Utah Film Center Damn These Heels 2021: Five short films receive either world, North American premieres

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Five short films are being screened for U.S. viewers for the first time in the Utah Film’s Center’s 18th annual Damn These Heels Queer Film Festival. These films are part of the festival’s various short film programs, which are available for streaming on demand, with purchased tickets, through July 18.

Two short films — The Letter, directed by Meredith Morran and True Mother, from Israel, directed by Rotem Gabay — received their world premieres at the festival. The Letter is a fascinating 10-minute short, exploring the practicalities of analyzing how we talk to each other and give each other messages and their meanings. It is inspired in part by the dynamics of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Purloined Letter and Jacques Lacan’s semiotic analysis of the story. True Mother centers around a custody battle that compels a woman to abduct their child, despite losing the court case to her ex-wife. 

Three short films received their North American premieres at Damn These Heels. From Australia, Stephen Lance’s Torch Song is an electrified drama culminating in the collision of toxic and feminized masculinity in a story with the main character being a male with an additional copy of the X chromosome (clinically referred to as the Klinefelter’s Syndrome). Personals, directed by Sasha Argirov, focuses on how an anonymous sex encounter changes dynamics after a young man responds to an online ad for glory hole service. Argirov, who lives and works in Vancouver, received a 2020 Sundance Ignite x Adobe grant for the project. The third North American premiere is Talk Soon, directed by Joey Massa. The film tells the story of a couple who are spending the night together for the first time in more than a year and both hesitate to communicate their feelings after such a long absence.

The Letter, directed by Meredith Morran.

The Letter — Meredith Morran

How do we communicate our queer identities to those who are part of our lives? How do we overcome awkward moments in our intimate relationships where the potential to over assume or misinterpret could lead to unhealthy power dynamics? How often do we hope that someone will receive and comprehend the core nature of the message we’re trying to send without ever sending it for fear that it could trigger negative consequences up to being rejected, abandoned or isolated?

These are some just questions that emerge for viewers to consider after watching Meredith Morran’s fascinating short video essay The Letter. It is a 10-minute visually clarifying primer about semiotics and what we can learn from it in comprehending and navigating the complex, confounding experiences of our conversations and our relationships. Morran refers to three letters she had written to people important in her life but were never sent. They are identified merely by their ages: 23, 40 and 79. The contents of the letters are never mentioned. The text of the film is put through a bot, which emphasizes just how difficult it can be to decipher messages.

In an interview with The Utah Review, Morran says, “I am a little bit obsessed with language and representation in my filmmaking and writing.” She adds that she is interested in breaking things down into fundamental forms, which leads to her using text diagrams brought to the cinematic screen.

Her “touchstones,” as she describes it, for this project come from Edgar Allan Poe’s detective short story The Purloined Letter, along with the cottage industry of critical philosophical analysis surrounding this little American classic that has flourished in peer-reviewed journals and various disciplines ranging from literature to psychology and to queer studies and film theory.

Of most significant interest are Jacques Lacan’s Seminar on The Purloined Letter, Jacques Derrida’s response to Lacan’s reading of the Poe story and, finally, the brilliant takedown of both philosophers’ work on the matter by Barbara Johnson, one of the most widely cited American literary critics.

Poe’s 1844 story concerns a letter from the queen’s paramour that has been stolen from the royal chambers by a minister, who switched it with a letter of insignificant matters and who has been using the purloined letter to intimidate and blackmail the queen. The story includes puzzles, which the investigator uses to solve the case. In the story, the contents of the letter in question are never revealed. 

Johnson’s analysis of the story along with the two other cited readings from the scholarly literature points out how Derrida is using the same logic that he criticizes Lacan of using: “The frame of reference allows the analyst to frame the author of the text he is reading for practices whose locus is simultaneously beyond the letter of the text and behind the vision of its reader.”

Morran says that engaging with the theory has helped on a practical level personally and in the making of the film. “I started writing and borrowing different moments where I was a little bit fraught about the complicated reasons why I didn’t send the letters,” she says. “So I zoomed out in perspective that allowed me to write about this and think about it in a way that makes it less complicated and feel okay.” Morran says that she consciously chose the path of least resistance in removing as much of a subjective presence of her as the writer and director of the film. This opens the abstracted space so that the viewer can fill in with their own stories. In sum, this cinematic essay arising from a holistic appreciation of semiotics leads to an epiphany about the merits of becoming better listeners in conversations and relationships, especially when they deal with queer identities and feelings of acceptance and affirmation.

Torch Song, directed by Stephen Lance.

Torch Song — Stephen Lance

This Australian short, receiving its North American premiere at Damn These Heels, packs a great deal of emotional punch and thematic impact in a matter of a few minutes. In an interview with The Utah Review, Lance explains how the story came from an encounter with The Australian Klinefelter Support Group in Queensland. The Klinefelter’s Syndrome is defined as a male who was born with an additional X chromosome. Lance met Emily Wadsworth, who founded the group after her son was discovered with Klinefelter’s Syndrome. 

Lance, who was focused on as authentic representation as possible for his film, listened to stories from her as well as her 13–year-old son (Aidyn) with the hopes that the teen would agree to take the lead role in his short film. Torch Song’s story revolves around an aggressive, charismatic, narcissistic father and an effigy burning party in the backyard of his home. The film frames a transitional state of masculinity which is set against an electrifying, rage-filled backdrop highlighting the clash of toxic and feminized masculinities. 

But, the Wadsworth teen, whose parents have been unconditionally supportive and thus he did not experience the level of toxicity that was being represented in the film’s narrative, did not feel comfortable in appearing on film because he thought the narrative might be complex to handle in his performance. Lance subsequently recruited actor Jordan Dulieu from Sydney, who spent a few weeks with Aidyn so that Dulieu could get a truer sense of how to portray a character with Klinefelter’s Syndrome. Meanwhile, preparing Dulieu for the challenge of portraying a son who has a relationship with a father who could explode in rage instantaneously required some finessed practice. Dulieu normally avoids confrontation but a pressure cooker of emotional vulnerability emerges if he is pushed to becoming angry even as he tries to resist it, as Lance explains. 

True Mother, directed by Rotem Gabay.

The film’s visuals suggest an intense horror film sensation, which builds around the imagery of an effigy burning. Filming was done before the pandemic settled in and Australia had experienced numerous wildfires, which amplified the mood of the filming. As for casting extras for the effigy burning scene, filmed in Brisbane, Lance found the ideal type of characters at a local grocery store. “All of the casting choices made the horrific sense that much more intense and surprising,” Lance adds. 

As the film approaches its climax, the viewer wonders if Lance’s allegorical narrative is about to spin out of control, unleashing perhaps the most emotionally intense response through primal screams. Unlike the real-life Aidyn, the boy in the film experiences sheer torture in a severely toxic relationship. Nevertheless, Lance says Emily Wadsworth loved the film, an encouraging indicator that such a bold, visceral film could compel viewers to cultivate an empathetic understanding of young males with Klinefelter’s Syndrome, who, in turn, could then be comfortable to live confidently and safely with affirmation and trusting relationships.

Personals, directed by Sasha Argirov.

True Mother — Rotem Gabay

From Israel, Rotem Gabay’s True Mother also received its world premiere. Solid production values along with excellent acting carry this story about a woman, desperate to spend time with the child that once was at the heart of her marriage to another woman. What obviously was a bitter custody battle ended with the one woman losing, which compels her to abduct the child. The film received funding support from Israel’s Makor Foundation and Haifa Art Foundation.

In an interview with The Utah Review, Gabay says she drew on her experiences with breakups in two relationships, which parallel those of the main character featured in the film. “There is a big difference when the breakup involves children being involved and where another has no children involved,” Gabay says in discussing Israeli law regarding divorce and custody disputes. “The courts go with the biological parent,” she explains, adding that this is especially problematic in same-sex households with two mothers raising a child together.

The film’s characters and events parallel Gabay’s life experiences and the fears of the post-separation impact. She was in a bisexual relationship and then was later involved in a same-sex relationship where there were children. “It was heartbreaking,” she says because the children did not see a difference from one mother to another and they called her mom as well. Gabay hopes that Israeli courts will reconsider and reform the emphasis on biological parenthood in court cases, especially with the growing numbers of same-sex family households. One encouraging sign, she says, is that courts in straight marriages do consider male rights in custody decisions. She adds that shared custody would be feasible, especially given Israel’s compact geography which makes traveling distances convenient to accommodate in such situations.

True Mother is an impressive outing for this young filmmaker. Gabay sought actors with extensive portfolios for the cast, with the most notable being Netta Garti, one of Israeli’s most prominent actors in film and television who has been nominated for and has won numerous awards. Garti was cast in the main role. The film was produced under the auspices of Sapir College School for Audio and Visual Arts.

Other Shorts

With a North American premiere, Sasha Argirov received an Ignite x Adobe grant in the Sundance Institute’s Co//lab program, which is awarded to filmmakers between the ages of 18 and 25, for Personals, a sensitive, warm film about two individuals awkwardly trying to remain discreet for a “glory hole” encounter. A young man has answered a hookup ad on Craigslist and when he shows up to meet the man, whose identity remains anonymous, their mutual hesitation threatens to end the encounter before anything can happen. It’s a story that resonates as realistic and credible for anyone bold enough to pursue an anonymous sexual encounter but who also questions themselves incessantly if their insecurities could be a turnoff for the other individual. Based in Vancouver, Argirov is working on a debut feature-length narrative about a college student who lures his girlfriend as a conduit for his mother’s ghost. 

Talk Soon, directed by Joey Massa.

Also making a North American debut is Joey Massa’s Talk Soon, which runs just under eight minutes, and deals as well with hesitations and uncertainties in encounters. But, this time it involves Sasha and Rae who are spending their first night together after not seeing each other for more than a year. Spacious and sparse, the film highlights a good counterpoint about how individuals and their setting could be so familiar yet so difficult to reconnect with after a prolonged absence. Talk Soon emerges as a practical case example to consider in the lessons of Meredith Morran’s abstract cinematic essay The Letter

The film was shot in 2018 in Providence, Rhode Island and it features actors Chloe Freeman and Sasha De Lotbinière.

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