According to the film’s creator, Roman Gerodimos, ESSENCE (2018) was born from a letter from a teacher and scholar written in the twentieth century and passed down from teacher to student for a generation. Gerodimos seeks to create a visual and aural rendition of this essay, which aspires to show how a vision of truth—or, essences of things—is made knowable through art and thought. For both the filmmaker and essayist, art plays a distinct role in imagining beauty, creating harmony from chaos, and synthesizing generations of thought to cultivate the minds of future generations. The essayist notes that art and truth are humanity’s responsibility; he claims, “We have a responsibility to respect and nurture this vast body of knowledge” against the volume of lies, misinterpretations, and the machines of ignorance. According to the piece, no one can put on these responsibilities on an individual. Instead, they are a part of the inborn obligations of being human.
In the film, the images attempt to match the directives espoused in the essay. We see figures move through time and space, at different locations all over the world. A young woman travels through the park, a library, and through complicated hallways and staircases. The film is accompanied by beautiful recordings of Bach, Schubert, and Brahms, unsurprisingly, since the students and teachers involved in the piece are musicians. However, the images seem to suffer from a sense of literalness. The essay asks us to look up (metaphorically, one assumes), and the figure in question looks up. While some of the film’s images do attempt to reach toward the sublime, most stick with moments of quotidian existence. While that is fine, and may, in fact, be part of the short work’s larger gesture toward the responsibility of each individual to work toward understanding the essence of himself and the world. However, the film would be more successful if it gestured toward the essence of cinema, which has long been thought to reveal meaning through metaphors rather than literal interpretations.
Myriam Kamel’s short student film MY BROTHER shows promise as a serious, thoughtful entry into the complexities of emerging immigrant generations caught between family and modernity. In the story, two brothers, Youness and Omar (played by Hamza Tabaichount and Fayçal Azzouz, respectively) have left their families to seek out opportunities in an unnamed, Western city. While Youness has broken from tradition now that he is separated from his family and culture, Omar continues to go to school and walk the path that his parents intended. The two brothers unspoken tensions become explicit, however, on the eve of their parents’ visit, when Youness wants to introduce his parents to his girlfriend.
Kamel’s success lies in her steady, almost motionless camera, which allows the characters to show their complicated and wavering emotions. Youness’s attempts at rebellion seem small (wearing a collared, patterned button-up shirt instead of a white one), but the glances of disapproval through the mirror speak volumes. It’s a credit to Kamel that the film is as controlled as it is; its slow, cinematic tension matches the fractious relationship between the two brothers. The film’s sparse dialogue and few scenic changes allow Youness’s struggles to be internal, almost invisible. In this way, the gesture of tying a tie or adjusting a collar takes on a far greater significance than it usually does.
The film’s struggle may only with Omar, both in the sense of how he is written and how is portrayed. Perhaps through no fault of his own, Azzouz seems to be the wrong man for the part, his charismatic good looks and contemporary haircut make it seem like he’s the one getting ready for the club. It may be, however, that Omar is underwritten, and his only attribute—conservatism—makes it harder to see him as a character and more a foil for his brother’s familial struggle. At one point, when Youness says “you’re just angry because I make more money than you,” the viewer gets the sense that the film could explore why the conservative elements dislike the emergence of individualism within their own families. A more emotionally rich Omar could explore that point more forcefully.
Despite this, Kamel’s film is a rich foray into the emotionally complex world of the younger generation as they attempt to chart a reasonable path between traditionalism and modernity. In exploring these struggles using intimate situations, the film allows us to think about these struggles as real emotional battles instead of ideological paradigms.
Mersolis Schöne and Evi Jägle’s “Deternity” establishes itself through a discomfiting “video” or “installation art” aesthetic, with its flexing animations and projections creating a vibrancy (albeit unattainable) in the background while a more dystopian, existential anxiety is conveyed in the foreground through clinic-white textures and silhouetted movement.
The film’s most unnerving element is perhaps the conflicting nature between the background and foreground. The hands knock and claw away at a heavy, un-budging, and transparent surface that separates the two, and the sound design that emerges from this interaction is awkward and grating to the ears. Add in the droning ambiance scoring the action on display and there is a truly delusional, psychoactive effect that forces a viewer to question the space that is being portrayed, if it is even a physical space at all.
The primary criticism to mention is that the Nietzsche-inspired voice-over is used quite sparingly. Though effectively orated, this poetry could have better served the film’s philosophical groundwork if more fragments were excerpted and read dramatically throughout. Alternatively, it could have been more consistently powerful had the narration been cut altogether to allow the visuals to speak for themselves. Overall, however, the editing and cinematography propel this experience’s visceral imagery to deliver a tense, thought-provoking, and strangely symphonic experimental feat.
Adrian Rodriguez’s “Ariadne” is certainly a visually accomplished film, one that mines the beauty and strangeness out of its mythological underpinnings.
Where it falls short, however, is in its often indulgent, lingering gaze; particular scenes drag on even long after their symbolic power was established and thoroughly conveyed to the viewer. Additionally, this creates a meandering effect to the narrative, which seems, at points, to be going nowhere and thus detracting from its own stakes that it attempts to sustain.
Sure, the cinematography is striking, the editing well employed, and the sound design atmospheric, but an over-reliance on these elements causes “Ariadne” to suffer elsewhere, in terms of the dialogue, the plot momentum, and, unfortunately most of all, the direction. For a powerful tale about “choosing between [one’s] future or [their] heart,” this film’s performances are rendered lifeless, awkward, and thus unconvincing due to the shortcomings in technique and balance of filmic elements overall.
With a mix of disembodied archival dialogue and footage, lucid cinematography, and a generally contemplative pace and wandering structure, Zuhair Mehrali’s “Sketches” delivers a beautifully realized, experimental portrait of a fractured cultural / geographic history.
The artist observing and being observed deliberately sketches in pastel while the landscapes surrounding him are simultaneously explored freely by the camera and, even deeper, excavated through archival excerpts that play strangely, peacefully over these natural images. The result is something singular, powerful, and instantly distinguishable. “Sketches” establishes itself from the very beginning as a visually stunning, conceptually accomplished, culturally inquisitive viewing experience.
Joel Thompson’s “Yummy!” presents itself as a whimsical game between brother and sister, with choir-like, fairy-tale music scoring the scene. The characters are light-heartedly sketched out as well: a timid, seemingly innocent brother and a confident, scheming sister. The narrative is also straightforwardly clever as it is revealed the game is indeed more “high-stakes” than previously assumed. However, where “Yummy!” falters is in its cinematographic execution; its visual appearance is textureless and under-defined, its dialogue inconsequential due to poor sound design, and the performances unconvincing due to ineffective direction and, ultimately, a missed opportunity in terms of using the space in the frame to a satisfying potential and building the lore of the atmosphere that is hinted at through the music and the narrative arc. As a result, the final moments fail to create their intended effect on a viewer and the film overall fizzles out quite forgettably.
Richard Schertzer’s “Afrit” certainly makes a noble attempt at building dread with a nervous, repetitive strumming over its visuals. Additionally, there is some compelling shot composition in tracking shots and close-ups of characters’ physicality. Unfortunately, this is not enough to develop the characters themselves, who remain quite devoid of personality because of a lack of atmosphere (textureless cinematography) and a sparse script, one that does little to convey the stakes of the situation, as well as how we, as viewers, are supposed to interpret (or even feel about) the characters in the midst of it all.
While the shot composition in Richard Schertzer’s “Nature” is finely handled, as well as contemplative in rhythm and gaze, and the music nobly intentioned to resound with the serenity of the natural landscape being depicted, the cinematography itself unfortunately fails to provide a distinctive texture or captivating visual framework for the viewer. Instead, the imagery looks stark and barren, which is one thing if that suits the environment under inspection (such as the blistering coldness in the cinematography of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “The Revenant”), but here the beauty and the solemn abandon of the swaying trees appears flushed of its color, with a sun that should be vibrant and prismatic rather blurred and suppressed in the background of the shots. In the end, “Nature” delivers a watchful eye for the outdoors, but one that does not yet have the aesthetic, or the proper sound design, to back it up.
Daniels Joffe’s “En Garde!” is a visually accomplished, snappily edited portrait of a unique experience, one that follows a young boy’s coming of age and growing sense of self in the often overlooked world of competitive fencing.
The athletic scenes here are well executed, utilizing an array of camera angles and perspectives, along with tense sound design and a frenetic, high-energy editing style that capture the heat of the moment in fencing matches.
Where the film falters, then, is mostly in its music and dialogue quality, for the two elements often interact in a way that is melodramatic and thus more on-the-nose and ineffective compared to the visual style. However, that being said, the cinematography, performances, and editing are enough to prove this film a worthy opponent, and one with a singular focus.
Sara Eustaquio’s “Slumberous” establishes a sense of dread and an oppressive nighttime atmosphere through a droning sound design that renders both the protagonist’s house and the outdoors around it alien and unnerving.
While the shot composition and acting are also compelling enough to sustain the narrative momentum and ominous mood , the greatest weakness of Eustaquio’s film perhaps comes from the script itself. The main character’s choice to murder her hamster by the end seems unmotivated and unearned; while the house is certainly producing a horrific effect through sheer uneasiness, it makes little sense that she would decide to go for her pet first and foremost, especially since the grating squeaks of the hamster wheel are only briefly revealed to us as viewers. Everything else, in fact, appears more brutalizing to the senses than the hamster wheel, so it would have been more relevant to the narrative progression to have the protagonist burn down her house, for instance.
Overall, “Slumberous” is an effective exercise in horror aesthetic, but unfortunately it lacks a cohesive script to finely shape its trajectory.