Stephen Fife

Writer, Non-Registered Critics

Ah, the '6os.  When simplistic lines like that actually seemed to mean something.  When there was a "them" and an "us," and you knew which side you were on.  But not anymore.   While there are great causes and great moral questions aplenty, the morality of any particular individual has never been more self-centered and pragmatic than it is  now.

"Never?" you may ask.  "Never?"  How can you quantify that?

Because cell phones in particular - and technology in general - has made information available to the individual in an  unprecendented way, that allows us to manipulate reality, and be manipulated by others, in ways that never existed before.  That is, the individual has never had more powerful means of communication at his or her control, especially in Western societies, where net neutrality exists, and the government doesn't control the flow of information.

At the same point, the individual has never been more disposable and replaceable than now, and this is certain to increase, as AI and robotic technology advances, and the individual worker in almost all fields becomes more obsolete.  This makes for a very interesting crossroads in world history, which the filmmakers of today are chronicling in ever-burgeoning numbers.

They have the tools.  They will not be stopped.  But who exactly is there to listen to all these trees falling in our cinematic forests?

Yours truly, the Twisted Hipster.

Here now are some of the best "fallen trees" from the recent Hollyshorts Festival.  These are the more obscure ones, with few celebrity connections to make them stand out - just talent.  I am bringing them to your attention in the hope that you will be able to track down the ones that appeal to you most and see for yourself.


Wally Green, who produced/stars in "The Tables," abt ping-pong salvation

THE TABLES by Jon Bunning - This tells the true story of what happened when Wally Green (the "Tony Hawk of table tennis") paid to have two all-weather ping-pong tables installed in the middle of Bryant Park.  All of a sudden the drug addicts were pushed out, replaced by a (mostly-male) group of ping-pong fanatics, who have tournaments long into the night, even during snowstorms.  Wally Green himself, charismatic and gap-toothed, makes a brief appearance near the end of the film, but mostly he leaves it to others to express the ways in which this changed their lives for the better, giving hope to the homeless and others.  It's a fun and affecting peek into the lives of some hardcore New Yorkers.  Not my favorite documentary, but it was awarded Best Documentary at the Festival.

ONE WAY HOME by Qinzi Fan - This is an extraordinary documentary as well as an act of great bravery.  It depicts the education of Tibetan students by the Chinese government.  To quote the film's website: "What is the cost of free government-sponsored education?  Tibetan children Tashi and Tuju were chosen to study in Mainland China, chosen to study with thousands of Tibetan kids in the schools for only Tibetans.  These boarding schools prepare them to return to Tibet as China's new elite, but the "first-class education" comes with a deep loss of identity, language and culture."  I don't know how Qinzi Fan was ever able to get permission to tell this story, but if you want to see how "1984" really happens - how a government tries to wipe out a people's identity - then watch this film.

WOODY'S ORDER by Ann Talman -  This is the film version of Ann Talman's play about her brother Woody, who has cerebral palsy.  We finally see Ann perform her play for Woody, who doctors said would only live to be 12 but who is now almost 70.  The relationship between Ann and her brother is deeply-moving, and having these home movies of the two of them playing together as children is beautiful and heart-rending.  That said, I prefer the stage version, because Ann is such a great actress, and seeing her take on her brother's personality as well as her own creates something magical, of the imagination, that is somehow more enduring and deeper than than the thing itself.

REFUGEE by Joyce Chen and Emily Moore - This was my choice for best documentary, and a very good one it is - perhaps even a classic of its kind.  The filmmakers follow around Aicha Diop, a solitary but indomitable West African woman in her 60s, living in New York City, as she does battle with the forces of Immigration, struggling to bring her five children over to join her.  I can't imagine a more relevant story or one more filled with mind-blowing twists and turns.  The filmmakers frame it in such an intelligent way that. even while you're rooting for Aicha to succeed, as she cleans houses and does whatever it takes to re-unite her family, you are still allowed to ask the question: is it a good thing for the rest of us to have Aicha's children here?  Quality work by first-rate filmmakers.


THE HISTORY OF MAGIC: ENSUENO by Jose Luis Gonzalez - This was the only animated film I saw in the festival that stayed with me, both for its originality and authenticity.  The southwestern Chicano imagery has great flow and humor and a seemingly endless sense of inventiveness.  This ballad of a young girl's bike ride home gives us her hopes, fears and dreams in six minutes.  It's a small segment of a much larger tapestry - can't wait to see the rest!

FISHER COVE by Sean Skene - There's a mysterious force loose in Fisher's Cove that keeps tugging at the line of Sean Skene's fisherman and then disappearing.  The fisherman takes this personally, and he refuses to leave until he finds out who or what is behind this.  When he finally does, in a death-defying manner, I just wish that he'd had a more interesting interaction with what he finds.  Despite this, Skene's visual style is so memorable and compulsively watchable that his short film stays in the mind long after it's over.  Also, second most adorable dog in the festival.

NILES CANYON, directed by Sallyanne Massimini -This film is a little bit cheesy and a little bit over-familiar in subject matter, but it rises above others on the considerable talents of writer/actor David Paul Francis. Telling the story of a man's redemption by a mysterious woman found bleeding by the side of the road, Mr Francis also plays the main character.  Large in size, he also has an enormous emotional depth.  His speech to this woman about the darkness inside him and the regrets that have driven him to the brink of suicide pierced through the mass of words and imagery from this festival and found a permanent place in my heart.  Thank you, Mr Francis, you are a talent to be reckoned with.  Here's hoping you have many more opportunities to showcase your pain.

JUST GO! by Pavel Gumennikov -  This film won Best Romance at Hollyshorts, but it is less a film than an excuse for an extended chase scene; as such, though, it is pretty spectacular.  Just is a handsome, athletic 24 year old man who lost his legs in a childhood accident.  He is flirting with a pretty girl when two bearded thieves steal the girl's purse and make a quick getaway, not believing they have anything to fear from the disabled man who pursues them.  Oh, how wrong they are!  The film showcases both Just's physical dexterity and his ingenuity.  In a basic sense, this film harkens back to early filmmaking and the kind of simple storytelling that featured physical elements and chase sequences that could never be matched in effectiveness in any other art form.

LACRIMOSA by Tanja Mairitsch - This is a sublimely beautiful exercise in surreal filmmaking.  It centers on a young woman's dream world, where she encounters her lost lover.  He was a painter, and she is delighted to see the work he's done since his untimely death.  It's easy to take a film like this for granted as the kind of dazzling stylistic piece that one expects to find in such a festival.  But the way that Mairitsch keeps her imagery connected to her main character's dealing with the loss of her first love is anything but "typical."  And then there are those underwater sequences, so hauntingly lovely.  Again, filmic in a pure sense, what film was created to do.  Brava!

LIMBO by Konstantina Kotzamani - This 30 minute film won the top award in Hollyshorts as BEST SHORT FILM GRAND PRIZE, and it is truly remarkable.  But what is it about?  I still don't know.  On IMDB, it is described as: "The leopard shall lie down with the goat. The wolves shall live with the lambs.  And a young boy shall lead them."  All I can say for sure is that, while watching it, it seemed to communicate directly with my unconscious.  A profound if puzzling experience.

WOMAN WITH AN EDITING BENCH by Karen Pearlman - This is a very effective film and festival favorite about Elizaveta Svilova, the dedicated editor behind Dziga Vertov's revolutionary documentaries in Stalin's Russia, most notably his masterpiece, Man with a Movie Camera (No. 1 on the list of Best Documentaries of all time, according to 'Sight and Sound').  This film employs Svilova's own innovative editing techniques in telling the story of how she outwitted the Soviet censors and kept Vertov from being deported to a gulag.  In paying homage to Svilova, this film celebrates all those who dedicate their lives to giving form to creativity despite the dangers and hazards that may be involved.  A must-see for all film-lovers.

THE FARE by Santiago Paladines - This was the AFI thesis film for an Ecuadoran filmmaker with a very bright future.  He takes on the subject of human trafficking, and he does an excellent job of creating that world, in which Johnny Ortiz plays Javier, a trafficker-in-training.  His boss, Wellington,  puts Javier in charge of Cristina, an 11 year old middle-class girl, forcing him to rape her to show his allegiance.  Paladines demonstrates a sure hand throughout, and he gets a much better performance from Ortiz than John Ridley & compay did in American Crime.


IT'S JUST A GUN, written by Daniel Klein, directed by Brian Robau - This thesis film for Chapman University is notable for some jazzy camera movement and the dexterous use of cross-cutting to tell the heartfelt (if somewhat familiar) story of how the "good luck" of finding a discarded firearm can quickly turn fatal.  Director Robau and writer Klein have the good sense to frame this in an unexpected way, showing how the gun has the potential to save some young public school kids from being bullied by the older kids at their school.  I wish they'd found an equally inventive way to get the cops involved - right now it seems fairly lame. Nevertheless, lots to admire here.

THE SUITCASE by Abi Damaris Corbin -  This is a flawed but exciting 9/11 thriller by a USC student who graduated high school at 13 and got her B.A. by 17 (so maybe she isn't a student anymore).  It dramatizes the story of a corrupt baggage handler (Mojean Aria) who pilfers items from traveler's suitcases.  On 9/11, he happened to look inside one suitcase which contained items of no value for him, but whose significance he realized after the planes hit the World Trade Center.  He tries to alert his boss - who sees this only as an admission of the handler's thievery - and then the SWAT members who swarm the airport, but no one will listen.  The handler then goes on a frantic search for the luggage, at great risk to his own life.  All that is well done, and the film comes off interestingly as an indictment of the police/military mindset in much the same way that the first Diehard movie was. The problem is that we see the same dynamic played out again and again, and it strains credulity that the baggage handler keeps being able to gain access to restricted areas.  But this is still a nail-biting thrill ride by a director with skills and smarts beyond her years.  I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

WATU WOTE: ALL OF US, written by Julia Drache, directed by Katja Benrath; and LUNCH TIME by Alireza Ghasemi - Two festival favorites from abroad, both extraordinary films.  The first is drawn from a real-life 2015 event, when Al-Shababb terrorists attacked a bus, intent on killing all the non-Muslims.  The second is an Iranian film about a 15 year old girl who goes to the morgue to identify her dead mother's body, but the officials there won't let her see the body because of her age.  Both movies show the cruelty and the compassion that people are capable of.  Both leave us with a sense of the heroism that everyday people can demonstrate in terrible situations. Both should be seen by well-fed Westerners, who forget how many individual freedoms we take for granted.

CROWBAR SMILE by Jamie Mayer - This is a coming-of-age story about a young pool boy (Tristan Lake Leabu) who falls in love with the 30-something college professor whose pool he attends to.  It's an intelligent and well-directed example of the genre, and the Holly-shorts folks thought enough of it to put it on the Opening Night roster.  I'm not sure it's that good, but it has a sweet and believable twist when the boy and professor seem about to get it on, and the director really knows how to portray the awkwardness of adolescents waiting around for their lives to begin. But what's up with that title? Yikes!

EMERGENCY by Carey Williams -  This is a one joke comedy-thriller, but it's a very good joke.  A few members of a minority fraternity on an urban college campus come home to find a scantily-dressed white girl passed out on the floor of their front room, probably from a drug overdose.  They know that someone has to call 911, but who? Three of the students are dark-skinned, and the fourth is Mexican.  Each of them spins a horror story of what would happen if he were to make the call - all the imagined stories end with the caller either shot or locked up for what has happened to the girl.  They call around, trying to find some white friend who can come over and notify the authorities.  ("Hey, you know White Jason?  Have you seen him around campus lately?  Do you have his number?")  But all their calls to white friends go straight to voicemail.  Meanwhlle the girl starts choking on her own vomit, and somebody has to do something. Will they ever find a person light-skinned enough to call the cops?  The answer is both satisfyingly funny and sadly believable.  A trenchant piece of satire which has been made just realistically enough to keep it from getting smarmy or overly smug.  (It reminded me a lot of early Spike Lee, both in its POV and its style.)

BENNY GOT SHOT by Malcolm Washington - Another AFI Thesis Film and Festival darling - it won BEST DRAMA at Hollyshorts - it's another urban film exemplifying how black people fear that their lives may really not  matter, at least when it comes to the authorities.  Iantha Richardson plays Naomi, an autopsy assistant at the L.A. coroner's office, whose kid brother has gone missing on the same night that there's been a police shooting in the area where he had been headed.  Naomi calls around desperately, praying that the next body she sees on a slab isn't him.  Director Washington does a nice job of keeping it real, letting the tension rise of its own accord, forgoing musical underscoring or any other well-worn device to remind us of how much is at stake.

SWEET MADDIE STONE by Brady Hood - Maddie Stone is many things, but "sweet" is not one of them.  Street smart, tough as nails, hates to lose at any cost - now you're getting closer.  Maddie Stone's dad is a notorious criminal, and she's ruled the yard in her Glasgow school as a result.  But now her dad has been sent away to prison, and she has to instill fear on her own.  Jessica Barden plays her with a ferocity that doesn't obscure her extreme vulnerability - in fact, it emerges directly from it.  An older - and much taller - student (Barney Harris) senses her weakness and takes over as the school drug-pusher.  He offers to take her on as his assistant, but her sense of importance does not allow her to accept.  When she finally swallows her pride and agrees, he rejects her, laughing in her face.  Maddie's response to this gets her kicked out of school.  What will become of sweet Maddie Stone?  Her future may not look bright, but it will not be boring, that's for sure.  Brady Hood has created a resonant character, and I hope she re-appears in a feature-length film.


THE LANGUAGE OF BALL by Ramon Rodriguez and THE CAGE by Ricky Staub 

These two movies about basketball and teenage guys couldn't be more different, but both are spectacular in their own ways.   Both use almost no spoken words to convey their messages.  The Language of Ball  tells the story of a young man (Eshan Bay) who speaks no English and has just moved into an urban neighborhood, going to the local basketball court with his ball.  He is taken up by another young man at the court, who goes around with him to all the courts in the city, playing two-on-two competitions.  In the course of the day they bond and get to know each other through "the language of ball."  While in The Cage, the focus is one young black man in North Philadelphia who struggles to break free from "a cycle of betrayal, anger, violence and death."  The intensity of the images is raw and visceral, and the performances from William Lee and all the other amateur actors are remarkable.

FIVE MINUTES WITH MARY by Matt Beurois - This is one of those films that goes by so quickly, with such a deceptively simple concept, that it's easy to miss its brilliance and the way it captures a huge event in such an off-handed way.  The film begins with Daniel, a bearded young white guy - probably a student - hiking a solitary trail in Joshua Tree National Park.  His cell phone rings, and he sees that the caller is his friend Charlie, who Daniels knows is on vacation in Paris. Except it's not Charlie on the phone, it's Mary.  And Mary is at a rock concert in Paris where a horrific terrorist event is still going on.  All of a sudden we - along with Daniel - are plunged into the violence of the modern world.  It's something we can never get away from, no matter how safe and removed we may seem.

THE LIGHT IN THE AFTERNOON by David Steiner - I'm ending this reviewpalooza with a 15 minute French film that was screened by a screenwriters group called Stage 32 at Harmony Gold, where the closing awards festivities for Hollyshorts was held.  This is an intriguing and oddly romantic film about the life and death of a couple.  Narrated first by Shannon (Morwenna Spagnol), we are introduced by her to Aurelian (Writer/director David Steiner), a French intellectual who expresses only contempt for "the  mundanity" of daily life and for "the mediocrity" of other people.   Shannon is repelled by his attitude, saying that he can afford these elitist views because he doesn't have a job and doesn't worry about a money.  She does have a job, and she does worry about money, and she keeps urging him to try experiencing daily life and see how that made him feel.  He agrees to do so if she will be there with him.  After some hesitation she agrees - and then comes the twist that changes everything and leads to the second half of the film, narrated by Aurelian several years later.  The film has a beautiful arc, and it results in a sense of wisdom genuinely earned.  Like so many of the best short films discussed here, "short" does not mean "small."  Like any successful work of art, they open up vistas that allow us to see with greater clarity and a sense of wonder what has always been right in front of our eyes.


Steve is a 5-tool writer (plays, screenplays, novels, poetry, journalism) who has had 11 books published, 10 plays produced, and has written for the New York Times “Arts & Leisure”, Village Voice, New Republic, and many others. He is one of the few people on the planet who can lay claim to spending time with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sandy Meisner, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, as well as so many other extraordinary people who refused to color inside the lines. He is always on the lookout for the original and the incisive.