Last Friday and Saturday Vineyarders, along with moviegoers in 200 cities across six continents, participated in the Manhattan Short Film Festival. Local cineastes crowded the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven for a billing of 10 international short films and voted on their favorites. This week the votes are tallied worldwide and a winner is crowned.
“I don’t know of any other film festival like it,” said Richard Paradise of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society, which presented the series.
The most lavish film on offer was Bastien Dubois’s animated travelogue, Madagascar. The French entry (which, in true French style refused to supply subtitles) employed a variety of animation techniques to celebrate the natural splendor of the remote country and the warmth of its Malagasy people. Especially stirring was its rendition of a native funereal ritual.
“I voted for it,” said Mr. Paradise, who, fresh from the success of his own Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, had the pleasure of enjoying Manhattan Shorts as more of a spectator. “I loved the story and thought the animation was really amazing. It had it all. It was the most complete film.”
The film resonated as well with Islanders, who gave it second place.
Other films failed to stir, including the predictably depressing eastern European fare: a foulmouthed existential muddle from Croatia and a light-hearted romp from Poland about teenage murderers. This from an interview with the Polish director:
“The rehearsals were long and really violent. I don’t believe in any rules when working with actors and it was not a friendly, fun time. It was brutal. Every actor wants to feel safe and the director must push them to feel unsafe. It was very physical at times . . . I would place them in a long hypnotic state, making them go to the horrible places within themselves . . . The night before shooting, I locked [the main actor] in a room for 24 hours.”
The result is a film that could be charitably characterized as intensely unpleasant.
“That’s one of the ones I didn’t get much out of,” said Mr. Paradise. “It didn’t resonate with the audience either. The story didn’t say very much except that teens can do awful things without provocation. A problem with a lot of young filmmakers is that they try to shock instead of developing a story, especially with short films.”
By the time the Island audience was thoroughly shocked, it was off to Germany for a three-minute short-short featuring two animated dogs at a restaurant eulogizing their broken relationship, ending with the apparent evisceration of a dachshund. The movie had been rejected by Mr. Paradise’s own juried shorts competition weeks earlier, and although the canine Woody Allen-Mia Farrow schtick drew a few laughs, it registered very few votes.
Screening films selected by a board in New York city doesn’t bother Mr. Paradise, who is friends with Manhattan Shorts director Nicholas Mason.
“I get my opportunity to pick films with the Vineyard film festival so I can empathize more than the average viewer how hard it is and what goes into choosing a program,” he said. “Not having seen the other 400 films they had to chose from, it’s difficult for me to judge what should and shouldn’t have made it.”
That said, Mr. Paradise was adamant that Mexico’s submission was not film festival material, a notion reflected in the voting (it received the fewest nods).
Finally, Italy screened its surprise hit of the festival, a light-hearted, and to Mr. Paradise, lightweight exploration of war and children’s fantasy war play. If history is any indication, it will likely be crowned the winner of the festival worldwide: the Vineyard has correctly chosen the winning film in six of the seven years it has participated.
“It really surprised me that it won,” Mr. Paradise said. “And by a two-to-one margin.”
If you set out to parody Italian cinema it would be difficult to surpass War, which includes henpecked husbands, domineering mothers and highly animated neighbors gesticulating in mock indignation.
It wasn’t the only film that hewed to well-worn national cinematic traditions. Mr. Paradise saw similar national themes in Ireland’s submission, the mysterious and somewhat nonsensical The Pool.
“In a lot of Irish films there is the same kind of mysticism prevalent,” he said.
In that vein the film society will screen the Irish film Ondine at the Katharine Cornell Theatre this Friday night. The film, starring Colin Farrell, recounts the tale of a fisherman who catches a siren-like woman in his net. It is the first in a series of international film screenings by the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society in the coming months.
“I always tell people if you’re not watching films with subtitles you’re missing 90 per cent of movies made in the world today,” said Mr. Paradise. “People complain about them but if you watch enough international films you aren’t even cognizant that you’re reading. When I’m watching subtitles it’s almost like I hear the words.”