The D.C. Shorts International Film Festival has become such an annual tradition that even a global pandemic can’t stop it from showcasing the world’s best short films.
The 17th annual event will be presented virtually this year from Sept. 10-23.
“We’re excited to have the festival, albeit a little different this year,” programming director Joe Bilancio told WTOP. “In the end, we’ll miss them [in person], but we think that going virtual actually provides some benefits that we haven’t seen in the past.”
This year saw 1,500 submissions, which were narrowed down to 300 quality contenders. From there, 163 films were ultimately selected from 34 countries.
“Comedies, dramas, documentaries, historical, animation, sci-fi, horror, musical, we had like five dance films, so they really do run the gamut,” Bilancio said. “Trying to whittle those down this year was even harder. The quality is getting better and better.”
The films are divided into various showcases running 90 to 120 minutes.
“We try and get a little bit of everything in those,” Bilancio said. “We try and do a U.S. narrative, an international narrative, a documentary and an animated piece, just [to] show the breadth of what short film actually is. … We call it cinematic dim sum.”
In addition to these 10 variety showcases, there are also 10 themed showcases.
“Those themes are ways to group our shorts,” Bilancio said. “There’s animation, comedy, horror, there are two doc showcases, there’s a LGBTQ showcase, science fiction, and Sexus Nexus, which is our take on either sexy films or films about sex.”
This year’s lineup includes the standout short “Coffee Shop Names.”
“These three Indian people continue to go to a [famous] coffee shop and use these outlandish names because nobody can pronounce their Indian names,” Bilancio said. “What they’re doing is sort of making fun of us as people who can’t pronounce their names and think that everybody should be named John, Joe, Sue and Tom.”
Another standout selection is “The Dragon with Two Heads.”
“This is a Brazilian film that follows two brothers, both who are gay,” Bilancio said. “One is living a legal life in Brussels and the other is illegal in Berlin. It’s their two takes on life in their respective countries and their acceptance of where they are and their ability to move around. One is fine and dandy, and the other has to live like a ghost.”
Another unique LGBTQ+ film is “The Right to Sexuality.”
“It’s one of those issues that we might have thought about, but have we ever really contemplated?” Bilanico said. “It’s just two people who are intellectually disabled, want to live together, they’re married, but nobody wants them to live together, nobody’s really taking the time to figure out what works for them and how to make it work.”
You can also check out the dramatic “In This Land We’re Briefly Ghosts.”
“It’s Myanmar and it’s child soldiers,” Bilancio said. “A 12-year-old girl [is] forced to kill her brother. … If faced with that decision, what would we do? I can kill this person who I love and I’ve lived my life with, or I can stand and die with them. It’s gut wrenching, the performance is amazing, the cinematography is amazing, the story’s amazing.”
If you want something lighter, check out “Memories of Vegetation.”
“It’s an animated story on the uses of the castor bean, which [produces] castor oil, but the bean can actually be really dangerous,” Bilancio said. “It’s this hysterical story of the castor bean, the uses for it and how there’s that fine line between creating a poisonous substance and creating all these things that have been beneficial to us.”
The most star-studded might be Patton Oswalt in “The Priest.”
“I think we see him as this comedian, [but] he plays this suicidal priest who’s dealing with all these issues and death,” Bilancio said. “It’s sort of his story of coming to acceptance of who he is and how he interacts with the world. He is brilliant. It’s a way you’ve never really seen him before and it’s just this really touching, wonderful story.”
That’s just a sampling of the full lineup. Just don’t expect any “world premieres.”
“It’s a very different screening online, so we’re trying not to use that terminology so that those filmmakers can really have that moment at some other time when hopefully things get back to normal,” Bilancio said. “But we do have 11 films that would have been a world premiere. … It still is the first time an audience will see these films.”
Typically, the festival unfolds at various venues across Downtown D.C.
“We basically try and keep it in the core down by the E Street [Cinema] and we have a rooftop party at Carroll Square,” Bilancio said. “We spend so much time doing this that the reward is seeing people enjoying themselves at our screenings and our events. … We’re trying to recreate a lot of the events that we would normally do.”
That includes virtual workshops, filmmaker Q&As and award ceremonies.
“We think it’s still important to provide access to our Q&A sessions and filmmaker panels and workshops,” Bilancio said. “Again, all the things that have become known for D.C. Shorts, we’re still doing them, albeit in a little different way.”
This year’s screenplay competition will be held virtually on Sept. 11.
“Basically, we’ll be doing the live readings on Zoom,” Bilancio said. “People have the right to vote after to choose their winner, but we’ll also put them on our streaming site to watch at a later date and vote. Then we’ll announce the winner at a later date.”
Through it all, he’s trying to find silver linings.
“We aren’t able to bring all of our filmmakers into the market when we have a physical festival [but now] we’ll be able to use technology,” Bilancio said. “People can stream throughout the U.S. and North America, so that opens our audience. … It’s nice to show people beyond the DMV region that we’re here and we’re doing great work.”