There were quite a few administrative changes behind the scenes before this year’s Dam Short Film Festival, but the result for film-goers was entirely seamless, reflected mainly in the more organized process for getting in and out of Boulder City’s historic Boulder Theatre (especially during the most crowded screenings). But little changes are important, and the leadership team at DSFF (including newly promoted executive director Tsvetelina Stefanova and returning co-founder Lee Lanier) proved that they’ve effectively positioned the still-growing festival (the largest in Nevada) for a strong future.
Logistics aside, this year’s 16th annual DSFF was also another wonderful showcase for the art of the short film, with many of the festival’s signature programs, including two separate spotlights on Nevada films. The winner of the festival’s Railroad Pass Best Nevada Filmmaker award was the documentary “Rainshadow,” Kari Barber’s film about a struggling Reno charter high school that focuses on art education. Although a little long at 37 minutes, “Rainshadow” is a good example of the kind of heartstring-tugging film that the DSFF audience (heavily skewed toward seniors) likes to award. It can be sentimental at times, but it also tells an important story with social relevance, and showcases the personalities of its subjects as much as the social commentary.
“Rainshadow” was part of the Nevada documentary program that opened the festival, and there was a separate program for Nevada narrative films that, as usual, proved to be one of the most popular. Brothers Mike and Jerry Thompson, longtime Vegas film fixtures, had three films in the festival, and their best was the offbeat supernatural comedy “Ghosts Don’t Cry” in the Nevada narrative program. The Thompsons’ amusing micro-short “A Cactus Story” played in one of the packed comedy programs, and their somewhat muddled horror-comedy short “Six Geese a Slaying” (part of the forthcoming “12 Deaths of Christmas” anthology that played in rough form at Sin City Horror Fest last year) played in the Underground program.
There were other strong Nevada films outside the Nevada blocks, including Roberto Raad’s manic comedy “Alternative Therapy,” about a psychologist who gets a little too chummy with his patients, which played in the more adult-oriented of the two comedy programs (it also played at 2019’s Las Vegas Film Festival). Music videos from local artists Sabriel (“Dishes”) and Sonia Barcelona (“Violent Water”) played in the music video program, both demonstrating creative visions from the filmmakers in bringing the music to life. Megan Roe’s take on “Dishes” is a colorful explosion of stop-motion animation surrounding the singer, and Danny Chandia’s gorgeous clip for “Violent Water” pays tribute to the work of silent-movie master Georges Méliès, using minimal resources to create an immersive underwater wonderland (it deservedly won the award for Best Music Video).
Stefanova has talked a lot recently about how DSFF programs to the tastes of its audience, and some programs lean too heavily toward treacly, heavy-handed moral lessons. Those kinds of heartwarming stories can be told well, though, as I was reminded during one international-film program mostly filled with clumsy, didactic stories highlighting social injustice. Amid these was Firas Khoury’s “Maradona’s Legs,” a sweet story about two Palestinian brothers in 1990 trying to find one last sticker to complete their book of World Cup soccer players. In grounding the story in specific details (the sibling relationship, soccer fandom) and leaving the larger political landscape as background detail, Khoury creates an affecting story that reaches the audience much more directly than a manipulative lecture.
Programming this festival requires a delicate balance, and Stefanova, Lanier and the other staffers do a great job of providing diverse content for a diverse crowd. The Underground program, designed to showcase films too daring for the rest of the festival, featured Aiden Brezonick’s hilariously perverse “Jeff Drives You,” which ends up involving a man having sex with a self-aware self-driving car, along with the arch social commentary of Ilja Rautsi’s “Helsinki Mansplaining Massacre,” among other transgressive fare. The horror program, which has been uneven in past years, was spectacular from start to finish, with highlights ranging from the clever twist of Rakefet Abergel’s “Boo” (which had also played at Sin City Horror Fest), to Sarah Gurfield’s strangely romantic horror-comedy “Boy Eats Girl: A Zombie Love Story,” to the gross-out comedy of David Bornstein’s “Unholy ’Mole.”
The festival also made room for a retrospective on the work of renowned experimental art-music collective The Residents, featuring band “associate” Homer Flynn (band members are all anonymous, and Flynn slipped up a few times in the Q&A, referring to “we” instead of “they”). More than anything else, the Residents program proved that DSFF organizers are still willing to occasionally confound the audience. They balanced that by doubling down on comedy, expanding it into two blocks, since comedy is always DSFF’s most successful program. At least this year’s audience award winner for comedy, Austin and Meredith Bragg’s “Demand Curve,” about an economics professor schooling his own kidnappers, was smart and creative, instead of lowbrow and obvious, as the comedy winners often are. As the festival programs to the audience, maybe the audience’s taste is improving a little.