To be “different from a bigger crowd,” said presenter Nico Santos, was the ethos of the 11th iteration of the NBCUniversal Short Film Festival. The festival’s finalist screening and awards ceremony was held on Wednesday, October 19 at the Directors Guild of America.
Touted as the “first and only film festival run by an entertainment studio dedicated to celebrating diversity,” the event joins a plethora of efforts by a variety of industry organizations jostling to proclaim their interest in discovering and promoting diverse content. After screening 14 semi-finalists (from 2,000 submissions) in New York in August, eight finalist films played to a packed, dressed-up (and indeed, relatively non-white-straight-male) audience of filmmakers, strugglers, aficionados and NBCUniversal suits.
An audible segment of attendees guffawed at casually chatty host Lil Rel Howery (The Carmichael Show), while many were there to glimpse the bedecked panel of award presenters consisting of rising yet “made-it” talent such as Essence Atkins, the star of NBC’s upcoming Marlon, and Fresh Off The Boat’s Randall Park (a personal favorite of this writer). Park, an alumnus of #NBCUShortsFest, joked on stage that when he had won in 2010, he was just a “broke, struggling actor living in Mar Vista.” Today he has a hit TV show, owns a yacht and is a “multi-multi-millionaire,” all because of the festival.
Karen Horne, senior vice president of programming talent development and inclusion at NBC Entertainment, opened the evening by indicating that the festival was like a growing family. From the fancy booklet handed to attendees to the giant screen brimming with logos, though, it seemed like this event was better understood in business speak. Horne called it a “pipeline program for new talent.” And indeed, a behemoth corporation’s dazzling pipelines of partners and divisions were associated with the event. Xfinity, Comcast’s video and internet service, sponsored the Best Drama award. Seeso, an ad-free streaming comedy channel from NBC Universal’s Digital Enterprises, was aligned with the Best Comedy award. NBCU Open Possibilities, driven by the corp’s “commitment to inspire change through storytelling,” created a special award for Social Impact. And separately, an inaugural partnership with the Asian American organization YOMYOMF (You Offend Me, You Offend My Family) resulted in a separate set awards handed out at the top of the night, for a short contest called Interpretations.
The evening was thus a fascinating nudging of emerging underrepresented voices hustling at the peripheries toward the centripetal cog-and-wheel churn of a Hollywood studio holding the banner that it too cares. Which isn’t to sound cynical, because ultimately, recognition is recognition, a package of Twitter bits and Instagram bytes, all amplifiable deeper toward the centers. Those shortlisted benefit symbolically and financially; one sort of opportunism rides on the wave of another. Being “different” may have once been a riptide, threatening to take a moviemaker of color, queerness or disability further away from her dreams the harder she swam. Today, though, thanks to the blaring of #OscarsSoWhite and other influential research, “diversity” is a crest high enough to be noticed. Mega-industrial shores appear welcoming. NBC Universal, to its credit, has had this yacht for select future millionaires anchored for more than a decade.
A behind-the-scenes judging panel consisting of mainly non-actors—director Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond), Jennifer Salke (president of NBC Entertainment), Park and Hasan Minhaj (The Daily Show), among others—gave way to a line-up of mainly actor presenters. Eight films were screened, each followed by a minute-long Q&A with the filmmaker. This was followed by the awards ceremony, which whooshed by with lesser trumpets than the third Presidential debate that was occurring simultaneously in Las Vegas. Still, the audience was eager and applauding on. It didn’t seem to matter—though it should have, given that a commitment to diversity implies the promise of visibility, especially for those laboring way below the line—that the end credits were chopped off from every film to ensure timely completion of a program that began 15 minutes late (to be fair, SVP Horne apologized upfront).
On to the awards, then. The $5,000 cash grant accompanying the Social Impact award went to “Vamonos,” a dramedy about a woman determined to honor her dead girlfriend by ensuring she be dressed for her funeral as the butch the latter’s family refused to accept that she was. Mexican/Guatemalan American producer-director Marvin Bryan Lemus, a recent alumnus of Film Independent’s Project Involve, said that Latinas are the “most resilient” people he knows and that he wanted to make a film that does not make audiences feel “morose” on behalf of the Latino community.
The Best Actor prize (along with an NBC talent holding deal) went to Lynn Chen for “Parachute Girls,” a dramedy about a woman (Chen) who arrives at her sister’s doorstep after a long hiatus with some bad news. One actor from each of the eight films was nominated in this category. I disagreed with half the shortlist; my vote would have gone to the non-nominated Zuzanna Szadkowski’s for her uproarious turn as the irreverent waxing lady in “Things I Hate: Lady Grooming.”
Writer Emily C. Chang of “Girls” said that she understood diversity as a “spectrum of identity development.” For instance, she had grown up in a white New Jersey suburb but had gone to become “an angry Asian in college,” suggesting that her films also convey a barrage of conflicts. This one did, to a slightly dizzying fault.
I would have liked to see two people accept the Best Writing award, which also came with a $5,000 cash grant: Molly Anne Coogan, for her hilariously stinging zingers in the above-mentioned wax salon episode of her webseries, who thoughtfully explained that female comedies are about peering into “situations that are normalized;” and the eventual winner, Daniel Solé, for the Tribeca official selection “You Can Go,” in which a high-school administrator, portrayed with great assurance by S. Epatha Merkerson (Chicago Med), talks a gun-toting teen off the ledge. “You Can Go” director Christine Turner stated that she was “trying to confront what we look away from” and “leave the audience uncomfortable.” This was an insightful way to describe what films with underrepresented people generally want to achieve, and it was a sentiment echoed earlier in the evening by Joshua Tate, the writer-director of “Guest Room,” a sweet drama about a young couple with Down Syndrome. Tate said, “I want [the audience] to feel conflicted,” not “inspired,” and “see someone with a disability as a peer.” He certainly managed to; Lauren Potter was particularly wonderful as his film’s protagonist. In any case, Coogan didn’t have to leave empty-handed. “Things I Hate” won “Best Comedy” and a neat $10,000 cash grant.
The big winner of the night, however, was a film already quite decorated: Academy Award-nominated live action short “Day One,” which garnered the live-text-juried Audience Award. This came as a surprise to some folks, like those sitting next to me, who were rooting for “Rosa,” a film about the bond between a Colombian maid and her employer’s son. Unsurprisingly, though, “Day One” was bestowed the Best Director hat tip and the Best Drama accolade. The film, in a league of its own, is a deeply affecting story about a war interpreter in Afghanistan thrust into an unimaginable dilemma on her first day on the job. This string of honors provided writer-director Henry Hughes a development meeting with Universal, a $60,000 camera rental package, a $1,000 Amazon gift card and a $10,000 cash grant. Collecting the night’s final award, the somewhat brusque moviemaker simply said, “Thank you guys very much.”
As the curtains fell and people made a beeline for drinks, falafel and cupcakes in a moody violet lounge, I walked to my car with two lingering questions:
1. Does “diversity” lie in a film’s theme and its characters’ interiority, or in the non-normative attributes of its above-the-line crew? “Day One’”s director is a white man who wrote the film based on his experience serving in Afghanistan. Is “diversity” here the voice of veterans, considered by many as a disenfranchised group? Or is “Day One” more akin to a “foreign language film,” since it features several non-English speaking Muslim characters—which brings up another type of marginalization with regard to the U.S./U.K.-focused Oscars? Then there were other films, like “Password Deals,” that were diverse per both criteria, while less impressively executed.
2. Does recognizing “diversity” usher in future representative artistic expression, or does it merely legitimate conglomerate benefactors? Returning to the idea of the cog-and-wheel churn by studios with good intentions, the answer remains complex. After enjoying a slate of reasonably good films with slivers of worldview we don’t see often, I suspect that diverse artists felicitated by such events are less stepchildren today than a decade ago. The word is still a mark—a coaxing by a grand stepfather: “Are you diverse? Come, then, little one, let me help you.” MM
The NBCUniversal Short Film Festival took place in New York and Los Angeles in August and October 2016, with a screening and awards ceremony on October 19, 2016.