Twelve Shorts for the Shortest Month #9: Mute (2009)

US / 19 minutes / color / Ryan Lough, Hassan Said Dir & Scr: Hassan Said Pr: Ryan Lough, Hassan Said Cine: Jordan Ashton Danelz Cast: Daniel Higgins, Vanessa Donley, Jesse Mueller, Jessette Indrieri

A powerful movie that’s riveting to watch and that yet somehow left me with something of a sour taste. There’s a line between exploitation, on the one hand, and harrowing depiction of human anguish, on the other, and I’m still not sure in my own mind on which side of that line this movie lies. I accept absolutely that the intentions of the movie’s makers were good; where I’m less confident is about my own reactions to the piece.

Oliver (Higgins) is the elderly single father to Anna (Donley), who’s a mute: her hearing seems okay, although the sound editing might seem to indicate she hears things a bit muffled-like, but all she can manage by way of vocalizations are whimpers and wails, sometimes loud wails. Although she seems not unintelligent, and clearly has a creative spirit, there’s obviously more going on than merely her muteness: she habitually holds her fingers in an odd, crooked conformation.

Vanessa Donley as Anna

One day Oliver gets home from the store to find Anna lying on her bed in distress, her face showing signs of physical assault. He immediately jumps to the conclusion that her photographer pal Max (Mueller)—seemingly her only friend—has violently raped her, and indeed we see the scene playing out in Oliver’s imagination as a flashback. The irate father exacts a drastic revenge.

Yet was Max guilty of the crime, or of any crime at all? It appears he was at the cinema with his girlfriend (Indrieri) at the time. And, if the assault was a product of Oliver’s imagination, how much else of what we’ve seen can be relied upon? Who is the real danger to Anna?

Jesse Mueller as Max

There’s an odd use of color in the movie, with the yellows exaggerated. And at one stage early on in the movie, while Oliver cuts up some meat on the kitchen table, a flickering lightbulb seems to affect the status of his reality, not just because of the flicker but through an apparently consequential degradation of picture quality. (The effect is repeated in the movie’s final moments, with devastating impact.) There’s a note on the cinematography on the movie’s IMDB page, presumably placed there by or citing either director Hassan Said or cinematographer Jordan Ashton Danelz, that explains some of this (I’ve tidied things like punctuation a little):

Some of the guidelines established before shooting the film are (except photo studio scene):

    1. The whole story must be shot on super 16mm film, for the organic feel that the high-speed film displays.
    2. All the lighting in the film must be natural/practical lighting. Even if the film was to be underexposed.
    3. The film has to be shot mostly hand-held. No dollies or tripods.
    4. Yellow is the primary color of the film, introducing it in every shot through either the production design, costume or lighting.
    5. No use of any long lenses, keeping most of the film to be shot on wide-angle lenses only.
    6. The film is to be shot mostly with only high-speed film stocks (500 ASA).

Vanessa Donley delivers a heartrending performance as the unfortunate young woman whom a sheer ill fortune of birth (we assume) has deprived of much of her ability to interact fully with her world. Anna is a fully rounded human being, we perceive, but there are frustrations and limitations in her daily existence. And Daniel Higgins’ rendition of her father, a man driven to extremes of torment, has a sort of Grand Guignol splendor that is equally unforgettable.

Daniel Higgins as Oliver

Director Hassan Said has a Vimeo page here. You can watch the movie itself here. The latter page lists the various recognitions that Mute has received:

  • WINNER, Jury Award for Best Editing, Big Easy Film Festival
  • WINNER, German Independence Award for Best Foreign Language Short Film, Oldenburgh International Film Festival
  • WINNER, Award of Merit for Short Film and Direction, Accolade Film Awards
  • Official Selection, Queens Film Festival
  • Official Selection, Independents’ Film Festival
  • Official Selection, Jersey Shore Film Festival
  • Official Selection, ReelHeart International Film Festival
  • Official Selection, San Antonio Film Festival
  • Official Selection, Indie Fest USA
  • Official Selection, Atlanta Underground Film Festival

3 thoughts on “Twelve Shorts for the Shortest Month #9: Mute (2009)

  1. Deaf or mute people are usually taught to use and understand sign language from an early age, so Anna’s inability to communicate is odd. Is the fact that “she habitually holds her fingers in an odd, crooked conformation” supposed to explain her problem?
    I don’t have time to watch it at the moment, but I’ll certainly look later/

    • The Vimeo page says she’s autistic, which is (IMHO) a reasonable explanation for her lack of knowledge of sign language.

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