In its almost 27 minutes, Samantha Reynolds's Back to Life doesn't break down the history of taxidermy, but it does prod, stumble, and finesse its way into some memorably off-kilter portraiture, not to mention insight about mortality. Her decision to be on camera initially might seem amateurish (especially after the movie's opening animation), but as a surrogate viewer, she achieves an uncomfortable intimacy with her subjects. And her subjects are something else. They include one taxidermist who is simply continuing the family business and another whose creative memento mori urges are directly connected to family horror: a father who shot himself and an uncle who committed matricide, for starters. "I put it in her hands before I pushed the button," the latter taxidermist says, referring to the book I'm OK, You're OK and another relative, both now in powder form in a glass bottle on her mantle.
There are no Norman Bates types in this doc, just bereaved pet owners, artists dealing with their lot in life, and businesspeople doing their job — a job that just happens to involve sawing off the legs and heads of dead pets to make molds, a task that Reynolds herself joins in on with a grimace. Back to Life is just one of the many byways available in the varied programming of “SF Shorts” — the first San Francisco International Festival of Short Films. Even better is Kim Romano's Muriel, a profile of a 67-year-old woman in Key West who tosses off one-liners that Woody Allen would covet; Romano has a gift for funny and even poignant framing, and there are more vivid characters in her 19-minute movie than you'd find in a full day of Sundance drama features. Overseen by a jury that includes filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt, the seven programs include sections devoted to documentary and comedy. Festival directors James Kenney and Michael Coyne took in over 900 entries before choosing 56. That last number includes a movie by Melissa Joan Hart, a.k.a. the director formerly known as Sabrina the teenage witch. (Johnny Ray Huston)
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