Stephen Fife

Writer, Non-Registered Critics

The 2017 HollyShorts Film Festival ran from August 10-19 and featured some 400 films, running from 3 to 40 minutes each.  I vowed to see at least 300 of those offerings, but don’t think I saw more than 250.  That was still a bewilderingly large number of films, especially when the time between blocks of films was often less than 10 minutes.  After awhile I felt a bit like Malcolm McDowell’s character in Clockwork Orange, though without the contraption to keep my eyelids pinned open.  I could have used that at times, especially during the two blocks of midnight screenings, when there wasn’t a film either night that made being there better than being in bed.

All in all, though, I have to express some surprise and delight at how many excellent films I was treated to.  I’d say there were as many 50 short films that I would highly recommend – that is, 20% of what I saw.  Which is a remarkably high number.  The quality was much higher on the whole than what I’d seen a few months before at the Pasadena Film Festival.  The great thing about short films is that you can often access them online at YouTube or Vimeo or the producer/director’s website free of charge, and doing so will be very much worth your time.

I’ve already profiled Karen Allen’s lovely film, A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud in my last column.  Here are a few more short films that you absolutely positively have to catch up with, if you are a dedicated cinephile or just someone who appreciates the new and differerent.

FROM THE OPENING NIGHT PARTY (shot by the Twisted Hipster)


MUSTARD SEED by Linda Roessler – I haven’t been able to find any link or image for this film, which is a real shame. It says more in 6 or 7 minutes than most do in 2 hours about the matter-of-factness of the Jewish genocide, as well as the existence of compassion amid all that destruction.  The film starts out with a shot of a beautiful field being tilled by a humble farming family.  Then we see shots of insects: a bee gathering pollen, a grasshopper trying to climb over a leaf.  It is a peaceful world, and I wondered if this was some kind of nature film.  Then a truck shows up, the size of a laundry truck or a postal delivery van.  Two guards in brown uniforms get out of the cab, along with a peasant in dark clothing.  They come over to the mother, father and 7 year old daughter working the field and force them all to strip naked and get into the back of the van.  What happens next is both exactly what you expect and completely surprising.  A devestating and yet not a hopeless experience.

HOPE DIES LAST by Ben Price – This is a brilliant little film set in Auschwitz about the life of Josef Paczynski, a Polish political prisonor who shaved the camp commandant Rudolf Hess every day for four years.  There is a remarkable interplay between prisoner and leader.  The prisoner would like nothing better than to slit the Nazi commandant’s throat.  The Nazi commandant is fully aware of this and is fully confident that the prisoner never will.  This strange little battle of wills is a triumph for all concerned, and it well deserves the Hollyshorts prize it received.




“Mother” (Matka) by Piotrek Golebiewski – Oh my God, what a movie.  What a movie!  It tells the story of a family of humble Polish peasants – a father, mother and two daughters – whose home is commandeered by a Nazi regiment that has taken up residence in their town.  The family is forced upstairs to their attic (shades of Anne Frank), where they starve and live in constant fear, while the Nazis eat well and await their next orders.  The commander of the regiment is a decent older man who is all for leaving the Polish family alone, but his adjutant is a sadist who is frothing at the mouth to kill the Poles or at least rape the pretty wife. Who will win? The film is shot in a dreamy black-and-white with light suffusing at the edges, and there is a thrilling confidence to the director’s slow, steady pace. One thing is for sure: even when the Poles win, they will somehow manage to lose. Somehow this 15 minute film captures an essence of what it means to be from frequently-annexed country of Poland.

A STUDY IN TYRANNY by Andrew Laurich – This dark comedy is very dark indeed, but also very funny and very beautifully shot. It builds off of the most popular answer to the question of “If you had a time machine, where’s the first place you would go?” So, yes, our hero – a contemporary guy in his 20s – has gotten a gun and gone back in time to kill Hitler. The film doesn’t show us his time machine or offer explanations, we are simply there in Hitler’s garret, this American guy’s foot twitching nervously while he holds a .357 magnum under the wooden table. Hitler here is also in his 20s. He’s a callow youth, still painting classical landscapes, still hoping to get into the Academy of Art and make that his life. The American disabuses him of that notion, whipping out a paperback biography of Hitler from his back pocket that details Hitler’s rejection by the art establishment and his subsequent turn to politics and genocide. Hitler the artist scoffs at this. “But I’m a vegetarian,” he says. “I like dogs.” Also shot in black and white – which I have to say feels like the right choice – this takes a twist and a turn that somehow makes history seem like the biggest joke that could ever be played on the human condition. Which it very well might be.


AFTERNOON DELIGHT by Matteo J.  Mosterts – There were a few porn parodies in the festival, but I thought this was the funniest.  It begins in familiar fashion with a guy saying goodbye to his wife, then loading in a porn dvd called “Afternoon Delight” to his player.  He sets himself up with lubrication and tissues and presses “play,” grinning with anticipation at the erotic “delights” that await him.  And sure enough the film he’s watching starts out in time-honored fashion with the cable guy coming to the door of a large and lavish house, owned by a busty blonde lady whose white robe keeps slipping open.  The man watching the film squirts some silky liquid onto his fingers, waiting for the payoff.  But then things start going awry in the film-within-the-film, and the man watching it keeps getting increasingly frustrated.  Then his wife returns, and– well, I don’t want to spoil it for you, even if that would be very much in keeping with the film itself.  This 9 minute film has masterful pacing and knows just how to play off our expectations.

CONTROL by Alison Becker and Kimmy Gatewood –  This short film was shown on opening night and also won a best comedy award, honors that I think it deserved.  It encapsulates brilliantly the dilemma of the modern-day control freak, who has more ways than ever to exert control over his/her environment, which only ends up squeezing all the breathable air out of the room.  Or out of one’s life.  In this case, the central character (played by the film’s writer, Alison Becker) decides to do something about it, but even while planning her own suicide, it has to be done with matching colors and with implements that compliment each other.  What makes this work so well, again, is how well it was thought out and planned – with such great “control.”  So, see, being a control freak can have its upside.  A lesson that Alison’s character here is sadly unable to benefit from.  (And bow-wow, that is the sweetest little dog I’ve ever seen!)

THE BIRTH by Sarah Hatherley – There are almost as many comedies about giving birth as there are porn parodies, and they are even harder to do well.   The problems are many, ranging from the fact that so much is at stake for everyone to the fact that we care so much about everything turning out well to the fact that it’s all been done before, and how can it be made to seem new?  This short film is not problem-free, by any means – the doula is a one-joke eccentric, who the filmmaker fails to involve in the central action.  But the central couple in this home birth – played by Glenn Maynard and Dana Miltons – keep it just real enough to keep us caring about them, while also giving us permission to laugh at the central dilemma, which is that the husband is a wannabe film director who sees this birth as his one great opportunity to make his masterpiece, while the wife – who thought she was going to be okay with that – finds herself in too much pain and distress to allow him to go through with it.  “Now?” he keeps asking. “Can I start filming now?”  “No!!!!!” she screams.  “Is that a no that really means yes?” he asks desperately.  “No!!!!” she screams again, and so it goes along.  This kind of comedy is very difficult to keep developing while also keeping it real, but director Hatherley is able to do just that, while also coming up with a hilarious final image.

I KNOW JAKE GYLLENHAAL IS GOING TO FUCK MY GIRLFRIEND by Nino Mancuso and Sean Wing– This definitely wins the prize for the funniest title in the festival, but funny titles rarely lead to funny movies. This one is the exception.  It starts out funny, it gets funnier, and it leads to a conclusion that will have you discussing it with your significant other long after the movie has ended.  It revolves around a Hollywood screenwriter, played by writer Sean Wing, whose sexy girlfriend already has an attraction to Jake G. from the tearjerker movie “Rainy Day” that the two of them see together at the start of this movie.  Sean tries to put a damper on his girlfriend’s enthusiasm for Jake by claiming that he thought the female co-star in the tearjerker actually stole the movie away from him.  The next thing you know, the actress who Sean has raved about shows up at the girlfriend’s yoga class, and the girlfriend tells her how much Sean admired her work.  One thing leads to another, and, yes, Sean and his girlfriend end up at a Hollywood party with the irresistible Jake G. himself.  Sean clings  onto his girlfriend, trying to prevent his worst fears from coming true.  Will he succeed?  Can he posssibly prevent Jake from fucking his girlfriend?  Well, as we’ve seen with so many of these excellent movies, fate has a way of being very hard to outwit.  But I hope you get a chance to see the film and find out for yourself.

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.