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Short and sweet

Janet Urquhart
"The Great Zambini"
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No matter what flickers on the big screen when Aspen Filmfest reels out its 15th annual Aspen Shortsfest, local audiences will see something unique.

The international short-film and video festival set to play in Aspen and Carbondale on April 5-9 is unusual in almost every respect, from the selection of the entries to the relative rarity of the films themselves – many of them will be seen by a veritable handful of viewers, even by small, independent film standards.

Especially in the United States, few film lovers have a chance to see what local audiences have come to expect – a diverse selection of some of the best short films from around the globe.

“There’s not a whole lot of opportunity outside of festivals in the United States for shorts,” said Laura Thielen, Filmfest executive director. “We’re one of the few showcases in the United States exclusively dedicated to shorts.”

The films may be obscure, but Shortsfest is not. The local festival – where winners can gain eligibility for Academy Award nomination – is no secret in the filmmaking world.

“I would say, in a way, our reputation is stronger outside our borders than inside,” Thielen said.

For at least the past four years, films honored at Shortsfest have been among the annual Oscar contenders. Most recently, “God Sleeps in Rwanda,” winner of the 2005 audience award in Aspen, and best-comedy honoree “Our Time is Up” were nominated for Oscars.

This year’s slate of entries was culled from more than 1,900 short films from 45 countries. A group of some 40 volunteer screeners – residents from Aspen to New Castle, ranging from high-school to retirement age – have been watching DVDs and videos weekly since last October, helping Thielen and Filmfest competition manager George Eldred winnow the batch to seven groupings that each feature six to eight shorts.

The screening committee typically involves both veterans and rookies in the art of film evaluation.

“Very few festivals go to the trouble to do something like this,” Eldred said. “They’re usually curated by a rather small programming staff.

“We’ve always wanted to have a take on how our films will play to a local audience,” he explained.

The goal, added Thielen, is an eclectic mix of live action, documentaries and animated shorts.

“What we’re looking for is good storytelling, good filmmaking – fresh ways of using film language, and we’re looking for variety in narrative tone,” she said.

That’s not to say every entry is easy to watch, Eldred clarified. Shortsfest wants films that elicit a strong response, which doesn’t mean the response is always positive.

“An experience may be intense or worthwhile, but may not be likable or enjoyable,” Eldred said. “The more challenging work sometimes takes a little more digesting.”

That said, this year’s selection of shorts – they range in length from 1 minute to 28 minutes – include some that clearly resonated with the screening committee.

“We don’t want to make it an eat-your-spinach kind of experience,” Eldred said.

He quickly rattled off two entries that delighted the screeners – Spain’s “The Great Zambini,” about a father’s attempts to win back his detached son; and Canada/Norway’s “The Danish Poet,” an animated short that will see its North American premiere at Shortsfest.

And, those who laughed at last year’s UK entry, “Dog Years,” should note its waggish sequel, “Dog Years Chapter 2 – Health,” is among this year’s contenders.

There is also one locally produced film on the bill: Tom Eldridge’s documentary, “Beyond Iraq,” captures wounded veterans fighting a new battle on local ski slopes.

As always, Shortsfest is the launching pad for some films. Forty percent of this year’s program constitutes a premiere of some sort – in the United States, North America or internationally, for films that have not yet shown outside their country of origin, Thielen noted.

This year’s judging panel (audiences as a whole bestow the audience award) includes Hollywood cinematographer John Bailey (“The Producers,” “As Good as it Gets”), director Patricia Cardoso, (“Real Women Have Curves”), film critic Bob Denerstein (Rocky Mountain News) and writer-director Jason Reitman, (“Thank You for Smoking”), whose career will be the focus of two Director Spotlight presentations during Shortsfest.

Also awarded by a local jury during Shortfest is The Ellen, named after Filmfest founder Ellen Hunt, to honor the most original film. New this year, the Youth Jury Prize, will be bestowed by a panel of area middle- and high-school students. Their assignment: To select the film that is most removed from their personal experience but to which they most directly connect.

Shortsfest will award a record $28,000 in cash and prizes this year, but for the filmmakers, their shorts are “labors of love,” Thielen contends. Many are low-budget, some are less so, but, in general, they are what she called “beg, borrow and steal” productions that aren’t likely to generate huge audiences or profits.

Several of this year’s entries are the thesis films produced by graduate film students. Some of the filmmakers will go on to bigger things; some of the films will go nowhere.

Among this year’s slate of shorts will invariably be gems with a regrettably short shelf life, according to Eldred.

“Some of these films may never be seen by an American audience outside of a festival,” he said.

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com


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