Backstage at the Utah Arts Festival 2023: Two no-holds-barred programs of Midnight Shorts will be featured at Fear No Film

Mellus and his team take the thematic objective of Fear No Film literally and to heart, for the Utah Arts Festival. The 14 films that comprise the two Midnight Programs this year underscore this objective beautifully. These offerings are not for the faint-hearted but they epitomize what a director can accomplish when they emancipate themselves from the conventional boundaries of creative expression.  

Midnight Program 1 (June 23, 10 p.m.)

Of the three Russian animation shorts, Cucumbers (Russia, Leonid Shmelkov) is the edgiest, by far. The animation again is minimalistic but it enhances the story about a successful photographer’s personal struggles with his true identity and masculinity. With his emotional crisis paralyzing his social and professional life, he sees cucumbers in everything.  

One might ask, “why cucumbers?” In an interview connected to the Clermont Film Fest where his short was selected, Shmelkov says, “This is such an expression of a person’s crisis, when everything that he had done before suddenly began to look different for him. And it is not completely clear what is true. Perhaps all he did was stupid cucumbers; he just didn’t notice it before. Actually in the very beginning of development, they weren’t cucumbers, but penises. But then it seemed that drawing penises for many months would not be as pleasant for me as cucumbers.”


de(Vice) Grip (U.S., Padrick Sean Ritch) is a brilliant film for three minutes that will perk up viewers to realize just how unwittingly we surrender practically every vestige of our privacy when we routinely click on accepting “terms of service” for our mobile devices and the apps we download, often without a second thought.

El Nazareno (Spain, Jose Luis Pineda) is a sort of coming-of-age for the director which he made to complete his academic studies and to complete his formative development from child to adult, with regard to experiences of the Christian religion. The black-and-white visuals are outstanding.

Lupe (U.S., José ‘Pepe’ Manzo) comes from the director who is the narrative film mentor for student filmmakers in Spy Hop Productions’ outstanding PitchNic program. In Lupe, Manzo’s narrative treatment arises from the intersections of shortcomings in faith, arising from both religion and immigration policy. Many immigrants experience a frustrating, even excruciating, limbo because their uncertain status prevents them from being reunited or being able to visit their loved ones. The story is told within a horror film frame but the unrelenting anxieties associated with immigration are portrayed with stark realism. Viewers will note that Oscar Ignacio Jiménez is the cinematographer for this film. One of the state’s most sought after cinematographers, Jiménez has also worked with two other directors who have films this year at Fear No Film: Luis Fernando Puente and Robert Machoian.


Offerings (U.S., Shane Bannon) might best described as Peyton Place meets Twin Peaks, with a twist of Pleasantville thrown in for good measure. Set in suburbia, a woman wonders how her neighbors find marital bliss and satisfaction. To quote an astute commenter about the film, “I guess you scratch my back while I peel yours.” 

O’O ‘Touche’ (France, Kelzang Ravach, Clara Liu and Chloé Guillemet) is a scintillating gem filled with incredible Freudian visual of tantalizing delights. The visual feast is accompanied by a soundtrack that would be perfect in any dance club. In fact, this marvelous video could play on loop as a backdrop at a club.

Solo Un Ensayo (Just a Rehearsal) (Spain, Hugo Sanz) is a brilliant shocker of a short film, touching on a narrative about domestic violence. Two young sisters are hiding inside an armoire, and the youngest one believes they are rehearsing for an innocent game. But, the elder sister is waiting for the right moment to deal with an ominous figure whom both can hear from their hiding place.

Solo Un Ensayo.

Spank Patrol (U.S., Kevin Ralston) is the latest short comedy by a filmmaker who appeared previously at Fear No Film. This film is all about the narrative meat and comic potential: To win justice against criminals who have no respect for property or value, a law enforcement group relies on a universal form of stinging corporal punishment — spanking. 

Hubbards was Ralston’s previous film to appear on the Fear No Film slate. Ralston, who wrote, directed, edited and acted in that short, has fashioned a truly hilarious piece that feels like a really bad commercial but is so much more. The film won honors as Short Com’s Funniest Film in 2021. Indeed, this brand of comedy is found in ample volume with Spank Patrol.

Midnight Program 2 (June 24, 10 p.m.)

Awake (U.S., William H. Abes) was the director’s capstone project to complete his degree at the Savannah College of Art and Design. It is a psychological thriller pitched from aspects of severe depression and insomnia, which effectively draws the viewer to immerse themselves into discovering the young woman’s harrowing fate.


Sabbath (France, Alexandra Mignien) is an exceptional short with equally mastered cinematic technique. The story is set in what is likely a medieval time as a priest and villagers gather along a cliff to witness six women accused of being witches sent to their deaths. The narrative takes a surprising turn, unlike other witch trials. Mignien does not pull punches in the graphic but proper tone of her story. Her portfolio of short films deal with the impacts and consequences of societal misogyny and her horror films in general do not shy from taboo subjects including pedophilia and incest. 

There Are No Ghosts (Spain, Nacho Solana) is a smartly constructed narrative about a young woman who is known as a medium skilled at distilling paranormal incidents. She does not charge for her services and when she is called to a home, she only asks for a beer. While the occupants of the home insist that there are ghosts, the medium says otherwise, suggesting that what is sensed are the metaphysical soulful remnants of individuals who were once in the material human world. The short is intended as a proof of concept for a forthcoming feature-length film. 

There Are No Ghosts.

This Little Light of Mine (France, Marie-Laure Cros (Malo Sutra Fish)) is perhaps the most ingenious of this year’s experimental shorts. The film takes the viewer inside the perspective of what a photosensitive epileptic is experiencing during a seizure. The director shot the four stages of a tonic-clonic seizure, using Super 8Ektachrome.

In her director’s statement, Cros explains that she made the film because epilepsy is not only misunderstood but also there are associated fears and feelings of shame that cause crises of identity. In one of her most eloquent statements, she writes, “The lotus grows in the thickest mud,  and poetry does sometimes come from the darkest pain.”

As for the question of whether or not a photosensitive epileptic can be a filmmaker, she writes the following, “Does it take away meaning? Does it take away my own right to produce art? No. It takes longer. Isn’t it what we’re all finding out right now? What to say about this constant crushing time, and the consumption of life, until it’s depleted, aren’t we all suffering from going too fast? And what is our cinema crisis revealing? How many are left out because they don’t fit the criteria? But then again, are the criteria  right? Whose body is to be portrayed, and whose isn’t? Who’s in, who’s out?”

This Little Light of Mine.

Waka Chicka Waka (U.S., Ryan Clausen) is a strange but captivating short film with intentional bad acting, editing and delivery, along with a cheesy soundtrack. The film is a parody, part a low-budget porno with obvious sexual innuendo and part cheap gory horror story. And, what better premise to start when two women have invited a sleazy plumber to unclog their disgusting kitchen sink.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken (U.S., Lucy and Max Nebeker) is the latest short for a trilogy, best described as an anthology of mythological or allegorical stories set in the Intermountain West region. The Nebeker Twins, as these Utah filmmakers are popularly known, are impressive in every measure of an outstanding cinematic project. As The Utah Review has noted previously, the Nebeker twins pick up on the right cues of a broader creative trend in various forms of artistic expression, which seek to reposition the lens on how we imagine, interpret and contextualize the storytelling roots of a region in the American West that are more authentic and pertinent than popularized tropes that have cemented specific stereotypes. The Nebekers’ inspiration comes from a mix of sources and muses, including Mormon pioneer records, hymns, the Big Rock Candy Mountain and Bear Lake lore.

Lucy and Max Nebeker, Will the Circle Be Unbroken.

This latest short springs from the realities of how families who have been ranchers for multiple generations have found it increasingly difficult to sustain their agricultural livelihood, with long-term drought, opioid addiction and the encroachment of mega-corporate interests. Ranchers struggle with deciding whether to sell off their properties or try their damndest to keep the ranch in their families. Watch how the directors fuse deftly elements of Rocky Mountains folklore and cowboy ballads with classic mythological tropes such as the siren.

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