Updated: Mar 8, 2019
The 15th annual Dam Short Film Festival was the Boulder City institution’s first without co-founder Lee Lanier, but the leadership team of John LaBonney and Tsvetelina Stefanova pulled off an impressive event without him, drawing in record attendance and proving that DSFF remains the most enjoyable and exciting festival in the Las Vegas area. I made it to nearly all of the programs during the four-day festival, and many were nearly sold out, especially the two Nevada programs and the always popular comedy block. Even the late-night Underground program, featuring movies too risqué for the daytime Boulder City general audience, had a long line of people waiting to be admitted before doors opened.
'The Traffic Separating Device'
There were memorable films in almost every block that I saw, and as LaBonney had touted before the festival began, the selection of documentaries this year was especially strong. I saw some affecting documentaries on serious subjects, but my favorite was the goofy lark “The Traffic Separating Device,” about a street in Stockholm where a metal ramp meant to prevent cars from traveling on a bus-only route causes entertaining havoc. It’s really just 15 minutes of hapless drivers getting flat tires or other damage from the ramp because they failed to read street signs, but director Johan Palmgren turns it into a very funny meditation on municipal improvement.
There was also a lot of humor in John Morgan and Rob Hampton’s “Super 8 Daze,” about the directors’ own efforts as kids in the 1970s to replicate Hollywood blockbusters with their Super 8 home-movie cameras. That combination of humor and heart also showed up in Chris Riess and Amy Hill’s “Hula Girl,” about the woman who, with her husband, initially introduced the hula hoop to America (and got no credit for it), as well as in Katie Kemmerer’s “Quiet Sundays” (winner of the award for best student film), about NFL fans in the U.K. Kemmerer does a great job of making NFL fandom seem like something fresh and new, via profiles of some very endearing fans who love a sport that is about as popular in their country as, say, curling is in the U.S.
The winner for the best Nevada film was another documentary, Ben-Alex Dupris’ “Sweetheart Dancers,” a profile of a gay Native American couple fighting to be accepted into a competition for traditional tribal “sweetheart” dances. It’s a heartwarming and well-crafted piece, one of several standouts among the Nevada films (disclosure: a short that I co-wrote was also featured in the Nevada program).
Other local highlights included the offbeat comedy “Hello Darling,” from former “Absinthe” star Anais Thomassian, and “Tricks,” from UNLV alum Conor Hooper. Thomassian builds an absurdist story around a slightly unhinged character and a variety of oddball situations, recalling the anarchic vibe of her former stage show. And Hooper (along with writer RaQuel Harwick) takes an overly familiar student-film premise and turns it on its head in a clever way.
The comedy program is always a hot ticket, but there was appealing comedy sprinkled throughout the festival, and in the main program, I preferred the dry humor of the brief sketch “Message Erased” (about a woman going through an entire emotional journey while attempting to leave a voicemail message) over some of the broader, more crowd-pleasing offerings. In other programs, the dark comedy “Forget About It” was a particular standout, with its cynical, violent (but sort of sweet) take on a woman’s response to her partner’s admission of cheating.
'Forget About It'
“Five Star Fouad,” starring Dominic West (one of a handful of celebrities who popped up in shorts over the course of the four days), also puts a sunny, upbeat comedic take on a violent subject, with West as a bank robber taking a ride share for his getaway. And the highlight of the Underground program was the surprisingly sensitive BDSM-themed comedy “Platypus,” which had its world premiere at last year’s Nevada Women’s Film Festival.
This was the second year that DSFF featured an official music video program, curated by Stefanova herself (who’s also a member of local band Same Sex Mary), which has been a welcome addition (and showcased work from a number of local musicians). With LaBonney and Stefanova in charge and putting their own stamp on the festival, along with a dedicated crew of support staff and volunteers who return year after year, DSFF is well-positioned to head into its next chapter.