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Aspen Shortsfest: Diamonds in the digital rough

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” A decade ago, approximately 800 films were submitted for Aspen Shortsfest, Aspen Film’s annual festival devoted to the short-film medium. The stack of entries represented a daunting task for the screening committee, comprised then of about 10 volunteers; Aspen Film has a policy of watching every film submitted.

Over the years, the screening committee has ballooned in size, to 35 film enthusiasts, ranging in age from 15 to 70-something. The number of films submitted, however, has multiplied apace: Some 2,500 films were screened this year, in a process that stretches from early November through February.

Part of the explosion is attributable to the growing profile of Aspen Shortsfest. The organization has paid attention to short films from its beginnings, in 1979. But in the early years, there was just a handful of shorts scattered among the full-length features, documentaries and foreign fare screened at Aspen Filmfest each autumn. Not until 1992 did Shortsfest become a stand-alone event, with some two dozen films spread over three days. It has grown in prominence ever since: This year’s festival (Wednesday through Sunday, April 1-5, with programs in Aspen and Carbondale) has had its workshops and seminars scaled back for financial reasons, but the heart of the event, the International Competition, features nearly 60 films, representing 20 countries, divided into eight programs over four days. Filmmakers flock to Aspen early each spring to meet with others who specialize in the art of the short. Aspen Shortsfest is one of the Oscar-qualifying events for shorts; winners of various awards here are eligible for Academy Award consideration.

Aside from Shortsfest’s profile, however, the digital revolution has also fueled the growth in submissions. As anyone knows who has killed a few hours (days? weeks?) navigating weird pet moments and old concert videos on YouTube, short films are the medium of the moment. They are quick and cheap to make, simple to distribute, and open to the vastest range of expression, from the political to the prurient. The adage that all it takes is a camera to become a filmmaker doesn’t even hold in these high-tech times; videos can be constructed on a mere laptop.

“The cornerstone of everything is that the barriers are lower than ever,” said George Eldred, Aspen Film’s program director and the staff member with the most hands-on contact with Shortsfest. “You can make shorts on your cell phone, on really inexpensive home video equipment. My daughter has used the camera on her laptop to make movie clips of her and her friends.

“We’re well into the digital revolution people were talking about in the ’90s. And it’s really radically changed how people use the media, and how they interact with the media they want to experience.”

The ease of access, for both makers and viewers, raises the question: Where does this leave a presenter like Aspen Shortsfest? The technology exists for both to bypass the customary distribution channels of a film festival, a theater and a big screen; shorts can be posted and viewed more easily on the Internet. Unlike with feature films, monetary matters are not a big concern; shorts are rarely made in pursuit of dollars.

But Laura Thielen, executive director of Aspen Film (and married to Eldred), points out that technology has led to a mass of content that can be overwhelming. It’s really easy to envision getting sucked into a whirlpool of home movies while gems that might enlighten us about the world remain buried.

“Anybody can be a filmmaker,” said Thielen. “But [media commentator] Daniel Schorr, in an interview on National Public Radio talking about Twitter and blogging, asked: ‘Where’s the editing? If everything can be out there, where’s the selection?’ It’s helpful to have gatekeepers, people who curate. That’s what Shortsfest is ” it’s a curatorial selector of films.”

Eldred doesn’t simply collect random submissions, but attends festivals, talks with distributors and other programmers, and develops relationships with filmmakers to gather the cream of the shorts.

“One of the things the Internet cannot do, in its big buffet of information, it can’t give you the expertise and time to become an expert on something,” he said. “You can learn everything about miniature sculptures ” but it takes a lot of time and effort. Aggregators and curators provide the function of creating a sampler plate. We spend a lot more time than we ought to watching features and shorts, trying to put together a list of films that will be interesting.”

Actually, Aspen Film, in all its programming, tends to aim for something more than just interesting. While film festivals on the whole have developed a reputation for gravitating toward the dark emotional side, and some festivals have carved out specialties ” animation, sci-fi, experimental work ” Aspen Film’s aesthetic might best be described as humanistic. Eldred and Thielen are both big believers in the ideal of community ” the communal experience of watching movies, cinema as a tool to share stories from around the world ” and it tends to come through in the organization’s presentations.

“A hundred years ago, to have an artistic experience, you had to go to some communal venue to share it with a group audience,” said Eldred. “Now with our Web-connected TVs, we never have to leave our home. But humans are social animals and will stay that way. Shortsfest is a way for people to have a social, shared experience, and that influences what we pick.

“We’re not looking for a Pollyanna-ish take on film. These are films that take a look at serious topics but still manage to find an angle of people taking a positive approach to a tough situation.”

The democratization of filmmaking that has come with the digital age has been a boon in that endeavor. A decade ago, Shortsfest would draw entries from fewer than 30 countries; this year, that number exceeded 60, with films submitted from Malaysia, Qatar and Pakistan.

Films from outside the usual filmmaking realm that end up in the Shortsfest program tend to focus on the struggles of the people in those countries. But there is an equally strong tendency for those films to be tinged with hope. Two films to be screened in Shortsfest ’09, “Crossing Midnight” and “Making the Crooked Straight,” are both set amidst horrifying circumstances: the first at the Burmese/Thai border, where Burmese refugees walk for days to escape their warring country; the second in impoverished Ethiopia.

And both films end up surprisingly hopeful, focusing on how the situations are being addressed not by governments but by individuals and small communities. “Crossing Midnight” tells of a group of refugees who band together to tackle the overwhelming medical crises that arise in the jungles along the border. “Making the Crooked Straight” zooms in on an American doctor, Rick Hodes, who for 20 years has devoted himself to caring for Ethiopia’s sick, poor and abandoned. In both cases, the difficult situations are balanced by an ethic of survival and generosity. As the upbeat, driven Hodes says, “This life is hard. But it’s not meaningless or empty.”

“These have to do with quote-unquote poor situations,” said Thielen, “where the solution is a beautiful example of how the community comes together to solve problems. How individuals can make a difference. We’re not so much drawn to subjects that are serious for serious’ sake. We’re looking at solutions.”

That theme runs through films closer to home, and works of fiction and animation as well. “The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306″ examines one of the quintessential American stories of the last half-century ” the African-American liberation movement, and the assassination of its most prominent leader, Martin Luther King Jr. The story is told through the eyes of the Rev. Billy Kyles, who was on the balcony of the Memphis motel when King was shot. While the film recreates the context of the murder ” King had come to protest discrimination against the city’s sanitation workers ” it doesn’t dwell on the death; it doesn’t even mention the name of King’s killer. Kyles says of his late friend and the movement he fueled: “The man may be gone, but his message lives on.”

In the fictional work “Concerto,” a policeman walks into his house, interrupting an affair between his wife and another man. As the officer takes the man first to a liquor store, then to some empty woods, the threat of violence bubbles just below the surface. The story resolves, however, not with mayhem but music, and the notion that music can connect people and carry them through the most painful moments.

Any maybe the ultimate statement of optimism is made in “Mutt,” which focuses on perhaps the world’s most ultimately hopeful being ” a dog, infinitely certain that his grumpy owner will, in fact, throw that ball for him to fetch.

The mission to present an inspirational message has become only more pressing over the last decade.

“When we’re in happy times, it’s been my experience that audiences are more emotionally equipped to engage with hard-hitting subject matter,” said Thielen. “Now is analogous to 9/11, when there’s so much profound uncertainty. People are more vulnerable. Personally, if I have free time and want to be entertained ” I want to be entertained. I think right now it’s important to carve out space where the media machine isn’t blaring in their face. When they listen to music, go to the movies, they’re looking for relief, a little space. It’s not that people don’t want to think. But I think it’s important to put them in a space where they feel things and think about things in a different way.

“Context and resolution mean more than ever. So I’m less tolerant of well-done, gratuitous [material]. I don’t need those images in my head. And that came up in the screening process: I don’t want to be responsible for putting those images in the audience’s head.”

With the digital age providing several thousand films to choose from, it figures to be a cinch to fill some 60 programming slots with wise, hopeful, well-articulated shorts. But no, it’s as hard as ever ” maybe even tougher.

“It was a particularly challenging year because there was such a preponderance of violence in the submissions, a preponderance of abuse. Especially abuse towards women. And a lot of sex, cruel sex,” said Thielen. “You say, ‘How did they miss the social and cultural movements that have gone on in the last 30 to 40 years?”

The enormous supply of short films ” and of really bad work ” does not seem to have devalued the medium. Attendance for Shortsfest has been strong, and Eldred and Thielen believe it has been particularly strong among a segment of people ” young viewers ” most likely to see lots of mediocre shorts outside of Shortsfest.

“Shorts really resonate with younger audiences,” said Thielen. “Because their experience of popular media is much more fragmented. They’re used to channel surfing, having the music going and the computer ” taking in information that way.”

Those young viewers are seeing a better-looking product than they have seen in the past. Films shot on digital video, said Eldred, look markedly better than they did even a few years ago. And thanks to the growing access to equipment and distribution channels, audiences are seeing a far wider range of expressions. But whether that means the overall level of short cinema has improved greatly is up in the air.

“A good storyteller is a good storyteller. An imaginative storyteller is an imaginative storyteller,” said Thielen. “The story doesn’t start when you take the camera out. It starts with the script, and the ideas. Technical proficiency can cover up a lot of sins. But it doesn’t make up for a bad story.”

That audiences can see significant, inspiring, informative stories from Slovenia and Chile is a wonderful thing. But it may be that the biggest result of the digital revolution is that there are a few thousand pieces of junk that the Shortsfest screening committee must wade through as they build a satisfying menu of films.

“I think, if anything, it’s raised the level of mediocrity,” said Eldred. “There’s a huge number of average works.”

“That’s the most numbing aspect of going through these: A lot of the work is not original,” said Thielen. “It may be expertly done, but it’s formulaic, full of violence and sex, not for the sake of telling a compelling story. I hear the screening committee say all the time: ‘Man, I can’t believe someone put their name in the credits and sent this in to a festival.”

stewart@aspentimes.com

For the complete Aspen Shortsfest schedule of films, go to http://www.aspentimes.com/shortsfest.


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