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Kicking the Clouds (Sky Hopinka, 2021)

The Sundance Film Festival’s Short Film program has historically been a more reliable home for grassroots, character-driven indies than for oblique conceptual shorts, but lately, there’s been a lively variety in the nonfiction competition. This year, the best nonfiction premieres were more experiential than expository. There’s no better example than Sundance alum Sky Hopinka’s Kicking the Clouds, which shares the visceral verve of his earlier films, especially his immersive feature debut małni—towards the ocean, towards the shore. Starting with a found audio recording of Hopinka’s great-grandmother teaching his grandmother to speak Pechanga, the short dwells in figurative complexity by emphasizing textures: superimpositions of natural and paved landscapes, the tactility of hand-beaded jewelry, reverse-looped readings of poetry. It’s fitting that Hopinka settles on a sensory cinematic grammar for a film that reflects on the preservation of traditions, especially language, across generations.

The possibilities of interpretation are a driving concern in Hope Tucker’s What Travelers Are Saying About Jornada del Muerto, a minimalist glimpse into the disturbing dynamics of tourism at the Tularosa Basin in New Mexico. Here, an unassuming monument on a patch of fenced-in desert marks the testing site of the first atomic bomb. The dominant sound on Tucker’s soundtrack is the eerie crunching of visitors’ shoes ambling across gravel, while transcripts of overheard chatter and terse online reviews of the site flash at the bottom of the screen. The reactions are disparate: some are humbled by the stark horror of this history; others are underwhelmed after a long walk in the Southwestern heat (a few even complain about the lack of bathrooms at the destination). Descriptions of tasteless souvenir T-shirts and smiling photo ops in front of the monument are juxtaposed with images of protesters in the parking lot, who hold signs detailing the horrors that the blast’s radiation wreaked upon surrounding Indigenous communities.

Governmental irresponsibility emerges as a major thread in this year’s nonfiction shorts. Listen to the Beat of Our Images, co-directed by Audrey and Maxime Jean-Baptiste, is an essay film that examines the French government’s construction of the Guiana Space Center. An impressionistic narration describes how this process uprooted the lives of local families in French Guiana and gives a collective voice to the silenced perspectives of the displaced. The short also uses archival footage from France’s National Center for Space Studies, featuring visible grains and scratches that foreground the fraught process of excavating a suppressed narrative. Elsewhere, Samir Karahoda’s docufiction hybrid, Displaced, takes us to Kosovo, where two men, playing versions of themselves, strive to maintain a ping-pong club even though they have no permanent venue in which to practice. (According to Karahoda’s artist’s statement, the country’s table tennis federation was the first Kosovan sports team to receive international recognition in the early 1990s, but the government remains indifferent about investing in athletics infrastructure.) Karahoda, who trained as a photographer, has an impressive visual sense. His square aspect ratio compresses the protagonists into the center of the frame as they push their table from place to place. In an unsentimental tour of community perseverance, the film also showcases the cultural centers—an unused ballroom, a church on off days—that become makeshift homes for the ping-pong club.

A singularly disquieting animated standout, Hugo Covarrubias’s Bestia embarks on a dark voyage into Pinochet-era Chile. Based on the life of an agent in the dictatorship’s secret police force, the short plays up the slippage between her insular daily routine—including 7:30 a.m. breakfasts with her sole companion, a sweet-seeming dog with a taste for raw meat—and increasingly macabre nightmares. When Bestia pulls the curtain back on the operative’s professional life, the film becomes a stop-motion version of the Kuleshov experiment, aided by the masterful, unnerving use of porcelain dolls for the characters. As the plot advances, the protagonist’s fixed expression registers less as cute than forbiddingly stone-faced, while the film builds to an inevitable reminder that she’s made of brittle and breakable ceramic. All of the film’s sets are built from pliable cardboard, whose evident artificiality further confuses the distinction between dreams and waking horrors.

Similarly sensorial in its approach, although with a far more subdued tone, is Don Josephus Raphael Eblahan’s live-action narrative short The Headhunter’s Daughter. The film follows an aspiring country songwriter on horseback across the mountains of the Philippines, en route from her remote home in the highlands to an audition for a televised music competition. Anchored by a beautifully subtle lead performance from Ammin Acha-ur, Eblahan’s film folds reflections on pop-cultural depictions of Indigenous identity into an understated character study. The film unveils context gradually and sparingly but without feeling like a cipher, allowing Acha-ur’s resplendent vocals to etch out her plaintive backstory.

Other narrative highlights were more playful, including Adrian Moyse Dullin’s charming THE RIGHT WORDS. Set on a city bus packed with middle-school kids, the film follows 13-year-old Mahdi’s attempts to win over his crush after his older sister Kenza posts one of his mortifying love poems on Instagram, teasing insistently that he should be more “macho.” But even if Mahdi had the confidence, simply walking over and talking to his unrequited amour is easier said than done—especially amid cooped-up preteens armed with phones and buzzing with the energy of a particle-collider. With an understanding of social media as a banal fact of adolescent life—the inciting incident comes off as typical inter-sibling ribbing, embarrassing but harmless—Dullin plays with the discrepancy between virtual and real worlds. When, finally, Mahdi awkwardly tries to pitch a date, the other kids livestream it. Although they expect a cringe-fest, they’re out of earshot, allowing Dullin to turn the tables with a well-deployed sight gag.

The most surprising visual twist in the narrative competition occurs in John Ogunmuyiwa’s Precious Hair and Beauty, a day-in-the-life tale about a West African hair salon in South London. Ogunmuyiwa charts the comings and goings of the salon’s regulars and neighbors with wry panache and a flair for incident. As he jump-cuts through a (mostly) fixed wide shot of the salon’s interior, each new personality redirects the energy of the day. Sprightly and naturalistic, Ogunmuyiwa’s capsule of city life flows from the intimacies of collective energy. His film also turns the interpretive work of people-watching into a bonding exercise: one minute the characters debate the context of a half-overheard argument, the next they struggle to believe their eyes when events veer unexpectedly into the surreal.

There are other standout moments and flavors among the rest of the shorts selection: the queer reimagining of Samuel Beckett’s “Not I” in the finale of Antonio Marziale’s stylish Starfuckers; the ironically neon-light-speckled conquistadors of Gabriel Herrera’s Motorcyclist’s Happiness Won’t Fit Into His Suit; the candy-colored psychedelia of Chloé Farr, Gabrielle Selnet, and Adam Sillard’s Goodbye Jerome! (featuring a sentient hot dog that looks like it was animated by Niki de Saint Phalle). But Lewie and Noah Kloster’s Stranger Than Rotterdam with Sara Driver deserves the last word. Using hand-drawn cutout marionettes, the Klosters retell the surreal saga of Driver smuggling a print of Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues overseas to the Rotterdam Film Festival. The escapade was part of a deal she’d struck to secure a screening of Jim Jarmusch’s early 45-minute version of Stranger Than Paradise, which she produced. The Klosters craft a scrappy and charming heist story with a knack for character detail. In her dry voiceover, Driver describes Jarmusch, her longtime partner, as an “ideas guy,” while his puppet wistfully gazes out of the window of their apartment. By tethering these scenes to Driver’s wry, pragmatic narration, the Klosters keep the film from sliding into twee sentimentality. Recalling how financiers resisted the very idea of a black-and-white film, Driver hits home the challenges of getting an independent feature produced, screened, and made accessible. The short harkens back to an era that eventually proved transformative for American independent filmmaking: Stranger Than Paradise premiered in 1984, the very same year that the Sundance Institute took over the humbly named “US Film Festival.”

Chloe Lizotte is the Contributing Editor at Le Cinéma Club. She writes regularly for Reverse Shot, with additional bylines in Vulture, Cinema Scope, Screen Slate, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.