The Austin Film Festival’s 2019 Texas short film selections signal the message coming from the non-Hollywood movie community: It’s time to give attention to underrepresented filmmakers, actors and crew members. The result are intimately shot films that present complex characters — many women and people of color — that don’t shy away from tackling difficult topics, all in 20 minutes or less.
Taking place at venues around the city Oct. 24-31, the Austin Film Festival offers two “Everything’s Shorter in Texas” programs.
This year’s Lone Star picks run the gamut — from a short documentary by Berndt Mader and Ben Steinbauer called “Siren Song,” about the mermaid culture that’s blossomed in San Marcos, to “Hard-ish Bodies” a Magic Mike-esque comedy complete with Russian criminals and dramatic escapes involving glitter and underpants. “One to One,” part of “The Shorts Are Coming From Inside The House” program, takes Facebook stalking to a whole new level by creatively reimagining the act of cyber-stalking as part teleportation.
Overarching themes of identity issues present in a variety of ways, like Mitchell Allison’s “As Seen On TV,”a quirky story of an infomercial-obsessed, agoraphobic young gay man, to more traditional cinematographic films like “Bibi” (by J. M. Longoria and Victor M. Dueñas) in which a young man returns to the Texas countryside to grapple with familial trauma in the wake of his father’s death.
Identity politics figure prominently in the crime drama “Bastards” which opens on an argument between two friends — one Black, the other Arab-American (played by the film’s writer and director Shadi Qutob) — about performing blackness. Sara Pinar Onder’s “En Mi Alma” features a tale of two star-crossed lovers, an immigrant and his immigration officer, and offers pointed commentary on the “lottery of birth” and inhumane nature of U.S. immigration proceedings.
One of the most compelling films in the bunch is “Heavenly,” directed by Austin filmmaker Ya’Ke, a beautifully-shot narrative following a young Black woman as she battles forgotten dreams of becoming a ballerina after having been sex-trafficked by a caretaker. Crystal, played by Ash’Lee Priscilla Lackey, is haunted by her mother’s suicide, personal violence and from working as “Heaven” in the sex industry. Crystal seldom speaks in the film, her silence amplifying her internal turmoil. The film’s narrative is routinely interrupted by a sequence of dreamy shots of an all-white room, with Crystal in a leotard and tutu, or with Crystal as the sex-working Heaven in a pink wig, often in conversation with her younger self. “Heavenly” effectively tells the story of a young woman between childhood and adulthood, juggling feelings of rage and deep sadness.
Another stand-out is “Feminina,” directed by Ilana Garcia-Mittleman, which follows trans woman Nina who develops a relationship with her straight male boxing coach. The unconventional romance touches on violence against LGBT individuals as we learn Nina’s reason for taking up boxing. Leads Nava Mau and David De La Barcena play compelling roles, teasing out romance film nostalgia as they eat tacos in the car and later discuss their relationship. The refreshing story portrays Nina rediscovering her personal agency — pink boxing gloves and all — as she serves up some gratifying punches.
Both “Heavenly” and “Feminina” demonstrate decisive pacing and relatable, socially-relevant narratives. Like good short films do, they seem to end too soon, leaving the audience with lingering questions about the ultimate fate of their characters.
Tickets and the full schedule for the Austin Film Festival can be found on austinfilmfestival.com