The standout films in 2022’s Sundance short film program are those that hint at stories while leaving a lot unsaid. But, to say they only “hint” sells them short — they do more than that. Those that are successful plunge the viewer into their worlds, giving them a captivating story but leaving them with looming questions about what exactly was going on. Thematically, they deal with freedom in various forms, and the things we do to obtain even an imagined version of it. Detailed are the chance encounters, daydreams and rituals that can overcome situational and mental confinement, and how that overcoming is more often a slight shift than a complete breakthrough.
Put simply, my favorite of the short films, “IF I GO WILL THEY MISS ME,” written and directed by journalist Walter Thompson-Hernández (in his directorial debut), is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. Centering on Lil’ Ant (Anthony Harris, Jr., debut), a young boy living in Watts, California, the film captures this place in scenes that are vivid and alive. Having grown up in Watts himself, Hernández said in an interview with Sundance that he aimed to depict this place without giving a clichéd image of Los Angeles. Specifically, he wanted to explore the fascinating relationship the people there have to the airplanes that are constantly leaving and returning, while also highlighting their hazardous impact from the routine dumping of toxic fuel. In the film, these airplanes take the form of airplane people, dressed in white, who hold out their arms like wings. They run; they sit on walls with arms spread and tilting; they form a line and are directed to and from their home by airport operators; they are everywhere.
Depending on how the film is interpreted, the airplane people never succeed in flying. Even if we believe that they are airplanes, they still fly back home every day. But in trying to fly and in the freeness of the filming itself, it is almost like they are claiming some of that freedom. That elusive ability to join the planes seems to partially define their community.
The airplane people fascinate Lil’ Ant. He watches them from his window and longs to join them. Furthering the theme of flight, he develops a love of the Pegasus, drawing it and later making himself a pair of purple wings, leaving the viewer wondering if he will be able to fly. The camera is rarely still, layering movement as we see deep blue waves roll in and fireworks burst against the black sky, illuminating the faces of people with eyes cast upward. Thompson-Hernández’s experience as a photojournalist is evident in every shot.
“IF I GO WILL THEY MISS ME” is not the only standout film that involved a not-entirely-real flight. This theme was used as a more direct metaphor for freedom in “Warsha,” written and directed by Dania Bdeir (“In White”), in which a migrant Syrian worker (professional dancer Khansa in his cinematic debut) finds emotional escape in the physically confined driver’s seat of the tallest crane on a construction site. After a morning in a cramped house and bus with other workers and a climb up the crane that leaves him in a state of panic, the expectation is that this new job will add to his already difficult life. Instead, the top of the crane is the only place where he can be completely alone. In a moving daydream scene, he turns on music and the box in which he sits disappears as he swings from the crane wearing a red dancer’s outfit. Once again, his freedom isn’t “real.” He is imagining this while remaining in the crane, in his job and living situation where he experiences none of the solaces he desires or the time to think of the life he left behind. The film begs the question of what freedom looks like. He spends the bus ride home smiling out the window, a shift from his annoyance at the other workers on the trip to the site that morning. It is emotional freedom, though his situation remains the same.
One of the anniversary shorts from the program, Taika Waititi’s (“Jojo Rabbit”) black-and-white 2003 film “Two Cars, One Night,” experiences this same pull between situational confinement and emotional freedom, but it draws out these themes differently. Unlike the films that resist complete understanding, the story here is simple: Children stuck waiting for their parents in the parking lot of a pub begin talking to each other and become friends. A boy (Rangi Ngamoki, “The King Boys”) sits with his younger brother (Te Ahiwaru Ngamoki-Richards, debut) in one car. A girl (Hutini Waikato, debut) sits in another, several parking spaces away. Their relationship begins as irrational animosity, flipping each other off through their windows, but ends with a fleeting friendship between the girl and the boy before her parent arrives and they part ways. The dialogue remains lighthearted and is both believable and witty throughout. The simplicity of the premise works to make the moment of connection between the boy and girl stand out, showing their unlikely friendship as a gem of connection found in everyday life — an escape from a car and an escape from a day of mundanity.
On the other hand, perhaps the best example of a film both compelling and wonderfully impossible to completely understand is “Bestia,” a stop-motion animated short directed by Hugo Covarrubias (“Feather Pillow”). The titular character is a Chilean secret police agent portrayed by a china doll who begins the story in an airplane with a hole in the side of her ceramic skull. In an interview with Sundance, Covarrubias explained that the story is based on a real woman from the Chilean military dictatorship who dedicated herself to torture. After the scene in the airplane, the story flashes back to show how she came to have a hole in her head. It circles between scenes in an empty field where she interacts with her dog; scenes in her house where baking and examining her body give way to an increasingly obvious darkness; and scenes at her job, which at first appears unconcerning but later reveals itself to be something sinister. The level of detail in each scene is impressive. Pausing the film at any point reveals clues to Bestia’s life and character — a gun sits on her bedside table, for example, suggesting the story’s downward spiral and foreshadowing the ending — as well as what is happening in the story. As Covarrubias mentioned in the interview, the stop-motion design lends itself to the lack of emotion that Bestia feels and the darkness of the story. It is eerie and, even after knowing the basis of the story, eludes understanding, as her motivations and thoughts about her own actions are never known.
While these are my favorite films from the program, they are far from the only ones worth watching. Other standout works include “Close Ties to Home Country,” written, directed and based on the experiences of Akanksha Cruczynski (“The Akankshow”), in which an Indian girl living in the United States on a student visa reflects on her decision to leave her family in India while dog sitting for an influencer couple; “THE FOURTH WALL,” written, directed and animated by Maboobeh Kalaee (“Mirage”), a creative and moving stop-motion animated short set in a single room where a boy describes his family, hinting at cracks in their relationships; and “You Go Girl,” directed and co-written by Shariffa Ali (“The Copper Children”), which cuts between an aspiring stand-up comedian making jokes about her complicated relationship with her mother and her climb to the top of a mountain at a nature preserve to scatter her mother’s ashes after she has died. These films, too, are evocative in their themes of freedom and understanding, whether presented as the viewer’s inability to understand the narrator in “THE FOURTH WALL” or the emotional release found at the end of “You Go Girl!”
The themes of freedom and discovery that defined the best of this year’s selections reflect the mission of Sundance to bring the work of independent filmmakers to audiences around the world. In a way, being virtual, the 2022 festival itself tells a story similar to so many of these shorts — one of being stuck, be that in quarantine due to COVID-19 or in a situation where traveling a great distance to attend a festival in person is not feasible, yet finding a way to connect to these films is more achievable than ever.
Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at email@example.com.