love for her husband and daughter. Whether it’s her gentle actions in braiding Korchkov’s hair or a simple affectionate hug with Lavysh, Caruso grounds the story and fuels Vitali’s reason to overcome his inner pain. All of these compassionate performances match the craftsmanship of Kubicki’s beautifully paced direction.
These incredible works are but a few of my favorite top short films at the 16th Annual Newport Beach Film Festival. Listed below are the rest, all of which are of equal quality and in no particular order. Please refer to IMDB.com for more details:
- Pacific Edge. Director: Maggie Grant. Starring Emmy award-winners Ed Asner and Barbara Bain.
- The Nostalgist. Director: Giacomo Cimini. Starring Lambert Wilson (Of Gods and Men, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions)
- Une Liberation. Director: Brian James Crewe.
- Lost Music. Director Deborah Lavine. Starring Barbara Bain and Carmen Argenziano.
- Til Then. Director: Benjamin Wolf
- Salomea’s Nose. Director: Susan Korda
- The End of War. Director: Bernard E. James
Peter A. Balaskas is a fiction writer, copyeditor, journalist and voice over artist.
Against Night, Rise and Come Away with Me screened at the Newport Beach Film Festival from 4/23-30, 2015.
Photos provided by all three filmmakers.