Abstract Plain

The heftiest entry (though not quite the longest) in this year's Expo short-film fest is undoubtedly Alexander Sokurov's 47-minute Elegy of a Voyage, a rapturous meditation haunted by moonlight and falling snow. Beginning in the winter woods and ending in a 300-year-old painting, beautifully lensed in digital Beta, this journey through the otherwise familiar terrain of war and religion, society and solitude, art and life, believes above all in the transcendent power of sight—and, by extension, cinema. Seeking the meaning of his philosophical travels, the unseen narrator catches glimpses—a young boy's unfathomable eyes; the ghostly riot of city traffic at daybreak—everywhere he points his camera.

Almost as inquisitive, though less conceptually rigorous, Lisa Yu's lovely, impeccably odd Vessel Wrestling might be the sexiest stop-motion piece you'll ever see. The disquieting spirits of Svankmajer and Un Chien Andaloupercolate throughout this kitchen-set exploration of confinement and coupling, and if Yu doesn't achieve the mad logic of these models, she's well on her way. Even more disjunctive, Sandro Del Rosario's L. City brings noir back to its essence—paper—via magnified scribblings and pulpy cutouts, staging a poignant tone poem amid pooled light and sprawling darkness. As formally accomplished but far less pensive, Dirk Belien's Fait D'Hiver uses car-commercial gloss and spot-on casting to hone its ample black humor. Timothy Greenberg, meanwhile, charms with La Puppé, in which a plush dog and careful detail gleefully send up Chris Marker's best-known slide show.

The festival's documentaries are far rougher around the edges, but spotty camera work and pinching run times barely dull the sharpest examples. Exploring dusty Tulia, Texas, sisters Emily and Sarah Kunstler uncover both abiding racism and the surge in political activism sparked by one shady white cop, whose unsubstantiated claims marked 10 percent of the town's blacks as drug dealers. Talking heads—complacent cracker jurors, woeful victims—rarely sound this damning. Likewise, the specter of U.S. apathy toward injustice, looking a lot like Bill Clinton, hovers around the killing fields of Yugoslavia (in Zelimir Gvardiol's Ravens) as well as the sun-drenched pavement of Argentina (Ton Vriens's To Live With Terror). Vriens, nimble with archive footage, probes the devastating anti-Semitic bombings that rocked Buenos Aires in the early '90s, where images of mass panic were quickly replaced by the bland deceit of official press conferences. The truth may never come out—but moviemaking, as this Expo suggests, is at its most transfixing when shaping the search for it.

 
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