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Aspen Shortsfest shows life as we know it

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Contributed photoThe Italian film "A Chjàna (The Plain)" will show Wednesday at Aspen Shortsfest.
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ASPEN – Survey the nominees for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, and what you find mostly is a collection of films that illuminate other worlds and other times: Hollywood of the 1920s, World War I, the pre-civil-rights South and fantastical scenes of Paris from eras past. Hollywood is very good at taking distant realities and blowing them up to grand size.

Aspen Shortsfest offers a different kind of cinematic experience. Aspen Film’s celebration of films 40 minutes or shorter is an engagement with the world that happens outside our doors or apart from what we read in the headlines. The 20th edition of Shortsfest, which opens Wednesday and runs through Sunday with programs in Aspen and Carbondale, doesn’t lack for laughs and fantasy, heroic acts and voyages to foreign lands. But on the whole, it grasps for a take on life that most of us would recognize – modern times, everyday stories and life-size emotions and events.

“A thing that strikes me about Shortsfest, and shorts, is they’re really a slice of humanity. It’s life as people live it,” said Laura Thielen, Aspen Film’s artistic director. Feature-length films, she said, “can be these bubbles – making a feature is an enormous project, and because there’s so many cooks in the kitchen it can feel like it’s its own world. With shorts, there’s a connection to the real world.”



Shortsfest 2012 has its share of films that are about the real world in the most literal sense – that is, documentaries meant to shed light on small corners of planet Earth. But there are also works of fiction and even animation that reveal the truths, quirks and dynamics of contemporary life.

Modern-day communication technology, for instance – cellphones, text messaging and Facebook – gets a close look in Shortsfest. (Thielen and George Eldred, Aspen Film’s program director, said there were many more films submitted that addressed the subject than made the final program.) “Friend Request Pending” – which stars Judi Dench and is one of the rare Shortsfest films to feature a brand-name actor – is a comedy about social networking. “200 Minutes” concerns cellphone usage in a tiny village in Colombia. And “The Arm” takes aim at a phenomenon most of us have witnessed – it is, according to Thielen, a “tragicomic take on the craziness of texting.”



“Does it create a real relationship or the illusion of one?” Eldred said.

Emotions, too, play out on a human scale in short films. In the Irish film “Even Gods,” a man’s comfortable existence in a homeless shelter is interrupted by a visit from his daughter.

“It’s a wonderful character study of a man coming to terms with a past he seems happy to have forgotten,” Thielen said. “You can see the machinations of his soul as he meets his daughter in a cafe.”

“His vulnerability and his fear that this safe little world is going to be threatened – you see how nervous he is about it,” Eldred said.

Another work of fiction that illuminates real concerns is “As You Were.” The Danish film centers on a soldier, Lars. About to be sent to Afghanistan, he takes the opportunity to visit his father, and what transpires is more than small talk.

“They go through a lifetime of relationship in an afternoon,” Eldred said.

Similar in approach are “663114,” a Japanese production that offers a perspective on last year’s tsunami through animation, and “A Chjàna (The Plain),” a fictional film based on the worst race riots in Italian history.

On the documentary side, the stories range from inspirational tales (“Hilary’s Straws,” about a quadriplegic who manages to find a way to sail a boat, and “Meet Mr. Toilet,” a portrait of a businessman who takes on the overlooked fact that a third of the world’s population lacks access to a toilet) to the environmental (“Los Escualos: Young Chilean Kayakers of Patagonia,” by local filmmaker Weston Boyles) to the heartbreaking (“Saving Face,” the Academy Award winner about Pakistani women who have suffered the too-common experience of having acid thrown in their faces).

A pair of films – “A House Divided (Mohammed El Kurd)” and “When You Cross the Line (Gil Gutlick)” – come from “Home Front,” a series of films about relations between Israelis and Palestinians. “A House Divided” focuses on a Palestinian boy who gets aid from an unexpected source. “When You Cross the Line” is about a former Israeli soldier who aims to do something other than fight. The films present an alternative narrative to the one that has Israelis and Palestinians engaged in a doomsday battle.

“There’s an effort now to document the movement in Israel of peaceful protest, Palestinians and Israelis coming together for peace,” Eldred said. “These are snapshots of the flavors, what’s going on in Israel these days. Youths around the world are feeling that the world they’re coming into isn’t shaped the way they want it shaped. They’re finding ways to come together and influence their world, make it match their values.”

In that spirit, Aspen Shortsfest wanted to program a film that spotlighted the recent Occupy movements. Several were submitted, but none made it into the final schedule. Instead, there is “Vulture Culture,” a documentary about a Brooklyn collective that uses radical methods to foster community in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Thielen believes the film serves as a suitable stand-in for a film about the Occupy movement.

“Who are these people down on Wall Street?” Thielen said. “You find them in ‘Vulture Culture.’ This is an anarchist collective, people trying to make a difference.”

Aspen Shortsfest 2012 runs Wednesday through Sunday in Aspen at the Wheeler Opera House, with screenings Sunday in Carbondale. Wednesday’s schedule has film programs at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m.

Shortsfest also includes the panel discussion “The Sometimes Hilarious Pain of Writing Funny” on Saturday. The panel includes Mike Reiss, a longtime writer for “The Simpsons”; Robert Weide, a writer for “Curb Your Enthusiasm”; Alexander Payne, director of “The Descendants”; and Shauna Cross, screenwriter of the film “Whip It.”

For a full Shortsfest schedule, go to http://www.aspenfilm.org.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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