Ephemera of Disconnection, and Moments of Painful Clarity: The Etheria Film Night Shorts of 2020

It’s hard writing about anthologies. And the only film anthologies I’ve ever written about — Tales of Halloween and XX — have been in the auspices of the horror genre. And then, you have an event like the Etheria Film Festival.

This is an unusual situation, I’m given to understand. Usually, the Etheria Film Night Shorts are shown in the Egyptian Theatre, and Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to a live audience. However, due to COVID-19 the film entries for the 2020 Etheria Film Festival are all available on Shudder until July the 20th. These are unfortunate, and unprecedented times, and it’s only fitting that these nine short films possess both unique elements, and misfortune for quite a few of their characters.

Tales of Halloween and XX had framing narratives, a film that basically attempts to bring all of its other cinematic stories together. I know that, in the case of XX — another woman-directed, written, and acted anthology — a unifying theme had developed: that of family. The Etheria Film Night Shorts of 2020 do not have a framing story woven through them, even though Heidi Honeycutt — the director of programming — introduces the anthology, and then just leaves us to experience the films for ourselves.

The Etheria Film Festival features short science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and weird films created by female directors, and the 2020 selection is no exception. However, even without an overall narrative, I began to pick out something of a theme due to how each film is curated and ordered one after the other. If I were to really sit down, and think about the themes presented in the 2020 Etheria Film Night Shorts, I would settle on the danger of a superficial world of disconnect in a time of intense connection.

Many of the films feel like the feminist elements of XX meeting the dystopian banal technological reality of Black Mirror. The shallow, transactional “swipe-left” relationships displayed in “Waffle,” directed by Carlyn Hudson, and written Katie Marovich and Kerry Barker are in some ways far more terrifying than even a self-entitled psychopath. After all, what is more deadly: a predator that takes advantage of a system, or a system that normalizes such hollow relationships to be exploited? This definitely bleeds — figuratively and literally — into Mia’kate Russell’s film “Maggie May” which focuses on the dangers of self-centredness and that evil doesn’t so much happen when “good men” do nothing, but when banal people only care about themselves, and will do anything to avoid personal responsibility or consequences.

And if “Maggie May” is about a character who ignores what is right in front of her out of convenience despite having so many ways to correct the situation, and claiming to have no impetus to do so, then “Basic Witch” — written by Lauren Cannon and directed by Yoko Okumura — has one character use her power to make another face what he has done to her. It’s so deceptively gentle at first, complete with a sunny background and a latte and what looks like an episode of Charmed that teaches one person — perhaps even both characters — the lessons of consent. In a short period of time, we see a myriad of different thoughts and emotions between the characters and a form of communication that is usually so difficult to express is made manifest through radical empathy. It manages to make fun of parts of itself while also allowing its message to be painfully clear. The nuance and depth and that gradual horror but level ground of understanding in it makes it one of my favourite films in the whole anthology.

My other favourite movie in the Etheria Film Night Shorts is one I’d heard about when this event was being advertised online: “Conversion Therapist.” There are so many ways this short film could have gone, or been introduced, and Bears Rebecca Fonté subverts all of these expectations. Imagine a group of pansexual, polyamorous people utilizing a gruesome yet poetically justified set of techniques against a captive Evangelist conversion therapist. It is dark, what they do, and you can be terrified at their cruelty until you realize they are just using the tools of the oppressor against one of their tormentors. The moment I saw the man with the rainbow coloured T-shirt, I just knew what their prisoner had done, and that he was so utterly fucked. It’s not certain, to me, whether or not he did everything his torturers claim he thinks about or enjoys, but what we know he has done is enough to warrant the vengeance happening to him, and others of his kind. Talk about queer ultra violence.

So, at first you might be forgiven into thinking “Conversion Therapist” breaks the pattern I’m trying to work with, but aside from the fact that it takes what happens in “Basic Witch” to a much darker and more punitive level, it goes back to the hypocritical double-standards of a society or a social system that fails to understand its humanity. “Offbeat,” written by Chiara Aerts and directed by Myrte Ouwerkerk, is the non-English subtitled film in the anthology — made in the Netherlands — which displays just what happens when a dystopian society called the Dome creates the only clean highly technological environment built on conflicting ideals and statistics without humanity, while claiming to embrace diversity. It is here that the protagonist has to face the stigma of labeling while watching other characters like a disabled man, and a transgender woman struggle through tests of admission try to stay true to his own self and basic decency.

And this societal critique of a system that inherently discriminates in a cycle, while pretending at fairness, again literally bleeds over from science-fiction to horror tropes in the form of “The Final Girl Returns.” Alexandria Perez explores the idea of a survivor of a horror serial slasher being condemned to rescue the horror trope’s “final girl” only to have each one die to the murderer from she supposedly escaped each time. I am not entirely sure, but all of the characters seem to be people of colour — just as the protagonist from “Offbeat” is — and the subtext about the authorities never dealing with, or capturing each serial killer in this self-aware horror genre universe speaks very intersectional volumes, and is very timely.

Taryn O’Neill’s “LIVE” is a nice transition considering that each character from the last two films is attempting to survive, but “LIVE” goes back to a similar conceit as “Waffle” in that the world is ruled by social media but in this case the protagonist is forced to engage in something of a fight club for views along with other nearly 24/7 streaming activities just to survive a world where the growth of AI has made most human activity irrelevant. This is a reality where everything is, again, transactional and the only way to stand out is to give up your sense of privacy for spectacle and drama and so many more views.

This lack of privacy seems to be a theme in itself within “Man in the Corner” written by Daniel Ross Noble and Kelli Breslin, the latter of whom is the director. After viewing this short film, I tend to think that it can be a metaphor for “catfishing” — of meeting someone online who is under a false identity, except this is interpreted as physical — or ignoring the red flags of the situation around a hook-up for the physical immediacy of the experience. It is a surreal atmosphere, whose reality is unclear and both the protagonist and the reader wonder if they are involved in a dream, or a nightmare.

But I think the film that took me off guard the most is the last film of the anthology. “Ava in the End,” written by Addison Heimann and directed by Ursula Ellis, starts off as a story about another seemingly shallow, hollow science-fiction dystopia — this time with people being able to upload their consciousness into a digital cloud — where a young woman has an interaction with an AI called “Bae,” but as events unfold in such a short period of time you feel for both of them. In fact, I think what makes this film the strongest is that these two characters — who start off in one place — find a commonality, a humanity, an empathy with each other, a sense of connection that can happen in a world that is supposed to be so connected.

That is how the 2020 Etheria Film Night Shorts end. From superficial rent-a-friend and dysfunctional familial interactions, to revelations of harm caused through a lack of connection, to systems of impossible perfection and literal cycles of horror confronted, and the threat of privacy as an illusion to be preyed upon, it all concludes with two lost souls reaching for each other across the digital darkness to make some meaning — to share some solace — in their terrifying existence. And if the results of what should have been a live showing of the 2020 Etheria Film Festival doesn’t capture this contemporary feeling right now online, where so many of us now live even more so than before, I don’t know what does.

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