Shorts Illustrate a Chess Game Among Social Classes, Man vs. Stag, and the Monetization of Climate Change

Two Black men, one with a beard and dreadlocks, the other with a long gray beard and wearing an orange-and-black-striped coat, stand in front of a Sundance Film Festival backdrop.

Sterling Hampton IV and Andre Chambers attended the premiere of “Merman” in Short Film Program 2 at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Vanessa Zimmer

One of the beautiful things about the short-film programs at the Sundance Film Festival is that you get half a dozen wildly different, self-contained stories. Naturally, the 2024 Festival’s Shorts Program 2 is no different.

The protagonists in this program include a cowboy with a stud earring, a sister hiding a sex addiction, a wealthy art-collecting couple, and a striking 58-year-old Black queer man. Among the themes are racism, classism, obsession, and the exploitation of climate change for cash.

But, wait, there’s more: Two of the short films in this program won awards this week at the Festival. The filmmakers had some interesting things to say in the Q&A following the premiere of the program on January 20.

Pasture Prime — You meet the nicest people at the Cowboy Church. Elderly widow Shirley Ford becomes enamored of — perhaps even obsessed with — a younger man (wearing a white cowboy hat and wearing a stud in one ear) she meets at church. The fantasy romance found life when director Diffan Sina Norman and his wife, screenwriter Carolyn Purnell, moved from Los Angeles to East Texas. The “off-kilter sensuality” seemed to match their new terrain, Norman explains. “I watched a lot of Calvin Klein underwear ads for that montage in the middle,” he says, provoking laughter.

Lea Tupu’anga / Mother Tongue — Director Vea Mafile’o usually makes documentaries; this is her first venture into fiction and working with actors “to make the magic real,” she says. The story focuses on the divide between those who are full Tongan and those who are half Tongan, and the importance of sharing language. (This film is not included in the online screenings of Shorts Film Program 2.)

Thirstygirl — Charlotte is driving her younger sister on a road trip to an unknown destination, while also trying to hide her sex addiction. Writer-director Alexandra Qin (who is also a prison reform activist) says she is a recovering sex addict, and she wanted to make a film to help others. This is her first film.

The Lost Season — The forest is empty, save for the layers of snow and the quiet roar of the winter wind. “It was the final winter,” the narrator says. “The climate initiatives to save the season were adopted too late… Remember when it felt like winter would never end?” So, the streaming entrepreneurs of the world set about recording the final winter season so that humanity could experience winter “on demand.” Writer-director Kelly Sears thought of the concept while walking through the woods. If there were a final winter, she wonders: “How would it be monetized?”

The Stag — At a deer farm in Taiwan, the boss offers a quiet middle-aged man — who has spent the day watering and feeding the deer and trimming grass and weeds in the compound —   a chance to show off in front of his two kids. The boss dispatches him on a physically intense task: to subdue a stag and cut off his antlers. Writer-director An Chu says he set out to explore the relationship between a father and his sons. On January 24, the Sundance Institute announced it had awarded this film the Short Film Jury Award for International Fiction. The jurors wrote: “The film is striking with beautifully composed scenes and at its center is a deeply moving story about a father trying to do the right thing for his kids.”

Merman — Writer-director-composer Sterling Hampton IV ran across an Instagram photo of Andre Chambers, a striking-looking, muscular 58-year-old Black queer man who works as an emergency room nurse. Hampton was immediately intrigued. “After a couple of DMs and a 30-minute amazing phone call,” Hampton says, Chambers agreed to participate in a short-form film. The result is Chambers’ story of rising above the racism that began in his youth — when  neighbors wouldn’t let him swim in their pool, for fear he would leave a “dirty ring” around it — to realizing his own worth.

The Masterpiece — Announced on January 24 as the winner of the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the 2024 Festival, director Alex Lora Cercos builds a story of race and class in Barcelona, Spain. Leo chastises his wife, Diana, when she invites scrap dealers Salif and son Youssef to their elegant home to pick up a broken dryer and some other items. Salif and Youssef are Black immigrants, and wealthy Leo can barely contain his nervousness. But, who, really, is the threat here?  In the Q&A, Cercos says he sees the story as sort of a chess game: “Who wins this game?”

Of The Masterpiece, the Festival jury wrote: “Being able to craft and express nuance in a 90-plus minute feature is quite a feat, but to be able to do that in 20 minutes or less is a wildly impressive task. This short kept us on the edge of our seats, but also left us thinking about it and its commentary long after we left the theater.”

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