On Saturday, April 15, The Oaks Theater in lovely historic Oakmont, PA held their second annual Indie Oaks Film Festival, which screened the best of Pittsburgh’s local short films. While some films certainly outshine others, it is nearly impossible to pin down a weak link and attempting to do so would really be splitting hairs. The 17-film lineup included styles ranging from sci-fi to mockumentary to Pittsburgh-based dystopia to experimental Spaghetti Western. (Seriously, directors Balint Oltvai and Rishi Sethi actually used spaghetti.). While some filmmakers tackle tough social issues, such as animal cruelty, suicide, and homophobia, others tackled their lawns. Here’s the rundown.
First was Zack Williams’s short short film, “J.P.,” which stars Zack himself and his fish. Beautifully scored and culminating in some dreamlike camerawork, Williams tells the familiar (fish)tale (sorry) about the often futile attempt to connect with others, and he does so completely unscripted with just a basic goal and outline for the film in his grip belt.
With “Stage 5,” director Mike Smith is able to successfully portray science fiction using only regular ole’ two-armed people with no razor-sharp teeth or particular fondness for M&M’s. Our heroine, Sasha, immediately informs us in what appears to be a suicide-video-note-but-possibly-pre-alien-abduction-video-note that she knows exactly when she is going to die: tonight. The means or reasons behind this revelation are not specifically explained nor are they necessary. The film addresses a much more important theme, which is what it means to be alive. The lead actress, Sarah Jacobs, phenomenally portrays a woman traversing through the five stages of grief to reach an understanding. Already a top contender, the film gets even higher marks for its musical arrangement and stellar drone shots.
Either Blake O’Donnell and Ben Dietels tried really hard to make “Bergeron Brothers” seem like they didn’t try very hard or they just didn’t need to try very hard. I’d like to think they’re just that good at comedy. This particular bit of theirs centers around brothers, August and Flynn Bergeron. Failed filmmakers, they have turned to wedding videography to pay some bills. It would be very easy to upset fans of The Office by shooting in that same trademark mockumentary style and utterly failing, but I can unabashedly say BPO Films nails it, editing, music, camera movements, all of it. Seriously. I hope NBC picks them up for a pilot. Whether there was great effort behind this film or not, it was simply well done. Where other improvised comedy sketches might fall short, resorting to juvenile or farcical humor, the Bergeron brothers shine as Best Men.
This one-woman (that is, Adrienne Wagner) film is a remarkable testament and inspiration to those who want to produce a film solo but maybe do not think they have the resources. Each piece in this short fits just so to tell its bit about this particular man’s life and his loaded A-frame garage. While “My Grandpa’s Garage” is touching and relatable, it might not hold its weight without the incredible foley, gadget animations, and sound editing work.
Indie Oaks was the setting for the premiere of “Bully,” a short by Joseph Bucci. The film is not light on suspense as it narrows in on an incarcerated young woman who is forced to participate in fights to the death with other prisoners. It is unclear exactly why she is being detained until a sobering twist is revealed (What is the twist, you ask? Oh, I’m going through a tunnel! I—). The impressive cast stays on point throughout the tough scenes in this film and creates a completely convincing setting within a completely unthinkable storyline.
This colorful and delightful short entitled “Soup or Salad” chronicles a young couple at odds with one another as they try to make important decisions about soup and chronically ill husbands. The crew (adorable, hilarious, and quirky, like the film) created a lively and detailed set akin to those of Wes Anderson’s or Rick Heinrichs’s (The Nightmare Before Christmas and Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events). The plot itself is a bit wonky (namely, when it is unceremoniously revealed that one of the two in the couple is already married…) but charming, all the same. You can learn more about the crew, including director Mina Hoffman, and their story here.
I first saw “A Funny Man” at the Three Rivers Film Festival, and it was just as poignant during my second viewing at Indie Oaks as it was then. It seems logical that a film about suicide must also be about life. This short by Benjamin T. Wilson and Peter Regan is no different. After being put on hold by a suicide hotline, which are notoriously known for being a last hope, Richard Cavallucci’s character decides to give up—until he receives an unexpected call from a young woman selling life insurance. (The irony prevails.) Their brief but heavy interaction reminds audiences that “you’re the only you we’ve got.” Jess Paul stars as the awkward, breakfast-burning, newbie saleswoman who has an undiscovered knack for human connection. The chemistry between Paul and Cavallucci only adds to this supremely honest and morbidly funny piece.
This article, by no means, captures all the wonderful talent that was on display April 15th. Jess Paul, for example, makes her directorial debut with “Promenade” and also stars in a couple films herself. One of the two emcees of the event, Ruthy Draper, graces the screen in a few flicks, as well. Simon Barracchini’s “See You” aces a composition almost entirely desaturated of color with no dialogue. Both “Butterfly” and “The Perfect Friend Request” were part of Pittsburgh’s 48 Hour Film Project in 2016. The former, a sweet father-daughter tale, placed first for Best Directing and second for Best Film, while the latter, a spectacular musical event (which, it is important to reiterate, was entirely conceived in 48 hours, people), took home Best Musical Score and third place for Best Film. It is also worth noting that all of the shorts are spectacularly scored.
The film scene in Pittsburgh is exuberant and underrated, and I feel very humbled and proud to be part of a city that takes this wonderful art form so seriously. I have found only welcoming and gracious people and, more importantly, free bagels in my experiences on Pittsburgh sets. And for those of you who do not know about this secret world, the Indie Oaks Film Festival selections are a great place to start learning.
“J.P.” by Zack Williams
“Stage Five” by Mike Smith (trailer)
“Bergeron Brothers” by BPO Films
“My Grandpa’s Garage” by Adrienne Wagner (full film)
“Promenade” by Jess Paul (trailer)
“Bully” by Joseph Bucci
“See You” by Simon Barracchini (full film)
“Love & Goodwill” by Kelly Tran (full film)
“Man vs. Lawn” by Nathan Fullerton
“Butterfly” by Locust Street Entertainment (full film)
“Soup or Salad” by Mina Hoffman (teaser)
“The Sad and the Hungry” by Balint Oltvai & Rishi Sethi
“A Funny Man” by Benjamin T. Wilson and Peter Regan
“One Man’s Loneliness” by Andrew Mingyar
“The Perfect Friend Request” by Goat Milk Fudge Productions (full film)
“The Reunion” by Frankly Scarlett Productions
“The Elephant in the Room” by Max Ciaci