Get the Balance Right, the animated shorts block from this year’s Boston Underground Film Festival (22nd to 26th March), is a fitting title for this selection of films. The sentence is a command, not a statement, and understanding the implications of that verb tense is important prep for the personal affronts to come. In the time it takes for a traffic light to change (Eileen O’Meara’s Panic Attack! (2016)), or a cat to subsume a conversation (Adebukola Bodunrin and Ezra Claytan Daniels’ The Golden Chain (2016)), these shorts speak volumes visually, and often with outmoded technologies (James Siewert’s The Past Inside the Present (2015)). Characters are trapped in consumptive patterns and animation doesn’t soften that. A chance to brace for that barrage is being honest.
Take Renee Zhan’s Hold Me (Ca Caw Ca Caw) (2016), a film about a naked man’s entanglement with a bird that has ties to suicide, abortion, factory farming, child abuse, and patriarchy. Relying on the bird as both his wife and mother, the man’s aversion to taking care of himself results in the unthinkable—a modern day Hedda Gabler or “Caged Bird,” where forced domestication kills.
Thumping against the floor and ceiling, the bird’s failed flights make the house look strong but, in reality, it’s rotting, supplying the couple with their maggot diet and using multiple locks as a ruse. The door opens without a key and, stretching a talon over the threshold, violins race like a triggered alarm. Unable to squawk previously, the sound isn’t recognizable as the bird’s own as she races to the bathroom to deliver an egg. Her escape attempt ruined, the child becomes her world.
A similar intrusion of sound, upon minutes of no dialogue, occurs in Diane Bellino’s The Itching (2016) where a wolf’s nerves about attending a dance party are channeled into scratching an itch on her knee. Unable to stop scratching, claymation animator, Adam Davies, has the pain boil onto her face and draw color-changing blood. A lotion makes the wound look like nerds. Stitches immediately pop. Finally, after spotting a school of fish swimming around the scab, the wolf lets out a howl. The lone wolf in a den of rabbits, Chekov’s ax adds fire to the theory that the itch is code for animal instinct against her bunny pals, but this is mere distraction. The coda is diligent on who the real predator is.
Less clear is the enemy of Veselin Efremov’s Adam (2016), a short made to demonstrate the capabilities of the game engine, Unity, but which also tests how much story can be told within the constraints of silence. Waking up to a reflection he doesn’t recognize, a robot is made to feel formerly human by his reaction alone, while his orange coating becomes a prison jumpsuit in the yard. Guards with machine guns tower above until two figures approach that scare them away. Just like that, the robots are free but, besides the change of leadership, not much has changed. Still walking in the same direction they were before, robots occasionally look back as if to question their trust in this sudden rescue.
But maybe it’s as good as trusting your commute home to be uneventful in the Bum Family’s Lilly Hits the Road (2016), and Jose Luis Gonzalez’s The History of Magic: Ensueño (2016). Both chart a chain of events that are as impossible as they are improbable (the big bang turning into a street lamp), but where “Lilly’s” monsters are more aggressive and circuitous in their journey — childlike paper and fastener art bulldozing though traffic — Ester keeps a blank face to the violence around her. Flipping on a cassette tape, her resolve never sways from pedalling to her destination. It’s not until the safety of her bed that we see the concern that’s been being repressed. Whether these shorts choose to speak or not (and a majority of them don’t) Get the Balance Right is about the unspoken. Fear comes with the territory.[Note: The following from this program were not available for screening: Luke Liberty’s MOLAR (2016), Emma Calder and Ged Haney’s Roger Ballen’s Theatre of Apparitions (2016), and John F. Quirk’s Opolis (2016)]