Like pretty much every live event for nearly a year now, the 2021 Dam Short Film Festival was held virtually, rather than in its usual Boulder City location. So much of the festival’s appeal comes from the town itself that there was inevitably something lost in this homebound edition. But the festival organizers, led by executive director Tsvetelina Stefanova, put together a lineup just as strong as any other year, and replicated as many of the typical festival activities that they could. Sitting at home streaming short films doesn’t compare to spending a few days in the Boulder Theater and mingling with filmmakers and film fans at the Boulder Dam Hotel, but it was enough to hold me over until the full experience returns next year (hopefully).
I watched about a third of the short film blocks in this year’s lineup, not as many for me as in previous years, when I’d just hang out at the Boulder Theater all day, but enough to get a sense of the breadth of the programming. Although DSFF is a community-oriented festival with general-interest content, some of the best selections are often tucked away in the offbeat, more challenging film blocks, which in a traditional year would play later at night. This year, there were two blocks devoted to DSFF’s signature Underground programming, as well as one block labeled Avant-Garde.
Among the Underground selections, I especially enjoyed the surreal animated piece “Little Pirate,” in which a tiny pirate curses an aspiring actor to constantly talk in pirate slang. It’s a goofy premise that filmmaker Sam Osborn fully commits to, making the absurdity into something strangely poignant (but still funny). Also in the Underground program was “Oyasumi,” one of a handful of films from Nevada filmmakers that were featured outside of the main Nevada programs. Filmmaker Kristina McHale finds dark humor in the story of a woman finally driven over the edge by her inconsiderate boyfriend.
Nevada filmmakers were also in the Drama: Friendship Old & New and Avant-Garde programs, with Jesserey Tugas’ “All-In” in the former and Jacob Langsner’s “Starcrossed” in the latter. Tugas puts together a low-key drama set in a Las Vegas casino cafe, as a teenage girl waits for her deadbeat gambler father to return from the tables. It’s an understated piece with strong performances, including from the late Bill Paxton’s son James. Although “Starcrossed” was labeled avant-garde, it’s a sweet and fairly straightforward story about an astronaut exploring the streets of Paris as if they’re an alien planet, and finding love along the way.
Langsner had the strongest showing of any local filmmaker in this year’s festival, between “Starcrossed” and his documentary “Vultures, Hawks, and COVID-19,” which played in the Nevada documentary program. Using the resources at hand, including some unfinished footage from a documentary about a bird sanctuary, Langsner comes up with a melancholy but humorous rumination on the current state of the world.
The winner in the Nevada category was “Sword Of!,” from longtime local filmmakers (and DSFF regulars) Jerry and Mike Thompson, and it’s another clever, funny short from the talented brothers. In just three minutes, the Thompsons take on the divide between intellect and emotion, while also throwing in an epic battle against a dragon, and maintaining their absurdist sense of humor throughout. The Thompsons also worked on the simple and sweet rom-com short “So Close and Still…,” from writer/director/star (and, full disclosure, my friend and Awesome Movie Year podcast co-host) Jason Harris.
When DSFF is held in person, the Comedy program is usually the most popular, often with a sell-out crowd lining up around the block outside the theater. The comedy audience award winner, William J. Stribling’s silly time-travel short “The Speed of Time” (which actually played in the sci-fi block), takes ideas from so many serious sci-fi movies and turns them into broad comedy. Stribling gets plenty of laughs from a nebbishy computer programmer discovering that his future self is a musclebound warrior who’s traveled back in time to avert a global disaster.
In the comedy block itself, I enjoyed the perfectly executed single-joke premise of “What Do We Do?,” about cubicle dwellers who have no idea what their company’s purpose is; the elegantly constructed rom-com “Across the Room,” in which a couple flirts via only body language; and the faux-hard-boiled “A Piece of Cake,” about a father (Rich Sommer) who goes to great lengths to get the perfect dessert topping for his daughter’s birthday cake.
I didn’t get the benefit of hearing a whole audience’s laughter for those movies, and the community and camaraderie of the festival couldn’t quite be replaced by virtual Q&As or live-streamed receptions. But DSFF organizers proved that they could adjust and persevere, and missing out on those crucial elements just made me more eager than ever to return to Boulder City in the future to watch some more short films.