Gabriel Ponniah, Editor In Chief
Austin Alternative Screen Scene
Can you find man’s best friend at the bottom of a bottle?
Project Bau asks that question through one of the more out-and-out narrative shorts in the AniFab rotation. In just shy of half an hour, we observe a desolate, elderly alcoholic isolated in the Sierra foothills, save for a regular trip into town to restock his liquor cabinet. But when a mysterious dog shows up outside his home, the pooch proves to be just what he needed to spur him back onto the wagon.
The film boasts a sleek look with its ample use of drone and steadicam footage, washed thoroughly in a dramatic color palette. John Henry Richardson gives a lead performance as sturdy as his name, and the film’s high points are truly some of his character’s lows—reading the Into the Wild inscription from a presumably lost daughter, searching for a presumably lost Bau, grappling with his presumably lost sobriety.
Despite these strengths, Project Bau certainly has room for improvement on the pre-production side. General wisdom with regards to short stories derives from the logic of Occam’s Razor—that every element be used to the peak of efficiency. With a limited time to deliver information, no word, no shot, no scene should be wasted. The best shorts often feature elements which accomplish multiple simultaneous goals—maybe they deliver characterization while also advancing the plot and establishing tone. Applying this level of scrutiny to the script for Project Bau would go a long way in tightening the final product.
The short is overfull with tracking shots. Yes, they establish the disheveled way our star carries himself early on, but the message is received far before the tracking shots end. If embellished by distinct performances, such could be used to highlight the character’s arc, but even then they could be restrained in length. Speaking of arcs, there are glimpses of three act structure (an effective, if not strictly necessary screenwriting tool) in Project Bau—for example, the mailbox. Three is truly a magic number, and when the assumed third instance of an arc is omitted, it can leave the audience feeling unsatisfied, as if the mailbox was unimportant all along, and therefore wasted time. At over 25 minutes, Project Bau is too scant to be a feature, but long in the tooth for most shorts. Aside from the audience drain this produces, it’s also a challenge to program for festivals looking to assemble many shorts into a single feature length block. Trimming the fat would save Project Bau a lot of time.
And what all could be done with that saved time? Perhaps Richardson could be afforded more screen time to build and live in the character; if he’s a strength, tailor the project to him. Perhaps a deeper examination of the nuances of alcoholism could arise, as the film’s current read of the situation is fairly straightforward. Perhaps the third act could be given more than a few seconds of resolution, as he searches in vain for Bau before finding another dog—perhaps there would’ve even been time to plant the idea of the second dog someplace in the first act so it doesn’t feel quite as arbitrary. Perhaps the whole thing should’ve ended in a solid 12 minutes with Richardson feeding Bau on the porch, just before that unfortunately commercial-sounding Lumineers-esque song wrongly colors an otherwise-serviceable montage. Ultimately, it’s up to the filmmakers.
I had a lovely dinner with Sajan Jose, the writer-director of Project Bau, alongside other AniFab creators and attendees, and the most salient point of our conversation over KBBQ was the idea of film festivals as learning experiences—not only for the audience, but for the filmmakers, and in equal or often times greater measure. In hearing the discourse on the films at the festival, and more specifically the brainchildren of my tablemates, I had the privilege to witness the collaborative nature of filmmaking at work. And that’s what it’s all about, right?