When Cristina Cacioppo and Desmond Thorne joined John Woods as programmers at the Nitehawk in the fall of 2021, they were handed a tall order almost immediately by the New York dine-in theater chain’s founder Matthew Viragh, who wanted to relaunch its venerable Shorts Fest after having to put it on ice for two years during the pandemic.
“I know that putting on a festival when you’re doing a thing that’s already like a year-long festival is challenging,” said Cacioppo, for whom revivals are a specialty as an ace repertory programmer for the 92Y Tribeca and the Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn, but typically they involve one screening at a time. “Submissions could be rough, [and you wonder] are we going to get what we need? But it worked out really nicely and I still can’t believe it. I’m like, “Oh wow, we’re making a festival. It’s actually going to happen.”
Beginning this Wednesday at the Nitehawk Prospect Park before moving to the Nitehawk Williamsburg for much of the selection, the Shorts Fest is back to bring a number of the world’s most innovative and arresting short films to Brooklyn, though first and foremost, the festival will once again provide a platform for the talented filmmakers from the neighborhood to get their films out into the world. Throughout the past decade, it was one of the first places for local audiences to discover the work of future “Save Yourselves” co-director Alex Hutson Fischer (“For Maya”), “Yes, God, Yes” director Karen Maine’s original short that became a feature, “In the Radiant City” director Rachel Lambert’s short “Kin,” and under the watch of Caryn Coleman, who spearheaded Shorts Fest in 2013 while serving as the Nitehawk’s Director of Programming before founding nonprofit The Future of Film is Female, the event championed a diversity of filmmakers by any measure with its emphasis on gender and racial parity.
Even aside from the demands of thoughtful curation, what Coleman and crew pulled off over the first eight editions of Shorts Fest was impressive when shorts are often tricky to program for a theater like the Nitehawk, given the time and energy it takes not only to arrive at a lineup, but to present them properly when films shot in different aspect ratios on different formats are one concern when placed next to one another while another is how they flow. She had left some template for the event when at least two programs reflected the Nitehawk’s year-around work, long having Music and Midnite sections as pillars — this year adds a third in dedicating a night to shorts featured on NoBudge, Kentucky Audley’s independent streaming platform that regularly has live events at the theater. But the new programming team was all but starting from scratch, especially considering the lay of the land in the COVID era, though Cacioppo found that what could be seen as a weakness turn into a strength as the team started sifting through submissions.
“There were definitely some young filmmakers that had interesting things that really jumped out and this being a special year, we saw so many pandemic-themed shorts and some of them were terrible, but some of them were amazing,” said Cacioppo. “The midnight program is maybe my favorite because it really is the chance to get weird. There ended up being this theme of being horny and alone during the pandemic that a few shorts deal with in wildly different ways.”
There is invention and originality abound in the lineup that ranges from Kelly Schiesswohl’s animated adventure detailing one girl’s online search to figure out why she pulls out her hair (“Trichotillomania!”) to Veena Rao and Dara Kell’s nonfiction portrait of a wrongfully imprisoned artist who builds model ships from found objects (“A Ship from Guantanamo”). Festival favorites such as Annalise Lockhart’s “Inheritance” and Jefferson Stein’s “Burros” play alongside world premieres such as Amber Schaefer’s “NYC Tips and Tricks” and Sophia Bennett Holmes’ “Big Crush” and there are reminders throughout about the enduring nature of savvy selections from the past when many filmmakers are making their returns, such as “Black Cherokee” co-director Sam Cullman, who teamed up with his brother Trip to make “The Soldier,” a world premiere about a four-year-old who has already lost everything meaningful to him in life, “Pa’Lante” director Kristian Mercado Figueroa with the SXSW Jury Award winner “Nuevo Rico,” and Jay Giampietro’s “The Isolated,” a aurally-expressive trip through the city’s empty streets at the height of the pandemic which first debuted across town at the New York Film Festival, after debuting “Unpresidented” at Shorts Fest in 2017.
Although there was an informal rule in place to include local filmmakers in every program, there were few others that Cacioppo, Thorn and Woods felt the need to adhere to, yielding a program that is exciting enough on its own, but also builds anticipation for what’s ahead from the new team at Nitehawk. Shorts Fest could’ve only happened with the trio’s collective daring, Thorne’s knowhow from his past experience at Newfest processing a wide swath of undistributed work to unearth gems and Woods’ institutional knowledge from having been around the theater since its founding. The alchemy is what Cacioppo could only hope for when the closure of theaters at the start of the pandemic had her considering other career options, fortunately for film fans staying busy with the start of The Outskirts, a captivating column for Screen Slate directing readers to stranger and richer films than their pedigree would suggest, but unlike her work in programming, unable to see the people enjoy the fruits of her labor.
“I was in fake retirement for a year-and-a-half, so when I started with Nitehawk, it was really great because I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen for movie theaters, for anything,” says Cacioppo, who was still buzzing a bit from the night before, a triumphant screening of “Foxfire” with its director Annette Haywood-Carter in person who could finally see that the rebellious teen drama with an early turn from Angelina Jolie and one of the last by Jenny Lewis before starting Rilo Kiley had an appreciative audience. “It’s been really nice to get movies going again and be like, “Oh, there’s still movies to show. There’s still movies I can look for and people I could work with.”
To that end, Cacioppo is eager to welcome both audiences and filmmakers back to the Nitehawk, which has the makings of a destination for cinephiles the world over even as it serves as a comfy neighborhood staple in Prospect Park and Williamsburg. She could be heartened by the fact that already a majority of the filmmakers have committed to appearing at post-screening Q & As and while those conversations are bound to have their share of surprises, Cacioppo already knows some are in store after being witness to some of the jury deliberations that have happened in advance of the fest.
“I don’t want to give anything away, but there was one I thought would be the clear award winner that our jury was not about, so it was really interesting to go through that process,” Cacioppo laughs, after graciously inviting back Coleman to be one of the jurors. “And we ended up with a lot of world premieres that I thought were great and I was like, ‘How did other people pass this up? What am I seeing that they’re not?’”
Then again, that has always been why Cacioppo’s showcases have been must-sees.