SHINOBI BLUES Mike Liu’s animated work tells the of a discharged ninja who must take care of his daughter like a normal man. Hilarity ensues.
COURTESY MIKE LIU

A grieving mother drives across the desert to visit the grave of her son, recently killed in action. Along the way, she encounters a young undocumented immigrant around the age of her dead child. Despite not sharing a common language, she befriends him, seeing her son reflected in the stranger.
This may sound like the plot of a melodramatic Hollywood film starring a beloved middle-aged actress and an up-and-coming foreign actor. It’s not. Instead, it’s the premise of Child of the Desert, a 20-minute short film written and directed by Los Angeles-based filmmaker Iliana Sosa.

Child of the Desert is one of 140 films featured at the D.C. Shorts Film Festival, which began yesterday and runs through Sept. 16. The films are presented in 16 showcases, each of which lasts 90 minutes and features between seven and nine short films. According to D.C. Shorts founder and director Jon Gann, the festival, now in its ninth year, is the largest of its kind outside of California.

Sosa added that D.C. Shorts is distinctive because of its focus on short films.

“At a lot of film festivals, shorts are not given the same weight as features. If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, [attending the festival is] a great way to see what other people are doing and to improve your own work and see what works and what doesn’t.”

Gann also placed a strong emphasis on local filmmakers: 11 films in the festival feature D.C. natives as actors. Among those is Diana El-Osta, who produced her documentary The Capital Buzz with a group of seven other filmmakers. The film focuses on the rise of urban beekeeping in the D.C. area.

El-Osta noted that D.C. provided a unique atmosphere for filmmaking.

“The opportunity to showcase the city in its springtime grandeur was wonderful. It was great for us as filmmakers to capture the city in full bloom,” she said.

The festival will showcase a variety of shorts, ranging from dramas and animated comedies to documentaries and horror stories. Yet despite the diverse genres and themes, all films share one key attribute — a full story is crammed into a movie-watching experience that will last between five and 20 minutes.

According to participants, the time constraints serve to enhance, rather than limit, the quality of stories showcased at the festival.

“The really good short films are intense from beginning to end,” said Shawn Wines, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker whose comedy High Maintenance will appear next week. “The best short films take you on a journey with the characters, so you have to tell a full story in a very short amount of time.”

Fellow filmmaker Tyler Bastian, who is based out of Salt Lake City, agreed.

“The medium of a short film forces people to tell a great story and tell it well. There is no time to waste. And at a festival like D.C. Shorts, you’re going to be exposed to all of the amazing stories very quickly,” he said.

Bastian’s documentary Everything Is Incredible chronicles the story of a polio-stricken Honduran man attempting to build a helicopter.

The program of 140 films was pared down from over 850 submissions during a two-month screening process that ensured both quality and diversity of films, according to Gann. In the end, the festival includes films from 21 countries that focus on such diverse issues as race, religion, disability, sexuality and age.

The filmmakers in attendance at this year’s festival are as diverse as their films. Some directors are experienced at making feature films and have only recently entered into shorts. Others produce shorts before jumping into more ambitious projects. According to the festival’s website, first-time directors are responsible for 65 of the films showcased this year.

Mike Liu, a New York-based filmmaker whose animated comedy Shinobi Blues will debut at the festival, is among those making their film festival debut.

“D.C. is my first film festival, so I’m really excited. It’s a big honor to be a part of it and have it be my first one,” he said.

thers, like Sosa, have achieved success in the independent film industry. Child of the Desert won best short film at the USA Film Festival in Dallas earlier this year. The film also stars accomplished indie film actress Dale Dickey, who won a Spirit Award for her work in Winter’s Bone, a 2010 film starring Jennifer Lawrence.

Child of the Desert is the latest segment of an ongoing project for Sosa, whose upbringing in El Paso, Texas — a city with significant immigrant and military communities — inspired her to explore how those groups might interact.

“I wanted to give a more humanistic approach to those issues,” she said.

Though Sosa’s work grew from a lifelong passion, other films are conceived in minutes.

“I was lying in bed at 11 o’clock one night while I was working on a feature film, and I just had an idea and wrote the script that night, and we shot it about three weeks later,” Atlanta-based filmmaker BrittPitre said of his short Schrodinger’s Box.

Many filmmakers, however, were inspired simply by their love of film as a method of telling stories. “I knew I wanted to do something funny, and I let myself think of the films that I liked growing up that were just fun comedies,” Wines said of his High Maintenance, which tells the story of a husband and wife trying to conceive when the wife’s mother moves in with them.

Just because the films are short doesn’t mean they aren’t still emotionally impactful.

“There is a lot of succinctness and beauty in a short film, and I think that audiences really appreciate that,” Gann said.

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