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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

WEEKENDER: Boston Science Fiction Film Festival returns to Davis Square

Sci-fi fans from greater Boston gathered at the Somerville Theatre for the 49th annual Boston Science Fiction Film Festival.

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A still from Luis Grané’s “Nowhere Stream.”

Editor's note: The author’s father, Luis Grané, directed the short film “Nowhere Stream” which was included in the Boston Science Fiction Film Festival’s 2024 lineup.

One year away from its 50th anniversary, the longest-running genre fest in the U.S. put on a display of aliens, artistry and amusement. The 49th Boston Science Fiction Film Festival, which ran from Feb. 14–25 at the Somerville Theatre, featured a hybrid of in-person and online events, including screenings, panels and parties. In its first iteration several decades ago, the event was exclusively a marathon of films; however, Boston SciFi is now a traditional multi-day festival of film screenings. The robust and captivating diversity of the festival has earned it several accolades, such as a spot on FilmFreeway’s list of the Top 100 Best Reviewed Festivals and a 2023 Best Program award from Filmocracy for their 24-hour movie marathon.

The capstone of the festival is the 24-hour nonstop screening of movies, known as the “Marathon.” According to Violet Acevedo, the former assistant festival director in 2023, this event is Boston SciFi’s most well-known feature. In its 49th iteration, the Marathon brought an audience of almost 400 attendees between noon on Feb. 18 and noon on Feb. 19.

While dozens flocked to this day-long affair equipped with sleeping bags and Red Bulls, downstairs in the smaller theaters, a very different sort of programming was going on. The festival featured 70 short film screenings over the course of eight days. As someone with a short attention span, I appreciate the low commitment required by a short film. Short films tend to run anywhere between three and 40 minutes, and some shorts undertake the challenge of developing the same setting, characters and exposition as a feature film in a fraction of the time frame. Others, such as experimental videos, take a more abstract approach and offer their audience a unique visual and auditory experience open to individual interpretation. Regardless of the specific undertaking, there is a unique value in short-form filmmaking that makes it worthy of praise. 

“It really is great when you watch a short film, a 20-minute or 15-minute piece of art, that impacts you the way that you might be impacted sitting in a theater watching something for two hours,” Suzzanne Cromwell, head curator of short films at Boston SciFi, said.

Cromwell curated 11 blocks of short film programming this year, allowing for a brief but immersive experience into the world of science fiction films. Each of the short film programs was named “'star' or a star-inspired phrase in Hawaiian, Arabic, Welsh, Gaelic and other beautiful languages,” the festival’s program states. The first seven programs occurred in person in the Somerville Theatre, while the final four blocks were screened online on Filmocracy.com.

I attended four of the seven in-person screenings: CSILLA, ITRI, HOKU, and SUTARA.

CSILLA

On Feb. 15, after a long day of classes, I headed over to the Somerville Theatre, Davis Square’s locally-owned, independent movie theater. When I entered Theater three, 15 minutes before the start of the screening, the room was filled with excited energy from a small but mighty group of older folks with partners, parkas and popcorn. Surprisingly, I also noticed a sizable group of young people in attendance. The six films featured a range of sci-fi subgenres with focuses on comedy, fantasy and dystopia. Adolfo Ruiz’s “Meditations” stood out for its use of stunning, vibrant backgrounds to bring a dystopian world to life in only 10 minutes. Overall, it was an enjoyable enough experience that I felt excited to return for more.

ITRI

Bright and early on Feb. 17 (at 1 p.m.), I returned for round two. Likely because the weekend offered employed adults and school-age children time to attend, this program attracted several families. The theater, which holds 109 people, looked quite full and sounded lively. The first short film of the day, Lalithra Fernando’s “A Capsule for Robin” could have easily been an episode of “Black Mirror.” Its screening at Boston SciFi marked the film’s U.S. premiere, and I truly hope this short travels far and wide because everything from the production quality to the script and acting was of outstanding quality. Later in the program, Aaron Zier’s “Alienation” was played for the second time after kicking off CSILLA on Feb. 15. While the script was not my personal favorite, the film featured humor that understood its audience; each joke seemed to land perfectly with the alien aficionados among me. Similarly, Joe Bowers’ “Speedman” had even the reluctantly entertained like myself chuckling. This animated short film about a god-like platypus set in outer space had all the key sci-fi elements on display: aliens, super powers and intergalactic conflict.

HOKU

Only four hours after the end of ITRI, I was back in the Somerville Theatre. This screening took place in the much smaller micro-theater adjacent to Theaters two and three. While the screen was unfortunately smaller, the enclosed space created a closer sense of community among the festivalgoers. HOKU included both the longest — Ryan Serrano’s “Jump” — and the shortest — Rylee Arenson’s “Space Case Cadets” — films I saw at the festival back-to-back. “Jump” had a decidedly slower pace and a 45-minute running time that allowed for a deeper development of the father-son protagonists. Conversely, “Space Case Cadets” lasted only four minutes and featured several unnamed characters, yet told an equally beautiful and entertaining story. By the end of the afternoon, I was beginning to understand the true breadth of sci-fi as a genre. While many films did feature aliens, the flexibility of the word “science” means that directors can bring their individual fantasies to life in incredibly unique ways.

SUTARA

As the saying goes, the festival saved the best for last. The final in-person short film program featured six phenomenal films representing animation and experimental video from four different countries of origin. The first and shortest film of the program was Luis Grané‘s “Nowhere Stream,” an experimental video that leaves a lot to the imagination. Without any explicit mention, the film aptly touches on themes of technology, relationships and the environment through a dystopian lens. Similarly, Neeraj Bhattacharjee’s “Record. Play. Stop.” invites you into a visually stunning world of mesmerizing visuals and music without the use of any characters or dialogue. The final two films of the program originated from France and the United Kingdom, respectively, and employed humor in a way that genuinely made me laugh out loud. Jean-Michel Tari’s “Dark Cell” told a full-length story complete with character development, twists and turns in only 25 minutes and entirely in French. George Atkinson and Alan Ciechalski’s “From Here to There!” featured admittedly corny humor, but still appropriately introduced the niche intersection of romantic comedy and science fiction.

At the end of the in-person portion of the festival, I was left with the impression that this festival was very well planned. Each film seemed to fit well within its program and under the theme of science fiction. I commend the organizers for their intentional focus on promoting historically marginalized voices through their film selections. The vast majority of the films I saw featured protagonists of color, and five of the films I saw were made outside of the U.S. Cromwell commented, “We craft our programming around our audience — who our audience is and who we want it to be.” Clearly, the festival values and features underrepresented voices in a way that is both refreshing and unexpected for a genre that I once considered to be lacking in diversity.

The annual festival is entirely run by volunteers, and the festival’s organizers welcome any community members interested in participating as film critics, social media liaisons or operations assistants. Cromwell encouraged interested students at Tufts to get involved with the festival.

“If you have a passion for film of any kind, especially science fiction, if you have a passion for storytelling, if you love people and love sharing your own knowledge or even your own desire to learn more, we totally welcome you to be involved with the festival,” Cromwell said.