Short on time, long on potential

Stewart Oksenhorn
"The Tragic Story of Nling" shows at this week's Aspen Shortsfest. (Courtesy Aspen Film)

In the thriving world of short films, fast and cheap are in. Given that a short film can be shot with one small camera, edited on a laptop, uploaded onto YouTube and downloaded to an iPod or viewed on a computer screen (in a matter of hours!), there is a novelty attraction to seeing just how quickly and for how little money a short film can be produced and distributed. Even Aspen Film’s Shortsfest, which aims toward the upper end in terms of quality, is fascinated by bargain-basement filmmaking. The 16th edition of Aspen Shortsfest, which opens this week, includes the special presentation, For a Fistful of Dollars … Or Less, focusing on low-budget productions. According to Aspen Film’s promotional materials, the event grew out of director Lewis Teague’s desire “to see how simply and inexpensively he could make a movie”; the workshop “promises to shed light on do-it-yourself digital filmmaking, especially for anyone with limited resources who wants to tell a personal story.”The emphasis of on-the-cheap movie-making and the popularity of the one-note (but admittedly funny) “Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager” series tend to obscure the flip side of short films: They can be rich, ambitious, even sublime exercises in creativity and embrace all the elements – cinematography, emotion, narrative – audiences look for in a feature-length film. It may be that the explosion in cheap filmmaking is helping to fuel the more expansive efforts: With added exposure, and more distribution lines, for short films generally, there may be more money available for the serious-minded filmmaker. Among the 60 films to be screened in Aspen Shortsfest’s International Competition, there are several that are the cinematic equivalent of the one-liner, tiny bursts of creativity with a quick, easy payoff. And then there is a film like “Love and War.” The weighty title is, on the surface, a joke; the film, by Sweden’s Fredrik Emilson, is a puppet animation. But once an audience has experienced the 15 exquisite minutes that make up the movie, the concept of a short-film epic seems not impossible. “Love and War” is an opera, and true to the form in all respects, from the original score to the sense of tragedy to the grand set design. The story includes flashbacks, air wars, romance and a vivid evocation of time and place. The emotions are rendered so convincingly, and on such a big scale, that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the characters – Bunny and Bear – are played by inanimate puppets.Raising the stakes even higher is the fact that Emilson not only wrote and directed the film, but edited and shot it, and composed the operatic score.

“The libretto, the score, the directing, the editing – he did it all,” said Aspen Film executive director Laura Thielen. “I was blown away.”A film need not be so serious in theme, or innovative in style, to convey that sense of accomplishment. Shortsfest will screen shorts in a variety of genres that reveal a budding talent behind the camera.”It’s when you feel a voice, a really strong filmic voice, that’s exciting,” said Thielen, who has taken Aspen Shortsfest from a small-scale event to a festival that this year runs six days, features nearly 40 filmmakers and other guests, and screens shorts from some 30 countries. “You say, I want to see what else this director, or this writer, is going to do.”Not infrequently, a short film serves as an announcement of the impending arrival of a world-class filmmaker. Those who saw the 1968 short “Amblin’,” a 26-minute piece about two people traveling to the beach, saw the kernel of genius in its writer-director, Steve Spielberg. Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles had a short, “Golden Gate,” that earned top honors at Shortsfest 2002; the next year, Meirelles was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for his feature-length ghetto drama, “City of God.” Australian filmmaker Robert Luketic was also a prize-winner in Aspen for his 1997 student comedy “Titsiana Booberini”; he followed with the 2001 hit, “Legally Blonde.”Among the more fully realized films in Shortsfest 2007 is “Tanghi Argentini,” by Belgium’s Guido Thys. It is a slightly goofy comedy about a dour-looking office worker who tries to convince a fellow employee to give him tango lessons. There is a clever twist at the end – common in short films, though this one is more poignant than most. But Thys distinguishes himself throughout the 13 minutes, with excellent lighting, a distinctive comic tone, and even the choreography.”You can’t call that a real serious story,” said Thielen. “But you can tell that someone thought out how every second of that film would be presented.”It shows how a short film can actually resonate with you. Sometimes it resonates on an emotional level, sometimes on an aesthetic level.”

Another film that hits on all cylinders is “Sarah & Dee,” Karen Dee Carpenter’s tale of two young girls cleaning houses of the well-to-do. The soundtrack itself shows a skill and thoroughness; soul, hip-hop and classical sounds are deftly employed to punctuate the action. The story, too, and the emotional line it follows are impressive, particularly for a student film.”The energy of the film, the moods it moves through – very satisfying, using the cinematic medium to tell the story,” said Thielen.The short has long been an ideal medium for trying out animation techniques, and animated films have thus often been among the most accomplished short works. About “McLaren’s Negatives,” Marie-Josée Saint-Pierre’s documentary of fellow Canadian animator Norman McLaren, Thielen said, “It’s ambitious for someone to take a legendary animator, then make an animated documentary. It’s a micro-portrait, in 10 minutes.” (It is notable that “McLaren’s Negatives” is the second animated documentary about a Canadian animator to screen at Shortsfest in three years. “Ryan,” Chris Landreth’s stunning portrait of Ryan Larkin, went on to win an Academy Award.)”The Tragic Story of Nling” – from yet another Canadian animator, Jeffrey St. Jules – demonstrated a similar reach, experimenting with character, dialogue and visual texture. The 15-minute black-and-white film features an alcohol-obsessed man in a postapocalyptic background, with his fellow survivor, a philosophizing donkey.Polished films can come from the most unlikely of places. “Clear Cut, Simple” is from Vineet Dewan, a Bahranian-born filmmaker studying in the States. His film, about the fragility of friendships in wartime, sports a convincing war-torn background.”I’m wondering – where did he get all the props?” said Thielen. “How does he make it look like a war film? And I was totally taken in by the way it’s cut, the way it’s put together.”Of course, in all films, but probably most true of shorts, the essential element is telling a story. There’s nothing remarkable about the way “The Twinkle in My Eyes” looks; the 11-minute Brazilian film is mostly in black-and-white, marked by street scenes. Yet the story of the transformation of a construction worker seeps under the viewer’s skin.

“It’s the storytelling,” said Thielen. “It’s how you’re drawn in by how the filmmaker structures the narrative, and you’re drawn into what makes the character tick. And they do it in a very, very short period of time.”Aspen Shortsfest opens Sunday, April 1, with the Local Filmmakers Showcase, a free screening program. The top prize-winner will have his film screened during the International Competition.Some 60 films, representing nearly 30 countries, compete in the International Competition, presented with other shorts in eight screening programs. There are two programs each day, Tuesday through Friday, April 3-6. Screening programs will also be presented Friday through Sunday, April 6-8, at Carbondale’s Crystal Theatre.Special presentation include Planet Cinema: New French Shorts, hosted by Roger Gonin, program director of France’s Clermont-Ferrand festival, the largest festival devoted to short films; the Masterworks event The Art of Film Editing, featuring several top Hollywood editors; and the family film program, Lights, Camera, Kids.

All Aspen events are at the Wheeler Opera House. For a full schedule of events, go to Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is