It’s a shorts world after all
Nine years ago, the first year Laura Thielen sat in the director’s chair at Aspen Filmfest, the organization received 400 submissions for Shortsfest, its event devoted to short films. For this year’s festival, submissions were up to 1,950.
That’s the kind of growth any asset manager would drool over. And Shortsfest grew not only in the number of submissions during that period, but by most every other measure: The 28 films, screened in three programs, is now 65 titles over eight programs. Filmmakers in attendance grew from a handful to a few dozen. Shortsfest added special programs like Masterworks and Director’s Spotlight that gave audiences a closer look inside the filmmaking process; Cinecafe and Lounge Act provided venues for directors, distributors and die-hard fans to interact.
But if there is one area of growth that has transformed the character of Shortsfest, it is its expansion into the international realm. When Shortsfest was in its infancy as a stand-alone festival – after being a regular component of Aspen Filmfest’s feature-oriented event – there was a narrow focus on the English-speaking cinema, and especially American films. In 1996, when Thielen became executive director of Filmfest, seven countries were represented; four of those being the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.This year’s nearly 2,000 submissions came from 60 countries, up from last year’s 40-plus. The finalists in the aptly named International Competition represent 25 countries: There’s a life-affirming wartime documentary from Bosnia; a most unexpected romance from Switzerland; a mesmerizing war fantasia set in 1950s Korea; and a harrowing family drama from Venezuela, a country with virtually no feature-film industry. Almost a third of the competition shorts are from non-English-speaking countriesThe wealth of foreign sources affords a chance to peek into other cultures. Films like “God Sleeps in Rwanda,” about how the 1994 genocide opened up opportunities previously unheard of for women in Rwanda, and “Little Terrorist,” about a Pakistani boy accidentally branded a terrorist, allow textbook lessons in recent history. Works that stem more from the imagination – “City Paradise,” a visually mesmerizing piece about an Asian woman in London (made by a French woman in London), and the Australian film “In Your Dreams,” a clever comedy about the literal dream factory – offer other ways of seeing and thinking about the world. It is no stretch of the imagination to say that a filmgoer attending a good portion of Shortsfest will emerge a bit wiser about the world.
“The more you can see the storytelling that comes out of different cultures, the more you see the values of that culture,” said Thielen, who was hired by the Aspen Filmfest board with the intention that the expansion of Shortsfest would be a primary focus. “It’s not that deep an access – what can you find out in six minutes? But accessing that information is a way to understand the values.”One thing that viewers may see is how universal some stories are. The protagonists of “Smoke-Flavored Life” are a high-spirited young girl who insists on watching television and smokes cigarettes to be defiant, and her aggrieved mother. The family drama would be familiar to any American – but the film comes from South Korea. “Everything In This Country Must,” from Northern Ireland, and “Elephants Never Forget,” a Venezuelan film, are both tales of familial animosity and vengeance.”Family is family, friendship is friendship. Hate and poverty and conflict exist everywhere,” said Thielen.
Other times, shorts remind us of how different life and attitudes can be in other cultures. Set along the Pakistani-Indian border, “Little Terrorist,” while confirming human generosity, also shows how dangerous it can be to have a certain religion, a certain name, even a certain haircut. In the special event Australian Cool: The Best of Tropfest, featuring selections from inarguably the most unique short-film festival there is, Shortsfest audiences will get a taste of the signature Austral humor. (Each year Tropfest picks an item – a pickle, chopsticks – that must appear in each film.)”They get way over the top,” said Aspen Shortsfest competition manager (and Thielen’s husband) George Eldred of Australian filmmakers. “They’re not afraid to trammel anything to get a laugh.”But filmmakers need not even cross borders to examine lives that are shocking. In “Family Portrait,” an update of Gordon Parks’ 1968 photo-documentary of the Fontenelle family for Life magazine, the portrayal of American urban poverty seems a world away from Aspen.
While Thielen is a believer in the power of film, she has been determined to give Aspen Shortsfest a palpable human element. Since arriving in Aspen, after a decade as program director of the San Francisco International Film Festival, Thielen has focused on bringing filmmakers to Aspen to participate in Filmfest events. This year’s Shortsfest will host more than 20 filmmakers, arriving from Venezuela, Norway, Latvia, Ukraine, Germany, Ireland and elsewhere (including Egypt, if a visa situation is worked out). The filmmakers will visit schools, conduct clinics for aspiring young cinéastes, speak with audience members – and interact with one another, which Thielen and the filmmakers see as the master stroke of Shortsfest.”As a director, engaging with other directors from around the world – that’s a rarity,” said Australian filmmaker Adam Elliot, a three-time Shortsfest attendee and 2004 Academy Award winner for his animated short film, “Harvie Krumpet.” “You leave the festival having made friends.”The dialogue between filmmakers probably excites Thielen as much as the fact that over the last three years, eight Shortsfest entries have been nominated for Oscars. (Among those is “WASP,” which earned a top prize at its North American premiere here last year, and won the Oscar for best live-action short.) The more languages spoken in that exchange, the better.
“They interact and learn: What are the challenges they face making their short?” said Thielen. “In the U.S., it’s finding financing and other markets to show your film beside festivals. Whereas in Europe, they have huge markets. They have a different kind of economic respect for it.”The American filmmaker has no censorship issue. But not so with a filmmaker from India or Iran, for whom censorship can be a big issue. When they gather and talk about these ideas, that’s pretty special.”Of all the arts – and certainly better than feature films – short films are best able to crystallize these issues of the day. Short films are virtually never made in response to the marketplace, so they represent the makers’ true interest. And with minuscule budgets, tight shooting schedules and scant postproduction work, shorts can go from script to screen in a relative instant.
“Because the production of feature films is so complicated and expensive, the freshness of a feature has the edge taken off. It can be in development for five years,” said Eldred. “With shorts, if someone has an idea, is struck by an emotion, you can make a short in a weekend and show it to people a couple of weeks later.”Directing all those visions to Aspen has been a decade-long project. Compared to the feature-film world, where distribution channels are established, short films are often waiting to be discovered. So each year for the past several years, Eldred travels to the France’s massive Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival, a combination festival and film bazaar, to find filmmakers and spread the word about Aspen Shortsfest.”There’s the festival itself,” he said. “Then there’s a very large market, with 4,000 titles, with a trade show and booths and screenings. And the filmmakers hang out there. It’s a lot of networking.”
While Eldred travels, and Thielen works her contacts at the film commissions of countries from France to Australia – most every country has a government-sponsored film board, except the United States – Shortsfest’s most effective asset for drawing attention has been word-of-mouth.The Aussie filmmaker Elliot, for instance, after showing his first film, “Uncle,” in Aspen in 1997, returned to Australia to give a glowing report to the Australian Film Commission. Soon enough, the commission was sending its film reel – a collection of shorts it has backed – to Aspen Shortsfest for consideration. Instantly, Aspen was a desired destination for short-film makers from Down Under.”Don’t underestimate the word-of-mouth,” said Thielen. “Short-film makers travel the world with their films and they share their good experiences and bad experiences.”
The common wisdom is that Aspen Shortsfest is providing a good experience. Often times, word will filter in that filmmakers who have attended Shortsfest aim to make another short film – specifically so that they can return to Aspen.The 14th annual Aspen Shortsfest runs Wednesday through Sunday, April 6-10, with programs in Aspen, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. For complete program information, go to http://www.aspenfilm.org.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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