Aspen Shortsfest: Timely, personal, international documentaries in the spotlight |

Aspen Shortsfest: Timely, personal, international documentaries in the spotlight

Laura Thielen and George Eldred
Special to The Aspen Times


What: Aspen Shortsfest

Where: Wheeler Opera House, Aspen; Crystal Theatre, Carbondale

When: Tuesday, April 2 through Sunday, April 7

How much: $20 per program ($15/Aspen Film members)

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office, Aspen; Bonfire Coffee, Carbondale;

More info: Tuesday’s opening night festivities include an opening reception at the Wheeler (7-7:30 p.m.), a five-film program (8 p.m.) followed by a filmmaker Q-and-A, and an après screening party at Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar (10 p.m.);



* “Sweetheart Dancers,” a Native American face-off between love and tradition that (Thursday, 5:15 p.m.)

* “Scenes from a Dry City,” a sobering survey of South Africa’s drought-ravaged Cape Town (Friday’s 5:15 p.m.)

* “Dulce,” a Columbian climate-change story (Saturday, 11:15 a.m.)

* “Guaxuma,” an animated Brazilian memoir (Saturday, 5:15 p.m.)

For anyone curious about the world around us, Aspen Shortsfest offers a rich trove of personal, innovative and timely documentaries.

Sprinkled throughout the festival — opening tonight and running through Sunday in Aspen and Carbondale — are a number of outstanding nonfiction shorts.

“While more news-based documentaries are being made, often works too rooted in the newscycle quickly seem dated,” said Shortsfest program director Landon Zakheim. “Documentaries with a more filmic sense, or an attention to larger human significance, are the ones that make the most impact. Those are the ones that we respond to.”

Among the standouts is this quartet of original storytelling, each seeking to discover its subject’s authentic, resonantly human epicenter:


Sunday, 2:15 p.m. Wheeler Opera House

Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Crystal Theatre

When Hao Wu relocated from his native China to New York 20 years ago, he was determined to live life on his own terms, far from familial — and ancestral — expectation.

Along the way, he became a filmmaker, documenting technology’s transformation of Chinese society. But when Wu and his longtime partner decided to have children, he turned the camera on himself. “All in My Family” is a charming 40-minute recounting of his adventures becoming a nontraditional parent. It also is a remarkably candid portrait of Wu’s emotionally risky efforts to finally reveal his life choices to his large, intense and exceedingly opinionated traditional family.

While seeking to garner acceptance without sacrificing his hard-won independence, Wu discovered an unanticipated benefit of being in front of the lens.

“I was nicely surprised by the conversations (it) enabled me to have. … As a typical Chinese family, we don’t often share how we truly feel with each other,” Wu said via email. “Having the camera on pushed me to ask them questions I would not normally ask, and to understand them in a way that I would otherwise never be able to.”

Funny and lively, this tender-hearted valentine celebrates the abiding love — and worry — of parents, regardless of generation.


Saturday, 8 p.m. Wheeler Opera House

Her labor organizing and Latinx-focused documentaries have long sensitized Paloma Martinez to a pervasive condition of the immigrant experience, which she called in a phone interview “the invisible fear that undocumented immigrants feel on a daily basis.”

But a creative quandary held her back from tackling the topic.

“How do you make something visual about something unseen, the feeling of fear?” she asked.

When she read about a San Francisco hotline providing rapid-response legal assistance for those detained by ICE, an idea sparked for “a film centered around tone and the emotional arc versus a narrative that tracks a person, putting someone out in the open and risking their livelihood.”

In the 13-minute “Enforcement Hours,” Martinez’s camera threads a path across the city, exploring personal and public spaces, as the voices of hotline volunteers calmly answer myriad queries: defusing nervously reported ICE rumors, deflecting menacing crank callers, gently explaining their services and doing the real work of providing emergency support. As the calls mount up, Martinez shows that while a community’s fear may be invisible, it is clearly audible — and deeply felt.


Saturday, 5:15 p.m. Wheeler Opera House

Bassam Tariq has spent much of the past decade documenting the Muslim experience, here and abroad. When disturbing messages drew him back to his Texas hometown, Tariq found his childhood buddies struggling with upsetting news: a classmate had reportedly joined ISIS.

Even though Tariq knew his subjects (“These are my friends. We all grew up together.”) he was surprised how “none of us cared to talk about what happened and felt too scared to speak about it, even without cameras.”

In an email interview, he added: “My older brother was instrumental in making this film happen. … Not only is he in it … but he was the one that pushed a lot of them to open up.”

Unfolding across a familiar tableau of suburban settings, the close-knit cohort, ingeniously disguised, fall into a series of heartfelt conversations as they try to understand “Mark’s” choice and what they might have done to prevent it. What emerges is a potent recitation on identity and belonging, friendship, race and faith. It also is a moving exploration of strong, honest emotions as these young men grapple with what it means to be an American and Muslim today.


Sunday, 2:15 p.m. Wheeler Opera House

Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Crystal Theatre

In John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s evocative 40-minute “Life Overtakes Me,” parental love is colored by geopolitical trauma. The Emmy- and Oscar-nominated filmmakers travel to Sweden to introduce refugee families whose children suffer from a baffling deep-coma condition dubbed “Resignation Syndrome.” Like protagonists in a haunting fairy tale, hundreds of young refugee children have succumbed to this mysterious ailment after settling into their host country.

Quiet and intimate, the film unobtrusively ushers viewers into the homes — and stories — of three families with parents who now juggle domestic routines and the uncertainty of their asylum status with caring for an inert young patient. A compassionate support network of volunteer professionals sheds light on the illness, what triggers it and what seems to heal it. Haptas and Samuelson “knew (this) had to be a short from the beginning, as its emotion would only be diluted in a longer format,” they wrote in an email. “We think of much of what we do as crafting essays, which are usually best when economical and direct.”


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