Local films are on the bill at the Pittsburgh Shorts festival
Feature films get most of the attention in our culture, but good filmmakers can pack a lot into briefer forms, as well.
Take the Pittsburgh Shorts film festival, which runs Thu., Nov. 18-Sun., Nov. 21. This year’s showcase from the nonprofit group Film Pittsburgh (right on the heels of its Three Rivers Film Festival) screens some 120 live-action, animated, and documentary shorts from two dozen countries. Most programs are in person, at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, while others are virtual.
Two of the local films in the fest cover a lot of ground, whether literally or emotionally.
In its eight minutes, “Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange” explores the lives of Lily and Ahmed, a young couple in Pittsburgh. The experimental film is told entirely in a series of black-and-white still images, with two simultaneous narrations, one captioned and one in voice-over.
The two characters are fictionalized versions of filmmakers Lily Ekimian and Ahmed T. Ragheb, a real-life couple whose work has been screened internationally. They met in high school in Egypt, where Ragheb was born and Ekimian’s mother was working as a journalist. They moved to Pittsburgh in 2019, and their earlier short “The Sailor” screened at Sweden’s Uppsala Short Film Festival. This month, it’s also in the Arab Film Festival, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the MENA Film Festival, in Vancouver.
“Tales of the Marvelous” premiered at Southampton Film Week, in the United Kingdom. With its combination of black-and-white stills and voice-over, it will remind film buffs of Chris Marker’s landmark 1962 experimental short “La Jetée.” But far from that dystopic science-fiction narrative, “Tales of the Marvelous” looks at its characters’ everyday hopes and dreams. Ahmed, for instance, is an aspiring actor who longs for a romanticized Cairo, which he’s never visited, while Lily (whom we never see) harbors the ambition to study overseas.
Most of the images are Pittsburgh urban landscapes, some unpeopled, others occupied only by Ahmed as he walks through a gritty cross-section of the city’s neighborhoods. “I feel like that is sort of this third character in the film, is Pittsburgh,” said Ekimian.
The film’s voice-over narration (by the unseen Lily, voiced by Grace Cooper) and its captions sometimes illuminate the images. At other times, they are at odds with the pictures, or with each other, and complicate the viewing experience. “I think as co-directors and partners, Ahmed and I really think about how you can share a space and how evenly you can do that. So this film is a lot about figuring out how you can equally represent each other, and two different people in the space of one film.”
Gregory Scott Williams Jr.’s “Project Chick” (2019) is also about Pittsburgh, but in a very different way. It’s a 13-minute portrait of actor and poet Kim El that centers on her relationship with the Hill District’s old Addison Terrace public-housing project. El grew up first across the street from another project, Bedford Dwellings, and was warned against consorting with people who lived there by her grandfather. After a domestic abuse incident in which her father gravely injured her mother, her mother moved the family to Addison Terrace. But El’s learned prejudice against the projects stuck with her well into adulthood, and joined other forms of internalized self-hatred. The projects were also where El’s mother was raped, she says in the film.
Nonetheless, Addison Terrace (which has since been demolished), was home for years, and is tied to many happy memories for her. For Williams, whose film work has often explored the stigmatization of poverty, El’s experience was a powerful way to explore the legacy of public housing.
“I just wanted a complex, honest story, and that’s what Kim brought to it,” he says. “Project Chick” also offers a glimpse of El’s work with children through the Jeron X. Grayson Community Center.
Williams’ earlier documentaries include “Tar Baby Jane,” about nationally known, Pittsburgh-based artist and performer Vanessa German. A 2003 short film he produced, “five deep breaths,” screened at festivals including the Sundance Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival.
“Project Chick” has previously screened at the Cinequest Film Festival and the Bravemaker Film Festival, both in California. The Pittsburgh Shorts screening is its Pittsburgh debut.
Pittsburgh Shorts is arranged in programs consisting of seven or eight shorts each, and one to three programs per day. Most of the films are from the U.S., but about 50 originate as far afield as Australia, Vietnam, and Turkey.
The festival also includes a three-day conference for filmmakers, a script competition, and awards for best films in several categories.
“Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange” screens Fri., Nov. 19. “Project Chick” screens Sun., Nov. 21.