For many, the idea of Houston is rooted in a combination of history and popular myth. A mountain of towering buildings, energy giants and urban cowboys, Texas’ largest city has evolved over time into an increasingly integrated and culturally rich metropolis.

With over two million residents, Houston is now majority minority, and its diversity is everywhere you look. You can see it most evidently in the food, music and cinema that pours out of the Gulf region.

Enter the Literally Short Film Festival, a fairly new cinematic outlet within the Houston city limits that focuses on international short films, with an eye on Latino filmmakers. Born out of the roots of Literal Magazine—the award-winning Latin American magazine—LSFF is rolling into its fourth year under the leadership of Executive Director Lorís Simón Salum, and is looking to grow.

“We received more submissions this year and got some amazing films,” said Simon. “The experience that filmmakers will have here is different from any other short film festival out there.”

While Literally Short is small and lean, it manages to top all other Houston-based festivals with $6,500 in cash prizes, and provides travel and accommodations to the winners. This year saw more than 400 submissions, with LSFF exclusively selecting 37 to screen. Out of these well-curated picks emerged a wonderful mashup of international independent cinema that was spread out over a weekend, and curated from India to Finland, by way of Mexico.

Opening night festivities were hosted at Literal Magazine HQ, which featured a red carpet greeting and a spread of delicious gourmet pork sliders, shrimp cocktails, fruit popsicles, wine and several cases of Mexican Coca-Cola nearby for good measure. Surrounded by works of art, attendees mixed and mingled throughout the roomy facility, discussing their films, making contacts and picking the perfect spot to take in the evening’s cinematic offerings. After the festival introductions, and a rousing performance by a local classical guitarist, the evening launched into screenings of several of this year’s festival winners. At the pinnacle of evening was the top-seeded Grand Jury Prize, which was awarded to “The Manliest Man,” which compellingly wove together themes of inadequacy, loss and redemption within the framework of a small village in India. The latest from director Anuj Gulati, this dark comedy pokes its finger at religion, folklore and social order while maintainng a genuine humanity in its characters.

This year’s LSFF lineup featured windows into Mexican and German film with a special block for Texan filmmakers. Leading a strong contingent from Mexico was “The Aeronauts,” a stunning stop-motion fantasy directed by Leon Fernandez which took home the Best Picture award. “Aeronauts” art director/cinematographer Rita Basulto was in attendance to accept the award, and brought one of the amazingly intricate puppet characters to show off.

Rita Basulto of “The Aeronauts” shows off one of the puppets designed for the film. Photograph by Greg Hamilton

Hot on its heels rumbled “Green,” the winner of the Award of Excellence. Directed by Alonso Ruizpalacios, this pulse-pounder captures life inside an armored car with a pulpy and poetic sensibility. Lastly, the Best in Mexico award went to “Winds of Furnace,” a gritty film directed by Yamil Quintana about a young trio who are tasked with disposing of a burned body while eluding police.

The film block from Germany was produced in concert with Rice University as part of their European and Classical Studies department. From the roster of nine films emerged the drama “For Your Own Safety,” directed by Florian Heinzen-Ziob, which tells the tale of an overeager airport security screener. Also of note was “Speechless,” the Robin Polak-directed short that follows a boy as he attempts to communicate with the world while wandering alone inside a toy store.

Of the remaining selections, standouts included the Austrian coming-of-age fantasy “Hilde,” which powerfully captures the notion of metamorphosis with a decidedly dark and mysterious outcome. Also of note was “The Halt”—the latest from Finnish filmmaker Pia Andell—which embraces an awkward, wordless encounter between two estranged lovers, with a measure of humor and sadness. “Acid Test,” the best stateside production, emerged out of the Texas short film category. This coming-of-age-drug-experience-gone-sideways-comedy-drama delivers the psychedelic goods with a homegrown story of adolescent rebellion.

LSFF also provided a pair of workshops targeted towards some of the practical aspects of film production. Saturday saw MTV/PBS animation veteran Patrick Smith expound on the art of animating for nonfiction, with an emphasis on using soundtracks and narration as a guide. On Sunday, Emmy award-winning cinematographer Larry McKee and his team brought in a RED camera and built a bare-bones set to help demonstrate lighting techniques and how the can inform the narrative.

Hospitality is front and center at LSFF. The warm family atmosphere is extended to invitees in ways that count. Festival HQ sets up private transportation to and from the venue, provides four-star hotel accommodations, and does very well at keeping in contact with the filmmakers. Whether it was the impromptu lunches with the LSFF team, providing networking and press opportunities, or buying another round at the local country-western bar, the staff do a solid job of taking care of things for their people.

Houston hospitality at LSFF 2017. Photograph by Greg Hamilton

By the end of LSFF, you get a feeling of progress being made. Houston is a reflection of its population, and that magnificent gumbo of humanity is rising to the top through festivals like this. New international voices are being seen and heard, and LSFF is doing its part to spread the word. Without a doubt the crowds will only get larger.

Muchas gracias, Houston. MM

Literally Short Film Festival ran June 14-18, 2017, in Houston, Texas. For more information, visit its website here.