When Bart Weiss saw Ya’Ke Smith’s short film The Second Coming, it stayed with him far longer than expected. Like a sucker punch to the gut, it left him a bit limp. Weiss’ first thought: From whose brain did this originate? The Second Coming is a brutally honest portrayal of fatherly love lost and found, a vivid soliloquy about a wayward dad whose last, unselfish deed turns around the life of a seemingly unforgiving son.
The film is stark and bare, shot mostly on a street corner and lasting a mere dozen minutes. The defining scene features a scuffle, a gunshot, and death.
“It is,” Weiss says, “pretty extraordinary.”
Weiss is no casual moviegoer. An associate professor in the UTA Art and Art History Department and artistic director and co-founder of the Dallas Video Festival, he dissects cinema for a living.
Yet The Second Coming moved him in a way few short films do. He’d never heard of Smith, a San Antonio native who had remained in Austin after completing a Master of Fine Arts degree from The University of Texas. Smith’s hang-loose manner mixes nicely with what one film festival executive once called a “smoldering relentlessness.” His short film Hope’s War, about a U.S. soldier’s difficult transition to civilian life, already had screened at the 2006 Cannes International Film Festival.
“The first time I saw Ya’Ke’s work, I fell in love with it,” Weiss says. “I knew that whenever we had a position open in the department, I’d want to bring Ya’Ke in. When that happened a bit later, the first moment I possibly could I called and asked him to apply.”
That was five years ago. Smith now holds the Morgan Woodward Distinguished Professorship in the College of Liberal Arts and has emerged as one of the University’s most popular instructors. It helps when you’re considered a rising voice in independent cinema and when, at 33, you’re not much older than your graduate students.
“What I like best is that it’s not like we’re listening to a professor who did something back in the day,” says grad student Gabriel Duran, whose film The Mule, about tragic outcomes of the drug trade, was screened at the UT Arlington Student Film/Video Organization’s Spring 2014 Festival at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
“He knows the situation we’re in because he’s still out there doing his thing. And doing it his way, you know? He puts it out there. No fear. I mean, have you seen his work?”
Those who have often leave reeling from emotional exhaustion. Smith gravitates to characters beaten down from the turbulence of life. In Katrina’s Son, he tells the heartbreaking story of an 11-year-old boy looking for love from a mother who can’t give it. Then there’s Wolf, an unflinching tale of sexual molestation that also tackles such taboos as morality within the walls of religious institutions.
“What he does best is evoke emotion,” says Barbara Morgan, co-founder and executive director of the Austin Film Festival, where Katrina’s Son was shown. “He has a unique voice—not just in the vision of the films but in the actual writing. And he’s relentless. Yet nothing is more important than staying true to himself.”