Aspen Shortsfest programs explore the dynamics of family |

Aspen Shortsfest programs explore the dynamics of family

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photo"Music in the Blood," a drama from Romania, shows during Aspen Shortsfest, April 4-9.

ASPEN – There exist film festivals that are, by design, limited in their scope: a festival of animated films in Annency, France; the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C.; the Arab Film Festival in California; Shriekfest in Los Angeles, devoted to horror, thrills and fantasy.

Aspen Film’s two festivals, Aspen Filmfest and Aspen Shortsfest, are, on the other hand, general-interest events. But surveying the entries in the 20th annual Aspen Shortsfest, which runs Tuesday through Sunday, April 4-10, one might get the impression that the festival was devoted to films about the family. Scan the festival program and certain words get repeated to the point where they are hard to ignore: father, children, home, brothers, marriage.

“As always,” noted Laura Thielen, Aspen Film’s executive director, acknowledging that family themes are generally prominent in Aspen Shortsfest.

Aspen Film’s celebration of short films might not have explicit stylistic boundaries. But since its founding, in 1979, the organization has developed a discernible personality, and its audience comes with certain expectations.

“If we were programming for a festival in San Francisco or New York, or an underground film festival, we’d be looking at different subject matter and different tones – grim subjects, unforgiving violence,” said George Eldred, Aspen Film’s program director (and Thielen’s husband, to stay on the theme). “But our audience here is different than that, and we want to give them more sincere stories that touch the heart. Not sugarcoated, but an engagement with the emotional message. And these genuine feelings arise out of family stories and personal relations.”

So Aspen Shortsfest 2011 – which features 83 films in 11 competition programs, plus has additional downvalley screening programs on Sunday, April 10 at the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale – is loaded with stories that explore the family dynamic. In terms of style, these are all over the map: extravagant animated works, absurdist comedies, incredibly direct personal expressions, dramas that are tough or tender or a combination of the two. But virtually all aim for an earnest truth about life as we actually know it.

“That’s where our depth of feeling runs the deepest – with our parents, our children, our family relations,” Eldred said. “These are the sources of our interesting stories. That’s where the conflicts arise, and where our deep satisfaction comes from.”

There is a particular abundance of such material in the world of short films. Thielen and Eldred observed that shorts are more closely connected to the arthouse, and to European cinema, than to the Hollywood methods of blowing things up and escapism. A natural result is stories that stay closer to the ground.

“The dominant trend in feature filmmaking, in U.S. filmmaking, is genres: cops, thrillers, Westerns, adventure,” Thielen said. “Shorts are more closely aligned with art film and European film, so they have a more psychological focus. That kind of filmmaking is more interested in exploring the psychology of a relationship, and not a whodunit.”

There are also, inevitably, economic forces at work. Short films virtually never have the kind of budget that would allow for the grand-scale special effects expected in an action film, or for the A-list movie stars who draw people to romantic comedies. Emotions, however, can be generated simply with a smart script and good acting.

“It’s the basics of the economy,” Thielen said. “You may want to make a genre picture, but if you need a stadium full of people, and the blimp shots – that’s probably 10 short film budgets right there. It’s less expensive to tell stories that are people-centric than effects- and location-centric.”

Easily the most direct, unadorned character audiences will meet is the unnamed narrator of the Australian film, “The Unspoken.” For four minutes, a young man spills his heart out in praise of his father, who is now elderly and sick. Jason von Genderen’s film is touching in what it strips away – no plot twists, no shaded meanings, no tricks of the camera – and how it becomes a daring statement of naked affection.

Similarly straightforward is “Wapawekka,” a Canadian film set around a rural fishing cabin. With the camera acting as an observer, the 16-minute film quietly depicts the generation gap that separates a teenage hip-hopper from his father, an old-world member of the Cree tribe.

“Music in the Blood,” a 17-minute drama from Romania, takes a broad-spectrum look at family issues. Alexandru Mavrodineanu’s film, the story of a boy auditioning for music school, captures anxieties, pressures, hopes for a better future, and ultimately, the modest satisfaction of just being a family and doing one’s best as a parent, a child.

The fact that a short film addresses family issues does not necessarily make it family-friendly. An example is the obvious, but still funny Australian dark comedy, “dik.” A child’s drawing ignites an argument between the boy’s parents, and the action gets raunchy and abrasive. Keep the little ones away from this one, unless you want to do some explaining.

Also in the comedy category is “Birthday Circle,” a British film that examines child-parent roles from a unique perspective. Fans of lavish animation will warm to “Heirlooms,” which collects a series of brief, poem-like sequences about the objects – a bible, a coffee grinder, a piece of sheet metal from a warplane that was shot down – that hold stories which bond generations of family members.

Recognizable faces and names are generally better found at the multiplex than at a festival of short films. But Shortsfest 2011 boasts an uncommonly high number of stars – not only actors and directors, but rockers and athletes as well.

“Red Shirley” fits into both the big-name and the family-film departments. The directorial debut of musician Lou Reed, the 28-minute movie is an extended dialogue between Reed and his cousin Shirley, who is about to turn 100.

John Hurt, who earned Academy Award nominations for “The Elephant Man” and “Midnight Express,” stars with Phyllida Law in “Love at First Sight,” a romance set in an old people’s home.

Fresh off his Oscar win for best actor in “The King’s Speech,” Colin Firth returns as a misfit neighbor who insists on a cup of tea from the couple upstairs, played by Keira Knightley and Tom Mison. Selma Blair and Jeremy Davies star as introverts who make a connection in “Animal Love.”

Neil LaBute, who has jumped back and forth from film to theater, enters the shorts realm with “sexting,” starring Julia Stiles as a woman frustrated with her affair with a married man.

Jeremy Irons and Max Von Sydow appear in voice only; the former narrates “The Majestic Plastic Bag,” while the latter narrates “The Last Norwegian Troll,” an updated version of a classic fairy tale.

“The Dark Side” features NFL quarterback Peyton Manning as a football star who can’t quite stand up to an overbearing mother.

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