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Seriously short

Stewart Oksenhorn

Apart from a small, almost insignificant smattering, feature films have made no response to the 9/11 attacks and the altered world left in their wake. Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” had a scarred Lower Manhattan in its backdrop, but was not specifically about post-9/11 issues. Jim Simpson’s “The Guys” dealt more directly with the attacks on New York ” Sigourney Weaver plays a journalist helping a fire captain write eulogies for his deceased men ” but the film barely registered a blip.

The dearth points out the fact that feature films by their nature are ill-suited to respond to current ” or even recent ” events. Feature films can take an awfully long time to make, and even longer to get the go-ahead from their financial backers.

Furthermore, in a media-saturated era when current events, significant and otherwise, are covered relentlessly everywhere, people are often exhausted of the subject by the time a feature film can make its way to the theater. Combine all this with the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent wars that haven’t yielded many happy endings ” or, in a larger sense, any endings ” and it makes for an area that Hollywood shies away from.

“Who would green-light a project that would majorly deal with it?” asked Laura Thielen, executive director of Aspen Filmfest. “Anything involving 9/11 ” people are tired of it. That’s what people are saying. They’re over dealing with it.”

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Short films, and the people who make them, are a different breed. They can be made in a remarkably short amount of time. (In one of the films in Aspen Filmfest’s Shortsfest, which begins March 31, a written introduction boasts that the film was shot in 24 hours.) Short films aren’t expected to be profitable, so attracting and pleasing a wide audience is rarely a principal concern. Instead, the short form has become the repository for filmmakers expressing very personal visions, from the whimsical to the bizarre to the gravely serious.

There is no shortage of the latter in the 13th annual Aspen Shortsfest. With some 60 films from 20 countries to be screened in the International Competition, it’s difficult to generalize about the program. There are documentaries, animated films and even romances, and event organizers say that there are more comedies than they have seen in several years. But Shortsfest 2004 ” which runs Wednesday through Sunday, March 31-April 1, with programs in Aspen, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs ” also features plenty of films grappling with the same issues we read about in the daily papers and weekly news magazines. There is war, prejudice, fear and terrorism, in places from New York City to Kabul, from Australia to a desert highway in the American West. For those looking for art to imitate life ” life in the nervous, dangerous here and now ” Shortsfest should satisfy that craving.

Shorts “can embrace topical issues in a way features can’t,” said Thielen who, in her ninth year at Aspen Filmfest, has turned Shortsfest into one of the world’s top events devoted to short films. “Shorts are not made for the box office, so short filmmakers can engage subject that are topical.”

“If their intent is to express their feelings, ideas and imaginations about topics, they have freedom from the constraints of economics,” said George Eldred, Thielen’s husband and competition manager of Shortsfest.

One topical area that seems to be in the air at Shortsfest 2004 is the clashing of cultures, be it through war, immigration or simply a chance meeting on a subway.

In “Strangers,” two men eye each other suspiciously on a Paris metro ” until they are united by a common threat, and realize they may share more than they know. With massive-scale terrorism having made its way to Europe recently, the film is extremely timely. “That’s an interesting way to engage the issue of what’s happening in Europe. The skinheads, the anti-immigrant atmosphere is a really big part of what’s going on in Western Europe,” said Thielen.

In “Kabul Cinema,” an Afghan teenager gets himself in life-threatening trouble with the Taliban for showing American films in a makeshift pushcart cinema. The film ” which has an odd resonance with the classic “Cinema Paradiso” ” creates an unsettling, realistic landscape with threats, including bombs, burned-out buildings and children left to fend for themselves, everywhere.

“Like Twenty Impossibles,” about a Palestinian film crew shooting near a military checkpoint, emphatically portrays the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Watching the film, one cannot be sure whether the confrontation is staged or real, and in the end it doesn’t matter ” we are convinced of the essential truth of the episode. “That spun me around,” said Thielen. “I thought I was watching a documentary and then at the end there are little things that showed me it was a narrative. I thought, oh, what did I just see?”

“Underground” is, for an 11-minute film, remarkably well-made and compelling. Directed by Aimee Lagos and Kristin Dehnert, the edgy chase film follows an anonymous woman in danger on the New York subway. With one big plot turn, “Underground” plays like a smart, big-budget political thriller in miniature.

More direct is “It’s Like That,” a documentary that uses actual children’s voices to make an argument against the Australian government’s policy of holding immigrants in detention centers. But the film gets an interesting, if questionably effective, twist by using colorful knit puppets standing in for the children.

“American Made,” one of the best Shortsfest entries I previewed, featured a danger of a different kind. A family, en route to the Grand Canyon, experiences a car breakdown in the middle of nowhere; so desolate is their location, the well-to-do son can’t even get a signal on his new $300 cell phone. But the tension here is multileveled: the family are Indian-American Sikhs, with a sharp division between the Indian-born parents and the sons who are convinced that no one these days will stop to pick up their dark-skinned, turban-wearing father. Director Sharat Raju’s film blends comedy and drama, family relations and the bigger world.

“That could easily be preachy, heavy-handed,” said Thielen. “But there’s a trust on the part of the filmmaker that the audience will get it without being hit over the head. They observe, they show you the characters, and they don’t hit you over the head with how you’re supposed to come away from the movie.”

Other films follow “American Made” in telling personal stories set against a backdrop of prejudice and geopolitics. “A Different War” tells the story of Nuni, a 10-year-old Israeli boy who is more interested in acting in his school play than climbing the wall to shout slurs at the Palestinians. “Night in Lima” looks through the eyes of a photojournalist, recalling the final violent days of Peru’s Shining Path guerillas a decade ago. The somber “Deep Silence” follows two young Cuban boys seeking to escape to the United States.

That’s not all …

Shortsfest 2004 opens with the free Local Filmmaker Showcase (Wednesday, March 31, at noon at the Wheeler Opera House), featuring short films by homegrown talent. Among the filmmakers are Yampah High School students Diane Nystrom and Teal Hoffman, whose tragic “Missing” earned Best Film honors in the Local Filmmakers’ Competition; Terry Glasenapp, winner of the Best Cinematography award for his “As One”; and Aspen Community Safety Officer Rick Magnuson, who continues his artistic moonlighting with “Blow Job.”

Away from the screen, Shortsfest presents the Planet Cinema program UPA: The Studio that Jived in the 50s (Wednesday, March 31, at 5:30 p.m. at the Wheeler), about the trailblazing animation house; the Masterworks discussion Storytelling (Saturday, April 3, at 1 p.m. at the Wheeler), with panelists Paul Mazursky, Peter Riegert, Frank Pierson and others; and the Director Spotlight (Sunday, April 4, at 6 p.m. at the Wheeler), with Adam Elliot, Academy Award-winning director of the animated film “Harvie Krumpet.” There are also events centered around low-cost filmmaking and how to maximize exposure for a short film.

ScreenPlay! a program of films for children ages 8-10, is set for Sunday, April 4, at the Wheeler. It also shows Sunday, March 28, at 4 p.m. at the Springs Theatre in Glenwood Springs.

In addition to the daily screening programs in Aspen, Shortsfest will present programs of shorts Friday through Sunday, April 2-4, at the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale.

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

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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