From The Bite/A Mordida (2019), dir. Pedro Neves Marques

“Where am I?” asks the central protagonist in The Prince of Homburg, Patrick Staff’s wondrous short film, featured in this year’s edition of Projections, a sidebar of the New York Film Festival dedicated to experimental cinema. The question fits as a motto for a number of films across the different shorts programs, with each film creating a deliberate disorientation, creative confusion, and dislocation. In addition, a number of these films also touch on notions of the body, gender, and identity, and in so doing provide passionate, at times whimsical, takes on weighty issues.

The Prince of Homburg is inspired by the drama by Heinrich von Kleist, in which a forlorn prince — here played by Johanna Hedva in the voiceover — flounders, between action and dream.  Staff divides his film into three parts, and sets Part One in “a royal military orthodoxy,” where the Prince is sleepwalking, yet from the start his imagery also hints at the contemporary world. Handheld-camera shots of bushes, a garden, and then of a person soldering metal, flicker as if in a quick hallucination. The soundtrack creates a landscape of faint footsteps and trumpets, evoking a royal court. Staff conflates the present with the past, and the fictional source with the more personal subject, by announcing, “The Prince is merely a vessel for the protagonist.” But as Hedva’s voice gives way to interviews — with the Brooklyn-based trans singer Macy Rodman, who confides her struggles during the hormonal changes she underwent in treatment; Debra Soushoux, an attorney, former actress and advocate for trans rights; Che Gosset, a trans femme writer and archivist at the Barnard Center for Research on Women; and the American novelist Sarah Schulman — the protagonist emerges as a more complex construct than it may at first appear. The figure of the Prince stands in for both a dream — a possibility of recreating and constructing a self anew — and for the peril and weariness of creation. Imagistic nocturnal fragments, hand-painted animation, like a loose abstract painting, mix with the indexical images of subway platforms, highways, and party scenes. Captured on both an iPhone and in 16mm, together they create a vertiginous journey through time, space and psyche. Coupled with footage from the play’s staging, the questions, “What can be trusted? What can be known?” posed by Conal Mestravick through voiceover as he quotes British playwright Neil Bartlett on Kleist, become a metaphysical interrogation of the slipperiness of identity constructs. 

From Tyrant Star (2019), dir. Diane Severin Nguyen

The same shorts program, titled, Signs of Life, includes Diane Severin Nguyen’s rapturous short, Tyrant Star, which takes place around an urban periphery in Vietnam. The film’s landscape alternates between tall buildings and construction sites, and forest paths strewn with garbage and organic waste. In the voiceover, lovers speak of romance crushed by material hardships. Nguyen creates a world that is familiar yet strange. Though the waste is a recognizable sign of densely populated urban areas, in her short, bright plastic bags float amidst the greenery like ripe exotic fruits, and sensuality pervades each frame, as fans and other electric devices hum and whirr, as if infected with the heat of the lovers’ discourse. The story then slips into a feverish dream, when a young girl gazes out through her gauzy blush-pistachio colored curtains, and sings Simon & Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence, watching herself perform on a laptop — a stylized reenactment of a fantasy that, in our mediated age, many teenagers, rich and poor, find at their fingertips.

From Tyrant Star (2019), dir. Diane Severin Nguyen

Pedro Neves Marques’ The Bite/A Mordida, which plays in Program 2: Making Contact, transports us to São Paulo’s natural reserves. In the film, the location serves as both a base for a laboratory, in which scientists search for a genetically-engineered solution to exterminate disease-carrying mosquitoes, and as a quiet haven for a couple, Tao (Aline Dörzbacher) and Calixto (Ana Flávia Cavalcanti). In the lab, biological, metaphorical, and even slightly Kafkaesque vocabularies conflate. The epidemic caused by the mosquitoes is called “this unstoppable thing,” a “monster taking over the country.” Similarly to Staff, Marques creates a clear correlation between an authoritarian, militarized discourse, and the oppression of those asserting their non-heteronormative identity. “People say this isn’t a war. Of course it’s a war. If you want to kill a people, you eliminate the people,” says one of the scientists, Helmut (Kelner Macedo), a chilling line that obliterates the difference between insects and humans. The action shifts from the sterile, controlled madness of the laboratory to the lush and peaceful forest. The latter, however, isn’t free of anxiety about the future — in one scene, Tao, who’s trans, studies the female reproductive system; in another, Calixto is bit by a mosquito and rushes down to the river to wash off the affected area. But when the couple’s tenderness culminates in a threesome with Helmut, desire trumps biologically determinist reasoning and the fear of the other (while, as we can guess, giving Calixto a chance to become pregnant). With pointed dialogues and paired-down settings, Marques creates a world that feels disconcertingly of the moment, yet also hints at an even more heavily polarized and militarized dystopian future.

From Come Coyote (2019), dirs. Dani ReStack and Sheila ReStack

Identity, desire, and renderings of bodies similarly lie at the heart of Dani and Sheila ReStack’s frolicsome short, Come Coyote, which, like Nguyen’s and Marques’ films, re-invents the domestic space — in this case, the directors’ home — as a site of reverie. The film plays in Program 1:News from Home, alongside a number of shorts framed by quasi-personal storytelling, such as Peggy Ahwesh’s Kansas Atlas, Charlotte Prodger’s SaF05, and Miko Revereza’s Distancing. A striking sequence in Come Coyote foregrounds Sheila’s spread legs and vagina, as she receives a vaginal injection from Dani, whose blurry figure hovers in the background. With the shallow depth of field and zoomed-in perspective, the legs loom large, and the procedure feels funny yet nerve-racking, even a bit monstrous. It’s a foretaste of the fragmented, ludic play throughout the rest of the film; later a swinging dildo being attacked by a dog gives way to impressions of the couple’s daily routine and evocative glimpses of their surroundings, sometimes arranged as silent tableau with flash excerpts from Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999) and Anthony McCall’s experimental short, Line Describing a Cone (1973). Some vignettes are more urgent, such as a vertiginous take of an empty swimming pool, captured as if it were a scene in a horror movie, or body parts casting lascivious cutout shadows in the bedroom, to the sound of McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” A quixotic intimate portrait, Come Coyote portrays the reproductive challenges of same-sex couples with sensual poetry and humor, plus a pinch of despair. As in the other shorts I’ve mentioned, the ReStacks’s use of sequential, temporary and spatial fragmentation and dislocation twists and amplifies our sense of reality, keeping us on our toes. In all these shorts, identity, just like the physicality that they immerse us in, is never fixed, but rather under a constant, at times anguished, negotiation.

Shorts Program 1: News from home, Shorts Program 2: Making Contact, and Short Program 3: Signs of Life screen today at 6:30 PM, 6:00 PM, and 8:30 PM, respectively. Making Contact and Signs of Life will also screen again on Saturday, October 5 at 8:00 PM and 5:00 PM, respectively. All screening will take place at Film at Lincoln Center (165 W 65th Street), as part of Projections at the 57th New York Film Festival. Projections is curated by Dennis Lim (FLC Director of Programming) and Aily Nash (independent curator), with assistance from Shelby Shaw and Dan Sullivan.

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.