In many summers prior to COVID, residents of New Paltz were able to enjoy free weeknight screenings of family-friendly classic movies, shown outdoors at the Water Street Market. This year, the concept of Water Street as a “summer film festival” venue is getting a glow-up. Instead of a weekly series of well-beloved feature films, 51 innovative short films – most of them made in the last two years – are coming to the Denizen Theatre from Thursday to Sunday, July 20 to 23. Also on the schedule are three panel discussions, two featuring Tony-nominated playwright/filmmaker Neil LaBute and another with Oscar-winning screenwriter Alexander Dinelaris.
“I feel that short films are accessible to anybody,” says J. J. Kandel, who’s directing this inaugural Summer Shorts Film Fest and has hopes of making it an annual event. “If one comes on and you’re not into it, just wait. It’s like those little cereal boxes.”
The idea for organizing a festival devoted strictly to short films came naturally to Kandel, an actor/director/producer who has appeared in such movies as Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker. From 2007 to 2019, through his not-for-profit producing organization Throughline Artists, he ran the Summer Shorts Festival of New American Plays at 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan. The pandemic finally brought it to a close, but by then Kandel was spending half his time in New Paltz anyway, and had become a board member at Denizen. He began planning a “cinematic offspring” late last year, he says. “I personally like to think that it’s continuing the tradition of my play festival.”
In fact, Opening Night of the Summer Shorts Film Fest gets underway – following a musical Happy Hour with live music in the Water Street Market courtyard from 4 to 6 p.m. on Thursday – with a program inside Denizen Theatre curated by Kandel himself that he calls “Stage to Screen Selected Shorts.” The three films are all based on “plays that we produced in my play festival,” he explains. All three have screenplays by Neil LaBute, a longtime collaborator whom Kandel calls “an inspiration.” They include The Mulberry Bush (2016), directed by LaBute and starring Victor Slezak and Kandel; Good Luck (In Farsi) (2017), directed by Jessica Cummings and starring Gia Crovatin and Elizabeth Masucci; and Sparring Partner (2022), directed by Kandel and starring Cecily Strong and Keilyn Durrel Jones. The triple screening will be followed by a live discussion about the “stage to screen” process that will include LaBute, Slezak, Kandel, Crovatin, Masucci and Durrel Jones. An outdoor reception will follow.
As lead programmer for the rest of this year’s Summer Shorts Film Fest, Kandel brought on board Warren Etheredge, co-founder of the Walla Walla Movie Crush in Washington State, which just wrapped up its eighth season this past weekend. Kandel found himself “very impressed with the quality and curation” when he attended it one year. “They had 17, 18 blocks of films, and the quality was so good.” So, when he started working on the concept for a similar festival in New Paltz, he recruited Etheredge, and they developed a “joint application process,” Kandel says. Consequently, much of the programming will be the same as that shown at Walla Walla.
From Friday to Sunday, Etheridge has organized six thematic programs of seven to 11 films each, individually ranging in length from 17 seconds to about 25 minutes. From 3:30 to 5 p.m. on Friday, July 21, “Expressly Local Shorts,” made by filmmakers from New York State outside of New York City, will be featured. Three are documentaries, two narrative and three animated, the latter including Swimming, directed by the mid-Hudson’s own Tona Wilson. The others in the program are Mike & Frank (Kylie Conner-Sax), Ping Pong Parkinson’s (Dave Steck), Baggysuit (Myles Flusser), The Dark Odyssey 2: Ice Nexus (Michael Levine), Little Leaf (Mhaya Polacco) and A Tennis Friend (Brian Herrera Gladstone). Happy Hour Music in the Water Street Market courtyard will follow from 5 to 7 p.m.
After the locally produced films, the rest of the program blocks will all follow the naming convention of “For [something]’s Sake,” each hinting at the type of thematic content to be expected. “For Art’s Sake,” presented from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Friday, consists of films that treat with the artmaking process. They include Proof of Concept (Ellie Sachs, Max Cohn), Notice of Rejection (Steven Vander Meer), Shortlist (Aaron Bourget), Camille in Color (David Wild), Write a Song about Heartache (Jonny Look), I’m Usually Pretty Good at Naming Things (Mac Premo), Le Ballet du Pommes de Merde (The Western Cuck Exchange), Body Language (Leo Pfeifer), Never Fuggedaboutit (Dustin Waldman) and Chasin’ Butterflies (Matt Klug, Adam Hobbs, Josh Harding).
“For Kids’ Sake,” the family-friendly portion of the festival, runs from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 22; all of the selections are animated and more than half of them are about animals. They include Barry the Bearable Bear, The Lazy Bear and Midnight Sushi, all by John Osebold, as well as Andy: A Dog’s Tale (Jamy Wheless), Ham (Rudy Martinez), The Brave Locomotive (Andrew Chesworth), Bento Love (Elisa Taylor), Genevieve the Dragon Racer (Mia Blissett), Of Wood (Owen Klatte), Run Totti Run (Shad Lee Bradbury) and The Social Chameleon (Alex Ross).
From 3:30 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, LaBute will return, along with Nitza Wilon, co-founder of The Writers’ Lab, for “The Human Gaze,” a conversation about cinematic narrative and power, authenticity and vulnerability, seen through the lens of gender as it translates first to the page and then to film. Warren Etheredge will moderate the discussion. Happy Hour Music in the courtyard will follow.
Saturday evening from 7 to 8:30 p.m. brings the “adults only” block of films, titled “For F**k’s Sake.” The highlight is the charming graphic-novel-style animation My Year of Dicks (Sara Gunnarsdóttir), which earned a Best Animated Short Film nomination in the 2023 Academy Awards. It’s the longest film in the main section of the festival, divided into five episodes about a 15-year-old girl’s quest to find the right boy to take her virginity. Also to be screened are The Dalles (Agnalis Field), Really Good Friends (Adam Sekuler), I Am Whole (Bianca Poletti), I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Steve Collins), Fuck Me, Richard (Lucy McKendrick, Charlie Polinger) and Hating Beckett (Matthew Gossin).
Sunday, July 23 gets underway at noon with a special event: a screening of In This, Our Time, the filmmaking debut of Alexander Dinelaris, co-author/winner of the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for Birdman (2014) and co-producer of The Revenant. The live discussion to follow will feature Dinelaris along with In This, Our Time cast members Natalie Gold, Steven Pasquale, Olivia Nikkanen and Matthew Rauch.
The Sunday afternoon program, from 3:30 to 5 p.m., is titled “For Heaven’s Sake,” suggesting themes of an inspirational nature. We were impressed by a preview screening of Eat Flowers, a documentary by River Finlay about how Maine-based art photographer Cig Harvey used color to cope with the loss of her best friend to leukemia. It’s visually gorgeous, uplifting and spiced with humor. Also on the program are The Old Young Crow (Liam Lopinto), the music video Deadman Deadman Deadman (Dylan Friese-Greene), Take Me Home (Liz Sargent), The Boy and the Moon (Christopher James Cuthrell), Existential (Kaiya McMurdo) and Chorus (Daniel Egbert). Happy Hour Music returns from 4 to 6 p.m.
The final block of films, from 6 to 7:30 p.m., is “For Story’s Sake.” The films here are Demon Box (Sean Wainsteim), Viewfinder (Nate Milton), Tuning René Marie (Rachel Kessler), Ampers&nd (Sade Abiodun), Ebullient (Autie Carlisle), Men Grieving (Adam Peltier), The Future’s Past (Chris W. Smith, Jack De Sena) and What I Had to Leave Behind (Sean David Christensen). Immediately following will the Awards Ceremony, in which miniature paintings by Ryan Cronin of the Water Street Market’s Cronin Gallery will be handed out as prizes in the categories of Best Director, Best Performance, Best Screenplay, Best Narrative, Best Documentary, Best Animation and Best Local Short. The festival wraps with an outdoor Closing Night Reception until 10 p.m.
So, what’s the deal on ticketing? Full-festival passes are already on sale for $50 per person, with a limit of 50 to be sold in advance. Each pass entitles the bearer to priority access to all short film blocks, panel discussions and workshops, up until 15 minutes before scheduled start times, at which point tickets to each event will be made available to the general public at the box office for $10 individual, $5 student. Individual event tickets will be sold on a standby basis only, with no presales, since seating availability cannot be guaranteed if all passholders show up.
Pass packages will also include a totebag, a travel tumbler and various offers and discounts at Water Street Market shops and restaurants. “The all-festival pass is quite a value,” says Kandel. “They include about $25 worth of merch, plus you get a lot of programming for that.” To order, and to find out more details about the programming at the 2023 Summer Shorts Film Fest at Denizen Theatre, visit www.throughlineartists.org/summer-shorts-film-fest.