From In Sudden Darkness (2020), dir. Tayler Montague (all images courtesy New York Film Festival, unless otherwise stated)

Among the shorts programs at this year’s New York Film Festival, one stands out for its celebration of its hometown. As in past years, films in the New York Stories block embody the spirit of a city erroneously declared dead. Others are fictionalized studies, recreations or adaptations; a study in movement or of character.

Sarah Friedland’s Drills opens the program by directing our attention to supposed safety practices. A Boy Scout leader reads an old manual, kids practice a shooting drill, and adults calmly sit at a table for a meeting. The images repeat over and over as Friedland picks up on patterns and dissimilarities alike.

From Drills (2020), dir. Sarah Friedland (image courtesy Sarah Friedland)

Drills is a hypnotic choice to start with, one that leads beautifully into Ricky D’Ambrose’s faux-documentary Object Lessons, or: What Happened Whitsunday. The short follows numerous threads of the same story to an untapped strip of land outside the city, once used to house an art collection. Art and politics collide when the murder of a young woman on the grounds spurs the rise of a xenophobic organization seeking to capitalize on the tragedy. Gorgeously shot on film and cleverly incorporating authentic-looking pieces of evidence, D’Ambrose connects each image — however seemingly unrelated — uniting them in one painful narrative.

Back in more traditional documentary territory, the directing duo of Noah Kloster and Lewie Kloster teamed up with photographer David Godlis to bring his memories and photos of the legendary CBGB bar to life in their tribute Shots in the Dark. Using cut-outs of his snapshots, the directors animate Godlis’ voiceover tales about moving to New York City, finding the club in its punk heyday and taking unforgettable pictures in low light settings. Shots in the Dark is a playful, zine-like imaging of the bygone era, complete with a photo of Godlis in front of the too-fancy storefront that’s taken the bar’s place on the Bowery.

Likewise, Oliver Shahery’s Wild Bill Horsecock is a character-driven documentary, focused on  traveling musician and amatuer porn performer Hayes Johnson, just as allegations of sexual misconduct begin to surface and cause him to lose gigs. Shahery captures his rage and defiance with a fly-on-the-wall approach, watching in real time as the man fails to reckon with his past.

From The Chicken (2020), dir. Neo Sora (image courtesy Zakkubalan)

Pivoting slightly, the program weaves narrative fiction back into the mix with Neo Sora’s short, The Chicken. Ahead of the birth of his first child, a man welcomes his Japanese cousin to New York City, taking him on a day-long excursion that includes a tour of his new Chinatown apartment, helping a stranger in an emergency, and buying a live chicken for dinner — which does not go according to plan. It’s a sweet, day-in-the-life-in-the-city journey that becomes unforgettable by dinner’s end.

In a similar way, Tayler Montague’s In Sudden Darkness also revolves around family, transporting viewers back to the recent history of the 2003 blackout in New York City filtered through the eyes of a little girl. She watches her parents and the world around her adapt to their new reality and looks on with curiosity. Beautifully shot and featuring wonderful performances — including a cameo by the director herself — Montague’s short is a nostalgic trip back into childhood, focusing on her character’s most striking memories during a time of uncertainty, be it a sunset with her mom doing her hair, time spent with her dad in his car enjoying the A/C, or watching her parents come together and dance to an old favorite song.

From The Isolated  (2020), dir. Jay Giampietro

The last short of the program is a timely one. Jay Giampietro’s The Isolated stitches together the many voicemails of a concerned friend — an eccentric but cautiously optimistic type — who lives alone and muddles through the challenges of pandemic life in the city with a little help from friends, including the director. In the background, Giampietro captures the scenes of a changed New York City: discarded face masks litter the streets, marches stretch on for countless blocks of boarded-up storefronts, both from the pandemic and the protests, creating a portrait of an individual as one part of an collective experience.

New York Stories is now streaming online through September 23 at 8pm as part of New York Film Festival. 

Monica Castillo is a writer and critic based in New York City. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Village Voice,, Remezcla, the Guardian, Variety, NPR, and Boston...