Sex, parodies and videotape

Four titles stand out among long-format student film festival submissions

by Steven Snyder

Thanks to more submissions than expected, the Minnesota Programs and Activities Council’s Films Committee will be presenting a total of three long-format shorts programs as part of the Student Film Festival 2005. The event screens tonight through Saturday.

The films range in length from 15 minutes to an hour. Some, such as the campy horror franchise “Sydney’s Revenge,” are low-budget, absurdist affairs. Others, such as “The Diamonds,” are stylized, professional-grade works.

That’s the fun, though, isn’t it? With short films, you never know what you’re going to get.

Here are A&E’s top picks from the long-format competition:

This 34-minute documentary is so emotional and expressive, one quickly realizes it could only be autobiographical. In it, director Vu Tran recounts his extraordinary journey as a Vietnamese immigrant from Southeast Asia to the United States.

He starts his story on a dark Vietnamese night. Tran recalls his father waking him up in the early-morning hours and leading him to a fishing boat, in which he endured a treacherous, and nearly deadly, weeklong journey to Hong Kong.

He would live there for three years in a refugee camp before arriving in the United States only to face a sense of isolation and dislocation that would present an entirely new challenge altogether.

Tran handles the material masterfully, striking a balance between a first-person recollection and an examination of larger issues around immigration. The story evolves from one of a harrowing escape to one of shocking struggles, new beginnings, grueling adaptations and, finally, a return home to confront demons of the past.

Technically, it’s also among the best of the festival. Stunning photography is mixed with historical footage, Vietnamese music and first-person narrative to make it an accessible, provocative affair.

Near the film’s end, when Tran returns to Hong Kong and then Vietnam, we come to understand his difficult place in the world, torn between the past and the present, between what’s been gained and what’s been lost.

Willey Hall as the scene of international intrigue? In Joseph Bernards’ hands, you betcha.

“The Diamonds” is the most stylistically advanced long-format film of the festival. In German, with English subtitles, and using a filter to give the film’s images a muted, bleak and at times metallic feel, Bernards offers up his best impersonation of a modern-day film noir.

Filled with shady, conflicted characters who play out their parts in an unrelenting tragedy, the title refers to the film’s McGuffin – stolen diamonds two thieves try to sell. But when their buyer is kidnapped, they gather in Willey Hall to plot how to free their friend.

All the while, these hoodlums wax poetic. “They say before you die, your life flashes before your eyes,” one says, “They don’t say how long it takes.”

And Bernards has fun with subtitles, in one instance using German subtitles to disguise their master plan and in another instance refusing to translate a woman’s final words.

No other festival entry is as tantalizing or immediately important to a college community as “LAID: A Sexumentary.”

This 56-minute documentary (the longest of any entry) interviews a number of subjects about sex. With an approach straight out of “Kinsey,” a pair of interviewers sits down with each subject and prods them about their sexual habits, thoughts and theories.

In an extended introduction, the film is summarized as something made purely to be provocative, to help all of us talk about something we are told is both wholesome and shameful.

To that end, the film is a success.

Traversing such topics as homosexuality, virginity, religion and societal norms, Langenfeld injects statistics into the discussion as yet another voice. The result is a symphony of opinions that is not only provocative but introspective. Taking all this in, it’s impossible not to confront your own opinions and beliefs.

Consider this film the campy pick of the litter. It’s just so damn clever.

Director Allen Rueckert has created a hodgepodge of absurdity, tied together with duct tape and then thrown off the cliff of sanity.

The film starts as a chipper superhero tale, featuring the trio of Captain Diabetes, Lord of the Pants and Cosworth, their butler. As the maniacal Michael MacDonald imposter strives to take over the worlds of pop music, the trio must overcome its insecurities to save the day.

Hey, this isn’t great stuff, but Rueckert’s obsessive commitment to style and pushing the boundaries of his world is pretty funny. And there are a surprising number of throwaway jokes that will come as a reward to those watching closely, such as the blind carjacker, the perverted bodyguard and the superhero “cocoon.”