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Short films, big screen at Aspen Film’s Shortsfest

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy Aspen FilmThe 19-minute Indian drama "Kavi" shows Tuesday in the opening day of Aspen Shortsfest's International Short Film Competition.
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ASPEN – Last year, George Eldred, the program director for Aspen Film, championed a film for inclusion in Aspen Shortsfest, the festival devoted to short movies. Among those he had a hard time convincing of the film’s merits was Laura Thielen, the executive director of Aspen Film (and Eldred’s wife). Thielen watched the entry three times and saw nothing especially impressive. Eldred’s enthusiasm, however, won the day, and the film was screened at Shortsfest. Among those in attendance: Thielen, who saw the movie for a fourth time – but her first time viewing it on a big screen.”I saw it through completely different eyes. I was so moved the film,” Thielen said, adding that she actually overlooked a key piece of the plot when watching on her computer screen. “It was a wonderfully humbling moment.”For this year’s Shortsfest – which opens Tuesday, and runs through Sunday, April 11 – Thielen changed her viewing habits. Instead of watching the submissions on her computer, she has previewed them on a large TV screen.The viewing experience has changed dramatically in the nearly two decades since the founding of Aspen Shortsfest. The size of the screen is only the beginning: We watch films alone at home; we watch them in bits and pieces, interrupted by phone calls, instant messages and email alerts. We stumble on them accidentally as we’re surfing the web, or watch them after reading a plethora of reviews on our favorite movie-oriented website. Probably no sector of the film realm has been affected like shorts, which have advanced from a tiny corner of the movie universe to a practically everyday habit, thanks to YouTube.But events like Aspen Shortsfest remain at some distance from spending a few hours online, clicking on one YouTube video after another. For starters, the available selection is different. Thielen estimates that 90 percent of the 88 films in the Shortsfest 2010 International Competition cannot be seen yet online. A big reason is that Shortsfest is a qualifying event for Academy Award consideration, and any film available online automatically drops out of that pipeline. (After a film earns one of the top honors at Shortsfest, and thus becomes Oscar-eligible, it may then be posted online).Such technical matters aside, tendencies that rule the computer-viewing experience don’t affect the festival experience. Online viewing is generally done in brief spurts – between tasks at work, while waiting for a lunch date to arrive at the caf – and thus doesn’t permit for focused viewing. Thielen says these habits have led to certain genres of films becoming computer-friendly, while others are not readily enjoyed online.”On YouTube you tend to find music videos and gag films and spoofs,” she said. “And they’re really delightful for the most part, little pick-me-ups. They’re short, humorous, gag-oriented, urban myth-oriented, clever.””Festivals have a broader spectrum of film – longer films, foreign language films, films that engage you on a different level. They’re character-driven. And that’s a big difference.”As significant as the content is the viewing experience itself. Thielen mentions the viewing habits of her 18-year-old daughter, Caelina, who watches a movie on TV while talking on the phone, texting and keeping an eye on her computer screen. “Watching a small screen, with other distractions going on – that’s a break,” Thielen said. “That’s a really different experience than entering a dark, quite theater and your focus is totally on the screen. There’s an intention when you go into the theater – it’s an immersion.”That more committed frame of mind leads to an environment where certain kinds of films can be best enjoyed. Films with richer emotions and more complex plots, and of longer endurance are best reserved for the festival setting. Thielen points to “The History of Aviation,” which is included in Shortsfest 2010, that probably wouldn’t work in computer mode. (That is if it you could even find the film, a French-Hungarian production.) She says there is a plot element so subtle, a viewer probably wouldn’t even catch it in the relatively low resolution of online viewing. And of “Non-Love-Song,” an 8-minute American work in black and white, she says, “It’s very poignant, a delicate sensibility. Because of the climate of what you see on YouTube, those strands might be missing.”Thielen notes that festivals are still the place where career-minded filmmakers look to screen their shorts. The Internet is not the place for “furthering the art and craft and language of film,” she said.That may be changing. The festival experience and the solitary computer-gazing may be coming closer together. Thielen notes that the winner of the jury prize for short films at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year was “Drunk History: Douglass & Lincoln.” The “Drunk History” series has had a prominent Internet presence.People who make short films are in it, above all, for their work to get noticed. The easiest way to get viewers is to post your movie on the Internet.”People want people to see their shorts,” Thielen said. “So we’ll see more shorts on the Internet. We might see a short-film platform where the shorts you’d see in a festival might be provided on the Internet.”stewart@aspentimes.com

Aspen Shortsfest opens Tuesday and runs through Sunday, April 11 with daily programs at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen. There are also screening programs at the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale on Friday and Saturday, April 9-10. In addition to 10 competition programs – two more than in previous years – there are special events, including the kids-oriented Films for Families; Tropfest’s Best: 7 Minutes or Less, featuring films from Australia’s Tropfest; and Micro Moviemaking with Lewis Teague, a presentation about the cutting-edge of making and distributing films.For full program information, go to http://www.aspenfilm.org.


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