South by Southwest has always been a promising bastion for some of the most cutting-edge films to arrive onto the scene each year, and that is true for short films especially. So, here at Directors Notes we wanted to offer our audience a recommended selection of shorts to check out from the online festivities. Everything featured in our list is available to watch globally and, as you’d hope, it’s an eclectic mix as always. The selection of shorts on offer easily reaches the impressively high bar set from previous years of the festival. So, without further ado, here’s our list of ten unmissable short films to watch at SXSW Online 2021.

The Thing That Ate The Birds – Sophie Mair & Dan Gitsham

Horror maestros Sophie Mair and Dan Gitsham offer up a slice of rural terror. When a farmer learns that the local birds are being killed off in their masses, he sets out to find the source of the massacre. Mair and Gitsham pack their eleven minute short with a potent sound mix that will have you wincing in your chair. The score is also top notch and evokes the shrill strings of Robert Eggers’ eerie folk horror The Witch. DN has been featuring the work of Mair and Gitsham since the early days of the site, so it’s fantastic to see the filmmaking pair offered the audience their work has always deserved.

Play it Safe – Mitch Kalisa

Coaxed into portraying a racial stereotype in a fellow student’s play, Black drama student Johnathan must make an important decision: challenge prejudice or play it safe. Mitch Kalisa’s short greatly exemplifies uncomfortable racial dynamics in all too familiar situations. And what is perhaps most pertinent is his focus on unsettled white faces. Kalisa captures the reactions of these individuals as they display something much worse than ignorance – acknowledgement and awareness. These characters are guilty, and they know it. A short packed with a powerful statement about unconscious racism.

Read our interview with director Mitch Kalisa.

O Black Hole! – Renee Zhan

What begins as a nihilistic dive into nothingness slowly turns into a story of beauty. Renee Zhan’s O Black Hole! is a brilliant and baffling short animation about a woman who turns herself into a black hole. Zhan utilises a variety of animation styles including hand-drawn, painted and stop-motion techniques to weave her surreal story of pain and wonder. The culmination of which is an opera in both style and narrative. Truly an animation that embraces the potential of the form to the absolute fullest.

The Beauty President – Whitney Skauge

Whitney Skauge’s short documentary about drag queen Joan Jett Blakk’s historic run for president in 1992 is a prescient reminder of the need for a public voice during the height of the AIDS crisis. Skauge tells Blakk’s story from the present with Terence Smith, the man behind the persona, reflecting back on that time, walking us through footage from campaign events. It’s an informative document told with care for its subject and Smith is a joy to watch as Blakk, but its most powerful and resonant note is a lingering frustration about what hasn’t changed since those days and the ongoing fight to be heard and represented at the highest level.

I ran from it and was still in it – Darol Olu Kae 

Darol Olu Kae’s documentary, which picked up the prestigious Golden Leopard at Locarno, is a poetic meditation on separation and loss. Told through an experimental format that showcases a humane understanding of shared experience, Kae combines sourced footage with those of his own personal archive. The result of which highlights how personal and intimate details about an individual experience can extend to the universal.

Stuffed – Theo Rhys

Stuffed from Theo Rhys is a short film unlike any I’ve seen before. A horror/musical/romantic comedy about a taxidermist who longs to practice on a human. Usually, in short form filmmaking musicals are hard to pull off due to the levels of music production required but Stuffed is executed to an exceptionally high standard. At no point do the short form elements at play interfere with the story, with the songs sounding impressively produced. The script and performances match the production with some hilarious off-kilter moments, and the whole film ends up surprisingly… moving? A must-watch if you’re at the festival, if not keep your eyes (and ears!) peeled for its online release.

Read our interview with director Theo Rhys.

Femme – Sam H. Freeman & Ng Choon Ping

Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping’s thriller is a tense, gripping and unsettling ride. Starring I May Destroy You’s Paapa Essiedu and Beach Rats’ Harris Dickinson, both of which who are on exceptional form, Femme is the story of a young queer man’s uncomfortable encounter with some unsavoury London drug dealers. Clocking in at just under twenty minutes, the film flies by as the tension builds and builds to a climactic finale that, I imagine, will draw a lot of conversation at SXSW this year. Visceral cinema.

Read our interview with directors Sam H. Freeman & Ng Choon Ping.

Soak – Hannah Bang

Soak is a short drama about the dynamic between 16-year-old Yeonsoo Tak and her parents. When she comes into contact with her runaway mother, she soon discovers the repressed reasons for her departure. It’s a realist coming-of-age short that taps into that moment where you realise your parents are just people too. Shot beautifully with a great eye for environmental colour and space, Hannah Bang’s film, which was created as part of her MFA at USC, is an ode to the end of childhood.

Read our interview with director Hannah Bang.

Marvin’s Never Had Coffee Before – Andrew Carter

A wonderfully hilarious and simple concept. Carter’s short comedy about a man who’s never had coffee before is about trying to fit in. When Marvin’s co-workers talk frivolously about their morning coffee exchanges, he begins to feel left out and tries it for the first time. But when he finally joins in the fun, no-one wants to talk about it any more. Carter’s film is led by a brilliant comedic performance from Charles Rogers who embodies Marvin’s desperation and awkwardness with charm. A lovely watch on the lighter end of the spectrum.

Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma – rubberband.

In the 1970s Black educators repurposed the ABCs to reflect issues in relation to Black identity in America. Now, to begin the promotion for his second album, Topaz Jones adapts this alphabet into 26 vignettes, each offering a visual update to their corresponding letter. Jones enlisted directing duo (and three time DN alums), rubberband. to shoot this reimagination, and the result is a visually impressive, expansive and powerful document that tells a story of identity both past and present.

You keep up with all of DN’s coverage from SXSW here and find more unmissable films in our Best of Fest collections.

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