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The Mauritania Railway: backbone of the Sahara

13 minutes

Birth control your own adventure

5 minutes

The acrobatic fly

3 minutes

What the psychic saw

5 minutes

Sketches

2 minutes

Careening through the desert, a massive railway sustains life in northwest Africa

Mauritania, on the northwest coast of Africa, is characterised by arid desert plains that make most of the country non-arable. Beneath the surface, however, the land is rich in the iron ore that sustains the Mauritanian economy. Since 1963, the Mauritania Railway, running 704 kilometres (roughly 440 miles) across unforgiving terrain, has connected the country’s inland mining centre, Zouérat, with the port city of Nouadhibou. With decades of drought forcing much of Mauritania’s once-nomadic population into urban areas, the railway has become increasingly vital to the country of four million, as food, goods and people join the iron ore onboard.

This short documentary by Los Angeles-based filmmaker Miguel de Olaso (aka Macgregor) casts the railroad as the backbone of the country. De Olaso combines a visually rich survey of its operations with information that supplements and sometimes undercuts the aestheticised cinematography, offering a compellingly immersive journey on transport, resources and demography. 

Video by Macgregor

Period drama: one woman’s journey through birth control

The multitude of female birth-control products on the market hardly means there’s a perfect option for everyone. From the combined oral contraceptive (commonly known as the Pill), to the IUD (intrauterine device, aka the coil) to the NuvaRing, the availability of choice can mask one major downside: for some, the side-effects of birth control are a problem in their own right. In her short film Birth Control Your Own Adventure, the Pakistani-American filmmaker Sindha Agha presents her personal journey through all the options, starting at age 11, when she was prescribed the Pill for the pain of endometriosis. Agha relates her struggle to find the least-worst option with witty visuals and a vivid design. In its intimate detail, the short is especially enlightening for those who don’t menstruate, prompting the question: what about male birth-control products?

Director: Sindha Agha

Feet of strength! Spotlight on the amazing agility of houseflies

Pesky though they might be, houseflies are remarkable biological specimens – strong enough to carry up to half their own body weight and, as you’ve likely noticed when trying to swat one, exceptionally quick and nimble. For his 1910 short The Acrobatic Fly, the pioneering British naturalist and filmmaker F Percy Smith put the strength and dexterity of houseflies on display, filming one as it juggled items including a cork and a miniature barbell. Perhaps most impressive, however, is a sequence that features a fly rotating a ball with another fly balancing atop it, like a tiny circus act. For more slightly creepy early film fun from F Percy Smith, watch To Demonstrate How Spiders Fly.

Director: F Percy Smith

The psychic, the skeptic and the life-and-death prophecy that came true

When the US filmmaker Matthew Palmer’s mother was 28 and childless, she received an unsettling prediction from a psychic: she would have a son, and her husband would die when their son was 13, but it would be ‘okay’. Uninterested in having children and skeptical of psychics, she wrote it off for a time. But when she finally did have a son following a nearly fatal and life-altering case of pneumonia, the prediction creeped back into her mind. She then often used the story, half-jokingly, to warn her husband about his smoking habit. And when Palmer was 13, his father died suddenly of cardiac arrest. Constructed from old home videos and phone conversations with his mother, Palmer’s deeply personal film What the Psychic Saw reflects on his father’s death in the context of the uncanny prediction. An unusual meditation on grief, the short offers no easy answer for the psychic’s eerily accurate words, or whether unexpectedly losing a close, beloved family member can ever really feel ‘okay’.

Video by Matthew Palmer

Friendly tower cranes, grinning street signs, and other adventures in augmented reality

In Sketches, the Russian graphic illustrator and motion designer Vladimir Tomin stitches together a series of short, reality-warping vignettes. Starting with mundane views of streets, stairwells and building façades, Tomin uses visual effects to manipulate each scene in surprising and subversive ways, suggesting a hackable digital universe that can be endlessly manipulated. In our emerging age of deep fakes, it can also be read as a pressing reminder of the power of even relatively simple editing technologies to augment video in convincing ways – or simply as the work of a master of the digital surreal. For more uncanny visual wizardry from Tomin, watch Outside.

Video by Vladimir Tomin

Careening through the desert, a massive railway sustains life in northwest Africa

Mauritania, on the northwest coast of Africa, is characterised by arid desert plains that make most of the country non-arable. Beneath the surface, however, the land is rich in the iron ore that sustains the Mauritanian economy. Since 1963, the Mauritania Railway, running 704 kilometres (roughly 440 miles) across unforgiving terrain, has connected the country’s inland mining centre, Zouérat, with the port city of Nouadhibou. With decades of drought forcing much of Mauritania’s once-nomadic population into urban areas, the railway has become increasingly vital to the country of four million, as food, goods and people join the iron ore onboard.

This short documentary by Los Angeles-based filmmaker Miguel de Olaso (aka Macgregor) casts the railroad as the backbone of the country. De Olaso combines a visually rich survey of its operations with information that supplements and sometimes undercuts the aestheticised cinematography, offering a compellingly immersive journey on transport, resources and demography. 

Video by Macgregor

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