Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Short Film Shout-Out

Last Monday I had the pleasure of attending the premiere of The Character Project, a series of short films produced by the USA Network. This is an odd undertaking for a non-premium channel - each film totally stands alone, and they all vary in length. The project's goal is to present "the character of America," and while each film sort of falls into the stereotype of what you would expect a corporate entity to see as "the character of America" (mostly white, save for a black kid with a disability, all with fairly lofty struggles), one of them absolutely knocked my socks off.

That film was Lauri Faggioni's "Wyckoff Place," a short film about a group of kids who all live in a Brooklyn apartment building. And yes, they all play together and through them we can learn lessons of togetherness and so forth. And yeah, I'm the first (or maybe second) person who would find this sort of thing totally hokey. But as with all great things, it's all in the presentation.

Faggioni's film feels like a modern-day, documentary version of "Peanuts," oddly enough. Her subjects - the kids - are just as broadly drawn and well-defined as anyone in Charles Schultz's classic strip, and except for the occasional instance when we can hear Faggioni's voice, she presents their world as totally adult-free. Her interest is solely in the society these kids have created for themselves, and the strange politics of gender and rules of play that I had completely forgotten about. Her film perfectly captures what childhood is like with idealizing it and without injecting adult struggles into it. Too often when we see kids struggle in films, it's an extension of whatever problems their parents are having - money troubles, divorce, etc. Faggioni's kids struggle with being well-liked, wondering what the other kids think of them, having control of whatever game is taking place, or trying to ditch an unwanted nickname.

In the Q&A afterward, Faggioni said she set out to make a film about how the kids see race barriers (almost all of the kids are first- or second-generation immigrants), but found that the kids didn't think about that at all, and to her credit, she didn't force her original intent. She found something else, and made the film about that. The result is a far more universal portrait of a specific period in grade school when all that mattered was what game was being played, what the rules were, and the extent to which boys or girls were included.

Her aesthetic is fairly low-key, but totally spry. It's very difficult to keep up with kids, but Faggioni and her camera operators never fail to capture the right action at the right moments. The result is a wonderful, poetic version of a home video that just captures life as it is with little interference. It's uncommonly funny and touching in a genuine, unforced way. I really hope she's able to make a feature from it, and I greatly look forward to whatever she does next.

"Wyckoff Place," and the other films in this series, will play in San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles again, but are becoming available online here. I cannot recommend enough that you catch "Wyckoff Place," and if you have the time, give "The Fickle" a look. It's the shortest of the films, and it's a clever execution of a simple concept; that's all I'll say.

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