Roads Past Uncertainty: The Etheria Film Night Shorts of 2021

Here I am at the Etheria Film Festival, in spirit again. It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year since the Festival was forced to move from its physical Theatre viewing locations in the United States onto the online platform of Shudder. These have been uncertain times, and I didn’t know if I would ever cover — or even see — a similar event again.

But if I were to say that the Etheria Film Shorts of 2021 have a unifying theme or motif, it would be uncertainty: of being lost, or remaining in transition, and trying to find your way off a familiar path. 

So let’s get into it. Heidi Honeycutt, the founder and Director of Programming of Etheria introduces this round of female-directed short films across genres, and then introduces the 2021 Etheria Inspiration Award. It is presented to The Walking Dead showrunner Angela Kang by the legendary film and television producer Gale Anne Hurd: who herself had actually won the Award in 2019. One thing that Hurd mentions with regards to Kang’s work is that she is excellent at telling character-driven stories: which is fitting given how most of the cinematic stories in this current anthology are, by necessity, directed by the trajectory of their protagonists wherever they might go. 

Our viewing night begins with Kelsey Bollig’s The Fourth Wall: a film about a resentful actress who has to essentially share her next big theatre production with three other idiots while suffering from what seems to be a series of seizures, or the beginning of a nervous breakdown. The director’s statement on the Etheria website, which I’d suggest you check out as some of them provide a bit of background for their films, explains that she wanted to take the story back to the origins of cinema, and perhaps even cinematic or theatrical experimentation: which she identifies as France. As the protagonist’s nose bleeds, and her hallucinations with regards to her resentment over her peers continues, you wonder where this will go. And I have to say, when she makes her decision, when she lashes out, it is satisfying. It’s a tame Grand Guignol — a naturalistic, graphic, amoral horror show where gruesome acts like murder seem so real — within a flimsy production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And I have to add that there is something truly great about what she does to the American actress who is only there because her father is the director, and she doesn’t bother to learn how to speak passable French beforehand: expecting others to accommodate her. Essentially, I love the fact that the Etheria Film Festival starts itself off with a foreign language film and, after dealing with reading about several film viewers subtitles and wanting to hear English dubs — it feels like a tremendous “fuck you” to that contingent that I greatly respect. I also want to add that I appreciate the fact that English captions do not interfere with foreign subtitles on Shudder: at least for how the Etheria Film Festival is formatted. 

So we break The Fourth Wall with a commentary on Murder being the tenth muse, and wondering what the protagonist will do next after her moment of transgressive narrative effulgence is over, to find someone on another Narrow path as directed by Anna Chazelle. Like The Fourth Wall, I didn’t know what was going on at first. Is the protagonist being haunted by ghosts? Is this a dystopian death match? Will leaving the path of dirt and gravel which she can’t step around lead to the ghosts of her victims getting her? It is fairly clear that she is terrified of leaving that trail, even ignoring screams of agony and pleading. She’s surviving, and you can tell that she’s been doing this for a while. I didn’t know that this was a post-apocalyptic story, even after watching it, though Chazelle identifying it in the lens of personal stories told in after such world-ending events — about individual lives trying to make sense of a now senseless world in line with what Hurd says about Kang’s work at the introduction to the Festival. At the end though, despite all that effort, the main character has to make a choice: one that tests her faith, or her certainty. It’s like Orpheus, except there is no Eurydice, and you have to wonder if it is the promise that makes her decision: or simply being so tired of this constricting road of life? There is a reason why it turns to night when she leaves, however — into darkness — and as a viewer you are left in this haunting meditation of that fact.

Narrow isn’t the only film with a character that steps off her path. In fact, I would venture to say that so far two protagonists have done this: one ending in glorious murder, and the other being consumed by the roars of the night. You Will Never Be Back is almost an answer to the end of Narrow, but unlike its predecessor it isn’t an ending. That would be too merciful. Mónica Mateo presents us with another foreign-language film, this time in Spanish, in which her protagonist Ana leaves her partner David to go to an event, only to find a small portal in the hallway of their apartment. It only takes one moment for everything Ana knows to be stolen from her, to have never happened to begin with, and to know — as only the mentally-challenged or dying are aware of who she is — that she will never escape this place: this dim, floral, Mobius strip forever trapping her in a temporal purgatory. It’s like an episode of The Twilight Zone, but there is something even more sinister when you consider how mundane and everyday this story begins, and due to one small decision everything in one person’s life — and their relationships — is over, and they are lost. It’s … especially timely given the current climate.

And it really doesn’t end there, does it? We come to Katy Erin’s Bootstrapped. A casual movie night between two lesbian partners turns weird when one of the partners, a physicist, comes back from the future begging her partner not to break up with her. As she explains to her partner, it is because she broke up with her this particular night that made her obsessed with her work, and discover time travel. The problem is that corporations and the rich took advantage of her work and abused this power, leaving masses of people in war and fear in order to colonize the future: where they wouldn’t have to deal with any of it. It’s only she apparently learned that she could travel to the past. Of course, the reason the breakup happens is revealed by this future incarnation, and it makes it happen. It figures that the end of the human species would be the result of a failed relationship, although you realize just how self-serving the time-traveler had really been. Hell, the other protagonist even asks her why she wouldn’t talk with her past self, and seems like less an issue of paradox, and more the fact that she is afraid of “affecting her own memory.” So perhaps the end of human civilization, or existence is more of the result of human pettiness and selfishness more than anything. It’s funny too, as I just rediscovered Jeremy Lalonde’s James Vs. His Future Self, in which this film is a nice counterpoint. I guess the traveler, in this case, bootstrapped herself, in more ways than one. 

And then, we go from supreme selfishness to the opposite in a serious situation. In Ciani Rey Walker’s Misfits, it is 1960s America and we find ourselves in a chapter house of the Black Panthers. Everyone there seems to be Black university students and activists. There are two leaders: a young woman who studies law, or a book of law, and another who understands that sometimes you have to take physical action in order to do what needs to be done. We have scenes of comradery. There is even a White student who is friends with this chapter. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know, or I wasn’t sure that the Black Panthers had white allies though I know the Freedom Rides definitely had Black and White participants. But the scene starts off, not with mobilizing, but just young people surviving daily life, and kidding around with each other until the news comes on: Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. has been assassinated. 

Misfits is a film that can, and should, have an entire article or review dedicated to it. Suffice to say, the chapter house organizes to protest, but one of their own gets beaten nearly to death by a police officer: who is shot by the White student. And then, these Black students and activists, they have to make a choice in a system that would destroy — and has destroyed — them. There is so much I want to say about this film. It is easily, along with last year’s Conversion Therapy one of my favourites, and it is unfortunately timely. The fact that the movie begins with a young woman attempting to memorize a legal text, and ends with another holding the barrel of a gun says a lot and what might be criminal to one person, at one time in history — or just — is explored here. And the film ends with a list of names “In Loving Memory:” Eric Garner, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many Black lives taken by police brutality. It is a powerful, sombre ending to a film that takes place in the 1960s, but whose violence and injustice it depicts continues to this very day.

Myra Aquino’s The Gray also has a police officer, or at least a former one. And he is also dead. However, this former officer is in Purgatory: in an office place processing people to Heaven, and Hell based on his own black and white ideals. He’s been there for a while, and his contemporaries are attempting to get him to retire: to choose where he needs to pass on. This character is different in a lot of ways from the wounded cop in Misfits. He has a strong sense of justice and morality, to a point where it ruled both his life and his afterlife. He had also been in a mixed race relationship with his Filipino wife before his death. And, up until the events of this madcap weird fantasy afterlife comedy, he’s never compromised: until he sees his son in Purgatory. I’d like to think that, based on what happens and the decisions he makes, that God or whatever powers exist in that afterlife arranged a situation that challenges this man’s thinking — and he finally decides to truly let go of the rules to do what he thinks in his heart is right. It’s both a light-hearted, and moving film as the former officer seems to sacrifice himself to hell in order to give his son another chance to live, and take care of his mother. And while we don’t need the clarification of what happens from Aquino, it is nice to have it nonetheless. Also, can I say that the threat of the bureaucracy taking away the protagonist’s “subtitle privileges” reminds me of The Fourth Wall, feels like another hilarious jibe at subtitle haters?

While love helps someone leave their narrow path of bureaucratic certainty to make their own “leap of faith” such as it is, another protagonist finds it — or the beginning of loneliness’ end — in Silvia Conesa’s Spanish language film POLVOTRON 500. A man in the future attempts to sleep in an old automated sex booth, but accidentally activates one of its sapient hologram sex workers. And while he first wants nothing to do with her, and she just desires to provide her function, they actually begin a conversation together and he realizes that they both have something in common: they are both lonely, and they want company. It could have easily ended in a cynical transactional manner, or something saccharine but I like the fact that she is still a sex worker artificial intelligence, and he is a paying credits-customer, but that human connection between them outside the beaten path feels incredibly real in a time of great disconnection.

I’d like to say that Aislinn Clarke’s Eye Exam is the weird film of the nine. It is essentially about a protagonist who goes to an optometrist who is looking for … eyes. She ends up lying in her exam, just to get away, like a man before her who runs out of the room, and the building. It’s hard for me to fit this into the thematic structure I’m identifying. Perhaps, in that dark room the danger is staying the course and telling the truth so that the monstrous voice and Cyclopean visions around the protagonist can get her eyes, as they tried to with the man before her, and it’s only through looking away, through lying, through deciding to veer away from this path, that she can save herself. It is a counterpoint to POLVOTRON 500 for sure in that holograms are visual constructs, and while the protagonist attempts to also ignore what he sees, to wait it out, or eventually leave, he accepts the more positive situation. The character in Eye Exam, however, seems to have dodged being taken by something worse in deciding not to accept it.

And this brings us to the final film in the Etheria Film Festival: Astrid Thorvaldsen’s Who Goes There. I’m almost surprised that the Festival ended with this movie. This isn’t because it is a bad film: far from it. Three Norwegian sisters live in a remote cabin on the American frontier. Their parents seem to have died of a fever, while one of the sisters is slowly being consumed by it. Then, a mysterious man finds them, and after Ingrid — the oldest sister — saves him from dying of thirst, he offers his services as a doctor for their dying sister: for a price. It is a film about survival, being afraid of death and possible treachery, of caution, and the price of letting something in: be it having a prayer answered, or simply opening a door. In the end, unlike the protagonist from Eye Exam, someone gets what she prayed for, another gets what she asks, others die, and perhaps it’s survival — and living — that is the final punishment. When I think about it, perhaps Who Goes There is appropriate in that it ends off with an uncertainty of both identity, and of what the future holds. 

It is my opinion that it is no coincidence that the Etheria Film Festival of 2021 ends with a film that tangentially deals with sickness, but also infection of a more infernal kind. I always wondered, when thinking about many other events such as the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, if a group of judges had already chosen a few film entries before the Pandemic. And while the After Dark might not have had the opportunity, I feel like the Etheria Film Festival might have had all of their entries, and chosen them accordingly. At the Film Festival’s introduction, we are told — half-jokingly — that nine great films had been chosen but didn’t make it due to “distribution problems” or something to that effect. While last year’s Etheria theme, to me, was about interconnection is a disconnected world, I feel like this year’s verges from going behind the scenes of a trite situation, to teetering off a slim line of reality and getting lost in time, sabotaging yourself and others in a cycle, to hard choices in impossible, enclosed situations, to selfishness and selflessness, and knowing when to run, or let something inside.

As of right now, even though I know Etheria is publishing their past films through Amazon in its own series, I don’t know if — even in a year — we will see this Festival online anymore. That is a path branching from uncertainty as well. It is a new time, beginning, and while it is still dangerous, the potential is there too, and I’m glad that whatever else happens, I got to see one more Etheria Film Festival.

And please check out the Etheria Film Festival website. There are more Director’s Statements there, and they are worth checking out: as is this event, which ends on July 25, 2021. 

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