It is fitting that for the 20th anniversary of Fear No Film at the Utah Arts Festival that the Utah Short Film of the Year juried competition would involve heavy hitters. The bar has been set at its highest mark in Fear No Film’s history, most notably with the Utah Made Professionals division. There are two programs of five films each, representing Professionals and Student divisions.
Utah Made Program: Professionals (June 23 and June 25, 8 p.m.)
4Dwn (Danny Schmidt) is the latest documentary short by Schmidt, who took Utah Short of the Year honors at last year’s Fear No Film with Janwaar. That film featured a skatepark in a small village in India, which was more than a slice of Americana. It has become 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.
4DWN, Schmidt’s newer short, brings some of the thematic touch points back to the U.S. He highlights the skate culture’s nonprofit hub in South Dallas, where recreational opportunities, local grocery stores and community infrastructure are hard to find. The camera follows the work of Rob Cahill, the cofounder and CEO in his late forties who still is passionate about skateboarding.
Schmidt 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. 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.
How to Cry on Command (Daniel Kirkham and Jesse Jacobson) has a nice bit of the feel of the popular regional comedy film Napoleon Dynamite. In this well-acted short, the high school track star decides to audition for the school’s theater club, after an injury prevents him from competing. Meanwhile, the club president is stubborn about not accepting him, despite the fact that everyone else believes the athlete had a great audition.
The actors give credible portrayals. The track star is pretty much low-key — in fact, seems natural. The club president is the theater geek one would expect, challenging the newcomer because he apparently knows little about the craft and technique of actors. The faculty advisor is exactly what one would assume.
The filmmakers, who went to school together in northern Utah, based their film on their experiences in the theater program. Theater geeks and festival goers, in general, will be delighted by this charming short.
I Have No Fears and I Must Cry (Luis Fernando Puente) received its premiere at Sundance earlier this year and has had quite a run at major festivals since then (17 and counting), along with two major prizes (Dallas International Film Festival, Grand Jury Price for Narrative Short Film; Cine Las Americas, Texas Archive of the Moving Image Award).
For his Sundance debut, Puente made this 13-minute narrative short entirely focused on Maria Luisa and her husband Jorge, as they are being interviewed by a U.S. immigration officer for Maria Luisa’s green card. Puente excels in showing that what might seem like a routine bureaucratic procedural step to an outsider, for immigrants it can be yet another emotional, tense experience in a process defined by long periods of limbo and costs to ensure everything is in legal order.
The dialogue is solidly credible but also compact and economical. With award-winning Oscar Ignacio Jiménez’s exceptional cinematography, the emotional tensions are fleshed out in shots of the expressions and nonverbal gestures of the couple (played by Alejandra Herrera and Enoc Oteo) and the immigration officer (Cherie Julander). Before entering the building for their interview, the couple are sitting in the car, hopeful that Maria Luisa will be approved on the spot. In fact, they plan to go shopping for a new couch. But, their optimism also is guarded, as their facial expressions show. In the interview, the officer is stoic, not giving any expression. She scrutinizes every document and response by Maria Luisa. Her seeming skepticism appears a bit unsettling.
Puente is one of two Fear No Film directors this year making his third straight appearance. In 2021, he won the Fear No Filmmaker Award for The Moon and the Hummingbird. That film is an outstanding allegorical narrative highlighting the tensions of immigration as seen from those who migrate. It is worth noting that once again the cinematography was courtesy of Jiménez. Last year, he had El Moño, about a girl who is upset that her favorite sock is missing and soon she discovers a magical way of recovering all sorts of lost toys and coins. But the lesson goes deeper than material objects, about the cultural traditions that risk being lost for generations who follow their immigrant ancestors. El Moño won a Golden Gate Award for best Family Film at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
The Foundry (Robert Machoian) is an outstanding five-minute piece of cinematic poetry, with no dialogue, but where images of the people working in a Nephi, Utah foundry convey the multifaceted metaphor of life as a pressure machine. Deciding to shoot the film in 16mm, Machoianwas inspired to make this film after talking about the foundry with Brandon Flowers from The Killers. Machoian and Flowers had collaborated on the music video for the song Pressure Machine. Machoian explains in his director’s statement, “Life is a pressure machine, as our years move forward, specific experiences force us to shift and change. Whether we like it or not, whether good or bad they happen, and each time, we are changed. As I watched the worker take molten minerals and turn them into something useful to us, I thought, ‘this is life, I am watching life happen.’
Machoian is an exceptional Utah filmmaker. In 2020, his feature-length narrative The Killing of Two Lovers premiered at Sundance, which won several awards after its Park City premiere . It offered a superbly crafted, beautifully filmed story about how the difficulties of asking for space to sort things out in a marriage are magnified enormously in a town as small as the one the director chose for the film’s production. In that film, Machoian – with an impressive, understated, elegant choice of mise-en-scène – gave the viewer the utter irony of the notion of asking for space in a small central Utah town set against an impressive mountain range (although there is no card title specifying the location). His nonfiction short The Last Days of August, in collaboration with: Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck, also is award winning and has been nominated for other high-profile honors.
Trouble (Ben Hurst) is an impressive portrait of the western genre, with tremendous visuals and great performances, all coming in under seven minutes. The film was nominated for best short at least year’s Almería Western Film Festival, a popular program in Western Europe that has an extensive international reach. Starring Willa Shaw as the protagonist, the film has a tag line that sums it up nicely: ”If trouble finds you here…you’re on your own.”
Utah Made Program: Students (June 24 and June 25, 6 p.m.)
Kip’s Itch (Brinton Douglas) was a University of Utah thesis project for the director, who decided to make a platonic comedy that delivers many times its investment, in terms of a tiny budget and student production crew. Kip is staying with a female friend and things seem pretty ordinary until he cannot ignore the raging itch in his ass. Meanwhile, he has a personal relationship crisis and realizes the time has come to resolve it.
Our Mother (Kate McKellar) is a lyrical cinematic essay about the ideal of a divine feminism she yearns for in her experience with a Mormonism. The film presents her own conceptual images of what a Heavenly Mother would look like to the community of her faith. Definitely not a critique of her faith, the film becomes a vibrant hopeful testament celebrating the divine potential of all women who belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
A graduate of Brigham Young University, McKellar works at the Utah Film Center and other credits include assistant producer for The Kidnap Theory and The Killers: Notes From a Quiet Town.
Queen Bees (Riley Nickel, Eleanor Condie) is one of the 2022 class of PitchNic films from Spy Hop Productions, the youth media center based in Salt Lake City. A “passion project” for a high school filmmaker who is fascinated by the art of the drag performer, the film was the brainchild of Nickel. She became a fan six years ago, thanks to watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race reality television competition, and then was hooked when she saw drag performers at Utah Pride festivals.
The biggest logistical hurdle for Nickel and Condie was to shoot a documentary with performers whose shows typically are in clubs, which only allow patrons 21 and older. Condie says that she knew very little about the local drag scene but Nickel gave her a quick education. They went to Instagram and found a pool of 12 possible subjects. After a screening process with interviews, the student filmmakers settled on three established drag performers in the community along with a 15-year-old student who is just entering the drag scene and hopes to become a performer.
Condie says that she was impressed by how supportive the performers were of each other and it was her school friend, Charlie, who became the fourth subject, to represent the next generation of drag performers waiting patiently in the wings to step onto the stage. Nickel says the experience reaffirmed her love of the art of the drag performer. “The scene is really about how strong the local community is,” she adds.
Stowaway (Ethan Briscoe) is a delightful example of the Brigham Young University’s award-winning animation program. In fact, at several Fear No Film juried competitions for Utah Short Film of the Year, a BYU animation film took top honors. In fact, Stowaway is the fourth BYU animation short to win national student Emmy Award honors.
The story is a perfect setup for animation: After discovering a baby kraken aboard their ship, two bumbling pirates try to kill it. But as their incompetent attempts escalate, they only throw themselves further into disaster.
Briscoe and his wife work at the Tooele-based animation studio Digital Gravy, which has assisted in producing animated shorts in a series of LDS videos.
Volveré (Marlon Gonzalez) is the third film by a Fear No Film director this year which deals with stories involving immigration. In this film, which was a student project for the director at Utah Valley University, the story is about an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. who faces a difficult decision. His brother in Mexico has called him, asking him to return home because their mother is near death. Meanwhile, his wife is expected to give birth any day. If he returns to Mexico, he might not be allowed to cross the border back into the U.S.
Gonzalez, who also wrote the screenplay, achieves emotionally moving moments without accentuating them excessively. While his parents came from Mexico, he was born in the U.S. and started making films at the age of 14. He writes in his director’s statement, “Volveré is a tribute piece to those who feel marginalized & forgotten in this country. I made this film based on experiences I’ve witnessed from my fellow loved ones. It is an oath I have to myself as a filmmaker to tell these stories in hopes that we see a change in the world or even a single person. More importantly, to give a voice to those who feel voiceless.”