With its midnight screenings and strands for animation, documentary, and narrative, SXSW is an undeniable highlight of the festival circuit for short film fans. The programmers work hard to make sure the line-up adheres to the festival’s reputation and once again they haven’t let us down. Although we won’t be attending the event in person this year, we’ve still trawled the screenings for the standout shorts to keep an eye on if you’re on the ground in Austin, Texas. Promising a “glimpse into the future of film” the line-up is full of familiar names (Oscar-nominated Ice Merchants and The Flying Sailor) and lots of surprises – from zombies to pufflings and grandmas to clones, there’s a little something for everyone.
Christopher at Sea – Tom CJ Brown
One of my favourite animations currently doing the rounds on the festival circuit, Brown’s short paints a tender portrait of a young man out to discover the allure of the sea. Beautifully animated, the short sweeps viewers into a world of fantasy and obsession as we join its wistful young protagonist on an eye-opening transatlantic voyage.
Deliver Me – Joecar Hanna-Zhang
An LGBTQ sci-fi about cloning, Deliver Me combines naturalistic world-building with an unexpected storyline to create a distinct vision of the future. As Writer, Director, and star, Hanna-Zhang isn’t out to create a far-fetched tale that feels far removed from the society we currently live in, if cloning does ever become a reality this short tackles all the discussion points in a very memorable, humorous and unique way.
In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats – Darren Emerson
Restoring my faith in VR, Emerson’s ‘multi-sensory joyride’ takes users back into the heart of the Acid House movement as we join potential party-goers in the hunt for the elusive rave. Employing a vibrating backpack, along with the standard virtual reality headset, this interactive experience is intent on making you feel every inch of the event (all it needed was the sweet scent of marijuana in the air to completely assault the senses) instead of just witnessing it. For anyone who remembers that spinetingling moment of walking into a warehouse rave, this is probably the closest you’re going to come to reliving those days. I’m not sure I ever want to go to a rave again, but I’m dying to jump into In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats once more.
Margie Soudek’s Salt and Pepper Shakers – Meredith Moore
Using her experience as a visual effects instructor, Moore takes what could have easily been a conventional documentary about her grandmother and her extensive collection of condiment dispensers and transforms it into a fun, energetic, and surprising short. With much of the film adopting the Screentime approach, there’s an unexpected tenderness to the filmmaking that contrasts perfectly with some of the blunt humour that comes from the FX work. Making films about elderly relatives can become a somewhat stereotypical pitstop in an emerging filmmaker’s career (something we discuss again below), but Moore shows here that it can still be done with real flair and originality, without lessening the emotional impact.
Nai Nai & Wai Po – Sean Wang
Taking a somewhat cliché subject (which young filmmaker hasn’t wanted to make a film about their grandparents?) and turning it into a life-affirming, humorous and moving viewing experience, two-time DN alum Sean Wang’s personal documentary was one of the real surprises of this year’s shorts selection. Brimming with warmth, spending time with the filmmaker’s “grandma super team” is a delight and by the end of the film’s constantly engaging 16-minute run-time, you’ve not only been entertained but also had a welcome reminder of all that is beautiful with life.
Suddenly TV – Roopa Gogineni
Set during the 2019 civil unrest in Sudan, which saw long-time president Omar al-Bashir overthrown, Suddenly TV takes a distinctly journalistic topic and injects an entertaining twist as it follows the crew of an imaginary TV station through the throngs of protestors. What starts as a fun way for these young men to pass the time (they are constantly on the lookout for “Nubian queens” to talk to) helps filmmaker Gogineni create an insightful and easily-accessible snapshot of an important moment in time.
The Flute – Nick Roney
When you think of the Midnight section at SXSW you want to be shocked and surprised by the selections and I can’t think of any film (feature or short) that will manage that double whammy quite like The Flute from Nick Roney – a filmmaker who first caught our eye with music video Miss Smith back in 2018. The story of a heartbroken man moving in with a couple of good friends as he tries to get his life back on track, the short takes a dark turn when an erotic photo of his ex goes missing and builds to one of the most unforgettable crescendos I’ve ever seen (some of those images will be echoing around my headspace for years to come).
We Forgot About The Zombies – Chris McInroy
Raised on a diet of video nasties and seminal zombie movies, I’ve always had a love for body horror and practical FX, so whenever I see a Chris McInroy short in a programme my eyes instantly light up. With his 2014 short Bad Guy #2 remaining a firm favourite of mine, although you have a good idea of what to expect from McInroy’s shorts they never disappoint. At just under four minutes in length, We Forgot About The Zombies packs in the laughs and gore (and even a little cake!) and wraps things up neatly before overstaying its welcome.
Puffling – Jessica Bishopp
A clever combination of coming-of-age narrative and environmental documentary this intimate short from Bishopp, another DN alum screening at SXSW this year, transports its audience to a remote island off the coast of Iceland as we join a group of young adults swapping nighttime parties for puffin patrol. Documenting a rite-of-passage for both humans and birds alike, Puffling’s subtle and restrained approach means it never forces its message on its audience and still leaves a reverberating impact.
When You Left Me on That Boulevard – Kayla Abuda Galang
Winning the short film grand jury prize at this year’s Sundance, Abuda Galang’s immersive tale of a family thanksgiving thrusts its audience into a bustling household of stoned teenagers and rowdy karaoke. After self-isolations and lockdowns, the experience of being welcomed into this packed home is an intoxicating one and a tribute to the importance of family.
You can find more unmissable films, like the ones playing SXSW, in our Best of Fest collections.