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Short tales told on shoestrings 

We all know April showers bring May flowers, but do you know what May flowers bring? No, not Pilgrims. In these parts, Shakespeare's darling buds of May herald the unspooling of the Rochester International Film Festival, better known as Movies on a Shoestring.

            I always assumed the "shoestring" referred to the budgets of the films that comprise the festival, but it actually refers to the width --- or lack thereof --- of the 8mm film stock used by most filmmakers at the dawn of the festival.

            Now in its 46th year, the world's longest-running film festival for shorts received 137 submissions in five categories --- animation, comedy, drama, documentary, and experimental --- from all over the world. Thirty-seven made the cut and will screen in the 2004 installment. I was lucky enough to see a number of this year's selections and can give you a few of the highlights.

            On the homefront, Bracia, a touching local entry from John C. Brookins, Matt Rosen, and Steve Edell, tells of heartbreaking sacrifice as two brothers attempt to make their way out of Poland's Lodz ghetto in 1944. In One by Two, a computer-animated short by Hardeep Kharbanda and Suruchi Pahwa, a bored little creature finds that ennui may be preferable to the company of others.

            Mark Levy's 800-Can Man was shot in and around Rochester and follows a man as he rounds up empties with a singular purpose in mind. Incidentally, does anyone besides me get distracted from the story while watching a locally shot film (i.e., "Where's that bus stop supposed to be?" or "Hey, I know that brick wall!")? I'm just wondering.

            The film with perhaps the best pedigree is the beautifully shot Stuff that Bear!, directed by a Coppola (Bruno) and written by a Vonnegut (Laureen). It's set in Bucharest and tracks a reticent taxidermist, his conman brother, and a troubled stripper during a get-rich-quick scheme designed to get them out of the country.

            Other highlights include the acting in Chris Trebilcock's Autobiography of an Insect, about a comic-book artist whose latest project parallels his real life; Handjob, a documentary by Hafeez M. Saheed in which we learn there's a place in New Jersey with 43 nail salons in a 5.3-mile stretch; and Beatbox Philly, by Warren Bass and Lynn Goldberg, a great-looking live-action/animated piece that will no doubt serve to lure cool people to the City of Brotherly Love.

            People are always surprised when I profess my love for the Western, and I really dug Aaron Brookner's The Black Cowboys. It's a documentary about a group of African-American men and women who are doing their part to preserve the history and uphold the legacy of the black cowboy in New York City.

            In Their Absence, a quiet and gorgeous piece by Tina Cesa Ward, is set at the end of World War II. It posits the ultimate good news/bad news scenario as a woman arrives at a dancehall to deliver some information to her lover. And the clever How to Eat a Banana, a silent short directed by and starring Mary Szmagaj, is about just that, perverts.

            I was reminded of two of my favorite people as I watched what would be two of my favorite entries. Jill, by Xavier Janghoon Lee, shares a name with my sister as well as a few of her traits --- both are short, creepy, and slightly incomprehensible. This latest addition to the body-parts-with-minds-of-their-own genre focuses on an excessively doting father and his fair-haired cherub, bringing attention to the hopefully exaggerated pitfalls of organ donation.

            The festival closer, Seth Henrikson's lovely Zamboni Man, could have been about my own ice-cutting brother-in-law (Jill's husband, for those working on my genealogy) if he were a loner who had to shave more than once a week. It features a score by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and tells the story of Walt, a put-upon Zamboni operator with a soft spot for a figure skater named Tyler. The shameless and heart-tugging twist at the end was designed for suckers like me, and I would write more about it but my notes got splotched by somebody's tears.

The Rochester International Film Festival will screen at the Dryden Theatre, in The George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue, on Thursday, May 6, at 8 p.m.; Friday, May 7, at 8 p.m.; and Saturday, May 8, at 4 and 8 p.m. Donations are encouraged. A complete list can be found at www.rochesterfilmfest.org. And if you're not all shorted out after this weekend, watch for a program of 2003's Oscar-winning short film and its four co-nominees, opening Friday, May 14, at the Little Theatre.

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