The history of movies began with short films, a format that's still viable more than 120 years later. Shorts might no longer precede feature-length multiplex attractions (Disney-Pixar's output being a welcome exception), but they are mainstays of film festivals worldwide, including this weekend's 15th Annual Chicago International REEL Shorts Film Festival, presented by Project Chicago at Chicago Filmmakers. Reflecting a notable trend, some shorts among the 45 works screening are original webisodes purposefully designed for smaller screens—such as Subverse (Sat 11/10, 6 PM), a sci-fi series about "the dark side of the Internet." British director Joseph White takes a low-tech approach to create a trippy high-tech tale of a near future where humans play it safe by dating avatars. One day a borderline-paranoid office worker enters a virtual reality frontier zone where there's no customer support, and mind-blowing nastiness ensues.
Greg Chwerchak's darkly comic Sac de Merde (Fri 11/9, 6 PM) charts a particularly uncomfortable one-night stand between a perky New Yorker (Arielle Haller-Silverstone) and a smooth lounge lizard (David Fumero). It's so not PC, but you'll think twice about venturing into a pickup joint again. Also funny, but considerably sweeter, is Heather Has Four Moms (Fri 11/9, 8 PM), about a high-schooler who resolves to lose her virginity on her 15th birthday. Complicating the big plan are Heather's birth mom and her current wife, and the birth mom's ex and her new wife. Director Jeanette L. Buck shows subtlety and a flair for characterization.
Among the overtly political shorts is 1968 (Fri 11/9, 6 PM), a protest rock musical about the 1968 Democratic National Convention; the budget apparently didn't include synchronous sound, but the songs are well orchestrated, the color palette is rich, and the cutting is on the beat, proving that director Alex Lubin knows a thing or two about the genre. In Leia's Army (Sat 11/10, 2 PM), Oriana Oppice, director of programming for Women in Film Chicago, delivers an au courant drama about a family divided along sectarian lines, in which a bitter, divorced Christian evangelist (Lisa Hodsoll) explodes when she discovers her ex (Bolton Marsh) has taken their daughter (Rachel Sonvico) on a trip to Washington, D.C., for the Women's March and a reunion with their other daughter, who's a lesbian. Of the shorts reviewed here, this film has the most accomplished performances, especially Ilona Dulaski's as the sensible grandmother.
Of special interest is Violin (Sat 11/10, 2 PM), one of three short interlocking films that make up Ukrainian director Konstantin Fam's historical drama Witnesses. The filmmakers claim it's the first feature film from the former USSR to honor the memory of Holocaust victims. A rare musical instrument changes hands on its long journey from workshop to concentration camp to present-day Manhattan and Jerusalem. The production design and cinematography are excellent; if there are a few loose ends in the plot, it's a fair guess the missing pieces surface in the other two shorts, which are not screening in this festival. v