Sundance 2021: The most memorable short films at this year’s festival

To Know Her "To Know Her" (Sundance)

A quick look at the best in short features at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

With 50 short films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the programming represented a wide breadth of filmmakers, styles, and world regions. Comprising four shorts programs, two documentary sections, and an animation spotlight, these 50 films display the variability of style and substance in up-and-coming filmmakers in 2021. A few stood above the rest, though, defining the festival as a mixture of heavy topics, comic relief, and an inordinate amount of personal, affected storytelling. 

The following seven shorts are listed in alphabetical order. 

The Affected

One of the few comedies throughout the 50 shorts, Norwegian filmmaker Rikke Gregersen The Affected takes a common situation, a plane’s attempt at takeoff, and turns it into a social and political farce. As the pilots decide what to do with a passenger that won’t sit down due to another passenger who is seeking asylum in Norway, others on the flight grow restless, continue sleeping, or chat amongst themselves as this scene plays out. We never actually see this woman, or the Afghani asylum seeker in question, but rather hear about the scene through several people on the plane, some more caring than others. 

But really, none of them care too much either way, and as most of us wouldn’t likely admit, we’d do the same. I like to think of myself as a hero that would step up and save someone’s life in this way, but in reality, I’d continue listening to music, a podcast, or watching the tiny screen in front of me impatiently hoping the plane takes off sooner rather than later. It’s an acute look at this impatience, this indifference, and the effect, or non-effect, that a crowd mentality can take in an age of social media and constant documentation. Smart, funny, and entertaining, The Affected is one of Sundance’s few short comedic successes. 

Forever

Mitch McGlocklin’s 7-minute short, Forever, stems from a man’s meeting with a life insurance company. The company decided that the young man was an at-risk individual, damning his life with data and AI, giving him an estimated years to live and self-worth. McGlocklin’s computer-generated, static-y short rides the line of animation, as shifting scenes morph out of each other, following this man’s continued introspection. It mesmerizes you, despite its simplicity in narration, as McGlocklin himself speaks of alcoholism, health, and oncoming death, all in the scope of technological intersection. It’s a haunting, affecting window into someone’s inner thoughts, and a chance to hear usually internalized ramblings out loud. And in the end, a need for this technology emerges, and the comfort of being watched comes with it. 

“Forever” (Sundance)

KKUM

South Korean filmmaker Kang-min Kim’s 9-minute animated short deals with his relationship with his mother, or more specifically, his relationship to his mother’s dreams. With looks like styrofoam stop motion, though likely computer generated mixed with visual effects, the short film shifts styles and scenes with ease, attempting to explain the filmmaker’s closeness and reliance on his mother. By mixing media and telling a personal story, Kang-min Kim creates an absorbing piece of art dealing with fate, dependency, and parental love. 

Like the Ones I Used to Know

Canadian filmmaker Annie St-Pierre’s second fiction short, Like the Ones I Used to Know, looks at the daily trials of divorce through the lens of Christmas Eve, as a father, Denis, goes to pick up his kids at his ex-wife’s home. In the presence of his ex-in-laws, he arrives as someone who isn’t welcome, due to the fact that he’s not Santa Clause, the real person everyone has been waiting for. The film’s oxymoronic sweet sadness feels tangible, as the situation feels like a familiar one, due to the setting and family-oriented time of year. 

The film’s framed as a state of continued loneliness, persisted by his children’s insistence to stay put, and his insistence on not upsetting the status quo, despite his best attempts through a rendition of “White Christmas.” Still, the film ended on a note of labored joy in character, not in execution. Throw in a couple fine performances from child actors and you have yourself a more-than-fine short. 

Souvenir Souvenir

French filmmaker Bastien Dubois has a history at Sundance, as selected film Madagascar, a Journey Diary hit the festival circuit in 2009 before garnering a 2011 Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short. He returns to the festival 12 years later with Souvenir Souvenir, the winner of the Short Film Jury Award: Animation at the festival. 

Following a man making a film about his grandfather’s experience in the Algerian War, which likely is Dubois, the film strikes a balance between digital and hand-drawn animation. It blends multiple mediums and media, accessing real photos over the course of a longer period of time, revealing a weighty story of a person investigating his own family. Dealing with memory and the effects of past actions, Souvenir Souvenir is a beautiful, damning ode of war and perception. 

“Souvenir Souvenir” (Sundance)

To Know Her

The most affecting short at Sundance, To Know Her from Natalie A. Chao, currently a Sundance Ignite x Adobe Fellow, explores the Hong Kong-based filmmaker’s relationship to her mother, a common theme in the shorts programs. By interviewing her father, her sister, and herself, Chao’s film takes family footage and creates a story of missing pieces and a person they all miss. Beginning with a scene of her parents without subtitles, the film never ceases to be intimate and told with a startling lack of privacy. It takes on the role of remembrance, of cherished love, and unasked questions, those that we only think of after someone in our lives has passed. 

She asks the question, “How do I love you if I don’t know you?” when thinking of her mother, allowing for a blank, black void to fill the screen as sound plays over it. The film forces you to think of your loved ones in a specific way, one of examination and hopefulness that you’ll have the time to learn about them with a fullness that can only be described as complete love. We’ll never know our parents in their entirety, and they’ll never know us, and To Know Her shares this point with earnestness and sincerity. 

Yoruga

The premise for Colombian filmmaker Federico Torrado Tobón’s Yoruga is simple: an older man visits a turtle named Yoruga. He pays a fee to see the aging turtle for a single minute, bringing a little leaf as a gift to the animal, one of the last in this crafted, futuristic world. Though only lasting six minutes, Tobón’s film examines a specific kind of loneliness, in which talking to any living, moving thing constitutes a cathartic step forward. He speaks to Yoruga with tender softness, like catching up with a friend he hasn’t seen in months. He tells him of his future plans, of his hope to see him again soon, of his wishes that he’d stopped by more often, almost like the turtle is a child he abandoned years ago. Tobón’s film shows the pangs of loneliness with a speedy efficiency, telling a pained story without sacrificing earned emotion. 

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