In the coming weeks we’ll be publishing often about our “highlights of 2016”, but there’s one event I can add to the list ahead of time. Last year we attended an evening of screenings hosted by Grrl Haus Cinema at the Brattle Theatre—and the program is back at that same location tonight, just over a year later, with another playlist of short films and video art to exhibit. As per prior iterations, this Grrl Haus event will play out in stages: multimedia will be exhibited as soon as the show begins at 7:30 (vendors will also be on site), then a program of short films will begin roughly an hour later (local selections have been programmed by Under the Underground, and many of the rest have been played by domestic and/or international film festivals.) The shorts cut across any formal and aesthetic lines you might think of, with only one unifying requirement: they’ve all been directed by women. I’ve only seen a fraction of the films scheduled for the latest event, but that doesn’t mean I’m dubbing this Haus a highlight on blind faith. Two of the shorts I saw aleady were directed and photographed with a compositional rigor that most of this year’s features couldn’t match—including some of the other ones we’ll be including in our lists of the year’s best.
According to the descriptions accompanying each short, they’re both riffs on oft-told tales. Bluebeard  employs the spectre of the spouse-murdering pirate to haunt over a more traditional instance of domestic strife. And the synopsis of Battalion to My Beat  positions the work as a retelling of the Joan of Arc narrative, staged in a “safe zone” outside Moroccan control on the border of Algeria. These allusions are indeed apparent in the films themselves. But each work is also directed with startling clarity—is marked by an attention to physical texture and verbal nuance—is visualized with extremely specific perspectives—and all that so much so that you forget about the origins as soon as you meet each movie. Bluebeard, which is directed by the Brooklyn-based team of Rachel Garber Cole and Kimberlee Venable, finds its own identity in the literal gaps that expand between its central couple. An opening sequence at a dinner party features rapid edits between food and faces, suggesting a level of intimacy that’ll dissapear soon afterwards. When the hosting couple retreats to the restroom, a seemingly mundane secret is revealed—and from that moment, the distance between the pair increases exponentially. They’re in separate rooms, even when they’re in the same shot; their faces are turned away from each other when they are nearby; their previously-symmetrical sleeping positions are thrown ajar. It’s not the familiar story that’s keeping your eye’s attention—it’s the space instead.
The same might be said about Battalion, which gives the panoramic treatment to its photogenic desert setting. In place of saintly Joan is Mariam (Mariam Omar Ahmed), who sees visions (but mostly just hears whispers) about a conflict to come with Morocco. The filmmaker, making her directorial debut with an unusually assured effort, is Eimi Imanishi (the cinematography is by Christian Cruz.) Imanishi bookends the film with choreographed bouts of movement, wherein Mariam claims her lineage—she pounds the drums of war herself, leading men in uniform to achieve her vision. The director also utilizes an ultra-wide aspect ratio for the short, and the energetic physicality of these men fills up that frame to every nook and corner. There’s a balletic vitality to the dance between the bodies and the camera—the sort that might remind you of old Technicolor musicals. But the film also finds dense implications within the rest of its landscapes, in a way that might remind you more of David Lean. It’s not just the distanced long shots that position Mariam as a sole queen of the desert, but also the compositions that render her as a pawn between imposing power lines, or the ones that trap her within her family’s own architecture (a cramped storefront window, or indoor pillars that resemble prison bars.)
Mariam is working towards achieving the grace that the universe has ordained for her, and every element of the director’s chosen locations is used to illustrate that very transition. Battalion, like Bluebeard, runs for about ten minutes. And by the end of that runtime, it has found a grace of its own. I know moviegoers who contend that you can tell whether or not a movie is worth watching during its first ten minutes. If these two shorts are any such indication, then the filmmakers who made them may become regular fixtures on our lists of a given year’s highlights. And if they do, we can thank Grrl Haus for making the introduction.
GRRL HAUS CINEMA. MONDAY, DEC. 19. BRATTLE THEATRE. 40 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. 7:30PM. $10.