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Aspen Shortsfest: Through a child’s eyes

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy Aspen Film"Rita"
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ASPEN – Kids aren’t merely smaller versions of adults. Kids see the world differently than those with more years and more experiences behind them. And, just as important in the realm of film, we see kids in a different way than we see grown-ups. It certainly creates a whole other level of terror when the character in peril happens to be young.

Aspen Shortsfest 2010 will provide plenty of opportunity to see how we experience children on-screen. The festival program is not devoted entirely to children-oriented stories – the “Short” refers not to the height of the actors, but to the duration of the films, between two and 28 minutes. But a glance at the films – approximately 88 in the International Competition, broken up into 10 screening programs over five days, Tuesday through Saturday, April 6-10 – reveals a lot of kids stuff. There are kids acting courageously and carelessly, kids in trouble and in wonder – and mostly, kids engaging with their surroundings with the sort of fresh, open eyes that adults, for the most part, left behind as they grew up.

Aspen Film, which is presenting its 19th annual Shortsfest, has often pitched its celebration of short films as an opportunity for discovery. Short films are a way to explore topics that would not command a viewer’s attention for two hours or so. So Shortsfest can introduce audiences to places, stories, people and cinematic styles that fall into the idiosyncratic, rather than mass-appeal, category. The abundance of children in this year’s films adds another dimension to that sense of discovery.



“As we grow up and garner experience, we learn to keep our guard up and avoid these painful situations,” George Eldred, Aspen Film’s program director, said. “For a child, everything, all the choices, are open. All of us have been, and secretly are, children, and can really relate to that moment when the world was open and new and fresh and we could really feel things. At whatever age, we can connect with those raw emotions and sense of innocence and vulnerability that kids have.”

Aspen Shortsfest, unlike some events devoted to short films, doesn’t program its festival by theme. So in the selection process – which meant going through some 2,500 submissions from approximately 80 countries – there was no special emphasis given to films revolving around children. But when the final program was surveyed, there it was: kids everywhere. Eldred believes there is a connection between the short-film form and the prevalence of young people.




When he was in art school, in his 20s, “a big part of what I was processing as a young adult was, Who am I? and How did I get here?” Eldred said, pointing out that shorts are made largely by young filmmakers just starting out in their careers. “And you look at your childhood, because that’s all you’ve got and you can remember it vividly and you still feel the importance of them. You’re still working out who you are and can still see the connections between your childhood and your young adulthood.”

Among the films that most effectively depict the divide between childhood and adulthood is the Israeli film “Ramlod.” Set in a place where Israelis exist nervously with Palestinians, a young adult photographer comes into contact with a group of kids. The no-man’s-land setting, the image of the scruffy children, the worried cell-phone calls the photographer receives all hint to the viewer that trouble is ahead. But the kids have more innocent and playful activities in mind; only when a group of genuine adults make their way into the frame does the mood darken. The film ends with a small but touching reminder that, in this most fraught acreage of the Earth, hope really does lie with the children.

“People grow up into these millennium-long issues and they become patterned with these instinctual responses to certain situations,” Eldred said. “If you’re in a certain place in the Middle East, you don’t stop your car. So the expectations of the adult represent the expectations of us as viewers. But then we get the kids and the way they behave, the way they relate to her, and they’re like kids everywhere.”

“Nico’s Challenge” is a documentary of a 13-year-old boy with one leg who, with his dad, sets out to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. The story – a person missing a leg who takes on an enormous physical task to raise money to buy wheelchairs – would be inspiring no matter the age of the adventurer. But here it is teenage Nico himself who does the narrating, and the voice that comes through is less calculated and self-conscious than an older voice would be.

Childhood isn’t solely a time of innocence. The Italian film “Rita” brings into extreme close-up the internal life of a young girl. We get a shortage of information on Rita – an overbearing mother, perhaps; subtle hints of other hassles in her world. But the tight focus on Rita’s face and body, and her eventual foray into the bigger world, speaks plenty about the worries and frustrations of adolescence.

The French film “Battered” also confronts the heavier side of being a kid. A group of children is at play in the woods; the kids are of varying ages, and their take on “play” varies along the age spectrum. But when the adult world intrudes on their day, it affects all of them like an unwelcome alarm clock, waking them from a fragile dream-state.

“Born Sweet” is a documentary of a Cambodian village where a sizable portion of the population has been sickened by naturally occurring arsenic in the well water. But the sadness of the story is upended by focusing on a 15-year-old, Vinh, who uses his affliction to rise to a level of artistry and popularity that gives the film an inspiring tone. A subtext of “Born Sweet” is the resilience of children, their ability to keep dreaming.

“In many ways, if the film had been about the kid’s father, we would not have felt the same way,” Eldred said. “For adults, there’s something about seeing the vulnerability of a child that is very touching.”

Shortsfest 2010 pays special attention to kids – as audience members – with Films For Families, a program of screenings intended for audiences 11 and older.

Other special presentations include Micro Moviemaking with Lewis Teague, which has the filmmaker using his new web series, “Charlotta-TS” to introduce audiences to the cutting edge of making and distributing films; and Tropfest’s Best: 7 Minutes or Less, a screening of a selection of short shorts from the massively popular Australian festival devoted to short films.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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