Backstage at the Utah Arts Festival 2023: Fear No Film marks 20th anniversary with superlative 59-film slate

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the centerpiece preview feature of the 20th Fear No Film program at the Utah Arts Festival. For a complete rundown of the Utah Made Film slate, see here. For a complete rundown of the Midnight film slate, see here. For a complete rundown of the Animation, Documentary, Narrative and Kids! Slates, see here.

Marking its 20th anniversary, the Fear No Film program at the Utah Arts Festival has cemented its place as Utah’s most important short film festival after Sundance. It was under Topher Horman’s stewardship when Fear No Film consolidated its unique brand and became an international short film program in its own right. In the last several years, Derek Mellus, film production coordinator for the Utah Film Commission, has fortified the brand so that the festival could conceivably stand on its own as a major festival event. Few arts festivals in the nation can claim having an extensive, peer-reviewed, juried film program on par with what Fear No Film has established.

There have been numerous exciting moments in Fear No Film’s history.  Some memorable highlights include the following:

2014: Winning the Utah Short Film of The Year prize is Transmormon, by the OHO Media group of Torben Bernhard, Marissa Lila and Travis Low, which arose through the VideoWest initiative of KUER. This is the trio’s second consecutive win, with Boomtown taking the prize last year. The 15-minute film tells the story of  Eri Hayward, a Utah woman in her twenties, just days before she traveled to Thailand for her sexual reassignment surgery. It is the pure demonstration of unconditional, affirmative love and the aspiration for spiritual acceptance within the Mormon faith from Eri’s parents and loved ones that envelops and deepens the film’s takeaway themes.

2015: The Grand Jury Prize for Best of Show went to The Story of a Rainy Night from Iran, directed by Mehdi Fard-Qaderi, which had its third appearance in a U.S. film festival. This film was produced by Iran’s Youth Cinema Association and its narrative is about an elderly man who is celebrating his birthday and takes a new look at the relationships among his grown children. Regrettably, many in the West are subjected to media reports that demonize Iranians and subvert portrayals as loving families that face the same emotional challenges we find ourselves coping with daily. This film fills the gap elegantly with sincere emotion and empathy.


2016: Creatures of Whitechapel (Jonathan Martin, 25 min. 2016) is the other Utah Short Film of The Year nominee to set a new benchmark, as the nominee with the most awards ever coming into the competition. The 28 wins and more than 30 nominations from festivals around the world, current as of press time, offer solid evidence of the film’s strengths as an independent horror film that blends the Frankenstein and Jack the Ripper stories in a freshly gory take that present recognizable Victorian gothic inflections with steampunk aesthetics. Here, Jack the Ripper is cast as a woman. There is lust, dark humor, thrilling twists and true sensations of horror throughout th. It packs in more entertaining diversions than the standard feature-length horror film.

2016, The Grand Jury Prize for Best of Show went to Getting Fat in a Healthy Way (22 mins, Bulgaria, 2015, Kevork Aslanyan, Georgi Merdzhanov), which is set in the bleak, drab surroundings left from the old Soviet bloc regime where Constantine and his father live. Something catastrophic has happened to the planet’s gravity and anyone weighing less than 260-some pounds floats directly into space. Given that Constantine barely weighs 130 pounds, he is resigned to be imprisoned indoors – at least until a full-figured female airline steward moves into the building. This is the latest prominent award for this film, which already has garnered many honors including FEC Festival (European Short Film Festival, 2016) (Bigas Luna Award for Best Story); Huesca Film Festival, 2015 (Youth Jury Award), and the Sedicicorto International Film Festival, 2015 (Euroshort Award for Best Film). This is the first entry from Bulgaria in Fear No Film’s history.


2017: Winning the Utah Short Film of The Year prize is Oxygen to Fly (Torben Bernhard, 7 min., 2017). The short documentary film, which has achieved a viral impact that few producers or filmmakers ever can imagine (having been viewed more than 32 million times), tells the story of Isaiah Acosta, 17, of Phoenix, who was born without a jaw and has never spoken a word. The young man released his first lyrical rap song with the eponymous title on iTunes, with the grace of Trap House, one of the nation’s most prominent rap musicians who collaborated with Acosta and gave his voice to the young man’s lyrics and debut track. The song is a vivid, compelling testament to the challenge of living with medical issues and conditions so serious that even many seasoned doctors and nurses are stymied. This is the third time Bernhard was won the award, Bernhard, who previously helmed Boomtown (2013) and Transmormon (2014).

The Fear No Filmmaker Award went to Roohangiz (Elmira Bagherzadeh, 6 min., Iran, 2016), a sharp, funny film about a séance and how the medium’s unexpected error unleashes a surprising disaster in the spirit that is being conjured up for the client’s sake. The film, which is in Farsi, came from the Tehran University of Art. “This award is presented to the filmmaker whose work bravely challenges audiences to fear no filmmaker vision,” Horman explained. “Roohangiz, directed by Bagherzadeh at the Tehran University of Art, is an animated dark comedy combining love and laughter, under a theme of the Mongol invasion of Persia, bravely setting the story in a séance, mentions of which are rare in Iran. What an honor it is to present this award to a young woman filmmaker in Tehran who is creating such courageous, magnificently balanced art intended to show the potential of Iranian history and culture for fantasy and horror genres.”

The Cat Got Her Tongue.

2018: Winning the Utah Short Film of The Year prize is Dead Air (Steven Uribe, Carson McKinnon and Ryan Leader), one of the most scenic short films a Spy Hop Productions team has produced in its PitchNic program, with a good deal of the film shot at secluded spots at the Causey Reservoir in northern Utah. The story, set in the 1970s, focuses on a reclusive plein air painter who witnesses a woman’s fall to her death in the distance and has his statements taken by police. One song figures prominently in the film, After You’ve Gone, a song composed in 1918 by Turner Layton with lyrics by Henry Creamer and sung by Marion Harris.

2019: The Grand Jury Prize for Best of Show went to El Desierto (Carly and Jared Jakins, 2018), which also took Utah Short Film of the Year — the first time a short film in Fear No Film history has taken two of the festival program’s highest honors. It also is the first U.S. short film in seven years to win the festival’s grand jury prize for best of show, an honor that had been awarded to short films from Argentina, France, Bulgaria, Iran, Italy and Norway in recent years.

2021. Winning the Fear No Filmmaker Award is Luis Fernando Puente for The Moon and the Hummingbird. Representing the film school at Brigham Young University, the film is an outstanding allegorical narrative highlighting the tensions of immigration as seen from those who migrate. It is not political but it emphasizes what is at stake personally, as immigrants wonder if they can truly let go and move on and perhaps deciding if staying with loved ones is more important than their destination of migration. It is worth noting that once again the cinematography in a solid Utah made film project is courtesy of Oscar Ignacio Jiménez, one of the state’s most sought after directors of photography for film (e.g., The Killing of Two Lovers).

I Have No Tears, and I Must Cry.

2022. The Utah Short Film of the Year honors went to the documentary short Janwaar. The film explores how a skatepark in an small village in India is more than just a slice of Americana. It becomes a motivating platform for rewarding a young generation which no longer accepts or sees their country’s caste system and entrenched gender discrimination as relevant. Danny Schmidt, who earned a bachelor of earth science degree at The University of Utah before going onto a master’s program in science and natural history filmmaking at Montana State University, is the director. He also won an NW Emmy award for cinematography for his DP work on the PBS/Independent Lens film Indian Relay and another for best topical documentary for Finding Traction on Netflix.


Five filmmakers who have appeared in previous years are returning including Luis Fernando Puente, who won the 2021 Fear No Filmmaker Award, and Australian filmmaker Gaele Sobott, both of whom are returning for a third consecutive year.  Danny Schmidt is returning, after winning Utah Short Film of the Year in 2022. Julia Ocker, whose short animated film in 2019 took the audience award in the Kids program and Kenneth Ralston, known for his comedic shorts, are back as well  

The 59 films chosen came from 352 submissions, the highest number since 2019.


Coming from outside of the U.S, 35 films, representing 21 countries, are part of the 2023 slate. That is, more than 59% of the slate confirms the true cosmopolitan nature of the program and is the highest such percentage in the program’s history. Leading the way are Spain (six films), Germany (four films, all by the same director) and Russia (three films). There also are 10 entries in two programs of Utah Made Films (Professional and Student) but Utah filmmakers also are found in several otheir programs.

The most striking feature of this year’s Fear No Film program is the distribution of media genres. Animation has risen steadily in terms of its reputation, again this year. This year represents the smallest number of documentary short films, represented by one program of five films as well as by three other Utah based filmmakers in the Utah Made programs. But, unquestionably, the narrative selections for this year’s Fear No Film are the strongest in storytelling impact that The Utah Review has seen in the history of the program, which is now the fourth largest venue in the UAF campus. Many of the films evoke the aesthetic spirit of fearless filmmaking, which encompasses the artistic branding of this short film festival program. Many of this year’s narrative films fall into the broader categories of horror and psychological drama, along with generous contributions of dark humor.

Spank Patrol.

Derek Mellus, production coordinator of the Utah Film Commission and Fear No Film coordinator, has slated nine programs in the rotating schedule, all of which will be screened in the City Library Auditorium. They include: one program of Animation, one program of Documentary Shorts, one program of KIDS! Shorts; two programs of Narrative Shorts; two programs of Midnight Shorts and two programs of Utah Made Short Films. There will be jury and audience choice awards as in previous years, including the Grand Jury Prize and Fear No Filmmaker award.

Films will be screened in hourlong programs that will be presented in the City Library auditorium. For details about various film slates, see the accompanying links, as indicated in the Editor’s Note. 

For more information and tickets, download the Utah Arts Festival app for free, available to Android and iOS users. There also are links to the UAF’s standard website. 

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