When the 2019 editions of the BendFilm Festival and the Oscars both named The Neighbors’ Window Best Narrative Short, an industry door opened. BendFilm’s head of festival programming Selin Sevinc describes the process of becoming an Oscar-qualifying festival as follows:
“When you have such a precedent of successful programming and giving awards to films that end up winning the Oscar, you can apply to the Academy and say, ‘Hey! I’m good at this! Can I be a qualifying film festival?’”
That means for BendFilm Festival’s 18th year—an in-person and virtual event running through Oct. 17—its winners for Narrative Short, Animated Short and Indigenous Short (selected by juries) are submitted for Oscar consideration. That’s a prestigious feather in the festival’s cap since there are only 64 festivals in the world—27 in the U.S.—with the same power. That’s likely to elicit greater submissions in future years, predicts Sevinc. With 75 shorts in play for 2021 (along with 40 features and the festival’s inaugural showcase of music videos), animated, narrative and documentary films all swirl together in themed blocks.
“In general, my goal is to get more attention on shorts,” says Sevinc, lauding these selections as “some of the best” she’s ever seen. “Shorts are where you find the most interesting, inspiring little gems, I feel.”
Like every 2021 film festival, BendFilm puzzled over its pandemic form, electing to shrink its in-person screenings from a traditional four nights down to two. Those Tin Pan Theater evenings pack in extra significance in Sevinc’s mind, a brief resurrection for the tradition of watching other people watch movies.
“COVID showed everyone that you really don’t want to just watch Netflix for the rest of your life,” Sevinc says. “[The pandemic] taught us, ‘See? Cinema matters.’”
Including a short film or two perhaps headed for Oscar contention, here’s the best of what we previewed from the 2021 BendFilm Festival:
No film here epitomizes the medium’s ability to experiment while maintaining gripping, grounded and discrete components like Last Meal. Displaying mostly vivid glamour shots of inmates’ requested final dinners, Australian directors Daniel Principe and Marcus McKenzie present a sort of anti-death penalty poem with lyrics mostly consisting of narrated news articles and court records. But it’s all in the editing, collaging and juxtaposing that the societal and spiritual madness of capital punishment bleed through: An eye for an eye, an entree for a life, we humans are monsters, and the most monstrous among us are still human. To be transparent, this was the very first film Sevinc recommended from her slate: “It’s wildly smart and unique and funny and hard-hitting and dramatic and sad all at the same time.” All true.
Friday Night Lights is a narrative sports formula well worth repeating if filmmakers commit to embedding with the right rural town and totemic team. In this case, director Jeff Harasimowicz chose perfectly, profiling the hoops-obsessed Metlakatla Indian Community in Southeast Alaska, which fields a state basketball contender from a mere 70-student school. These young men face all the same untenable community pressure as West Texas quarterbacks, but with the heightened stakes of literal and cultural death all around them. Make no mistake, it’s a boatload of high school basketball footage, but Alaskan Nets is a “this is our year” sports doc at its most earnest and appealing.
The Best Orchestra in the World
This politely cartoonish skewering of the Vienna State Orchestra doubles as a clear-eyed parable about equity failure in arts institutions. Auditioning against a slew of human double bassists, our protagonist (whose identity really shouldn’t be spoiled) encounters orchestra leadership in higher and higher positions explaining why, despite a brilliant audition and the organization’s values, they can’t be accepted at this time. In this context, the vivacity of the string concerto is doubly striking. The form may be centuries old, but the musical release speaks to a freedom that still, somehow, doesn’t yet exist.
When I’m Her
In this short documentary, retired ballet prodigy Michael Cusumano becomes Madame Olga, donning drag to instruct a new generation of dancers through abiding self-love. Though the degrading rigors of Cusumano’s teenage years are largely just implied, it’s not difficult to understand what he lost when art devolved into expectation and torment. Sometimes it takes an alter ego to rescue a childhood.
SEE IT: BendFilm Festival screens online at watch.eventive.org/bendfilm2021. Virtual pass $100, in-person pass $175, all-access pass $275. $5 minimum pay-what-you-will to stream films and virtual discussions.