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Shortfest embraces French revolution

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ASPEN Contrary to some accounts, the Festival du Court Métrage de Clermont-Ferrand was not the first festival devoted to short films. For several years before the Clermont-Ferrand festival began, in 1979, in the university town of the same name in the Auvergne region of central France, France’s National Center of Cinematography presented an event limited to shorts. That festival changed locations annually, and occasionally ran out of funds. Among the problems with that festival was that the people charged with organizing it were filmmakers and other industry insiders, whose minds were occupied with other pursuits.Clermont-Ferrand is, in fact, the biggest short-film festival and the oldest still in existence. And the truth is that the people who founded it had their minds on other things besides shorts. Or at least, they should have.The Clermont-Ferrand festival originated with the Cinema Club at the Université Blaise-Pascal. The club, comprising a bunch of students who were not studying film, would typically devote a week to a certain genre of films: German films one week, all animated films another. One week, the club turned its attention to the realm of shorts, and quickly found out just how small the world of shorts was.”People said we were totally stupid, because short films are not appreciated at that time,” said Roger Gonin, a civil engineering student at Clermont-Ferrand, and one of the five core members of the Cinema Club. “They were just something they showed before the feature film. There were no good short films.”In France, we call short films, court métrage – that means short length. You said that, but it didn’t have any meaning for people. It was like a bad movie before a feature film. It was hard to promote this.”

Gonin uses a term – “’68 retarded” – to describe the management structure of the Clermont-Ferrand festival. The phrase comes from the 1968 student riots that rocked the Old Guard of France, and Gonin uses it to describe a certain chaotic structure that rules the festival. Clermont-Ferrand is run by a handful of program directors who share responsibilities for the festival, with few specific duties clearly delineated. Gonin is joined on the staff by three more members of that student Cinema Club back in 1979; only one of the five core members of the club has left the organization.”’68 retarded” could also describe the spirit that has transformed a Cinema Club event into a massive nine-day festival, one that utilizes 12 venues and last year drew an audience of 135,000. Gonin says there was never a plan or vision for Clermont-Ferrand, just a lot of contagious energy. (If there had been a plan, it likely would have included different dates. As it is, the festival takes place each year in midwinter.)”It couldn’t have been planned,” he said. “We were doing this because we liked it; we never figured out what we were going to do. It was just by cinema passion.”While Gonin uses 1968 as a descriptive phrase, Clermont-Ferrand was, in fact, driven by the spirit of that tumultuous year and the upheaval that followed. In America, a parallel social revolution was reflected in the independent-film movement that resulted in such anti-establishment statements as “Five Easy Pieces,” “Mean Streets” and a film mentioned by Gonin, “Easy Rider.” The German cinema had its own awakening. Gonin and his fellow film lovers rode that spirit in creating, then building, Clermont-Ferrand.”The short-film wave was part of that,” said Gonin, a voluble 55-year-old who will present New French Shorts, a screening program of eight French films, tomorrow as part of Aspen Shortsfest’s Planet Cinema segment. “It was new and exciting – it was free speech; it was experimental.

“Everyone in my generation, we were fighting against the old generation. We had something new to give the world, a new approach of cinema. There was a lot of thinking that cinema could change the world. People wanted to make statements.”Gonin still seems filled with the spirit of 1968. To hear him talk about what happens at Clermont-Ferrand, and its non-commercial, anti-corporate atmosphere, one might picture it as a sort of demonstration.”People can meet and make projects and get excited,” said Gonin. “They need to find this. With feature films, it’s harder and harder to make them. Things are coming again through short films. It’s why this short-film community is important – not for money, but for the industry, for the new generation.”To Gonin, short films still have a link to youthful rebelliousness – for aspiring filmmakers as much as for audiences. “When you’re young, people can relate more to short films,” said Gonin, who made two shorts himself in the ’80s. (Neither of them, he said, was very good. Apart from filmmaker, another job he held in the early years was cashier at a porn-film theater.) “People see it and say, ‘Oh, maybe I can do that myself.’ It’s close to people. It’s not like a Hollywood film, which seems far away.”Clermont-Ferrand may have been born of grassroots effort, and may even retain its independent flavor. But it’s hard to get that taste from a continent away.This year’s festival, held in late January and early February, had 183 films showing in competition, in three categories: French, International, and Lab, which began as a competition for digital movies, and now encompasses all sorts of experimental creations. Those 183 films were selected from 5,600 submissions. (When I asked Gonin how those thousands of entries were whittled down to a manageable number, he began his explanation by noting that the submissions were divided into country. He then abandoned the explanation, both of us content to leave me with the understanding that it is a monumental and complex task.)



The films are separated into more than 50 themed screening programs; each program is presented seven times. Of the 12 venues the festival occupies over its nine-day span, the Jean Cocteau Theatre, with a seating capacity of 1,400, is the largest; the rest are considerably smaller. The slick, full-color program guide that accompanied this year’s festival compares in mass with a copy of one of Aspen’s glossy magazines.Referring to Clermont-Ferrand simply as a festival diminishes the breadth of the organization. Sixteen full-time employees run a short-film market that caters to international buyers and sellers, and operate the Commision du Film d’Auvergne, which attracts film business to the region. La Jetée, a building which opened in 2000, holds not only the festival offices, but also a library devoted to film – specializing, of course, in short films – run by the organization. There is also an extensive education program.”It’s really vital for the world community, not only for a place for films to be seen by an audience, but also for the filmmakers, buyers from TV stations, distributors,” said George Eldred, the program director of Aspen Shortsfest, who has attended Clermont-Ferrand some seven times. “It’s like a combination of an audience festival, like Aspen, and a marketplace, like Sundance. It has that flavor of Sundance.”Short films are not the best-known industry based in the town of Clermont-Ferrand. Michelin, maker of tires and travel guides, was incorporated in the town in the 19th century. The world’s largest manufacturer of tires, Michelin is the primary employer in the area.But it’s hard to imagine that the tire giant has as much of a spiritual impact on Clermont-Ferrand as the festival. “This is the main event in the town,” said Gonin. “During that one week, you think everyone is warm, friendly, likes to talk to each other. Then, a week later, that totally disappears.”

As big as the event, and the organization, have become, Gonin says Clermont-Ferrand retains its rebellious spirit. It may always be thus, given how small a fraction of the entertainment domain is occupied by short films. “We have to fight to attract the newer generation,” said Gonin. “So we do education programs, work a lot with schools, trying to get that new audience.”But it is a cause worth fighting, and Gonin sees small victories all the time. The press, he said, had no idea how to write about short films in the early ’80s; there were no movie stars, few outlets for the work, and little audience. Now, he says, with short-film dominating the Internet site YouTube, shorts are actually in vogue. Thirty years after the founding of Clermont-Ferrand, the festival has a balance of influence in the industry, popularity with an audience, and counterculture ideology.”It’s still a new approach,” said Gonin of shorts. “But films like ‘Babel’ – it looks like short films put together. This is a force. “People need to have films to talk about. And French people love to talk about films.”Planet Cinema: New French Shorts, presented by Roger Gonin, Saturday, April 7, at 5 p.m. at Wheeler Opera House




Also this weekend at Aspen Shortsfest: The International Competition closes with two programs today, at 5:30 and 8:45 p.m. Each program will be followed by discussions with the filmmakers.For a Fistful of Dollars … Or Less, a free presentation on low-budget filmmaking, will be given by Lewis Teague Saturday at 2 p.m. Teague, who has directed the feature films “Cujo” and “Navy Seals,” will screen his new short film, “Cante Jondo,” about two brothers in Barcelona.The International Competition Awards Ceremony is set for 3:30 p.m. Saturday. Masterworks Clips & Conversation: The Art of Film Editing, featuring the editors responsible for such Hollywood films as “The Accidental Tourist,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Gosford Park” and “E.T.,” takes place Saturday at 8 p.m.The family-friendly screening program “Lights, Camera, Kids” is set for Sunday at 4:30 p.m.All the above events are at the Wheeler Opera House.

In addition, screening programs will be presented today through Sunday at the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale. There are two programs today and Saturday, at 5:30 and 8 p.m., with one program, at 7 p.m. Sunday.For a full Shortsfest schedule, go to http://www.aspentimes.com/film.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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