Sundance 2024: University of Utah film among select short documentaries; Midnight Program a feast of horror, dark comedy, psychological thrillers

This year’s Sundance Film Festival slate of 53 short films included a solid selection of nonfiction and narrative stories, in the documentary and Midnight program categories. The bar for juried selection was pitched higher than ever before, given the record number of 12,098 submissions for consideration.

One of the nonfiction shorts came from Utah: dêtetsi vo’i oninjakan (Winding Path) produced by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Robin Honan and co-directed by acclaimed filmmakers Alexandra Lazarowich, winner of the Short Film Special Jury Award for Directing at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, and Academy Award winner Ross Kauffman. The project was realized in collaboration with University of Utah Health and its Native American Summer Research Internship (NARI) program, made possible by a generous grant from the Kahlert Foundation. Impact Partners Film and Geralyn Dreyfous, cofounder of Impact Partners and the Utah Film Center, was executive producer.

It is an elegantly conceived portrait, thanks to the subject’s generous openness in sharing her story. At the center of the short is Jenna Murray (Eastern Shoshone), who returns to the Wind River Reservation after her grandfather’s passing. Murray shares memories about him, including one when she assisted her grandfather is sewing up the bandages for a wounded horse. She recalled how impressed her grandfather was with her skill and said that she was a natural-born surgeon. 

Larry Murray and Jenna Murray appear in Winding Path by Alexandra Lazarowich and Ross Kauffman, an official selection of the U.S. Shorts Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Ed David.

But, as she advanced into her teen years and young adulthood, she  felt more situated in urban life and she risked losing her place in an educational program because of her drinking. Then, in grieving her grandfather’s passing, she reconnected with her tribal heritage and roots. She found healing in her grief through Indigenous cultural practices, as recommended by a Native American therapist. She is now in the middle of her studies in a joint M.D.-Ph.D  program. The fourth in a series of filmed narratives in this project, this short film was the first that was accepted for Sundance.

Certainly a stellar entry in the festival, Object 817, directed by Olga Lucovnicova, stood out for its original treatment about a bit of almost forgotten history during the Soviet Union era in the Ural Mountains. The film was partly inspired by a Discovery Channel piece about an alien body — named Alien Alyoshka — that was found deep in the Soviet Union but the segment definitely treated it as a fake report. Nevertheless, Lucovnicova connected with the original investigator who had more extensive footage of the specimen, which measured more than 8.5 inches in length with rail-thin legs, a skull that looked like it had been encased in a helmet and a rib cage. What is intriguing is how the nearby town’s residents had concocted a legend that thrived. This is where the film tells the viewer how the region was the most heavily used for nuclear weapons testing during the Cold War. Thus, the alien story connects to Lucovnicova’s important epiphany about how residents in villages and towns that were so profoundly affected by these military activities and how communities try to shield themselves from the most awful truths behind these secret testing programs.

A still from Bob’s Funeral by Jack Dunphy, an official selection of the U.S. Shorts Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Jack Dunphy.

In Jack Dunphy’s Bob’s Funeral, which won the Short Film Jury Award for Nonfiction, a comprehensive spectrum about family relations and the emotional touch points than make us vulnerable is conceived with earnest wit and nostalgic sensations of love. Dunphy brought a camera into the viewing room for the funeral of his estranged grandfather and he captures plenty of thoughts from family members. In its compact form, the film succeeds superbly in bringing the audience into the scene as closely as possible.   

Dongnan Chen’s 14 Paintings is an ingeniously conceived cultural anthropology study of Dafen Village. The town was known for many years as the site where painters reproduced classics of Western art in large numbers. But, recently the govenrment commanded that the painters should now produce original works. The output is found everywhere throughout China, in museums as well as businesses and public service institutions. Each of these paintings are revealed, as the director shows meticulously crafted ‘still life’ shots in wide views. 

Other notable nonfiction shorts included Myah Overstreet’s To Be Invisible, which highlights the significant disparities in how African-American and Latin and Hispanic mothers, compared to other ethnic and demographic groups, are treated by child welfare agencies. Shot in Durham County in North Carolina, the film follows the stories of two mothers, who were victims of domestic abuse as well as being erroneously accused of it, who are hoping to be finally reunited with their children.   

A still from Object 817 by Olga Lucovnicova, an official selection of the International Shorts Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Another was Andy Sarjahani’s The Smallest Power, an animated documentary short which captures a moment in the recent  Woman, Life, Freedom uprisings in Iran. The director bases the narrative on the actual testimony of an Iranian medical resident contends with the uprising’s impact when it reaches the floor in the hospital where she works. The uprisings were sparked by Jina Mahsa Amini’s murder on September 16, 2022.

Horror and bizarre dark comedy made for some of the boldest short film entries in the Midnight Program. The winner of a Sundance Special Jury Prize for Directing, The Looming, by Masha Ko and featuring a first-rate performance by actor Joseph Lopez, deals with three of the greatest fears that any of us have as we age: loneliness, being forgotten by relatives and colleagues and dementia. 

At 70, Chester is still working and at home, relies on his virtual assistant for news and some form of communication and contact. When he begins hearing unusual sounds in his home, he is worried for his safety but coworkers and even his daughter dismiss him, suggesting that it is only because of what comes with aging. It is through, Luna, his virtual assistant, that the elderly man is convinced the sounds he has heard are not a figment of his imagination. 

One of three Sundance shorts from the U.K., Shé (Snake), directed by Renee Zhan, devilishly blends dark humor, monster elements and teenage angst, as Fei, the concertmaster of her youth orchestra, worries about a newcomer who is eager to challenge her for the post. Fei’s deepest insecurities manifest themselves as visible monsters who whisper encouragement to her that she should never doubt that she is the best. The bizarre surrealism effectively underscores this theme, in a satisfying novel treatment.

Dream Creep, directed by Carlos A.F. Lopez, is one of the best examples of how the impact of horror in a short film format can deliver much more than in many feature-length films of the horror genre.

When David wakes up in the middle night, hearing a voice screaming for help, he is stunned to discover that the sounds are coming from inside Suzy, who is fast asleep next to him. The voice, which is coming from her eardrum, tells him that she is in the midst of a nightmare but David should not dare waking her up or otherwise she will die.  

Sidney Jayne Hunt and Ian Edlund appear in Dream Creep by Carlos A.F. Lopez, an official selection of the U.S. Shorts Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Jacob Rosen.

David faces an impossible dilemma, worrying that regardless of how he complies with the instructions, his partner will die or suffer some horrific injury. The film generates a curious but highly effective mix of the darkest kinds of humor and genuine terror. “The impetus for the idea blossomed from a personal experience that mirrors the opening of the film: awakened one night to a loud crash, I was unsure if the sound occurred in my dream and had woken me up; or if it had really happened and there was actual danger in my house,” Lopez wrote in his director’s statement. “From that acute state of terror, I wanted to explore how someone thrust into a waking nightmare would deal with harrowing life or death decisions. As I lay looking at my partner sleeping, I was struck by the idea of what if it wasn’t my dream I had heard but theirs?”

The Bleacher, directed by Adam Wilder and Nicole Daddona, starts from a familiar incident that has frustrated many of us: trying to locate a missing sock in the washing machine. In the film, the woman is determined to find a blood-stained sock, even if that means going as far into the washing machine as possible. Eventually, she ends up in an eerie limbo, where a dolphin-like man is trapped in a mound of lost socks. Ultimately, this leads to a terrifying truth and the revelations of the one’s subconscious state.

As weird and creepy in its comedic treatment as in the British stylings of Monty Python’s Flying Circus from decades ago, The Rainbow Bridge, directed by Dimitri Simakis, is a highly mischievous commentary on pet owners who sometimes go overboard in how they treat them better than human companions. The tone is set immediately at the film’s opening, with an outrageous commercial about the afterlife, in which pet owners have a chance to have a two-way conversation with their animals before they die.   

When a woman brings her 19-year-old dog to the clinic, the staff is more than eager to help grant them their final requests but then it becomes apparent that what is behind the clinic’s front is far more sinister than what appears as innocuous on the surface. 

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