The seventh annual Omaha Film Festival opens this week at Great Escape Theatres with a well-earned reputation as one of Movie Maker’s Top 25 Film Festivals worth the Entry Fee. It’s a reputation one group of entrants, the Nebraska Short Film Makers especially appreciate as many of these emerging artists launch their careers in this five-day event ending this Sunday, Mar. 11.
OFF 12 showcases a wide spectrum of indie fiction and nonfiction films as well as its popular film and screenwriting panel, but no screenings are better attended than those featuring local and state filmmakers. Three blocks of Nebraska shorts are offered, 26 in all, and Marc Longbrake, OFF’s program director says this year’s films are better than ever.
“As we get more films entered,” Longbrake said, “the quality of films we can show has risen overall. The basement level has come up as well. There are not as many lower tier films this year. There is an awful lot of talent here in Nebraska.”
Longbrake attributes the increased interest in local filmmaking to “the availability of technology and social media. Anyone can be a filmmaker today. OFF’s role is that of legitimizer. We are one of the ways for them to measure themselves, but if you don’t make it here, there are other venues.”
In interviews with eight entrants, Aaron Zavitz of Hunger Artist Films summarized this category’s appreciation of what OFF brings to the table. “The festival circuit is highly competitive and expensive,” said Zavitz whose short film, The Fixer was accepted. “For those making films with little or no budget, it’s even harder. It’s an honor to be chosen by one of Movie Maker’s top 25 festivals.”
An honor and an opportunity for all entrants regardless of motive and priority. Like most young filmmakers, Shane Bystrom (Fighters Block) sees OFF as a learning experience. “My film hasn’t been seen by an unbiased audience yet. OFF will provide a nice Midwestern test for my movie. A Petri dish. I’ll see what grows, what I need to change.”
Veteran OFF entrant Mike Machian (Underwater Dream Machine vs The Zombies) agrees adding, “networking” as another advantage. Machian wants to “meet people who will help you and be helped by you the next time around. I want to do this for a living. I don’t want to mumble to people what my day job actually is.”
Though OFF has its share of awards, competition varies as a motivator in this category. Jonathon Goodro (Good People), who has worked on two features including indie film Dedication doesn’t mince words regarding his goals. “Competing…and proving I’m the best is a great progress maker. I want to support myself and my family by writing, directing and producing feature films.”
Bystrom has similar personal ambitions, but he says he is less motivated by competing at this stage in his career. Nevertheless, “It would be nice to win the audience vote,” he admits. “No one is opposed to winning. But I entered OFF as just a way to get seen, especially in the place I grew up and on the big screen. It’s where a film belongs.”
While film distribution is seldom a factor in mid-level festivals, emerging artists can’t help thinking about that next step. “It would be great if distributors were invited to the screenings,” Zavitz said. “I think one of the greatest compliments filmmakers could have is to have someone say, ‘I loved your vision, and I want to help make it possible for others to see’.”
Goodro isn’t expecting “film distributors to be at the short block either, but if they do “that would be amazing. Having a distributor want to work with me in developing it (film) or another project would be a giant dream come true.”
Until then, young filmmakers will continue to experiment with short films because as Jordon Fountain ( The Physics Perspective and The Inherent Incident of Déjà Vu) put it, “They are the best teachers for future films. Creating a film every week (on YouTube) for the past 30 has been very beneficial…making shorts will make you a better filmmaker getting your work out for people to see.”
What viewers will see in this category at OFF 12 is a variety of fiction and nonfiction shorts, the best of which are creative, technically proficient and above all, unified. That is, the very best of them are concise and work within themselves, their goals and ambition.
What follows are brief critiques of the best NE shorts this writer previewed. That said, the following films were not available prior to deadline: The Grocery, Love at Last, Heartaches, Shame in the Game, Volunteer Gestures, Unpatentalbe Invention and The Little Piggy.
First, a special shout-out to two proven educational sources for aspiring filmmakers: The Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film at UNL and Metro Community College’s film and video program, especially mentor/instructor Bob Maas who has been instrumental in many films entered in OFF since its beginnings in 2005.
Several NE short films deserve an Honorable Mention, none more so than Mike Machian’s clever and entertaining parody of music videos and horror films, The Underwater Dream Machine vs. The Zombies. Machian is a virtual poster boy for the continued progress seen in this category at OFF including his nostalgic doc last year, Bye Bye Blatt.
Credit also veteran filmmaker Jesus Narvaez for revealing himself in the simple, elegant doc Breaking the Walls as a young man struggling with a form of mental illness. Narvaeaz’s film could teach some about minimalist technique and understatement in narration for overall effect.
Two additional films worth of Honorable Mention are Shane Bystrom’s Fighter’s Block and Jordan Fountain’s An Inherent Incident of Déjà Vu. The former is an ambitious and showy paean to perhaps one too many influences, Kung Fu, Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, and the latter is a creative step above a film school assignment in technical skill and special effects, all of which are quite well done and properly atmospheric, but is a little undone by an abrupt, inconclusive ending.
The next 10 films were the best of the 19 this critic saw with the top five being the most creative, unified and under control, if perhaps not as ambitious as the five below. In the bottom tier in no particular order we have Dharma Sangha and Mato Output, two interesting, well-made documentary “shorts” of some significance and three adventure/dramas with potential: The Fixer, The Legend of Israel Grimm and Good People.
Of the two docs, Dharma Sangha, directed by Nik Fackler and him and actor Ellen Burstyn, is a poetic and nuanced spiritual look/see at the phenomena that bears the film’s title. Shooting in Nepal and Africa the film boasts what Fackler does best, visual storytelling, while making good use of archival news footage and an appropriated soundtrack although his narration is too soft and barely audible over the music. Purported to be a precursor to a feature length doc, Dharma Sangha is a lot to look forward to.
Mato Oput, probably the most significant and topical short in this category, is a more straight-forward, by the book doc as it meticulously chronicles efforts by Northern Uganda to recover and reconcile after the brutality of its 20-year civil war. Directed by Tim Guthrie, this Creighton University backpack journalism project is much more effective at achieving its goals than last year’s Esperanza. Yet, it still relies too much on a sing-song, overly scripted and didactic narrative and commentary instead of trusting the viewer with its worthy interviews and effective visuals.
All three melodramas above wisely begin in media res, but only Goodro’s Good People completely satisfies within its time frame. At that, this tale of moral dilemma between stepfather and son following a third person’s death is hampered by a too easy bit of sentimental dialogue that undermines its otherwise open ending.
On the other hand, though Mike Johnson’s The Legend of Israel Grimm and Zavitz’s The Fixer are also exciting, well-made psychodramas, there is enough material in each for a full-length film, and maybe that is their intent. Yet, they are quite different. The former, a sort of supernatural western as in True Grit or The Assassination of Jesse James pits three hapless escaped criminals against an avenging Man in Black. While it emulates the above’s naturalistic cinematography and psychological tension, it’s a bit talky and strident.
The Fixer also displays fine production values throughout including well-choreographed action scenes in a more contemporary tale of romance and revenge. Editing and audio are especially solid as it cross-cuts action and domestic drama. But while Grimm underwhelms its pacing or continuity, The Fixer at times stalls with too much chatty dialogue and overly long fight scenes, neither of which would seem out of place in a feature, perhaps.
The five films in the top tier satisfy most because their reach never exceeds their grasp. Watching each was a little like seeing another helping of Oscar nominated shorts if at a lower level. They are: Tim Guthrie’s I Watch You Paint and Jonathan Franks’ The Big Toe, two very fine and different animations; Jordan Fountain’s very smart, quirky Physics Perspective and probably the two best, most unified shorts this bunch, Boaz Frankel’s Meet the Beetle and Brian Roma’s She’s Cool.
Best of all, because these five work so confidently within themselves to make a point, get a laugh or sustain a mood, they require very little verbal commentary other than to recommend one see them for: Guthrie’s exquisite, painterly interpretation of the equally spellbinding poem of Albert Garcia bearing the film’s title; Frank’s fractured, alternately hilarious and suspenseful animation in the vein of a Nolan Tredway video ala the silent Nosferatu.
Also, appreciate Fountain’s intelligent and graphic interplay of action and narration via a scientific lab experiment in the laws of physics. Be amazed at Frankel’s creativity in making the potential extinction of an insect seem more than relevant circa original schoolhouse musical theatre, and for the last word on a serious identity crisis that is an absolute hoot as it mimics effectively several contemporary film styles in a punk/zombie fashion, don’t fail to see She’s Cool, all of which prove that OFF 12 is a worthy event for viewers as well.
OFF 12 continues at the Great Escape Theatres, 7440 Crown Point Avenue through Mar. 11. For schedules and other festival details go to omahafestival.org.