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Still from The Cowfoot Prince // Photo: courtesy of Bex Singelton

DC Shorts Returns With Impeccable Taste and International Flair

“We didn’t want to wait around for other people to let us do it.”

Actor, writer and director Mike Doyle, perhaps best known for his Law & Order: Special Victims Unit appearances, is telling me about his latest short film The Chase. Doyle is no stranger to feature films, adding that he has a romantic comedy making the rounds at festivals at this very moment. But there’s politics to producing a longform theatrical release – you need money, time and a prolonged story.

“The great thing about [short films] is that they’re distilled short stories that live in the span of six to 15 minutes,” Doyle continues. “I love that there’s a place like DC Shorts that promotes that kind of storytelling.”

The DC Shorts tagline is simply, “We champion short filmmaking.” Since 2003, the homegrown festival has proven Doyle’s sentiment correct, showcasing a variety of films in every genre from documentary to comedy to drama to action. This year’s International Film Festival & Screenplay Competition is no different, offering more than 156 films from 38 countries on September 19-28 around the city.

“It’s remarkable what you can tell in a short amount of time,” says Bex Singleton, director of short documentary The Cowfoot Prince. “It’s good for people to come away with questions they can explore on their own volition. I don’t think there’s any shame in leaving an audience wanting more.”

Singleton admittedly learned most of what she knows about shorts from film school; The Cowfoot Prince was her final project in college and made its international debut at DC Shorts. The documentary follows Usifu Jalloh, a storyteller from Sierra Leone, and his journey from his adopted home of London to the village where he was born.

The first-time director, who lived in Sierra Leone as a photographer, met Jalloh at a fundraising event. After being knocked sideways by his performance, she approached him with an offer to make him the main subject of her graduation film.

“The story is about the complexity of the relationship with the place you’re from and the place you live,” she says. “Sierra Leone changed the way I saw the U.K., and if you look at the source material that’s easy to access about Sierra Leone, it’s about war or disease. You don’t often see characters. Usifu is such a strong and interesting character.”

The documentary is about 28 minutes long, pushing the boundaries of a short, but Singleton acknowledges the struggles of even getting below 40 minutes. After seven weeks of shooting, both in the U.K. and Sierra Leone, Jalloh’s energy was captivating and worthy of an even longer feature-length documentary.

“He has more energy than anyone else I had ever met,” Singleton says of her film’s subject. “Actually, trying to have an emotional journey through the film and understand what an optimistic person he is – that felt like quite a delicate balancing act. I’m not that used to documentaries where there’s a lot of flipping through happiness to sadness to seriousness to lightness.”

While The Cowfoot Prince marked the first time Singleton and Jalloh had worked together, Doyle’s The Chase marked the latest of several collaborations between the director and scriptwriter Nick Jandl, who based the story on a personal experience where someone snatched his phone off of a restaurant table.

“He was out with his wife one night in Los Angeles and the phone was stolen from the table,” Doyle says. “His wife chased, and he followed. We wanted to fuse that with bigger stakes, more drama. Nick’s character, Tim, is ineffectual. His instinct is not to run after [her]. I wanted to make a road movie on foot.”

Upon reading the synopsis for The Chase, you’ll likely have little faith they can squeeze all it promises in the limited 11-minute runtime. In that short amount of time, the film features “a complex intersection of race, justice and self-discovery.”

“We’re living in a time of division and misconception of the other – from all sides,” Doyle says. “In telling this story about a white guy, a black guy and a mixed-race wife, it speaks to ultimately the good of human nature and how we can cast away some prejudgment and learn something about ourselves in the process.”

Doyle and the rest of the crew filmed the short over two night shoots. With a script of 15 pages, he knew he had to trim about five minutes of content for a better chance on the festival circuit. Luckily, the small-scale nature of the story lent itself to a compact runtime. But editing for tone proved to be the most creatively demanding aspect.

“The film walks a fine line between drama and comedy, and I wanted to make sure the comedic moments sprung from the drama and absurd elements,” he says. “I wanted to make sure we honored those moments.”

The short debuted earlier this year to applause and laughter in Los Angeles. While a premier for a film is always a bit nerve-wracking, the positive reception allowed Doyle to focus on how to market the piece going forward.

“DC Shorts was at the top of the list because I had such a great experience there previously,” Doyle says. “I think it’s a great showcase for stories such as these.”

The festival sticks out to him as a filmmaker because of its integrity and standards, and with films like The Chase and The Cowfoot Prince, this year’s selection is positioned to captivate audiences again and again.

“They just curate really well, so you’re getting the best of the best,” Doyle says. “It’s not just someone who slaps their iPhone out. They have impeccable taste.”

For more information regarding the two films, the entire DC Shorts schedule and ticket prices, visit www.dcshorts.com.

DC Shorts International Film Festival & Screenplay Competition: Various venues in DC; www.dcshorts.com

Stage and Screen: March 2019

THROUGH SUNDAY, MARCH 24

Blood at the Root
Blood at the Root is the story of what happens when a black student chooses to occupy a primarily white space in her high school, driving hate, violence and chaos among her classmates. The play, inspired by the Jena Six court case in Louisiana, examines the link between bias, justice and identity and asks audiences to consider what is lost when implicit biases shape our view of – and adherence to – justice. Written by Dominique Morisseau, the play is described as moving, lyrical and bold. Various dates and times. Tickets $40. The Anacostia Playhouse: 2020 Shannon Pl. SE, DC; www.anacostiaplayhouse.com

FRIDAY, MARCH 1 – SUNDAY, APRIL 14

JQA
The latest offering from award-winning playwright Aaron Posner, JQA is an imaginative and thought-provoking story that illustrates conversations between John Quincy Adams, who was known for his integrity, statesmanship and arrogance, with other American leaders including Frederick Douglass, Andrew Jackson and his own father John Adams. Described as provocative, haunting and hilarious, JQA received an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award. Various dates and times. Tickets $92-$115. Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. NW, DC; www.arenastage.org

MONDAY, MARCH 4 – SUNDAY, MARCH 24

Confection
The newest offering from New York-based Third Rail Projects is an immersive, multisensory dance and theatre performance staged throughout the Folger Reading Rooms. Inspired by the richness of the Folger Library and the lavishness of the 17th-century aristocracy, the performance examines the power of appetite and desire. Directed by Zach Morris and Jennine Willett, Confection is a story of opulence and consumption that not only invites audiences into the Folger’s magnificent Reading Rooms, but also invites them to enjoy bite-sized treats made by local pâtissiers. Various dates and times. Tickets $40-$60. Folger Shakespeare Library: 201 E Capitol St. SE, DC; www.folger.edu

FRIDAY, MARCH 8 – WEDNESDAY, MAY 22

Into the Woods
Ford Theatre’s Into the Woods is a darkly funny reimagining of several beloved fairy tales from the minds of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. The play follows a baker and his wife on a quest to break a witch’s curse, which leads them into the woods where they cross paths with timeless characters like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and a pair of lovelorn princes. The play has won Tony Awards for score and script, and this Peter Flynn-directed rendition promises to inspire both laughs and introspection. Various dates and times. Tickets $28-$81. Ford’s Theatre: 511 10th St. NW, DC; www.fords.org

SATURDAY, MARCH 9 – SATURDAY, APRIL 6

Hands on a Hardbody
Featuring a score by Amanda Green and Phish’s Trey Anastasio, Hands on a Hardbody tells the story of 10 Texans competing to win a new truck. The contest is hilarious and hard-fought, and characters learn that perseverance, determination and hope can lead them to their American Dream. The play has been described as a quintessential American musical, and features a diverse cast of characters highlighting the intersectionality of the American identity. Set to a score featuring blues, country and R&B, Hands on a Hardbody is a quirky play that promises to enliven the District in its regional premiere. Various dates and times. Tickets $62. Keegan Theatre: 1742 Church St. NW, DC; www.keegantheatre.com

TUESDAY, MARCH 14 – SUNDAY, MARCH 24

The National Geographic Society Environmental Film Festival
The Environmental Film Festival returns to the District for its 27th year. Sponsored by National Geographic, featured films tackle important environmental issues like overfishing and climate change in addition to presenting visually stunning tales of adventure like the Academy Award-nominated Free Solo, which follows Alex Honnold’s free climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan. The festival includes 11 days of documentary film screenings at more than 25 venues. Details on the films, schedule and tickets are available online. Tickets $12. Times and locations vary. National Geographic Society Environmental Film Festival: Various locations in DC; www.DCeff.org

MONDAY, MARCH 25

Bon Iver & TU Dance’s Come Through
In the first event of the Kennedy Center’s DIRECT CURRENT season highlighting contemporary culture, Bon Iver and TU Dance’s collaboration Come Through fuses genres and mediums. Over a soundtrack featuring new music from two-time Grammy winner Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, nine-member dance troupe TU Dance will mix varied styles such as classical ballet and modern dance. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $49. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; www.kennedy-center.org

TUESDAY, MARCH 26 – SUNDAY, MARCH 31

A Bronx Tale
Directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks, A Bronx Tale has been described as Jersey Boys meets West Side Story. Set in 1960s New York, the musical tells the story of a young man who must choose between his father’s love and his ambition to be a “made man” in the mafia. The score is comprised of 60s-era doo-wop, and the play contains several ensemble dance numbers. A Bronx Tale features numerous actors and actresses from its time on Broadway, and offers audiences opportunities to laugh, cry and tap their feet. Various dates and times. Tickets $54-$99. National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; www.thenationaldc.org