The 2023 Manhattan Short Film Festival at TAMUC—Doctoral Student Ranks the 10 Finalists

On September 29, Texas A&M University-Commerce hosted the annual Manhattan Short Film Festival in David Talbot Hall. The festival is a global event held from September 28 through October 8 in over 500 cities across six continents. A&M-Commerce has hosted the event every year since 2014.

At the festival, attendees watch ten international short films and vote in the categories “Best Film” and “Best Actor.” On top of being shown worldwide, all ten of the films also get screened for a full week at a movie theater in Los Angeles and become eligible for the Oscars.

Although I'm no film critic or Academy member, I do love movies. And the Manhattan Short Film Festival allows average movie lovers like me to be a part of this amazing process. Like many other participants, I attended and voted for my favorite film and favorite actor. Here are my rankings of the ten finalists, from worst to best, and what I thought of each film.

10. “Sunless,” directed by Boris Vesselinov, USA

The two characters in “Sunless” embrace when they realize their grim fate. Photo from Manhattan Short website.

“Sunless” revolves around two submarine pilots journeying to the world's deepest point when they hear a terrifying sound: a crack. This was my least favorite of the films. In fact, it was the only one I would say I didn't like. After the recent Titan submersible event, it just felt a little too soon. I later learned that the film was produced before the Titan went missing, but still…it felt somewhat unsettling and not in a good way. Between that and a lack of character development, this film didn't do it for me.

9. “The Record,” directed by Jonathan Laskar, Switzerland

The lines seen in this photo were a reoccurring image throughout “The Record.” Photo from Manhattan Short website.

“The Record” is an animated film about a musical instrument store owner who is given a magic vinyl record that “reads your mind and plays your lost memories.” As the store owner listens, he uncovers a profoundly traumatic and suppressed memory from his childhood (I won't say what to avoid spoiling it for potential viewers). The animation was unique, using repeated images of lines and grids and shifting from black and white to color. The music was also lovely. However, I must admit, I didn't get the message of this film. I thought it was an artistic film and a moving story but didn't understand the symbolism or even what the magic record really did. It wasn't until afterward, when a fellow viewer explained it to me, that I was able to say, “Ohhhhh…I get it.” However, I heard many other attendees say this film was their favorite, so my opinion on “The Record” may be in the minority.

8. “Voice Activated,” directed by Steve Anthopoulos, Australia

Trent becomes overwhelmed with frustration in “Voice Activated.” Photo from Manhattan Short website.

This film was about Trent, a young florist with a stutter trying to control a voice-activated car. In a brief intro of the film, the director shared that the story was based on his experience living with a stutter and trying to communicate with Siri. “Voice Activated” was funny and unique, and the acting was excellent. However, in comparison to the complexity of the other films, it wasn't the deepest, which is why it ended up relatively low on my list.

7. “Tuulikki,” directed by Teemu Nikki, Finland

Tuuliiki (front) and her mother (behind). Photo from Manhattan Short website.

Tuukikki (pronounced too-lee-key) is a young woman living with an over-controlling (seemingly insane) mother who keeps her locked in the house. Initially, I thought this film was a thriller, but there's a MAJOR plot twist in the last minute of the film that changed the genre entirely. Without giving anything away, I can say that the film addresses mental illness and the complex and, at times, tense relationship between a caretaker and a loved one they tend to. It was shocking and emotional and left me reeling.

6. “The Family Circus,” directed by Andrew Fitzgerald, USA

The family and their unexpected guest gather around the table in “The Family Circus.” Photo from Manhattan Short website.

Paul is a troubled young man who gets in a drunk driving accident…again. To try and save him from jail time, his brother, father, and mother decide to cover for him by coming up with a lie to explain the incident to the police. In a strange twist, the policeman on the scene ends up spending time and developing a somewhat odd relationship with the family that brings about a fundamental change in their family dynamics. “The Family Circus” was humorous, bizarre and had excellent acting. Although not the best film in my opinion, Michael Ironside, the actor who played the policeman, won my vote for best actor.

5. “Career Day,” directed by Jason Robinson and Chris Hooper, USA

Johnny Hazel and his boy band relive their glory days in “Career Day.” Photo from Manhattan Short website.

Former boy band superstar (and now accountant) Johnny Hazel is having a midlife crisis and spiraling into a deep depression. When his daughter asks him to come to her school for career day, Johnny struggles initially but finds a new zest and excitement for life. “Career Day” was hilarious and even included an original song and choreography performed by a group of middle-aged men. What's not to love?

4. “Soleil De Nuit,” directed by Fernando López Escrivá and Maria Camila Arias, Canada

The astronaut from “Soliel de Nuit.” Photo from Manhattan Short website.

The title of this film translates as “Night Sun” and explores the relationship between colonizers and the colonized. While training for an upcoming mission to the moon, an astronaut is interrupted by an elderly Native American man who won't leave the test site. The man finally concedes that he will leave and get out of the way if the astronaut promises to do a favor for him. He explains that his people, the Atikamekw nation, believe that the spirits of their ancestors go to the moon, so the astronaut must agree to relay a message to the spirits. This was another film with a twist I don't want to spoil, but I will tell you that it's very clever and will leave you with both laughter and lots to think about.

3. “Yellow,” directed by Elham Ehsas, Afghanistan

The young woman looking at all the identical burqas in “Yellow.” Photo from Manhattan Short website.

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan, they forced all women to wear burqas (full-body veils with only a mesh covering over the eyes). “Yellow” centers around one woman buying her first burqa and her fear, sadness, and uncertainty as her rights are being infringed upon. Although it seems slightly romantic, the implied love story gets lost in the more extensive and powerful commentary on women's rights in Afghanistan.

2. “Snail,” directed by Aminreza Alimohammadi, Iran

The mother and son in “Snail” have a sweet and loving relationship. Photo from Manhattan Short website.

In “Snail,” a loving and devoted mother tries to help her 10-year-old son achieve his dream of becoming a singer. Although the boy's talent is questionable, the mother gives him unconditional support and encouragement to do whatever she can to help him achieve his dreams. “Snail” is all about the steadfast love and care many of us get from our mothers. It was incredibly touching and almost brought a tear to my eye.

1. “The Stupid Boy,” directed by Phil Dunn, United Kingdom

Christian (left) learning “God is Love” from his father (right) in “The Stupid Boy.” Photo from Manhattan Short website.

While Christian terrorists are bombing London, Michael, a mentally disabled young man seems to be in his own world. His mother worries that he is too naïve and trusting, but when a suicide bomber tries to blow up a mall, Michael embraces him, embodying a mantra he learned: “God is love.” This simplicity—in the message and Michael himself—saves him, the other mallgoers, and the bomber. It was an interesting (and brilliant) flip of the script to have the bombers be Christian extremists when, so often, “terrorist” is a term associated with Muslims. It sent the message that sometimes, people who have extensive knowledge and zeal about religion can do a lot of harm. In reality, it's the simple message of love that has the most powerful impact. Because of the powerful theme, creative writing, and excellent acting, I felt that “The Stupid Boy” was the strongest film.

Overall Opinion: 10/10

Regardless of my opinion, all ten films screened were finalists for a reason: they were well-written, well-shot, well-acted, and well-produced, which is why making this list was incredibly difficult. Soon, millions of viewers’ votes from all over the world will be counted, including mine and the other 50-plus individuals who watched the film festival with me at A&M-Commerce. The official winners will be announced on the morning of October 9 on the Manhattan Short Film's webpage.

Top photo: The Manhattan Short Film Festival captivated many faculty, staff, and students. Photo by Rachel McShane.