Going into SXSW, I knew there were going to be a lot of short films screened, and there were several that I had highlighted as must-see’s. I was immediately drawn to Tze Chun’s name, as his film Children of Invention has been on my radar since last year’s IFF Boston. Children of Invention was also among the films chosen to test out YouTube’s new rental service, around Sundance this past January. When I saw that he was going to be directing a sci-fi short film, I knew it would be something worth making myself available to. I didn’t read too much up on the other films in the Futurestates series, apart from the basic synopses that it was a series of short films, centered around the idea of taking current social and environmental problems, and extending them forward in time. Who knew that this screening would yield the most emotional response I’ve had to a piece of film-making in years.
I’ll go through the films screened as they were shown to me, thus saving, as the programmers did, the best for last.
They began the series by first explaining that the films were a part of a series, available online, being funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. You can watch these, along with several films not screened at SXSW, at their homepage: http://futurestates.tv. As I’ll state again and again, I’d highly recommend sharing these short films with anyone open to thinking about the future of our planet.
[I’ve embedded YouTube video of each of the short films after my write-ups, but again, I’d highly recommend you support the homepage.]
Tze Chun’s Silver Sling
In Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, we were shown a world that had lost it’s ability to hope for a better tomorrow, due to a wave of infertility. In Tze Chun’s Silver Sling, we are presented with a more realistic future, where women become hosts for other’s children, with devastating consequences for repeat usage. Of all the films screened, this was the least “sci-fi.” It rarely used any technology radically different from today’s, and used little to no visual effects. It is a expertly directed, acted, and edited short film, revealing key plot points at the opportune moments throughout it’s run time.
Garrett William’s The Rise
In The Rise, Garrett Williams shows us couple grappling with the prospect of selling their home and moving. There is a tension surrounding the sale on all sides, from the couple buying the house, the couple selling the house, and the realtor, frantically trying to seal the deal. Again, as with all of the shorts in the series, timing is everything. Slowly revealing why the couple is selling, what sort of neighborhood this seemingly nice home has become surrounded by, and what is slowly encroaching on their property, is told with heartbreaking tenderness. It is a small, personal tale, showcasing how we’ll eventually deal with the shifting of the coastlines.
One side-note to this, the baby they use to tug at the heartstrings of the selling family, has to be the most adorable child ever put to film. You will not be able to watch this without your heart going out to it’s future.
Greg Pak’s Mister Green
One of the more fantastical short films contained in this series, Mister Green presents the United States, dealing with the consequences of today’s carbon dioxide output. The film revolves around a future environmental official, who has become cynical towards his position, as the country itself no longer seems to care about the state of the environment. After a presumed fling goes unexpectedly south, we learn that a group of scientists have developed a rather unique “green” solution. This short presents one of the few uses of CGI throughout all of the films, and it certainly sticks out at first. Its use is a bit fantastical, and a little hard to believe at first, but certainly doesn’t ruin the overall impact of the message. The lighting and color palette are used to great effect, in conveying the oppressive heat that this future world experiences. The performances are believable, but a little stiff. While not one of my favorites, it certainly was the most daring, in presenting this future world, where we must make ourselves the cure.
Aldo Velasco’s Tent City
The current housing crisis sets the stage for Tent City. We are presented with a team of slightly militarized agents, evicting people from their homes, whom, we are led to believe, have fallen behind on their payments. The team is making their way through the neighborhood, home by home, until vast numbers of people are led to take up shelter in the titular town of “Tent City”, which we are not shown until the end. The story centers around one of the evicting agents, who still manages to have a home, with a family, and a few comforts, such as oranges, that many apparently have lost in this dystopian future.
How the father feels about his job, what he’s been doing to his neighbors, is told to us through bedtime stories he tells to his son, in the form of a robot, being forced to act out it’s programming, no matter how hard it fights against them. It is certainly a unique way of presenting a current social problem, without having to resort to the need for any CGI, or visual effects. The acting is solid, save for some cheese in the dialogue between the father and son.
Annie Howell’s Tia & Marco
Growing up in San Diego, the issues presented by an armed, and near-militarized border hit very close to home. Tia and Marco shows us a world where not much has changed between the United States and Mexico, regarding it’s border policies, except for the technology used in patrolling it, and enforcing the “current” laws. Tia is a pregnant border patrol officer, on the evening of her maternity leave. In the middle of the night, a young man breaks into her house, apparently making the journey into America, looking for water in Tia’s home. She detains him, and while awaiting his pick-up, feeds and begins to sympathize with his situation.
Again, the world presented in this short film is eerily close to our own, with slight advancements in home technology, to indicate that we aren’t quite there yet. I don’t think this film does anything particularly creative with the film-making tools at it’s fingertips, apart from the reveal of the current political policies, and the title character’s pregnancy. That being said, this film focuses on a problem that our society is presented with every day for those living in the southern border states: how much do you sympathize with those people attempting to enter this country illegally? While not my favorite of the group that I saw in the Futurestates screening, I certainly felt it’s impact.
Ramin Bahrani’s Plastic Bag
By far the most emotionally evocative piece of film-making I saw all week, Ramin Bahrani’s short film, Plastic Bag, is something you should (and can) all watch. I feel I should describe the emotional and physical state I was in during the screening, to perhaps give you a better idea as to why the film was so effective.
This was my first trip to SXSW, and Austin in general, and I was all alone. While I was surrounded by thousands of other film-goers at all of the screenings, and on the streets of Austin, I felt surprisingly alone throughout the week. While I tend to gravitate towards being alone in most circumstances, being a shy person, I had little choice in the matter, as we were only granted one press pass to cover the film events. By saying all of that, I’m not trying to evoke sympathy, simply sharing that I was already in a lonelier state of mind than usual, given the situation. I also didn’t know any other film writers that were attending the Futurestates screening, so a part of me was questioning whether I had made the right choice in going to this event. I think the lonliness I felt personally, while at this screening, primed my emotions for what would be some of the most affecting films, mostly due to their dystopian content. The final film being one of the most uplifting (literally and figuratively), while at the same time, one of the most terrifying in it’s depiction of a real world problem, something that is happening right now.
What unfolded before my eyes over the next ten minutes, was what must be described as a true triumph in short film-making. Without using any human actors, save the obscurely seen “mother,” Ramin Bahrani presents the life of a plastic bag, a simple grocery style bag, narrated by one Werner Herzog. Yes, that Werner Herzog. I was at first unsure as to who was narrating it, as there were no opening credits to indicate the cast, but I quickly realized who was telling me this story.
We are presented with a lowly plastic bag, being torn from its group, at a grocery store, to house the items purchased. It leads a fulfilling, happy life with it’s off-screen mother. Until one day it finds itself drifting along with the wind after ending up in a landfill. It, by way of Herzog, ponders it’s own existence, its surroundings, and it’s eventual immortality throughout the course of the film.
It is certainly not a film that can be spoiled by knowing it’s plot, as the emotional punch comes from the poetry spoken by Herzog, and the incredible score by Kjartan Sveinsson of Sigur Ros. The film literally had me shaking, with tears in my eyes as I flew alongside the bag, and as I swam alongside it deep under the sea, to its eventual encounter with the “vortex.” Also known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” the “vortex” of the film is no mere construct of the filmmaker. There is literally a mass of garbage in the Pacific Ocean, roughly the size of Texas, swirling and churning, as we continue to feed it with our waste. At no point in the film is there any political agenda voiced by the plastic bag. It simply is. While slightly anthropomorphized by Herzog, we are never bludgeoned over the head by the reality of what we are seeing. It almost seems too horrifying to be believed.
Within this short film, we are treated to a variation of the hero’s journey, in the form of a plastic bag, yearning to be more than it is, searching for its creator, and a sense of meaning in its immortal life. It is a nod to the non-biodegradable life that the plastic of our world has to look forward to. I’ll leave you with a final, haunting quote from the film:
“I wish you had created me, so I could die.”
That certainly tipped me over the edge emotionally. All of the films screened as part of the Futurestates event feature futures with terrifying, yet extremely probable outcomes. Plastic Bag could easily have been a short film, animated by Pixar, and fit into their DVD release of shorts. It certainly has the environmental and emotional sensibilities of Wall-E, and hearkens back to earlier Disney films like The Brave Little Toaster.
You are all quite fortunate that these films are currently available to be seen free online, as they should be seen and shared with anyone and everyone. If you felt that the future shown to us in Children of Men was eerily probable, then you will absolutely love what you are shown in each of these films.