6 Short Films From The SXSW Film Festival That Told Women’s Stories Uniquely
I know you’re all probably tired of hearing about the silver lining in the grey clouds of this pandemic situation that has cancelled/postponed/truncated events and celebrations. Especially on the anniversary of our first ever lockdown, remember the thali banging, guys? (Our Managing Editor sure does!) Anyhoo, the pandemic let me and few other people I know attend a major international film festival, the SXSW, which was literally saat samundar paar, from the comfort of our own homes. While most on ground festivals have hectic schedules, the virtual one ensured that we could watch most of these movies whenever, wherever, however. And we could, if we gave up on sleep, watch ‘em all—from feature films to documentaries, short films and animated ones, and a whole lot of expert panels.
And really, that’s exactly what I did. Especially, when it came to the short films, I watched them during meal times or when I was in between writing for work, because I wanted to make sure I caught as many of them as possible. This year, at the SXSW Film Festival, women and women’s stories were a major focus. In fact, some of my festival favourites were films that very uniquely shed light on women and their situations, their hopes and dreams, freedoms and limitations, and a complex range of emotions. They tackled issues like women coming to terms with their sexuality, accepting their bodies, manifesting their fears, rediscovering sisterhood and so on.
What’s even more fascinating is that these films had a very distinct approach that set them apart from anything you might’ve seen before.
And so, here’s my pick of six short films from the SXSW Film Festival that told stories of women that I enjoyed watching and also stayed with me long after they ended playing.
1. My Fat Arse And I by Yelyzaveta Pysmak
Cast: Anna Dluzniewska, Yelyzaveta Pysmak, Zuzanna Stach, Julia Bendyktowicz
This one caught my eye when I was shortlisting films that I absolutely HAD TO watch, you know, in the event I couldn’t complete my very ambitious long list. Why? Because my God, do I relate to this one! More in this past year, that deprived me of the meagre exercise I got from moving around, and making me put on substantial weight. To put it across bluntly, my fat arse and I were eager to see what Yelyzaveta Pysmak, a Ukrainian filmmaker in her 20s who is currently studying Animated Film and Special Effects at the Polish National Film School, would have to say about us, and women like us who are constantly worrying about their bodies.
The animated short film begins with a girl who finds out her pants have gotten too tight. And instantly, she has the most predictable reaction. I know because I’ve been doing the same—Saying no to all your favourite food, sometimes food in general, to bring that weight down. However, just when she thinks she’s finally getting her ‘perfect’ body, she gets invited to Slimbuttlandia, a place where skinny butts worship the bathroom weight scale, who adjudges if you’re worthy of Slimbuttlandia or not. And that’s when the positive motivation to lose weight morphs into an unhealthy body image and obsession with looking a certain way.
My Fat Arse and I is a film about anorexia and how even when a woman achieves her healthy body, she might see herself as overweight or fat. The weighing scale then is like an overlord that instantly evokes fear in the mind. And I thought Pysmak did a pretty fantastic job with the animation, which despite being whimsical was bang on in getting across the emotions experienced by women about their weight.
My favourite moments, of course, were the skinny butts bowing in awe to the weighing scale in Slimbuttlandia, the video game-like face off between the fat arse and the skinny arse refereed by the God of Skinny Bitches, implying that women are constantly egged on by idolised beauty standards to fight their own bodies instead of accepting them healthily. The final shot of the film, in from of the mirror, is cathartic in a way. And while we know body acceptance doesn’t come easily to most of us, it’s a positive message against body shaming.
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2. The Moogai by Jon Bell
Cast: Shari Sebbens and Meyne Wyatt
If there’s anything that I’ve learnt from watching SXSW films with characters who are mothers, it is that parenting can be shit scary. And adding a touch of folklore horror to a commentary on postpartum depression is Jon Bell’s Aboriginal psychological horror short film, The Moogai.
In the film, a couple return home from the hospital with their newborn, and soon, the mother starts seeing visions a zombie child that is trying to warn her that the demon is watching, and waiting for her to slip up so it can take the baby away from her. Initially, dismissing his wife’s fear as paranoia resulting from stress of being a new mom, the father finally sees it for himself and they both try to run with the baby. The end, I wouldn’t wanna spoilt it for you, is rather macabre.
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The Moogai is inspired from Australian indigenous folklore about a child-stealing spirit. And if you delve deeper into it, there’s a lot of history in Australia about Aborginial children being taken from their families to assimilate them with white Australians. According to Nature, “As many as one in three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were taken from their families and communities between 1910 and the 1970s, under racist government policies that tried to force Aboriginal people to assimilate with white Australians. The children were brought up in institutions or foster homes, or were adopted by white families. The Australian government formally apologized to members of these ‘Stolen Generations’ in 2008.”
The Moogai then is broadly a commentary on this loss of children and you won’t realise it until the haunting final frame of the film, which takes place in a field where the fate of these stolen children is revealed. But the way the film’s colour scheme, the way it is shot tightly to indicate a sense of cramped space with no escape, it all aptly captures the helplessness and fear that new parents, especially mothers might feel when they’re afraid they might mess up and have their child taken away from them. In case of women who have already lost their baby in childbirth or soon after, the guilt of having done something wrong is such a strong emotion. And The Moogai merges that feeling quite well with the folklore story and history of the Aboriginal people.
The Moogai was awarded the Jury Prize in the Midnight Shorts section at the SXSW.
Also Read: Pieces Of A Woman Review: Vanessa Kirby Elevates This Incomplete Yet Crucial Story About Postpartum Grief
3. Sisters by Jessica Brunetto
Starring: Sarah Burns and Mary Holland
I was curious about Sisters because of its cast—two very funny women! I remember watching Sarah Burns for the first time in the Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel starrer Life As We Know It, and thinking she is hilarious! I thought the same about Mary Holland who I’d recently watched play Jane, the kooky but actually brilliant and warm sister on Happiest Season. This was going to be fun, I thought, as I hit ‘play’.
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And fun it was! Sisters follows two sisters, one of whom has put her entire life on hold to care for her comatose mother, while her other sister moved miles away to remove herself from the situation but also pursue an acting career. You can guess which is the uptight sister and which is the adventures, fun one. However, when they both are in the same place, at their mom’s, ready to say goodbye to her, the sibling rivalry begins eventually bringing them closer over a common goal. To have a baby.
Both Burns and Holland are delightful, and my favourite scenes are when they’re putting up a fashion show of their mom’s clothing as they decide what to keep and what to throw, or when they’re fighting like proper sisters over dinner. The scene right before dinner, I can’t imagine doing that with a straight face but these ladies pulled it off!
Sisters is light and fun and breezy and a reminder that siblings do share this unique bond, and sometimes having your sister there is just what you need to get out of a rut or a bad situation. And nothing can make a parent happier than having their kids get along and be there for each other.
4. Our Bed Is Green by Maggie Brennan
Our Bed Is Green made me think of this Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode about the Buffy Bot, where Spike can’t obviously have Buffy so he makes do with a robotic but very realistic version of Buffy, the Buffy Bot. Of course, it can never replace the real thing, and that’s a lesson he learns the hard way.
Maggie Brennan’s animated short Our Bed Is Green welcomes us to the future, where what seems like VR technology has been taken several notches higher and lets you create very realistic environments with very real feeling people. Of course, you pay for the time, and that’s what our protagonist does. I love how the suspense around what she is trying to do is built, as we see her commute to the place that’ll allow her to be close to the person she loves, albeit for a limited time and a price. And as was with Spike and Buffy bot, this rigged reality is not enough and not the same. It can bring momentary illusion of love and content, but our heart is not satiated and craves for the real thing. If anything, as we see eventually when our protagonist finally meets this person, it just makes them sadder and feel worse.
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Brennan is a cartoonist and animator from Brooklyn, and has had her work published in prestigious publications like The New Yorker. Her animation is really so cool, and I love the premise of a dystopian future where humans get so withdrawn that they’d rather use technology to be closer to someone but not express how they really feel, or are unable to because coming out of the closet is much harder. The ‘green bed’ here then, I am assuming, refers to the green screen that lets you be with the one you love. But my favourite thing about Our Bed Is Green has to be the details that have been embedded all through the film. Like the lenses that go into the eye and allow you to experience this, and the posters that are plastered all over the subway during the commute scene. The attention to detail is amazing!
5. Squeegee by Morgan Krantz
Starring: Amy Rutherford and Blair McKenzie
Okay this one is just something else! And when I read the summary, it was sheer curiosity that propelled me to check it out. Wise decision. But first ‘squeegee’ is that cleaning equipment with a rubber lining that you’d use to wipe liquid off or across surfaces.
In our film, our protagonist is a female CEO, who puts a meeting on hold for another libidinous reasons, for a sexual encounter with a window cleaner who is suspended from the terrace of the high-rise corporate building in which her office is. You watch her meticulously clean the glass and wait for the window cleaner to reach her window. And then, an initial hesitance and polite glancing turns into an exercise of mutual pleasure. Mind you, there’s a window pane separating them both, and neither can touch each other. But the gestures, and their own goading of their bodies as the other watches or mirrors that action is powerful enough for them both to climax.
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NGL, Squeegee turned me on, not just with what was happening but by the sheer audacity of its premise. It was perfectly funny but not slapstick and never ridiculous or cheap. I loved the chemistry and the exchange between the two strangers, and I loved how their ‘release’ was portrayed too, as well as the accompanying music. Still classy, but still so hot, forbidden and kinky. And the way the film ends is just perfect, shattering the fantasy that it began with, like when a porn fantasy ends and you’re thrust (pun intended) back into reality.
I think the film was the perfect pandemic ‘release’, if you will, with our screens and long-distance separating us from our partners and even making dating or random hookups dangerous and less frequent.
6. Sales Per Hour by Michelle Uranowitz and Daniel Jaffe
Starring Michelle Uranowitz, John Rothman, Sorab Wadia, Hannah Gross, Kadeem Ali Harris, Timothy Scott, Eugena Washington, Frank Rodriguez, Melina Frodella, Elizabeth Tate
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You know how they say that if you stay silent when a crime is happening in front of you, you’re almost equally responsible for it? But sometimes, is it even as simple as speaking up or not speaking up? Sales Per Hour delves into this moral dilemma through an incident in the life of a woman who works as an assistant at a high-end clothing store and becomes privy to a sexual act in one of the dressing rooms that may or may not have been consensual. She immediately raises an alarm to the store manager who asks her to keep mum and not interfere.
She tries to assuage her guilt over letting it happen by trying, in some ways to ask the evidently upset young woman if she is okay. However, the reality of what just happened is denied by the victim too. In such a situation, the film leaves the shop assistant and us, the audience, with a question—how many times have we been guilty of abetting a crime by simply not speaking up, not interfering or saying to ourselves that this is “their personal matter”?
Check out more of our Hauterfly At SXSW coverage here.