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Hans Morgenstern

For all its wit and self-deprecation, the Borscht Film Festival— Miami’s semi-annual homegrown showcase of short films—often features work with a profound awareness of the tragicomedy of life. Its logo is an Ouroboros, depicting an alligator and snake eating one another’s tails, a sly reference to a very real struggle in the Everglades, where locals have chosen to dump their pet Burmese pythons once they’ve grown too big to care for. Now many species in the swamp face extinction by a creature that has no natural predators in the area. The symbol, then, becomes so Miami: nature and chaos spiced with self-destructive hubris.

The festival’s tenth installment (named Borscht Diez, a double-entendre for “dies” and the Spanish “ten”) was all about new beginnings and anarchy. It began with a funeral for hard drives, allegedly containing early footage by the festival’s creators. They were destroyed with bottle rockets, on a pyre somewhere in the Everglades. After a series of screenings, workshops, and concerts, the festival ended at the Olympia Theater in Downtown Miami with a presentation of several short films produced locally, over the past year and a half. The event was heavy with comedy, and Miami inside jokes, send-ups fueled by nostalgia, and more than one hybrid documentary-fiction featuring animals. Sometimes, humor made turns that invited sincere consideration of humanity’s existence.

Three short films stood out, blending artistry, humor, and tragedy to present stories of people seeking solace in the face of their lots in life: an animated film about a lonely manicurist, Agua Viva, by firsttime solo director Alexa Lim Haas; Julian Yuri Rodriguez’s One Dog Gone Summer, about a boy’s attempts to make sure his dead dog gets to heaven; and, by Borscht co-founder and co-programmer Lucas Leyva and Jillian Mayer, Kaiju Bunraku, a puppet film that follows the struggle of a couple living in a world where giant monsters regularly wreck their house.

Last year, Haas co-directed the animated film Glove with Bernardo Britto, and was assistant art director on his 2014 Sundance-prize-winning Yearbook. This year, she was a winner of Borscht’s first annual No Bro Zone grant. The depth of her storytelling shines for itself in Agua Viva, for which she employs hand-drawn watercolor illustrations to tell the story of a Chinese manicurist working in Hialeah. We don’t know where in China she’s from—in a voiceover by Mengda Zhang, the unnamed manicurist mentions life by a river once, but offers no further hints as to what kind of life she left behind nor why she left it.

Through this woman’s perspective and what little she knows of the English language, a deep sense of longing arises. The voiceover has a confessional quality, admitting that she sometimes eats microwaveable food, chews the inside of her cheeks until she bleeds, and sucks on her own blood. It’s gross, but involves no one but herself and implicates the viewer in its intimacy—the sort of insecure selfdoubt inside anyone who has reflected on their own quirks. Self-cannibalism (consider the Ouroboros) is more common than anyone will admit.

Haas’ 5:37 film flashes by in sparse colors like pink and red, and the figures are thinly drawn with fluid black lines that shiver, like our protagonist’s thoughts. “Words are so solid, but my thoughts are so fluid,” she says. As much as Agua Viva takes place in the world of women, the film captures universal solitude with delicate empathy. The manicurist speaks of relishing alone time, as her favorite part of the job is the hour before the shop opens: “Like sitting in the back of a car. Not talking, just thinking.” Further distance from others is presented in the friendly customers, immersed in the pleasures of care the manicurist provides, and the mundane revelations of their own humanity—a bit of drool from someone who has just had a massage, or the woman having her pubic hair waxed who confesses: “This is my first time doing this. I didn’t realize it’s so…intimate.”

This line works as well as it does only because of what comes before: a birthday text to the manicurist, which triggers memories of nights by the river whispering something unintelligible into the ear of a lover, and realizing the passage of time by the length of her hair.

The most capricious of the three films might be Rodriguez’s One Dog Gone Summer, based on a story he wrote with Ariel Castro, with a screenplay by Andres Meza. The opening shot is of a man and woman (Kirk Elliott and Pamela Stigger), noisily drinking lemonade through straws as they peer through a sliding glass door. It’s a divide that establishes a steely distance from their son, Wesley (Wesley W. Wray, who brings a delightful hyper-innocence to the proceedings), who’s bent over Scrappy, his lifeless dog. In a disembodied voiceover, the mother gives him a clichéd assurance: “He’s in a better place now. He’s in heaven.” It’s a statement symptomatic of the practical rut of the adult, whose experience resigns them to icy rationale.

This is a film about the hopeful exuberance of childhood. Heightening the idealism of Wesley’s reaction to the loss of his dog, Rodriguez next fills the soundtrack with that famous adagio by Samuel Barber, “Agnus Dei.” He presents a slow-motion montage of the body of the intentionally fake-looking “dog,” rising and falling into frames of a clear blue sky. It smash cuts with a soft, pathetic plunk, as the corpse hits the turf at our young protagonist’s feet. It’s a brilliant touch that shows how gravity, both brutal and mundane, continues in the face of existential gravitas.

After an attempt by the father to explain heaven once again to the son—so futile an act that the sound of an airplane masks it until we hear his final word “comfortable”—the boy heads out on his own to find solace. The aria returns, as Wesley offers a solitary voiceover, promising his deceased dog comfort. A visit with a priest (Juan Mederos) only assures Wesley that he’s on his own against existence. “Don’t listen to him, boy,” he tells his pup. “We’re gonna make it to heaven together.” Cinematographer Daniel Fernandez often keeps Wesley in sharp focus, blurring the world around him to amplify the solitude of his quest. Wesley’s monologue is filled with concern for Scrappy’s comfort, and it speaks to a desire that’s at once selfish and selfless in its innocence. Ending on a cryptic note that includes parasailing and another sight gag involving the dog’s body, there’s a touch of mysticism that suggests the possibility of transcendence, after all.

Similarly confronting love, death, and mortality is Kaiju Bunraku. Written, edited, and co-directed by Leyva and his frequent collaborator, co-director and production designer Jillian Mayer, the film reveals their continued interest in the fleeting quality of human existentialism and the concept of immortality. The 13-minute film focuses on a bickering husband and wife presented as Bunraku (traditional Japanese puppet theatre), performed by the Bunraku Bay Puppet Theater, who came to the Miami Theater Center from Missouri to collaborate on the film. From the writing to the sets, the filmmakers create a rich microcosm under the shadow of giant beasts (Kaiju). It’s a chore, all the cleaning up and rebuilding after one of these monsters arrive. From the large sets depicting a traditional home in the mountains to the Japanese dialogue, Leyva and Mayer never shortchange detail, conjuring what may be their greatest achievement in production design.

Of course, none of this would matter had the writing undermined it, but Leyva is a young filmmaker who could humanize any sci-fi franchise. He adapts a classical narrative tone, with a voiceover that begins when Wife finds Husband chiseling a chunk of stone. A Japanese voice sing/speaks, translating to: “Grunting and sweating under weary lives, bearing the ills of monsters that stalk the planet.”

The drama of domestic vernacular becomes condensed into the tension between a practical woman and an idealistic man. Wife understands life under siege, while Husband, in spite of it, aims to create art in tribute to their everlasting love. He reveals his most recent work, a roughly carved statue intended to represent the couple. “Now I bask in my labor made permanent—a work of art for the ages,” he says. Wife, on the other hand, calls him a “silly husband” who wastes his time in a world where things are constantly uprooted and left to ruin.

Immortality has long been a concern for artists, and Leyva and Mayer acknowledge the absurdity of this in Kaiju Bunraku. Sea-level rise, an ongoing theme of the festival, arises as a metaphor in this short film, but apathy and futility are what cause the true heartache—the monster arrives to roll over Husband, still clutching his precious rock, and Wife simply carries on, rebuilding without her mate.

These films glow with a pining for relevance and recognition, the struggle for everyone aware of their own mortality. We hope for some acknowledgment that we are alive, that we matter; however, as the Ouroboros shows us, the way to the infinite is through destruction—we are forever fleeting in the face of this inevitability. All we can do is have a laugh.

Hans Morgenstern is cofounder of and vice chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle.