ASPEN - With an eye toward a career in feature films, Hannah Hilliard has made five short films. That means she has spent a lot of time on the festival circuit, watching shorts, which means she has seen a lot of stories that are emotionally dark and difficult.Hilliard has hardly been immune from such tendencies. She hints that her early work leaned toward the edgier mental states; upon further questioning, it turns out that all of her first four films - beginning with 2001's "Blame" and through 2008's "Mockingbird" - were family dramas that wandered into the dark side. "People generally die, get stalked, kill," she said, summing up phase one of her filmography.Relatively recently, Hilliard came to a realization. Films, she saw, were a form of entertainment, and as such could be lighthearted, whimsical and funny, just as easily as they could be agonizing. So for her latest project, which she began in late 2007, Hilliard contorted her usual emotional palette to "make something entertaining, not pack a big punch, just tell a simple story. But something with depth and emotion," as she put it."Franswa Sharl," which began hitting the festival circuit last year and which shows in Friday's 5:30 p.m. program at Aspen Shortsfest (and also in the Saturday, April 10 Shortsfest program in Carbondale), still involves family drama. And a cursory description - an effeminate boy who repeatedly confounds his macho father's expectations for his No. 1 son - could be taken as another angst-laden story. But "Franswa Sharl" takes place during a family vacation in Fiji - a setting that was important to Hilliard, who believed it gave the film a universal tone, as well as a cheerful one. And her protagonist - 12-year-old Greg, whose competitive instincts come out only when he borrows a bikini and enters a beauty contest - narrates the action in a playful, offhand voice that defuses the father's frustration."That's what was striking to me about the story," Hilliard said. "The stereotypical 12-year-old boy who's very effeminate, he usually becomes a victim. But I didn't want it to be, He's gay; he's a victim. I really didn't want it to be a gay film. It was a father-son film."Instead it is a funny film, as Greg gets deep under his father's skin with phony phone calls, his anti-competitive streak, his dancing and singing, his cross-dressing.Despite her track record in short films, comedy seems to come naturally to Hilliard, who also directs commercials and documentaries. "Franswa Sharl" earned the Crystal Bear, the top award for short features, at the Berlin Film Festival in February. Hilliard is from Sydney, Australia, and "Franswa Sharl" has a carefree audaciousness that often accompanies Australian comedy.Equally imbued with that comic sensibility is Greg Logan, who co-wrote "Franswa Sharl" with Hilliard. The two previously collaborated on a documentary, about Logan's relationship with his boyfriend, Paul O'Byrne. When the film was complete, Logan and O'Byrne invited 200 friends and family members to a country cinema for the debut. The piece opened with the "Brokeback Mountain" trailer, with Logan and O'Byrne's faces pasted over those of Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger. The ending was a surprise twist - the lawful wedding of Logan and O'Byrne, who had exchanged vows in South Africa. (Australia does not permit same-sex marriages.)"It was hilarious and really emotional," Hilliard said.While getting acquainted with Logan, Hilliard heard from his family members about an incident when Logan was a boy, with his homosexuality emerging. Specifically, she heard about a family trip overseas, a beauty pageant, conflicts with his father."I kept harassing him, saying I want to make this into a film," Hilliard recalled. "He was busy getting married, and didn't get back to me for a while. When he finally said OK, I went, 'Yeah!'"Hilliard says she is probably at the end of the line in the shorts realm. A graduate of Sydney's Australian Film, Television and Radio School, she says she has received all the state, national and school money that she's eligible for to make short films.But "Franswa Sharl" may be the start of things, rather than a conclusion. Callan McAuliffe, who played Greg, has already been cast as the male lead in "Flipped," a teen romantic comedy directed by Rob Reiner, scheduled for release in September. And Hilliard has been in Los Angeles, working on potential deals to make her first feature, with Linda Micsko, who produced "Franswa Sharl," producing.Hilliard has two projects in mind, and it doesn't seem like either is in line with the comic vein of "Franswa Sharl." One is an epic romance, set in 1942, and based on the story of her grandparents, who searched for pearls off the western coast of Australia. The other is drawn from a story even closer to herself, about her father, who was secretly married with children when he married Hilliard's mother. Hilliard says that, periodically, newly discovered half-siblings would enter her life. She adds that she is not tormented by the odd family history, that she is on good terms with all of the various wings of her family.But she did add that she likens the tone of the story to "The Ice Storm," Ang Lee's critique of '70s-era narcissism and sexual experimentation that ends with a child's death.
"Franswa Sharl" shows Friday at Aspen Shortsfest, in the 5:30 p.m. Competition Program, at the Wheeler Opera House. It also shows Saturday, April 10, at the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale.Aspen Shortsfest runs through Sunday, April 11, in Aspen, with additional screening programs Friday and Saturday in Carbondale.firstname.lastname@example.org