Can a film survive on the sheer strength of atmospherics alone? Alejandro Alonso Estrella’s short film “History is Written at Night” is an exuberant feat in culling forth and sustaining a dense sense of atmosphere. The setting is Cuba. It’s nighttime, and a streak of power cuts throws every nook and cranny under a shroud of darkness. Estrella doesn’t give any exegesis or lay out any contextual specifics.

What the director privileges are an absolute avowal of not just myriad sights and sounds but also how the darkness becomes a fertile ground where dreams and visions are exchanged. Slowly, the film wraps us in its absorbing, ambient pull. The film teases a restlessness in the viewer as he/she tries to gauge and decipher the bundle of fuzzy images. Occasionally, distinct shapes emerge. A woman’s account of peculiar visions strikes through, accentuating a thick air of strangeness.

“History is Written at Night” is stark and haunting. Aurally immersive and languid in scope, the film is full of an entrancing power. There’s imprecision and vagueness, along with particular stress on realizing the darkened locales with an eerie uncertainty. The film demands a complete surrender to let its spell wash over you. To watch it is like being pulled along on a heady tide replete with foggy sensations. It is not so necessary to neatly cleave through the film as it is to let yourself be taken wherever the film loosely guides you. This obfuscatory design enables the film to quietly consolidate its grip on the viewer. Estrella has crafted a deeply enveloping film.

History is written at night, I saw you were dancing (2024) ‘Vienna Shorts’ Review
A still from “History is Written at Night”

An unencumbered, free-spirited, and unrestrained sense of wandering also runs through Sarah Pech’s film, “I Saw You Were Dancing.” Keeping its mysteries tightly folded deep within, the film trails the fourteen-year-old Margarita (Alice Ona Crepaz-Fuentes) as she ambles through her town. An endless curiosity seems to fuel her. She is a constant onlooker, trespasser, and overhearer, deriving something from her inquisitive adventures to replenish her spirit.

Crucially, Pech never underlines what exactly is driving the teenager. Is there anything particular she’s seeking? No clear answers are offered, with the film content to remain in an enigmatic, exploratory mode. But the apparent inscrutable nature of her roaming and, more critically, peering from the sidelines as if to absorb something doesn’t distance us. Instead, we are drawn further into the terrifically guarded film.

Pech resists caving into the dramatic thrust of a revelation or a confrontation. Albeit Margarita intensely spies, she makes sure she isn’t actively violating or breaching a boundary. She is wary of the perils her watchful pursuit may potentially land her in a soup of a situation. Therefore, she’s careful, punctilious and sharp in doing what she does. We witness the varied circumstances she observes. From outdoor parties to the more intimate routines inside someone’s house she surveys from just below the window, her gaze spans it all. “I Saw You Were Dancing” mixes its wandering with fierce self-possession.

History is Written at Night, and I Saw You Were Dancing screened at the Vienna Shorts Festival 2024.

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