The 27th Dusty Film & Animation Festival
Before reading this, I must warn the reader about a few things: First, I graduated from SVA May of 2015 and due to my great sympathy towards SVA’s class of 2016, my ability to objectively look at the Dustys is tainted by my own bias. Second, I personally know all of the filmmakers I’ll mention in this piece, some of them are even my closest friends and I have nothing but admiration towards them. Lastly, I couldn’t see all of the films this year due to scheduling conflicts. However, I’m not here to promote these films, my commitment to an honest look at this year’s Dustys is my foremost priority. Hopefully, you’ll read this more as an insider’s look at SVA’s finest work in film this year rather than a strictly journalistic approach.
For the past 27 years, the School of Visual Arts has organized a film and animation festival showcasing their student’s thesis films required to complete SVA’s film and animation BFA program. After 4 years of short-filmmaking, PAing on professional sets, a scarce number of film history classes and a few overnight/nightmare shoots, the students are rewarded with the opportunity to screen their thesis project at the state-of-the-art SVA Theater in Chelsea. The 27th Dusty Film & Animation Festival lasted three days with a little over 100 shorts and a couple of feature length films screened one after another alternating between the theater’s two screening rooms. Such a large number of shorts are both overwhelming yet inevitably diverse. This year, diversity in culture, style and form was part of the festival’s strength. However, despite the cultural diversity, I found that thematic links bridged the films together and harmonized any national divergence between them. Many of the young filmmakers showed some very personal yearnings of returning home. Intricate sibling dynamics, loneliness and inter-family dramas graced the screens of the SVA Theater from May 7th to May 9th. Here are some of the films I saw this year.
The big opener was Aurora Alänge’s sincerely sweet Syskon (siblings). Shot entirely in Alänge’s hometown in Sweden, Alänge dishes out some personal and intimate ideas about brother-sister quarrels with gorgeously tidy cinematography courtesy of Brooklyn-based DP and frequent collaborator Anthony Carella. Yet Syskon is not just a pleasure to look at, it’s also blessed with an exhilarating soundtrack composed by the wonderful Victor Crusher (Alänge’s old friend). The soundtrack is smoothly integrated into the film’s sound design by SVA’s very own sound guru Sven Rethemeier.
Syskon’s story is straightforward: a brother and sister in their mid-teens are left home alone while the unseen parents leave to solve some marital issues. The somewhat older brother spends his time playing guitar, hanging out with his friends and watching movies while his younger sister bonds with her recently acquired kitten. Even though they both coexist in the same house (often meeting in the bathroom while they brush their teeth as some sort of awkward daily check-in) and even though their age difference is not great, there’s an ocean of unsolved rivalry between them. His vexation with her presence is matched by her desire to bond with him. Perhaps a parallel of what the parents must be going thorough in trying to solve their relationship, the audience is left to see how the siblings resole theirs. And while Alänge is subtle in letting us know what goes on between them, she frames her actors straightforwardly allowing their riveting performances play out naturally on screen.
Mixing some darling animation, liberating slow-motion and aesthetically pleasing landscape shots of Sweden’s traditional Midsummer Festival, Alänge draws a lovely personal picture of her homeland. But behind Alänge’s gorgeous picture, issues between the siblings are left unsaid and the sister’s feeling of marginal isolation can be heartbreaking. The beautiful stark images that hide such loneliness are not unheard of in Swedish cinema (or is it perhaps a general Scandinavian thing? I can only assume).
But Alänge was not the only foreign-born filmmaker to go home at this year’s festival, Scottish Phillipa Fort and Trinidadian Maya Cozier both offer intimate looks at their homeland. Even though they’re drastically different films, both show familiarity and draw personal love letters to their respective native lands. While Cozier’s compelling Short Drop constructs a simple story about a lonely old man who is mistaken for a cab driver while driving around the bustling streets of Port of Spain. Hesitant at first, he takes the passenger along with variety of wonderfully thought-out characters during the course of a day. Cozier’s story is strong and minimal and DP Jackson W. Lewis’ cinematography is brutally honest. Lewis photographs the car scenes directly, not aspiring pretension just focusing on what’s in front allowing the characters to exist naturally. Fort, on the other hand, turns the camera onto herself in a montage of home movie footage, stop-motion animation and poetic imagery. Fort’s film is calculated and wonderfully edited. It owes it’s precision to stylish and heavily operated imagery (shot by the versatile filmmaker/cinematographer Alex Echevarria) and it owes its free dream-like meditation to almost perfect editing (courtesy of the multi-talented Miwa Sakulrat)
A highlight of the Dusty Film and Animation festival is Tomasa. Argentinean filmmaker Juana Hodari also goes back home for her feature debut Tomasa, a beautiful documentary that focuses on a family of women of Scottish decent that own an estate in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Hodari shows how these women work their inherited land in a world that had/is been commonly populated by men. Tomasa is just as much a riveting documentary of agricultural politics as it is a family drama. The film captures brutally intimate moments between these women, gliding between grand-scale themes of animal rights, the effects of capitalism on farming and the more underlying complexity of family dynamics. Because of this, the film can often be emotionally overwhelming.
The way Hodari frames these women is striking—allowing the viewer such an intimate look into their private lives we feel we’re not supposed to be watching. But as we follow the sisters, we get to know them in a familiar and personal way through their daily activities and their cultured conversations about work, love life, family disputes and of course, their mother (the rightful matriarch whose character borders on the classical authority figure).
Speaking of family dynamics, the other highlight film at the festival is Justin Amorim’s Leviano, a film about three beautiful sisters, their mother and the men who love them. It sounds like a fairytale (that’s because it is). Similar to Tomasa’s sisters, the Leviano girls are bourgeois. But contrary to the vintage hard-working women in Tomasa, Leviano’s sisters exist in a modern material fantasy.
Leviano benefited greatly from its screening at the 18×34 foot screen in the Silas Theater. The Portuguese-Canadian filmmaker’s succulent feature debut is a sexy thrill ride. But Leviano is more than just a visual feast, Amorim’s lush imagery subtly conceals the great complexity of a proper high-class family dysfunction as well as a tragic secret. Along with DP Edward Herrera, Amorim frames beautiful bodies in a world where everything is saturated with color, sex and kitsch materialism leaving the audience to piece together the puzzle that is this family. Playing off the troupes of the upper-class melodrama, Amorim sets his feature in the southern Portuguese region of Algarve somewhere in the mid-90s but what’s truly unique about Leviano is that Amorim is not at all interested in representing either historical accuracy or realistic verisimilitude, but rather to create a timeless world that exists solely in both Amorim’s imagination and the audience’s fantasy.
Last but undoubtably not least, the very last film I saw at the festival is the trance-inducing Awful Dreams by São Paulo-born filmmaker Francisco Fontes. Fontes’ awe-filled film is located somewhere in upstate New York where a lonely older woman lives in a house. The woman lives a simple life. Her days consist of reading, watching Swedish films and cooking. The woman is played by Fontes’ mother who offers a captivating presence. The woman’s solitude is disrupted by a winged traveler (embodied by Fontes himself). Even though they are never seen together, their presence are mutually felt.
Fontes frames his mom meticulously doing house chores (she chops some apples, cooks rice and beans) in a way that would make the late great Chantal Akerman proud. But it’s really fellow Portuguese-speaker Miguel Gomes’ Tabu that’s influenced Fontes with its bleak black and white, contemplating pace and just the right amount of biblical allegory.
For some people, going home can be an emotionally hard thing to do. But the stakes are higher when you go back home with a full crew, a proper budget and a personal screenplay. The films I saw at the 27th Dusty Film & Animation Festival were all in some way or another, about returning to a uncomfortably familiar place. They all explored the pains and anxieties of growing older and leaving your childhood behind. And the films, just like the filmmakers themselves, return to that comfort/discomfort revealing those pains and anxieties in the most remarkable way.
(I wish the best of luck to those filmmakers mentioned in this piece and congratulations to the class of 2016 for their achievements.)