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No Moment was Wasted: Highlights at the 2023 Indy Shorts International Film Festival [The Silent Witness]

One of the most joyous festival experiences I’ve had in recent years was my first visit to Heartland Film’s Oscar-qualifying Indy Shorts International Film Festival in 2019. It was the last major cinematic event I attended prior to the COVID-19 quarantine, and I cherished my memories of the familial warmth I felt from the community of movie makers and enthusiasts in Indianapolis during the years of isolation that followed. One of the films I championed as a member of the Documentary Jury was Sami Khan and Smriti Mundrah’s “St. Louis Superman,” which went on to be nominated at the 2020 Academy Awards, resulting in me coincidentally running into the filmmakers as I was leaving the press room.

It was a great pleasure returning this month to the festival, now dubbed “Camp Indy Shorts,” with my wife, Cinema Femme founder Rebecca Martin Fagerholm. Heartland Film Artistic Director Greg Sorvig and his staff put together a formidably impressive line-up of over 165 titles in 29 feature-length curated programs, and it was Rebecca and my goal to see as much as possible, both in-person and virtually. Among the festival’s most memorable entries were nonfiction accounts of transformational change, such as Jeremy Workman and Robert Lyons’ “Deciding Vote,” winner of the Richard D. Propes Social Impact Award, one of many prizes named after cherished members of the local film community. It centers on New York assemblyman George Michaels, who sacrificed his political career by casting the tie-breaking vote in 1970 that made abortion legal in his state, which ultimately led to the passage of Roe v. Wade (the rousing speech he delivers could’ve been straight out of a Capra film). 

John Hoffman and Christine Turner’s “The Barber of Little Rock,” which earned the Jenni Berebitsky Legacy Award, follows an equally inspiring individual, Arlo Washington, who aids in combating our nation’s trillion-dollar racial wealth gap by founding the People Trust Loan Fund, the only Black-owned community development financial institution in Arkansas. Receiving a retrospective program of his own this year was Ben Proudfoot, who won the Oscar in 2022 for his documentary short, “The Queen of Basketball,” and was bestowed this year with the festival’s Pioneering Spirit Award. Making its world premiere at Indy Shorts was Proudfoot’s latest directorial effort, “Forgiving Johnny,” about public defender Noah Cox, who attempts to navigate the groundbreaking California law that would enable his developmentally disabled client to receive treatment rather than spend decades behind bars. 

“My dad was a lawyer,” Proudfoot told me. “He passed away in 2020, and I have been ruminating on his life’s work, which consistently centered around equal access to the law. There is a growing rancor in California about restorative justice and a major progressive movement to digitize the justice system to make it more effective and transparent. So this story, which moved me deeply, is a bit of a perfect intersection of the moment I am going through personally, and a topic I think is extraordinarily important and urgent. The access we were granted is all but unprecedented and I am eternally grateful to Johnny and his family for making the sacrifice of making their personal lives public for the benefit of us all to understand this important issue.”

The director also admitted that he stole Errol Morris’ revolutionary Interrotron, the device that enabled Robert S. McNamara to look simultaneously at his interviewer and the audience in “The Fog of War,” for his own acclaimed work. Proudfoot recalled that he was moved to tears while recently watching “The Queen of Basketball” with a crowd, while observing how the film’s late subject, Lusia Harris, “masterfully made eye—and heart—contact with the audience from beyond her time on earth.” Death itself was a topic provocatively explored by various selections at Indy Shorts, such as Dave Solomon’s tongue-in-severed-cheek comedy, “Brenda and Billy (and the Pothos Plant),” where a desperate daughter calls on her magician brother to bring their mother back to life, and Matt Spear’s “Love, Grandma,” which won this year’s Indiana Spotlight Award with its effective contrasting of heavy foregrounded silence and the distant ambience of bustling, oblivious life. 

Ahmad Alyaseer’s brutally painful yet necessary “Our Males and Females” portrays the shame of Islamic parents when tending to the body of their deceased transgender daughter, while high schooler Junhyeok Kim’s exquisite “Well-dying” wrenchingly illustrates the relationship between an ailing father and his adult daughter. It feels like the work of a filmmaker three times his age. Paranoia of an impending apocalypse due to climate change was channeled in ways both dramatic—as in Alex Lawther’s startling “For People in Trouble,” featuring “House of the Dragon” star Emma D’Arcy—and comedic, courtesy of Callie Bloem and Christopher J. Ewing’s “Bounce House,” which is filled with zingers that Paul Rudnick would likely appreciate (the future status of MAGA hats as “cannibal camouflage” was my favorite touch).

This year’s recipient of the Summer White Lynch Memorial Award, which goes to a finalist of the High School Film Competition, was Wesley Wang for his dazzling “nothing, except everything.”, which harnesses immense creativity in detailing the existential crises befalling young graduates as they go about entering a world that is literally on fire. This film’s awkward date scene in which two teens fumble for the right words, only to spout a series of expertly timed verbal fragments, is a marvel in itself. Tari Wariebi’s sci-fi parable, “We Were Meant To,” received the Grand Prize for Narrative Short, a richly deserved honor for its metaphorical fantasy in which Black men are born with wings that governmental drones intend on singeing off. This year’s Shine Global Spotlight: Children’s Resilience Short Film Competition prize went to the longest film I saw at the festival (clocking in around 40 minutes)—and one of the most essential: Marie Margolius’ “Ayenda,” which chronicles the daring attempts made by the Under-18 Afghan National Women’s Football Team to escape Afghanistan after the U.S. troop withdrawal in August 2021 caused their country to fall to the Taliban.

The Grand Prize for Documentary Short was awarded to Justine Martin for her lovely and observant ode to the bonds of brotherhood, “Oasis,” where twin siblings Raphaël and Rémi are gradually awakening to the challenges of adulthood that may cause them to split off in different directions. Amber Sealey’s 2019 short, “How Does it Start,” which was screened as part of Indy Shorts’ retrospective devoted to the production company Vanishing Angle, is a phenomenally well-crafted and sensitively handled vignette about a sexually curious 12-year-old played to perfection by Lola Wayne Villa. And I couldn’t help being reminded of my favorite feature film of 2023 thus far, Kelly Fremon Craig’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”, while watching Maria Mealla’s marvelously nuanced “La Macana.” It stars Kayen Manóvil in a quietly captivating performance as the young daughter of divorced parents. Her reluctance to visit her father immediately after getting her first period is achingly authentic, resulting in a final scene that had my heart singing. I have no doubt that Judy Blume would love it. 

“The film happened very organically,” said producer Bianca Beyrouti. “As someone who also gets periods and has divorced parents, I just found those points of connection immediately. It’s all told from a Latina/Latinx perspective. My director is originally from Bolivia and being able to tell stories with and through that identity is important.”

The most high-profile name to receive a prize at Indy Shorts was Alden Ehrenreich, who won the Directorial Debut Award for his electrifying “Shadow Brother Sunday,” executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola, who cast the actor in his under-appreciated 2009 effort, “Tetro.” Tim Blake Nelson lent his indelible voice to “Ninety-five senses,” an endearing and heartbreaking animated work from the “Napoleon Dynamite” duo of Jared and Jerusha Hess. Photographer Cig Harvey honored her late friend in River Finlay’s extraordinary “Eat Flowers,” in which both the visuals and narration have an awe-inspiring poetry, such as when a compost heap dotted with plant life resembles the night sky. Similarly, “Subject to Review,” the ESPN documentary helmed by Theo Anthony (whose brilliant “Rat Film” made my top ten list in 2017), juxtaposes pixels on a screen with sand on a baseball field, showing how both allow history to be inscribed on their surfaces. 

Among the most stunning directorial debuts I caught at Indy Shorts was Sebastian Delascasas’ “Promise,” a symphony of emotionally charged silences disrupted by sudden revelations. In the role of Chris, a teen who reveals a horrifying truth to his pal (played by Delascasas) during a night of video gaming, Rupert Fennessy is utterly mesmerizing—and his work is all the more impressive when one learns that he only had five hours to prepare for it. While speaking with Delascasas, he told me that he was born in Colombia, South America, and moved to Qatar in the Middle East at age seven before attending college at NYU. 

“As the cultures around me very drastically changed, along with the people and their thoughts, I realized how the idea of right and wrong is what we actually make it be,” said Delascasas. “I am fascinated when people disagree on something, and if viewers leave my movie arguing about it, I’m happy. My idea with ‘Promise’ was to turn a question mark into a short film, and my favorite thing is hearing the audience uncomfortably shifting in their seats while watching it.”

Several characters in this year’s Indy Shorts selections grappled with abuse, including the heroine played by Bella Ramsey in Sparky Tehnsuko’s “Villain.” After being blown away by their work on HBO’s “The Last of Us,” seeing them for the first time on the big screen only cemented for me what a towering talent Ramsey is. The same could be said of Shirley Chen’s staggering portrayal of a high school theatre student working through trauma in Danny Madden’s 2018 Vanishing Angle production, “Krista.” Rocky Walls’ documentary “Gun Control” powerfully shows how its adult subject has embraced a therapeutic art project as his method for overcoming memories of his monstrous stepfather. Iván Morales’ “Sushi” snuck up and floored me with its wonderful karaoke sequence between father and son that devolves into one of the festival’s most galvanizing monologues, articulating the horrors that Tehnsuko’s film only alludes to. I was also greatly moved by “Between Earth & Sky,” Andrew Nadkarni’s glorious tribute to his aunt, renowned ecologist Nalini Nadkarni, whose profound connection to nature was a source of comfort during her childhood fraught with abuse.

One of the most exhilarating selections at Indy Shorts 2023 was easily Michéle Stephenson and Joe Brewster’s “Black Girls Play: The Story of Hand Games,” a documentary that shows how the hand games created by Black girls have shaped Black music throughout the generations. Gabriel Veras’ “A Chocolate Lens” celebrates how photographer Steven Cummings has defied stereotypes by capturing everyday Black life in America, while Darren Haruo Rae’s “Nisei” sheds light on a vital piece of American history by sharing his family’s connection to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in WWII, comprised entirely of Japanese-American soldiers. Sam Vladimirsky and Cody Ball’s “Layqa” zeroes its lens on a mural at the Newark Liberty International Airport painted by artist Layqa Nina Yawar to better represent the surrounding population, a third of which are residents born outside of the U.S. And if you’re weren’t already psyched to see Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” this October, then Brooke Pepion Swaney’s “Lily Gladstone: Far Out There” will certainly do the trick. In this enlightening profile, the Indigenous actress reveals that she was offered the role of Mollie Burkhart in Scorsese’s film on Burkhart’s actual birthday. 

Though the “Barbenheimer” double bills are currently—and deservedly—all the rage, a more fitting film to pair with Christopher Nolan’s latest is George and Teddy Kunhardt’s chilling documentary, “The Silent Witness.” Its eloquent and warmhearted subject is 91-year-old Tomiko Morimoto West, who survived the bombing of Hiroshima at age 13 and has devoted her life to speaking firsthand about the inhumanity of war. Sharing her passion are the titular subjects of Jordan Matthew Horowitz’s touching “Jack and Sam.” Both men are Holocaust survivors who met by chance nearly eighty years after they first crossed paths in a concentration camp.

“I knew I had to make this film, even if I had to just put it on my credit card and figure it out later,” Horowitz told me. “What inspires me about these men is how they are now going around to schools and talking to kids about the dangers of hatred and division that they see happening in this country, and anti-Semitism is only a part of it. I never thought I would see this moment in my lifetime.”

Another meaningful reunion occurs in Nicole Noren’s documentary “Betsy & Irv,” about a Penn State student who spoke out about being raped at knifepoint by one of the school’s celebrated football players, and found herself supported and befriended by a teammate of the rapist (the director revealed that the pair are now a couple). Karina Dandashi’s “Cousins” put a smile on my face with its tender comedy about the connection between its titular duo, as did Scott Krahn and Robb Fischer’s “Friday Night Blind,” an affectionate look at the Milwaukee Beer Barrels Blind Bowling League that is made unforgettable by the team’s hilarious member Judy Henderson. She refuses to let her disability get in the way of her having a great time at the bowling alley, even when her ball winds up in the “goddamn gutter.”

Nicholas Bentgen’s three-minute “Quote Me Outside,” about a guy who annoys his one-night stand by spouting constant inspirational quotes, has the energy and playfulness of vintage Geico commercials. If there were an acting award at this year’s festival, I imagine one of the top contenders would be Jillian Mercado, who plays a fashion model and wheelchair user whose busy routine is disrupted by her own one-night stand in Nathan Morris’ splendid “My Eyes Are Up Here.” Another stellar romantic comedy among the selections is Emily Foran’s “Bad Vibes,” in which a couple attempts to spice up their marriage by surveying the products at a sex shop in Belfast. There are distinct echoes of the classic subtitles sequence from “Annie Hall” in Erin Brown Thomas and writer/star Olivia Haller’s ingeniously structured “[SUBTEXT],” which depicts a first date from both the male and female perspectives, as they trade off on informing the audience—but not one another—about what they are really thinking.

“I met Erin at a time when I was new to LA and still forming my community,” said Haller. “The impulse for the film came from this desire to make myself known without hiding the messy parts of myself and my anxieties about my past and future. I found that I made more authentic lasting connections when I was honest about what I going through. As we developed the project, the story became even more about how it's more healing to validate how each person's trauma affects them rather than comparing and ranking our traumas against each other.”

Perhaps the wackiest selection at this year’s Indy Shorts was Jillian Corsie’s horror comedy, “Tooth,” in which a mouthful of teeth rebel against their owner and her penchant for obsessive flossing. Corsie attended the festival’s kick-off party by wearing a giant tooth costume and handing out floss to promote her project, a clever way to have people (such as myself) come up to her rather than the other way around. I was also amused by the Lucy and Ethel-style duo in Margaret Miller’s Cannes selection, “Poof,” and Michael Gabriele’s “Get Away,” where unsuspecting young women find themselves trapped in a derivative horror flick—literally. 

Winner of this year’s Comedy Award was writer/director/star John F. Beach’s “They Grow Up So Fast,” a satire on the male phobia of commitment in which the one-night stand had by Beach’s character suddenly plunges him into fatherhood in the blink of an eye. Catherine Loerke’s “Sand Mama” finds its protagonist (played by Tony-winner Miriam Silverman) smothered by motherhood, and not just in the figurative sense of the word. Harry Holland’s go-for-broke tearjerker, “Last Call,” centers on the tense encounter between an estranged son (played by the director’s brother, Tom Holland) and mother (Lyndsay Duncan) in a pub, while Milana Vayntrub’s “Pickled Herring” mines laughs in a quirky father/daughter dynamic. The ringtone of Vayntrub’s character is a masterstroke, prompting me to remember her musical segment in “Give Me an A,” the anthology film made in response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, entitled “Vasectopia” (which deserves to snag a Best Original Song Oscar nod). 

Sean Schiavolin’s enthralling “To My Father” takes a closer look at the story behind Deaf actor Troy Kotsur’s Oscar speech, in which he thanked his father, who was the best signer in his family until a car accident paralyzed him from the neck down. Natalie Metzger, the VP of Development and Production at Vanishing Angle, took home the festival’s Horror Award for her genuinely disquieting short about the delirium of parenthood, “Sleep Study.” It utilizes long takes that are as audacious and impactful as the production company’s one-take wonders lensed in 2017 by Jim Cummings and included in this year’s program, “It’s All Right, It’s Ok” and “The Robbery” (the latter title serves as a sterling showcase for Rae Gray, whom I saw years ago in the Lookingglass Theatre’s production of “The North China Lover” in Chicago). 

Yet my favorite film of all at Indy Shorts 2023 was its winner of the Grand Prize for Animated Short, “Rosemary A.D. (After Dad),” filmmaker Ethan Barrett’s astonishing tour de force that visualizes in crude yet poetic hand drawn animation the stream of consciousness flowing through his mind as he holds his baby daughter for the first time. Wracked with uncertainty about the future of his offspring and whether he is up to the challenge of fathering her, he eventually decides to move forward, while comforted by Roman philosopher Seneca’s immortal assertion that “sometimes even to live is an act of courage,” words we could all live by today.

“When my daughter was born, my wife and I decided that she would go back to work and I would stay at home,” Barrett told me. “I began thinking existential thoughts about my film career being over, so I decided to make one last short film about this experience before moving on with my life. It started in the most humble way possible as I drew with crayons on copy paper. The budget was less than a hundred dollars, and I did all the voices with my wife and daughter, so everything is completely homemade. There was never a script or a storyboard because I wanted the whole thing to be very organic and to move forward without knowing exactly how it was going to look. I read a quote recently that stated, ‘a work of art is not a masterpiece when nothing more can be added but when nothing else can be taken out.’ I’m not saying mine is a masterpiece, but I feel that is so true. My goal is to make the audience feel that no moment was wasted.”

If there is any justice, Ethan Barrett will be an Oscar nominee in 2024.

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