GE and Cinelan, a video publishing company co-founded by Morgan Spurlock and Karol Martesko-Fenster, presented a special preview last night at 92YTribeca in Manhattan. The event was held to announce the opening of submissions for the Focus Forward $200,000 Filmmaker Challenge, and featured the world premiere of four new short films. Focus Forward’s “Short Films, Big Ideas” initiative is a series of three-minute nonfiction films centered around the idea of people or organizations whose innovative efforts in medicine, engineering and other fields of knowledge have had a significant positive impact on humanity.
Illustrating this theme were nine short films presented in the 30-minute program following a cocktail reception in 92YTribeca’s main room. Five of these were 2012 Sundance Film Festival Selections, including the extraordinary opening film, Jeremiah Zagar’s Heart Stop Beating, about the work of two doctors who managed to save a dying man by replacing his heart with a turbine engine of their own design. It was a bold choice to open the program with a film that features open heart surgery footage, but the mood was lightened by Jessica Yu’s Meet Mr. Toilet, a humorous look at the efforts of Jack “Mr. Toilet” Sim to bring proper sanitation to the large portions of the world still lacking it.
Following these first two films were a pair of world premieres: first, Nelson George’s All Hail the Beat, an all-too-brief look at the history of the Roland TR-808 drum machine, whose sounds are still in use today by artists from Kanye West to Daft Punk, despite the fact that it hasn’t actually been manufactured since 1984. Next came Katy Chevigny’s The Honor Code, the most emotionally moving film of the evening, and the only one that focuses on innovation in human thought, as opposed to technological invention. Honor Code uses stylish animation to illustrate the ideas of philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah and his efforts to end the deplorable practice of “honor killing.”
The other two world premieres were sandwiched between two more Sundance selections: Jessica Edwards and Gary Hustwit’s The Landfill, which documents a small New York landfill where trash is refined into electrical energy, and David W. Leitner’s Newtown Creek Digester Eggs: The Art of Human Waste, which examines the unusually beautiful Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The latter was the least satisfying film of the evening, mostly because it felt too rushed, with too much information crammed into its brief running time. On the other hand, the final film of the program, Phil Cox’s Hilary’s Straws, has a much more leisurely pace in its look at the innovative navigational tool that allowed a quadriplegic woman to sail across the world alone.
The final two world premieres were Steven Cantor’s The Bionic Eye, about research being done to artificially restore sight to patients suffering from degenerative blindness, and Michele Ohayon’s Solar Roadways, a very exciting look at the effort to produce solar-paneled roads and parking lots in order to cleanly and cheaply power nearby communities, as well as electric vehicles. Hopefully, the world premiere films will be available online soon; I would especially like to see The Honor Code and Solar Roadways again. In the meantime, the others are streaming on Focus Forward’s website, and if you have an idea that fits the theme, you can create your own film for the $200,000 Filmmaker Challenge, which you can read more about here.