Aspen Shortsfest opens 22nd season

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Contributed photoThe Chinese short "Three Light Bulbs" is among the 83 films being screened at Aspen Shortsfest, which opens Tuesday.

ASPEN – Virtually every artistic action is grounded in aspiration – the wish to finish a project, the desire to make a statement, the hope that audiences will see and appreciate what has been created. Making a short film would be among the most hope-filled of artistic endeavors, given that shorts tend to be the definition of independent and personal projects, coming into being on little more than the filmmaker’s desire to make a movie.

No wonder, then, that so many of the short films to be featured in Aspen Film’s 22nd annual Aspen Shortsfest tell aspirational stories.

“Shorts, because of their nature, the way they’re produced, there’s a natural enthusiasm. There’s a burst of energy to get that initial inspiration onto a film that’s in the can,” said Laura Thielen, artistic director of Aspen Film. “And that is often embodied in the film itself.”

George Eldred, Aspen Film’s program director, says there is an “I believe I can do it!” spirit that marks the world of short films.

“And there’s a strong strand in the films that humans can connect in their longings with an object of desire, that there’s hope,” he said.

Aspen Shortsfest 2013 – which opens Tuesday and runs through Sunday – features 83 films in 11 programs. The films come from more than 20 countries and range from quick one-liner comedies to full-bodied portraits of real and imagined characters to animated children’s fare – too much to boil down to a simple categorization. But audiences looking for stories of people aiming high – sometimes failing, sometimes disappointed, sometimes with results that are unclear – are bound to find it.

The aspirational element, though, doesn’t necessarily translate into fluffy stories that ignore reality. Quite the opposite. Most of these films begin with an unacceptable situation followed by a yearning to improve things.

“These films start in a real, lived-in place,” Thielen said. “That’s something that’s different than entertainment in the typical sense. These are heartfelt. They’re willing to embrace the complexity of a situation.”

Among the films showing Tuesday is “Lift Off,” a four-minute animated comedy about a particular sort of yearning – the romantic kind – and the extreme measures a creature will take to connect with a mate.

Of the more serious variety are “The Tuner,” a Brazilian film about artistic expression; “Three Light Bulbs,” a complex Chinese story about the obstacles that can hinder an effort to improve society; “Branko,” a short about a man’s desire to set the past right; and “Dumpy Goes to the Big Smoke,” a wonderfully told Australian drama of a woman simply aspiring toward a better life.

“The Tuner” (8:30 p.m. Thursday in Aspen and 7:30 p.m. Sunday in Carbondale) depicts a young man working for his father as a piano tuner but burning to become a concert pianist. The standard generation-gap tale – the practical-minded older man versus the artistically inspired younger one – gets a twist with the introduction of another character, a worker at the opera house.

“The story completely opens up with the introduction of this character who asks the son questions, tells him stories,” Thielen said.

“Three Light Bulbs” (5:30 p.m. Wednesday in Aspen and 5 p.m. Sunday in Carbondale), set in a rural Chinese village, is similar in concept – a young woman whose main obstacle is her father. But here, the child is practical: She has returned from college with the technical skills to fix the village’s electrical problems. But her father is angry over the daughter’s values and actions.

“We see the emotional complexities of the father, unmoved by her efforts to improve the conditions of the village,” Eldred said. “It’s a richly textured short.”

“Branko” (5:45 p.m. Saturday in Aspen) is a documentary by Branko Lustig, the Academy Award-winning producer of “Schindler’s List” and “Gladiator.” Lustig, whose other credits include the Holocaust-themed “Sophie’s Choice” and “The Tin Drum,” is a Holocaust survivor himself who, at 78, returns to the Auschwitz concentration camp to have the bar mitzvah he was denied as a boy. Lustig’s desire to make some kind of peace with the past stirs up memories he had tried to suppress.

“You can have a bar mitzvah anywhere. Why return to the place of so much pain?” Thielen said. “There’s an extraordinary courage in that.”

“He says, ‘I’m doing it to heal this wound, heal my past,'” Eldred added. “But there’s this danger of the horror of those memories coming back.”

“Dumpy Goes to the Big Smoke” (8:30 p.m. Wednesday in Aspen) is a 14-minute film about a woman, Dumpy, living in odd circumstances that go beyond the trailer that is her home. The film, by Mirrah Foulkes, has a richness in setting, plot and dramatic devices of a longer, more complicated production, and one of the elements that set it apart is the acting of Emily Tomlins as Dumpy.

“Her emotions are just quivering on her face, and it’s heartbreaking to see that longing for approval and then that really physical excitement when she sees this opportunity,” Eldred said.

Shortsfest also features a series of films from Focus Forward, a series of three-minute films sponsored by General Electric about people reshaping the world through acts of invention. Among those showing at Shortsfest are “You Don’t Know Jack,” about a teenager who came up with a breakthrough in cancer detection, and “The Music Man,” about an inventor determined to give everyone the tools to make music.

Thielen says the broad range of films at Shortsfest – those about people with aspirations along with silly comedies, dire dramas and visually poetic movies – makes for a unique cinema experience.

“There’s a willingness to look at the spectrum of human experience that’s not the same as in feature films,” she said. “Or you’d have to go to a festival with hundreds of films to get that spectrum. We have 83 bursts of ideas, and it’s a lived reality rather than an imagined reality.”


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