Fire Island Film Festival 2022

On Saturday, Aug. 27,  I had the pleasure of attending the Fire Island Film Festival. The festival was founded by high school student Jesse Ray Sheps back in 2020 and has quickly become extremely popular despite being only two years old. The sold out event was hosted by Briana Siaca, Miss New York USA 2021, and Sheps himself as a swirl of people and volunteers all created a feeling of an exciting Hollywood premiere.

Eight short films were screened at the festival followed by a Q&A afterwards. Each film was unique in theme and tone.

Photo by Robert Sheps.

“The Resemblance,” directed by Derek Nguyen, tells the story of a grieving couple that go to a “rental family agency” to hire an actor to play the role of their dead son. An emotionally powerful film, this well-acted and directed production was interestingly enough based on the real-life practice of renting family members. It was an extremely eye opening and educational experience.

“Cracked,” directed by Lin Que Ayoung, follows a feisty young girl who falls in love for the first time while a series of events lead her to face a traumatic event from her past. It was a favorite among the audience. Tatum Marilyn Hall, who is the lead actress in the film, deservedly got a standing ovation before her Q&A. Keep an eye on Miss Hall, because she is a star in the making. Reminiscent of the style of Spike Lee, Ayoung is also a young director to watch for.

Directed by Jordan Ancel, “The Principal’s Assembly” is about a high school principal, who after experiencing a tragic loss, insists on giving the students a sobering speech on the first day of school. This movie will touch home for a lot of us. During the Q&A it was mentioned that the idea for this film was conceived back in the year 1991. It deals with the subject of an epidemic – a topic just as timely now as it was 31 years ago. It is a thematically tragic the movie, but beautifully directed, acted, and superb in its technical presentation.

“Contributions,” directed by Bren Patrick Burke, is about a man who finds himself unwittingly caught up in a maelstrom of family conflict while seeking companionship in downtown Ottawa. Perhaps the most awkward movie shown at the festival, it still kept the audience wondering what would happen next. Divisive in subject, it will stimulate discourse.

JJ Kandel directed “Sparring Partner,” the story of a long flirtatious conversation between two co-workers on their lunch break. This was one of the more lighthearted movies to come out of the festival, and the audience seemed to get a kick out of it. Staring Cecily Strong of SNL fame, the movie does surprisingly shift genres a lot throughout the course of its 15-minute runtime, which was a little much. However, it is still a well-acted and written movie.

“Two Birds,” directed by Ari Shapiro, is an experimental coming of age story about two young boys who discover their own violent impulses when they accidentally murder a small bird. Starring Fire Island Film Festival founder Sheps himself, I was curious to see how his love for film would translate on the big screen. He and the young actor portraying his friend in the film were both phenomenal. The cinematography in the movie was hauntingly beautiful. There were times when I wish the film’s theme was just a little clearer in its exploration, nevertheless the movie is worth seeing for its cinematography, performance, and unique storytelling.

“Liza Anonymous,” by Director Aubrey Smyth, follows a lonely millennial addicted to support groups who disguises herself in different personas while trying to fit in, leading her on a theatrical journey. Another audience favorite, for better or worse, this was a relatable character. I also enjoyed the references to famous psychological thrillers such as “Fight Club” (1999) and “Shutter Island” (2010).

Finally, the last movie screened at the festival, “Polybius,” was directed by Long Island native Jimmy Kelly. It was the story about a teenage girl trying to convince the local sheriff that a mysterious new arcade game caused her brother to commit suicide. This film ended up being my personal favorite. With the feel of 1980’s horror movies, this film pays homage to movies from that era, particularly “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984). Not just a movie for horror fans however, this film also will appeal to the mystery buff as well. Seeing Tom Atkins of “Halloween 3: Season of the Witch” (1981) was also a fun throwback.

With a passion for filmmaking, Sheps created the Fire Island Film Festival for filmmakers to share their stories and for audiences to recognize their accomplishments. The film festival should grow as a platform for young filmmakers in diverse backgrounds to share their passion for cinema. As Sheps loves to say: “Eat. Sleep. Make movies. Repeat.” All of the proceeds from the event are donated to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Bravo, Jesse!

During the ceremony, Jesse Sheps also took pause to remember the subject of “Cat Man of Ocean Beach,” John McCollum – filmmaker Evan Lauri was recognized for his feature documentary in 2020, the maiden year of the Fire Island Film Festival.

It was a privilege to go to the Fire Island Film Festival and experience it with an audience of people who also respect the art form, along with the actors, directors, and producers. May the Fire Island Film Festival become a celebrated tradition for many years to come.