The short film is a time-honored genre. Sometimes informative, sometimes thrilling, and sometimes absolutely mind-boggling, the short film is a place where documentarians, animators, and storytellers can experiment and hone their craft on a smaller scale. This year at the Heartland Film Festival, audiences were able to observe the crème of the crop from Heartland’s Short Film Festival this past summer, and to put it bluntly, it’s nuts.
Directed by Niki Lindroth von Bahr
First up, The Burden (or, as titled in its’ native Swedish, Min Börda). Originally released in 2017 and recipient of the Grand Prize in the Animated Short category, the film is a stop-motion musical following groups of animals as they deal with being stuck in menial and dead-end jobs…and perhaps something far more existential. At least, this is what I perceived of the overall narrative to be, due to a technical error that removed any and all captions from all-Swedish dialogue and lyrics. However, this lack of clarity (while unintended) made The Burden into something far more fascinating and mind-warping as a result. The animation on display in this short is honestly some of the best stop-motion I’ve seen from a non-corporate entity. Not to shun the likes of American-bred puppet powerhouse Laika, but the overall style of the piece feels unnerving and yet entrancing at the same time. Out of all of the shorts screened in this volume, I personally found this to be the most visually interesting piece of the whole, as well as the most abstract, and I absolutely adore it.
The Happiness Machine
Directed by Rebecca Blumhagen
Following The Burden was The Happiness Machine, recipient of Audience Choice for Documentary Short. Released in 2018, the piece follows Carl Horton Hays discussing how his life's work is one with his 22 acre plot of land (which was given in the form of a promise by his father) and what he hopes his legacy will be. Undeniably, the production value is top-notch with this film, with beautiful camerawork, excellent lighting, and excellent use of animation where necessary. However, the film is inhibited by an issue with pacing and keeping one’s attention the whole way through. That isn’t to say that Carl’s story isn’t interesting, not at all, but the pace the film keeps and what it decides to focus on (extensively, at times) drags on. There is potential with this piece, but it needed a clearer sense of focus…
$30 To Antarctica
Directed by Joey Chu
…Which is exactly what the next short, $30 To Antarctica, has. Released in 2017 and awarded Best Student Film, the piece follows the life of Ka Foon Chau, a woman from Hong Kong, who rose from poverty to become a figure in the medical world and ultimately achieve her dream of going to Antarctica. The documentary is very straightforward, occasionally jumping around to various points in Chau’s life as she describes it herself. The cinematography feels very personal, allowing the audience to really get on the doctor’s level, and uses perspective shots of Hong Kong to an even greater effect. Overall, it’s well-made and enjoyable.
Directed by David Maddox
The final short of the collection (after the Grand Prize for Narrative Short winner Abu Adnan was not shown for unknown reasons) was the Audience Choice for Narrative Short, Alternative Math. Released 2017, it follows a teacher who, after attempting to explain a basic math problem to one of her students, accidentally causes a national controversy. To put it bluntly, the film is an extended metaphor about America in 2018 and “Fake News” culture, and it is in no way subtle about this. The film takes place over the course of a week, and while its base idea has potential, it ultimately turns into beating the same point and joke over and over and over again into the audience. It’s less funny than it is a straight-faced visage into a “post-fact” America, except you can “laugh” at it. That’s not to say that political humor in this kind of context can’t be funny, but rather how it’s delivered makes the difference.