The Etheria Film Festival is back with a new lineup of shorts. The event, a showcase for female creatives, gives titles a broader reach among general audiences. Instead of an exclusively theatrical presentation, the festival is once again bringing its annual selections to AMC’s Shudder streaming service. This year’s choices represent a range of genres, most notably horror and sci-fi. It’s a diverse cross-section of storylines, as well as themes that highlight the best of short film.
Fear of the doctor is all too common, but it reaches a new level in EYE EXAM. The project asks what practices are considered normal and how sight itself is up for grabs in diabolical ways. An aesthetic akin to ‘50s nostalgic remembrances plays up the film’s mise en scene while setting up an unpredictable narrative. EYE EXAM finds its truly scary moments in those images we’re all too familiar with; filmmaker Aislinn Clarke relies on the hallmarks of optometry to influence panic. The barnhouse in the field, the red windmill, the red balloon, anyone who has ever dealt with an optometrist knows the discomfort they cause. Here, they are put to even better effect than the true evil lurking just out of sight.
A futuristic hellscape, not too far from those portrayed a thousand times before, greets the viewer in POLVOTRON 500. What actually sets it apart comes from the confines of a rather normal room, one well-versed in personal pleasures. The story works because it connects two entities — one human and one hologram — who are in search of their own sense of safety. POLVOTRON 500 breaks away from the standard views given to sexuality under advanced guises. Instead, it throws fetishism to the wolves in favor of true conversation. Núria Deulofeu’s attention to detail in her role of Niky gives the creation a life, and by doing so, makes the audience look past their preconceived notions.
THE FOURTH WALL
They say all the world’s a stage, an adage all too true in Kelsey Bollig’s THE FOURTH WALL. Divided into three acts, the film utilizes a play’s structure to present backstage fiascos while resonating across emotional levels. Chloé is an actress intent on finding substance after a career trajectory spiraling towards failure. It’s easy to see her pain, constantly dealing with external struggles as the dream of stardom fades. Actress Lizzie Brocheré introduces the character with a spitting flourish against her mirrored reflection and expertly takes the role from there. The initial awkwardness pays off as it establishes the brutality and hatred Chloé feels towards herself. Ultimately, the character’s decisions create both the realization of an audience’s love and the grim reality that the spotlight truly only shines once. Bollig’s use of stark colors, dark spaces, and even a pulsating soundtrack build the drama as it expands the sense of dread.
NARROW chooses to find its footing with a single character — director Anna Chazelle in the lead role of Sloane. The results are an even more focused storyline without the burdens of hurried explanation. Haunted by something unknown, far from revealed even in the final frames, the balance of the narrative falls on her struggle. Surrounded by landscapes and empty places, the character’s travels can be daunting for viewers expecting dialogue or shortcuts. The film’s last sequence reveals a balance between light and dark that rewards that patience. What remains is best left to the imagination as questions swirl over what just occurred.
YOU WILL NEVER BE BACK (NO PODRÁS VOLVER NUNCA)
This entry into 2021’s festival is a favorite that feels at home next to the works of David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick. A woman, Ana, sets out to do a simple task but winds up in a nightmare scenario that intensely probes the human psyche. Could anyone stand being erased from time itself? The question lingers as she falls deeper into the evolving set of circumstances, none in her favor. Using a singular hallway for most of the film could be seen as a risky move yet it really isn’t under the skillful guidance of director Mónica Mateo. This simple space expands and contracts per need, moving with every constraint placed against its walls. Still, it is humanity that is front and center during each moment. Ana’s disturbing revelation through a face-to-face encounter with herself stands as one of those unforgettable images — it is as heartbreaking as it is terrifying.
Time travel has long been a popular topic for shorts. After all, it lends itself to quick explanations and built-up definitions already in a viewer’s mind. BOOTSTRAPPED plays on those same conventions without adding to the lore. An average day in the life of a couple turns into something much more during writer, director, and actress Katy Erin’s short. The film forgoes large sets and unusual props to tell its story; Erin instead relies on a small space — one bedroom with a mirrored closet door — to produce her illusions. Dialogue takes the place of showing an audience what happened, creating an imaginative way to tap into visions beyond what a low budget can achieve. It also helps to establish a connection between those viewing this couple in crisis and the situation they’re facing. Something that could have been constructed on tropes chooses empathy and understanding of what may be unchangeable.
Life and death are at the forefront of Myra Aquino’s short film. What seems like just another bland office turns out to be purgatory itself. Other films have done the same conceits as a joke, but it feels like THE GRAY reaches for more than that. Among the dull methodical atmosphere hides a very poignant story about the people left behind after death and the consequences of a family broken apart by underlying factors. Finding its message in the context that a moth could carry a spirit back to salvation and love gives the project its true balance.
There are some stories that resonate across decades and MISFITS is one of them. Ciani Rey Walker’s film speaks to the tragic night in April 1968 when a country dealt with the unimaginable, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. For this Black Panther Chapter House the stories held inside speak not only to that heartbreaking moment in our country’s history but complicated personal narratives. The film doesn’t pull its punches, nor should it. As sisters come to terms with the trauma created by brutality they also find themselves at a crossroads between each other and the outside world. Every choice counts in the story, something expertly held up with dialogue that reaches beyond superficial motivations. When it comes to the final decision the audience is ready and knows the rationale.
WHO GOES THERE
Aesthetics mean everything in WHO GOES THERE. Astrid Thorvaldsen’s Western/ horror hybrid begins in darkness, illuminated only by the glowing sparks of a small fire. From there, the world grows to showcase the expanses of nature in the 1800s. One of cinematographer Graham Boonzaaier’s most striking shots conveys a sense of dread as a main character stands before two wooden crosses. Nothing is said of who is there or what it means to her, instead the bleakness comes through in its quiet subtlety. Like other entries in this year’s fest, this title chooses to look at personal connections. Two sisters are at a crossroads as another struggles to stay alive; through their interactions it is clear to see the division, lost moments among a life led by instincts of survival over contentment. This narrative also speaks yet again to the choices everyone must make. While it might not be as catastrophic or as pointed as the one faced by lead character Ingrid, the consequences nevertheless ring out over days, weeks, or even years.
Etheria’s 2021 slate of films comes to Shudder today, June 25th, and will be available to subscribers until July 25th.
Tags: Aislinn Clarke, Anna Chazelle, Astrid Thorvaldsen, Ciani Rey Walker, Etheria Film Festival, Graham Boonzaaier, Katy Erin, Kelsey Bollig, Lizzie Brocheré, Martin Luther King Jr., Mónica Mateo, Myra Aquino, Núria Deulofeu, short films, Shudder