The shorts programs at the New York Film Festival are not technically curated according to any specific theme. Yet rarely does a festival put together events like this without a trend or two sneaking in, unconsciously or otherwise. There are twelve short films. Six of them are quiet, melancholy sketches of loneliness. I’m not going to psychoanalyze the programmers, of course, which would be silly. I will, however, tell you why some of these little films rank among the most beautifully articulate representations of human emotion I’ve seen this year.
On the surface, this is a wildly different bunch. Curfew is about a suicidal twenty-something in New York, while Saint Pierre follows a Québécois dishwasher living in English Canada. Night Shift looks at the troubled life of a cleaning woman at an airport in New Zealand, while on the opposite side of the world Nothing Can Touch Me examines the fallout of a high school shooting in Denmark. All four of these films grant us a brief glimpse into the solitary lives of their protagonists, whose troubles seem so close in kind despite the great physical and cultural differences between them.
That loneliness, however, does not imply sympathy or charisma. Zia Mandviwalla plays with the very edge of compassion in Night Shift. The audience is initially set up to have pity for her character, airport cleaner Salote (Anapela Polataivao). She seems to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders, somehow seeming small and meek despite her large size. However, this innocence dissolves rather quickly. Salote resists an offer of friendship from a co-worker and refuses to return a teddy bear to a crying child. These and other acts of selfishness and implied desperation complicate our relationship with the character. In the end, Mandviwalla presents us with an explanation of Salote’s behavior, yet not an excuse. Night Shift is concerned with the illumination of a woman, not her beatification.
That distinction is crucial. These characters are neither heroes nor saints, and their loneliness is often in part due to their own actions. Salote chooses to avoid friendships out of both virtue and selfishness. Shawn Christensen’s Curfew is equally ambiguous. Richie (played by Christensen himself) begins the film in a bathtub, having just slashed his wrists. The phone rings. It’s his sister, in desperation, asking him to come over and watch her daughter. They haven’t spoken in years, yet he pulls himself together, bandages his arms, and heads over.
The evening isn’t an instant solution for his depression and loneliness, but rather gives us a glimpse of what drove him there in the first place. There is a particularly stunning moment mid-way through the short, when the niece begins to dance. In a brief diversion into movie magic, an entire bowling alley performs a choreographed number as Richie stares on. On the one hand it seems to offer hope, a glimpse at the presence of joy in a world that he only just was determined to leave forever. At the same time, Richie is the only one sitting still. As the music stops, we realize just how distant he feels from the rest of the city. This subtle balance between human connection and dark solitude keeps Curfew unique, affecting, and graceful. Between this and his gorgeous sci-fi short Brink, Christensen has proven himself one of the most talented young filmmakers working in New York.
While Richie is a bit rough around the edges, the unnamed man (Philip Prajoux) at the center of Saint Pierre is rough-and-tumble. Stricken with a horrible dishwashing job, a pompous boss, and an uncooperative bank, his life seems like an uninterrupted bad mood. All of this fades away when he’s watching MMA fights, especially his hero: Québécois champion Georges St-Pierre. Our dishwasher takes the inspiration into the gym, where director Kevan Funk places the film’s most contemplative scenes. His physicality is aspirational, a way for him to deal with his otherwise frustrating life. It’s reminiscent of Mads Matthiesen’s short Dennis, recently adapted into the feature film Teddy Bear. Yet Saint Pierre has a poetry all its own, made from the blunt meeting of blood, sweat, and dirty dishes.
Nothing Can Touch Me is something else entirely. All three of the previous films have smaller casts, shorter running times, and more modest subject matter. This, a stunning student film from Milad Alami, finds the poetry of solitude in the wake of the most violent and public of events: a school shooting. Instead of telling the story of the killer or one of his slain, Alami follows the girl who got away. Katrine (Coco Hjardemaal) and Anton are both loners, constantly picked on by the other students. Therefore, when Anton brings a shotgun to school and finds Katrine hiding in the bathroom, he leaves her alone. Yet her survival is only the beginning.
After escaping the building, she gets drawn into a vengeful trip to Anton’s house led by the very bullies that teased her just a few minutes before. As the only friend of the killer, she is now not only forced to confront her own feelings of guilt but also to face the judgment of her companions. Wandering through Anton’s bedroom, his basement, the locations in which he planned his crime becomes an anatomy of dangerous loneliness, in its most unstable and vicious form. Katrine is confronted with the reality of not only his life but also her own and reacts with both dignity and the fragility of a child. With this, the most troubling of these stories of melancholy and solitude, Alami has achieved the greatest catharsis.