“My poems and songs have no flavor without you.”
The above quote comes from the end of the short documentary “Ayenda,” directed by Marie Margolius. A group of teenage Afghan girls sing this song about their homeland after they’ve been evacuated by a special mission team, and the line, “My poems and songs have no flavor without you,” really encapsulates what their home means to them, which are the people they love. My experience at the Indy Shorts International Film Festival in Indianapolis this past weekend would have not been so special if it wasn’t for the people I met, and the people behind the festival. I’m very grateful to Greg Sorvig, Artistic Director of Indy Shorts and the Heartland Film Festival, for bringing me in to cover the fest for Cinema Femme. Their acknowledgement of our online publication and organization as important means the world to me. In turn, I wanted to elevate the filmmakers and people in film that I met at the festival and their work.
Over 165 short films screened at the festival within 29 curated programs, and 23 of these programs were sold-out. The short film festival is an Oscar-qualifying short film festival, and attracts talented filmmakers to submit from all over the world. These filmmakers ranged in ages from recent high school graduates to people in their early fifties, and no matter what their age is, they are all just getting started, and it’s exciting to behold. I don’t think it was a coincidence that Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” premiered the same weekend as the festival. Both cinematic events empowered me, as well as the camaraderie between the filmmakers.
Each prize-winner from the 2023 Indy Shorts International Film Festival are now available to stream virtually through Saturday, July 29th, here.
Natalie Metzger, producer and VP of Production and Development at Vanishing Angle represents to me the essence of this festival by how she puts the filmmaker first. It is all about the relationships for her, and through these relationship-based projects, she is bringing authentic stories to the screen in interesting ways. She is a force. I had the opportunity to ask Natalie some questions about the work she is doing at Vanishing Angle, and as a filmmaker. Her horror short “Sleep Study,” that she directed, won Best Horror short at the festival. Vanishing Angle had a spotlight program at the festival where they showcased some of the great projects they’ve produced over the years.
Natalie shared with Cinema Femme, “I think one of the things that I have learned the most as I’ve produced shorts is how wonderful it is to make movies with friends and how having that shorthand and trust with a team can really help elevate a film. It encourages a deeper collaboration because everyone actually cares about the project and about the filmmaker so they will dig deep for cool ideas and will speak up if they think that there is a way to make it better. The filmmaker feels trust enough to be able to receive ideas and feedback in a collaborative way. It also makes for such a positive and respectful environment on set, not to mention it just makes it super fun!”
One of the shorts that Natalie and Vanishing Angle produced had its premiere at Cannes earlier this year: “Poof,” directed by Margaret Miller. The film is a dark comedy about two women who are trying to break into sales in the makeup business, similar to Mary Kay, but this fictional one is called Fyzzle. It is laugh-out-loud funny, but also painful at the same time to see these two middle-aged women (played by Catherine Curtin and Andrea Rosen) try to promote themselves on social media.
Margaret shared with Cinema Femme, “As a child in the 80’s, plenty of women in my church sold Mary Kay or Avon. Tupperware parties were still a thing. But it was all on the sidelines. When social media came around – MLM’s (multi-level marketing) got a shot of adrenaline and that’s when I became interested. All of a sudden women (usually with no sales background) were selling makeup and leggings from their spare bedrooms – so of course, as a storyteller, I was interested. But also, how cult-like these MLM’s are is absolutely fascinating. Toxic positivity and ‘you only have yourself in the way; kind of thinking. ‘Poof’ is about two women who are clinging to each other in this storm. They are trying on the ill-fitting costumes of saleswomen.”
Margaret shared more about her relationship with Natalie as a producer on the film: “I co-wrote a short documentary, ‘Dress-A-Cow,’ that Natalie Metzger was producing, and so we met at the county fair in Canfield, Ohio. The next year, we asked her to produce ‘Poof,’ and she luckily agreed. We became friends and found our groove as collaborators pretty quickly and seamlessly. We trusted each other a lot and she was a generous guide to me on set and in post.”
A strong theme that recurred through a lot of the films is friendship. Like Natalie and Margaret, I saw the buds of a collaborative friendship between two recent high school graduates, “Clean-Sheet” director Samiksha (also goes by Sam) Thakur, and her co-writer Max McLain, who also produced the film. The two are from New Jersey and participated in the world-renowned high school competition in the festival.
They spoke to Cinema Femme about the importance of friendships and how they are represented in film. Sam shared, “In our film, it shows what relationships are like when you are younger, not just in terms of romantic ones, but friendships. Your friendships are something that you cherish so much. You think you are going to have this relationship forever, but then these relationships change when you meet new people.”
Friendship is also elevated in “Bounce House,” directed by Callie + Chris (Callie Bloem, Christopher J. Ewing), who also are married. The couple wrote and directed the film, and is the second short they have directed together. In this film, a comedy about a woman finding herself in a post-apocalyptic world, finds an unexpected friend. The actors they chose for the film, Eilise Guilfoyle and Jade Kaiser, really were key to the success, according to Callie and Chris.
Callie told Cinema Femme, “We went to Salute Your Shorts, which is one of our favorite festivals. We saw this amazing short called ‘Sam and Cora hate the Dentist,’ and we were like, ‘we love these women.’” Along with the dynamic performances, the practical and special effects are genius in the film. The ‘bounce house’ in their backyard was an integral part of the film. During a time when AI has been taking over the screens, it was important for Callie and Chris to use technology in a way to enhance the dynamic performances between the two women.
They were meticulous about their set-up, using video storyboards as their guide. Chris said, “The storyboards were a lot of fun because we had a lot of fun effects on this one. There are practical effects and there are digital creatures, stuff we hadn’t done before. We were doing about 35 set ups a day,” to which Callie added, “We really pushed ourselves on this one.” I’m so glad they did. This one was one of my favorites, and I’m so excited to follow them and their careers.
“Eat Flowers” (winner of the Documentary Audience Choice Award) was a film that also elevates a friendship between artist Cig Harvey, a renowned photographer and writer, and her friend Mary, who died of a terminal illness in her late thirties. Director River Finlay was inspired by Cig and her love for Mary, noting, “Cig talks about how when Mary was going through treatment, she would go out and make photographs for her. She would send them and Mary would ask for more every day. So her work during this period of time was like, ‘How do I fill her world?’”
Finlay wanted to elevate this work Cig did for the love of her friend. “My north star was that I want the viewer to feel the way I feel when I’m with her. I see how she sees beauty in things that I would have just passed by. Part of the reason why we make art is to elevate how people find importance and beauty in things that someone else may have not realized there was beauty in. So I was really drawn to that part, like how can I get people to feel in the way that she sees.”
Milana Vayntrub had her directorial debut at Indy Shorts with her comedy, “Pickled Herring,” (winner of the Comedy Audience Choice Award). Her friend Marina Shifrin wrote the script and with Milana directing they brought the film authentically to life through their shared experience of being immigrant kids, and children of a soviet parent. Milana shared, “Marina Shifrin and I knew we needed to work on something as soon as we met on @midnight. She was a writer and I was a contestant. I recognized her soviet-sounding last name and was like ‘Hey! Are we the same?’ The more we connected, the more we learned about our mutual adoration for our respective, weird, funny, larger-than-life, machismo, Dads who tell old-world jokes and think they can fix anything.”
She continued, “A few years into our friendship, Marina got hit by a car, I had a baby, and our dads came to the rescue… sort of. We, once again, connected over how funny and twisted relationships can be with immigrant parents and American kids. Marina did an amazing job blending our stories (but mostly hers) into this short film that’ll hopefully make you laugh and then punch you in the gut a little.”
Another film that was authentically brought to the screen, featured in the Parenthood program, was “La Macana.” I spoke with the producer of the film, Bianca Beyrouti, about her relationship with the director, Maria Mealla, and her personal connection to the story. The short is about a girl with divorced parents who gets her period for the first time, and is about to go stay with her father for the night. Bianca observed, “Maria likes to say that she likes to tell small stories about big feelings.”
Bianca shared that she gravitated to Maria’s storytelling, and she also related to the film on the level of being a woman, having a period and being a child of divorced parents. She added, “I also saw the film from a Latina perspective. What I love about Maria’s writing and I feel people respond to is that every character is flawed, but is held together by the same degree of compassion and understanding. If you don’t agree or like what they are doing, you can relate in some way.”
Authenticity was important to the filmmakers I met, especially when the films dealt with trauma. Director Erin Brown Thomas presented “[Subtext]“, which was a part of the Love and Romance shorts program, sharing, “Something we discovered in the course of making this short is that in our culture and just as a people, we learn to commoditize our trauma. It’s like we go through something shitty, and it’s like, ‘ok, I can turn this into art.’ I think that it’s culturally turned us into people that also competitively rank our trauma. But trauma is unique to each individual and it sucks no matter what it is and whoever you are.”
In “[Subtext],” a character has PTSD from a past trauma. The short was written by Olivia Haller, and she also co-starred in the film. Erin shared, “As a director, I’m not expecting to live in every situation that my character does, but I want to find a way to bring authenticity to something they may have gone through.” That is why it was important for Erin to have a consultant on this particular trauma: “The stars aligned with having our consultant be a part of the production. I was able to ask her, ‘Hey, does this feel authentic to you? Do you have anything to share?'”
“The Invaders” is a horror short based on a historical trauma that runs in the same vein of Robert Eggers “The Witch.” The short is a proof of concept that will be made into a feature directed by Erin Doyle Cooper and executive produced by Fargo‘s Allison Tolman. The film takes place in 1852 on a wagon train to California with a pioneer family that includes a pregnant woman. The family ignores a series of ominous dreams, and they all meet a supernatural fate. The historical details are very important to Erin: “You don’t have to dig too much into history to find something terrifying.” She continued, “The truth is pregnant pioneer women walked across the country. I cannot even fathom doing that. It also came with cultural genocide. So I was very interested in that tension point.”
On the flip side, Catherine Hoffman, who co-directed “Parker” with Sharon lIese, brought a transformative healing film to the screen, showing what a family’s legacy can represent in the face of historical trauma, and the importance of having a name that ties you together. “The film is about three generations of a Black family in Kansas City. The last two generations had the wrong last name based on circumstances that happened within their family in the eighties, and so the film is about them changing their last name to honor their father and grandfather. It is about legacy, history, and what it means for a Black family to choose their last name.”
She continued, “I hope people see a strong Black family, and it makes them feel different about media portrayals. I hope it gets people to think about legacy and where they come from, and really what that means to them, to get people to hold their folks a little tighter. Family history is a really big thing for me, and I’m really attached to my last name. I’m married, but I kept my own last name for a lot of reasons. I hope it inspires folks to think about where they come from, and whose shoulders they are standing on.”
Family seemed to be a big theme woven throughout the films I saw at the festival. One documentary beautifully elevated a sibling relationship: “Oasis,” directed by French-Canadian Justine Martin. She tells the story of two twin brothers, and she captures them at the age of 14. One of the brothers deals with a disability that is not spelled out because the director wanted to elevate something else, something even more important than one of the brother’s differences.
“I didn’t want to distinguish one of them by just their handicap,” she stressed. “He has a really good sense of humor, and likes to have fun. I think my film is more about brotherhood, rather than a handicap or a disability. It’s implied, but it’s so much more. It’s about the love of two brothers who are vulnerable, and capturing that time of life, and how things change when you get older.” Justine knew these brothers well because she babysat them when she was young, and they all grew up on the same street.
Justine won the grand prize for documentary, and now is in the competition for an Oscar nomination. I’m so excited about this filmmaker, and can’t wait to see where this film takes her. I did ask Justine if she is considering expanding on the short in any way. She replied, “I’m thinking about it. Because the film foreshadows that their relationship over time will becoming more and more different, I’m thinking of following them for like fifteen years to really see who takes the first steps. Maybe one will have children, and one will get married. The thing about twins is you think they will have this same kind of path, but that is not the case here.”
A film that I’m very excited about and I plan on expanding into a full featured interview is Andrew Nadkarni‘s “Between Earth and Sky,” about the director’s amazing aunt, Nalini Nadkarni, a famous biologist who is known for her epic adventures in climbing gigantic trees in the rainforests, and in the forests of the Northwest. Connecting again to the “Barbie” film, Andrew shared, “She actually has a Treetop Barbie named after her. It’s awesome.”
He then went on to talk about how he is so in awe of his aunt, but hopes that people will see her humanity more than anything else. “For me, I grew up looking at her as this perfect superhero who could do anything. What I hope people see in this film is that you can be highly successful and vulnerable. Both of those things make up a life. You don’t have to always show your shiny perfect side to the world. The film is about being yourself and regardless of your achievements and the pressures you feel, we all are inherently worthy of love and acceptance.”
Aside from the conversations I had at the festival, I wanted to highlight a few other films I loved. Circling back to “Ayenda,” which translates as “future” in Afghani, this is a documentary about a group of teenage girls in Afghanistan who are members of the Under-18 Afghan Women’s Football Team. When the Taliban invade their home in the summer of 2021, a rescue mission begins to get these girls out of the country so they can do what they love, without being in danger. A professional Afghan soccer player, Farkhunda Muhtaj, is instrumental in the rescue mission for these girls and family. The film kept me on the edge of my seat until the end, and its hopeful message empowers. This is why again, I felt the spirit of this film through my experience at the festival. I was so happy to see it win the Shine Global Spotlight: Children’s Resilience Short Film Competition prize.
“Black Girls Play: The Story of Hand Games” screened as part of the ESPN spotlight program and was co-directed by Michéle Stephenson and Joe Brewster. The film is beautiful and threads a tapestry of the bond Black girls have through hand games, and how a lot of our hip-hop has stemmed from these forms of expression. Ethnomusicologist Kyra D. Gaunt, PhD, explains in the film how our social institutions are being dominated by men and that these male rappers in hip-hop are claiming “girls games” as their own through their music. I loved her insight, and the truth of these games being brought to the screen. And what was so powerful to me was seeing Jamila Woods (a Chicagoan!) reclaiming these stories through her soulful music. Beautiful.
In the shorts program, “Big Names, Short Films,” the documentary “Lily Gladstone: Far Out There,” directed by Brooke Pepion Swaney, follows the titular on her journey of reuniting with her community in Montana. Lily talked a lot about her process as an actor and how important it is for her to be fully present onscreen. She is very aware of the space she needs to fill for the audience. In “Certain Women,” she appeared to play that character so naturally, but that was the reflection of her work in being very intentional and present, which made it seem so natural. We highlighted Lily in past interviews with Erica Tremblay, director of this year’s “Fancy Dance,” and her short, “Little Chief.” Lily also delivers an amazing performance in Morrisa Maltz’s “The Unknown Country.” We end the doc with the actress accepting her role in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” that had its premiere at Cannes, which I cannot wait to see her in.
To tie up my coverage, I wanted to highlight three quotes by three women in film I spoke to who created unique pieces of work. I’m excited to follow each of them in their careers. In the quotes below, they share the inspirations for their respective projects:
“I have dealt with micro aggressions surrounding my hair my entire life. I wanted to shine a light on these feelings of suppressing righteous anger, and what happens when you finally stand fully in your power regardless of the outcome.”–Daisha Graf (co-writer and actor) on “Don’t Touch My Hair”
“Another thing that I think the film is about is the invisibility of women over 40. It is such a shock to the system. When I got to film school, everyone there was in their twenties, and when I would say things, I honestly felt like a ghost. Because of the way our capitalist society is structured, essentially no one cared about my work. Then when I started winning awards, I received a Writers Guild fellowship, and I started getting some external recognition. It was like, ‘Hey, maybe she’s got something to offer.’ If you tell your truth it will resonate with the people it needs to resonate with.”–Catherine Loerke (director) on “Sand Mama”
“‘Cousins’ was inspired by my own relationship with my Syrian cousins and how, once in a couple of years, we’d meet up and I’d be flooded with feelings of awkwardness and shame. Awkwardness because we’re searching for common ground, things to talk about, trying (and failing) to remember pieces of our separate lives. Shame because well, why the hell haven’t I picked up Arabic yet? There are also things about my life in NYC I feel they wouldn’t understand, or I feel they would judge me for. A lot of this is less them and more me projecting my own feelings of insecurity as the disconnected and white-washed American cousin. I wanted to make a dark comedy that somehow captured all these emotions. I also think Taylor Swift inspired me. Who doesn’t love a good revenge plot?”
Karina Dandashi (director, actor, and writer) on “Cousins”
“I’m an editor and a documentary filmmaker. This is my first narrative film. During Covid, I was editing three feature-length films that were pretty heavy. So getting to do something fun and light was a little break. My parents in 2020 moved from my childhood home to a different house. She was going through everything and she was like, ‘Here are your love letters, your artwork you did when you were five, and here are your teeth.’ And I was like, ‘Uh, what am I supposed to do with these?’ She said, ‘You’ll figure it out.’ I put them in a little jar and I put them in my medicine cabinet. Every night, I was brushing my teeth and looking at my teeth. I have anxiety, and I have these anxiety dreams that all of my teeth fall out. I was like, ‘What if I was brushing my teeth and all of my teeth fell out? Can I make puppet out of these? How can I use these for a movie?’ So I was talking to a friend of mine who was a writer and I asked her, ‘Katie, what would happen if I was brushing my teeth and they all fell out?’ And her response was, ‘well they’ll come to life and murder you.’ I was like, ‘That is exactly what would happen.’ So that’s ‘Tooth.'”Jillian Corsie (director) on “Tooth”
The full list of prize-winners from the 2020 Indy Shorts International Film Festival listed below are now available to stream virtually through Saturday, July 29th, here.
Grand Prize for Narrative Short: “We Were Meant To”
Grand Prize for Documentary Short: “Oasis”
Grand Prize for Animated Short: “Rosemary A.D. (After Dad)”
Comedy Award: “They Grow Up So Fast”
Horror Award: “Sleep Study”
Directorial Debut Award: “Shadow Brother Sunday”
Jenni Berebitsky Legacy Award: “The Barber of Little Rock”
Summer Lynch Memorial Award: “nothing, except everything.”
Richard D. Propes Social Impact Award: “Deciding Vote”
Shine Global Spotlight: Children’s Resilience Short Film Competition: “Ayenda”
Indiana Spotlight Award: “Love, Grandma”
Pioneering Spirit Award: Ben Proudfoot
Overall Audience Choice Award: “To My Father”
Narrative Audience Choice Award: “Fundamental Shapes”
Documentary Audience Choice Award: “Eat Flowers”
Animated Audience Choice Award: “Rosemary A.D. (After Dad)”
Comedy Audience Choice Award: “Pickled Herring”
Horror Audience Choice Award: “Get Away”
Indiana Audience Choice Award: “Fleeing Silesia”
High School Audience Choice Award: “Well-dying”