Experimental Reviews

Shadow (2021) – 4.5 stars

Director: Andrea Zapanta Scharf

Running time: 2mins

Shadow can be viewed in full via Andrea Zapanta Scharf’s Vimeo.

Time and again, I have stressed the idea that short film can actually be a harsher medium than the feature format. However magisterial the build-up in those opening moments, every choice counts – and without the time and space to compensate for it, a single mis-step can see a previously imperious production crumble into ashes.

When I saw another Shadow land in my inbox, I was instantly lumbered with the weight of apprehension. Not only is it scarcely longer than two minutes, but it comes from a first-time director. The longer I write reviews, it is harder to ignore the patterns – and so often, it is these fledgling artists who underestimate short film in the most grievous of ways; rushing through an over-complicated, melodramatic mess in order to gather a little experience to take on to the next project, and the next rushed conclusion.

In this case, however, I was quickly pointed toward another emergent pattern in my criticism: my assumptions are often proven wrong. Like Roberto Vivancos or Nard van Vrijaldenhoven before her, Andrea Zapanta Scharf is part of an exclusive, enigmatic cohort, rarely encountered in indy film: she is a filmmaker who nailed it on the first go.

Short and sweet, Shadow is a simple-yet-effective animation, following a nameless white figure which is being tormented by its towering, blue shadow. There are no words, written or spoken, to guide us through the unfolding story – but Scharf’s stylised characters clearly come from a mind that understands design as a form of communication in its own right. The lone figure (emblematic of us all at some time during the last two years, if not before) faces away from its shadow – a stance that would be normal enough in a literal film, but in this experimental realm soon translates into something else.

As the blue shadow grows, it begins to intermittently grumble, while the figure puts its hands to where its ears would be. As the murmurs of the shadow become more regular, the figure attempts to flee – but as it runs round in circles, it is notably attached to its shadow at the heels. Determined not to be ignored, the shadow continues to balloon in size – its grumbling escalating into a continued, furious shriek.

Just as the shadow seems to be reaching the height of its terrifying powers, finally, the figure turns to face it. And just as quickly as the shadow grew in size and volume, it wanes away, deflating into a sobbing heap on the floor. Far from being scornful of the spirit, however, the figure scoops it up. Cradling the shadow in its arms, the figure comforts its counterpart as an equal. As the film reaches its beautiful conclusion, the pair grow together, forming a strong and luscious blue-and-white tree.

While the animation is a little more straight-forward, and the film does without any kind of poetic narrative, Shadow has more than a little of Where Am I? about it. Both shorts came from artists who not only had an excellent understanding of visual story-telling, but who also had contended with their ‘other side.’

In Where Am I?, director Cheng Qiu reckoned with themes of cultural diversity and emotional complexity, encouraging us to consider the importance of those aspects of our personalities we regard as ‘a nuisance,’ or ‘unproductive,’ but without which we would no-longer be functioning and healthy human beings. In the case of Shadow, the imagery further plays with the concepts of an active ‘light’ side (Yang) and a passive ‘dark’ side (Yin) – exploring how seemingly opposite or counterproductive forces may actually be complementary, and how they may even interrelate to or empower one another.

Aspects of the human condition that are not seen as ‘productive’ in our profit-driven society have been normatively shamed for generations. But while sadness, anger or doubt might seem to stand in the way of our ‘happiness,’ they are actually emotional warning signs – our bodies and minds trying to tell us that something in our lives is causing us distress, or leaving our needs unfulfilled. Suppressing these concepts, instead of facing them, will inevitably lead to a fragile state of mental and physical health – one which will ultimately prevent us from being truly happy, however much we might be celebrated by our bosses and governments for our forced grins and begrudging productivity.

This is a hugely important subject to prompt thought on among audiences of all ages, and Shadow is a film which should be celebrated – and shared far and wide, please – for its effortless ability to encourage such conversations. At the same time, this is an idea which is deceptively simple – while it might seem easy to make the points Scharf’s film does, there are an endless number of short films which have rushed or garbled a similar idea.

Perhaps one of the key elements to the clarity it offers – without the need to hit audiences over the head with reams of exposition before struggling to tie things up in a neat bow – is that the action is so ably supported by Fee Blumenthaler’s parallel scoring. The musical wallpaper Mickey Mouses both characters’ actions to emphasise them, and deserves commending for that. It is a particularly tricky task to pull off, without heavy-handedly insisting on how we ought to be feeling at any one moment, but Blumenthaler’s soundtrack manages to provide a subtle and intuitive substitute for dialogue. It adds to the film’s clarity, without distracting from the stars of the show – Scharf’s animations.

Facing our ‘dark side’ without shame, while acknowledging it as an essential part of ourselves is a crucial part of life. Only then can we move forward, recognising the points of stress or longing which it is flagging up, and addressing them in a constructive and healthy way. With the long winter nights stretching out ahead of us, Shadow gives us a vital reminder that above all else, we must remember to be kind to ourselves.

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