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Shorts examine ‘reel life’ in an anxious world

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
"One Bridge to the Next" is among the short films on the schedule for Aspen Shortsfest, April 2-6. (Courtesy Aspen Film)
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If the cinema were ever a place to escape from the world’s troubles, then it no longer is.

The most recent slate of Academy Award nominees featured a slice of morally corrupt corporate life and a pair of sociopaths wreaking havoc with, respectively, a cattle gun and a bowling pin. The comedy in the bunch centered on a pregnant 16-year-old.

Those looking for an alternative to a reflection on societal ills won’t necessarily find it in the realm of short films. If anything, makers of short films tend to look at the dark corners of the globe with more clarity than their counterparts in the feature-length domain. Shorts are made with fewer filters ” there are generally no commercial considerations, so there aren’t layers of producers expecting a return on their investment, and thus demanding a happy ending or an element to appeal to the 15-24-year-old demographic.



The people who make shorts are usually in a position to give an unblinking assessment of the world. As often as not, they focus on something in their immediate surroundings that weighs on their mind.

“The filmmakers in shorts tend to be young,” said Laura Thielen, executive director of Aspen Film, which presents its 17th annual Aspen Shortsfest beginning this week. “And because of that, they’re more immersed in their reality, more sensitive to the world. They have a camera and a crew, and it’s: ‘What should we do?’ There’s something very fresh and unmediated about what they do.”




Thielen added that younger people by their nature have a radar for social issues. “The older you get, the more world perspective you have, and you’re not an activist in the same way,” she said. With makers of shorts, “there’s an urgency to grappling with big issues.”

Moreover, the current state of the planet seems to provide no end of concerns for short-film directors to raise. Shortsfest ’08 ” which includes 53 films from 30 countries ” offers glimpses of racism, homelessness, death, war and everyday street crime. There are even several perspectives on the physical temperature of the globe. The festival has romances, comedies, lyrical animated fare, and works that weave together a variety of textures, but filmgoers seeking to put their finger on the anxious pulse of the times will have a full immersion.

Thielen says short films provide a means of engaging with those difficulties and anxieties. She hints, in fact, that it is part of the Shortsfest mission to foster a dialogue regarding the world’s ills. Aspen may seem far from New Orleans, Iraq or Greenland. But as technology continues to “shrink” the world, citizens need to understand ways to understand other groups who have become, in effect, their new neighbors. A festival of international films can kick-start that process.

“The world is a tough place right now,” said Thielen. “I think where we are in the world, the U.S. and how we are perceived, makes it more important than ever to connect with other cultures. Shortsfest is a way to overcome that isolation that we can feel.”

Perhaps no film in Shortsfest ’08 reveals Earth’s disappearing boundaries better than “Silent Snow.” A Dutch production directed by Jan van den Berg, the 14-minute piece is set in northern Greenland, a place of glorious beauty and ancient traditions of fishing, eating and working. But the villages there are literally melting away; places once accessible by dog sled are now water-locked. One of many fears is the mercury level in the fish that makes up most of the people’s diet; as the film’s characters point out, the sources of those pollutants are in countries miles away, places they’ve never seen.

“Silent Snow” takes an interesting perspective by telling its story ” a fusion of documentary and narrative ” through the eyes of two teenage girls. They are old enough to grasp the enormity of the problems, innocent enough to be able to put it out of their minds temporarily, and young enough to represent a future that balances despair with a measure of hope.

“It’s not Al Gore and a bunch of numbers,” noted Thielen. “It’s also about family.”

“Silent Snow” is representative of a group of films that dive into bleak subjects, and come away with solutions, hope or, at the very least, a dose of humanity. Making a film, like any creative pursuit, is an act of hope. Thielen applauds filmmakers, and film viewers, who can stare into the abyss and come away resolved to take steps to improve things.

“We can get really bogged down by that depressing sentiment,” she said. “But it’s about us, and the changes we can effect. There’s that spirit of hope. Even if the world is an anxious place, these films embody what one person can do.”

The most precise example is “One Bridge to the Next,” Kim A. Snyder’s examination of homelessness in Pittsburgh. The 33-minute documentary can be wrenching as it portrays several capable, intelligent people who have been dragged by circumstances into the streets. But Snyder puts much of her focus on Dr. Jim Withers, a benevolent physician who practices in the emerging field of “street medicine,” making “house calls” to bus shelters and bridge underpasses. (Withers, Snyder and Greg Poschman, an Aspen cinematographer who filmed the short, will appear in a special presentation on Thursday, April 3, at 2 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House.)

“Drowning River” exposes the environmental disgrace that is the Glen Canyon Dam, as seen through the eyes of activist, singer and former Aspenite Katie Lee.

Similar in activist intent, but darker in tone, is “Come Back to Sudan.” The 29-minute film by Daniel Junge and Patti Bonnet profiles several “Lost Boys” ” Sudanese children who became refugees during the country’s civil war. The boys ” now men ” return to Africa (with the adoptive mother, Coloradan Jean Wood) determined to help their families. What exactly they can do, however, is left an open question.

Such thorny issues are addressed in narrative films as well. “Waves,” an accomplished and compelling Romanian film, raises questions about racism, classism and the desire to do good deeds. It also demonstrates that a day at the beach is not always a day at the beach. The brief British film “John and Karen” dissects the anxieties common to relationships ” even when the characters are animated. John is a polar bear, and Karen is a penguin.

Two films examine the tensions inherent in unexpected relationships, and how such unease can be resolved. “Have You Heard About Vukovar?” throws together a shaky young American soldier, a veteran of the war in Iraq, with a Croatian native. The two learn that things are tough all over, and in that realization, they warm to one another. In the Romanian film “Life’s Hard,” a well-to-do businesswoman and a street thief bond during a tough drive through the city.

George Eldred, the program director of Shortsfest, says such films are not driven by the subject matter, but by how the characters are presented.

“It’s whether there’s a glimmer of hope,” he said. “It’s how we are left feeling about these characters, and the direction we see them heading. When hope goes, we truly are in a dark place and can’t find our way out.”

Which is not to say that hope exists in every short. Some wounds are so raw that optimism has been squeezed out of the frame. “The Second Line,” by John Magary, is set in post-Katrina Louisiana, among FEMA trailers, destroyed neighborhoods and an overbearing sense of unease. The film offers the possibility of reconciliation, but the combination of natural and man-made disasters are eventually too much, and the film ends with a brutal thud.

“You completely get his frustration,” said Thielen. “You understand his desperation. It’s victims taking advantage of each other. It’s, how low can you go?”

“You don’t feel like the characters are finding their way out,” added Eldred. “It’s more like they’re just starting to get into their bind.”

stewart@aspentimes.com