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Shortsfest goes around the world in five days

Stewart Oksenhorn
Palestinian director Sameh Zoabi's "Be Quiet" was shot in the Middle East. The film is part of the Aspen Shortsfest program. (Courtesy Aspen Filmfest)
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Aspen Shortsfest can trot out the usual statistics to back its status as an “international” festival of short films.

The International Competition features films from some 13 countries, including Argentina, Switzerland, Israel and Norway. The 49 finalists showing in the competition’s seven programs were selected from submissions from more than 40 countries. Filmmakers representing Australia, Palestinian areas, Canada, Israel, South Africa, France and more are expected in attendance at the 15th annual Shortsfest, which opens today and runs through Sunday.

International, however, doesn’t simply mean presenting movies and filmmakers from foreign soil. More and more, Shortsfest is seeing artists from different nations actually interacting to create their work, or filmmakers crossing borders and cultures to reflect the realities of this connected world. In Shortsfest 2006, there is a short by a Palestinian Columbia University film student who returned to the West Bank to shoot his film; a collaboration between Britons and Finns; a British filmmaker telling an Indian story; and a tale of Chinese immigrants in Australia.

“What’s interesting this year is we have filmmakers who are straddling two continents,” said Laura Thielen, executive director of Aspen Filmfest. “You’ve got filmmakers really crossing borders and going back in recent history; it’s a much broader awareness of the world at large.”

One example of this worldliness showing in tonight’s Program One (5:30 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House) is “Lucky.” The U.K. production is set in, and was shot in, South Africa; it features a British director and a South African producer. And in 20 minutes, the film, about a young boy who moves from a village to the city of Durban, encompasses issues that extend beyond England or Africa.

“It deals with so many different aspects of living in South Africa: the racial issues of South Africans and Asians; with poverty; with the reality of children orphaned by AIDS; the transition from village life to city life,” Thielen said.

“Bawke,” which shows in tonight’s Program Two (8:15 p.m.) is an entirely Norwegian production. But the theme – father-and-son refugees looking for a better life in Norway – and the director’s name, Hisham Zaman, suggest a concern with Turkish immigration into Western Europe. “Rajkumari,” by British filmmaker Victoria Harwood, was shot in India.

“And it’s an Indian story,” Thielen said. “The protagonist is an Indian girl who goes from the country to spend a day in the city with her father. You see the disparity between country life and city life, and the little trickles of Westernism through the story.”

“Be Quiet” comes from Palestinian director Sameh Zoabi, and the film, about a father and his young son negotiating the treacherous checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank, was shot in the Middle East. Zoabi, however, is a film student at Columbia, in New York, and the film was financed partly with French money. Another Columbia student, Tala Hadid, directed “Your Dark Hair Ihsan,” shot in Morocco.

“The Last Chip,” by Chinese-Australian director Heng Tang, focuses on a Chinese experience in Australia. The story is of three old friends, all of Asian descent, spending a night at a local casino. “The story is definitely about a Chinese experience in Australia. It’s not a cultural clash, but a cultural co-mingling.”

Despite the global awareness of the films, Thielen says the vast majority are not big-picture views of the world. Instead, they are personal, small-scale tales of people living in particular corners of a dynamic world.

The filmmakers are “refracting their stories in very intimate ways,” she said. “They’re not broad political strokes, but showing how world events impact people in a very personal, significant way.”

Shortsfest offers a variety of avenues for filmgoers to interact with the world of short films.

The International Competition features seven programs at the Wheeler Opera House, today through Saturday. Shorts programs will be presented at Carbondale’s Crystal Theatre from Friday through Sunday. And the ScreenPlay! Family Program, aimed at movie fans ages 10 and up, is set for Sunday afternoon in Aspen.

Apart from the screenings, Shortsfest offers a slate of special presentations.

Aspen filmmaker Bob Rafelson (“Five Easy Pieces,” “Mountains of the Moon”) will present part two of his Confessions of a Filmmaker (5:30 p.m. Thursday), featuring clips from his films and insights into the art and business of filmmaking. Jason Reitman, who has appeared with his films several times at Shortsfest, is featured in two Director Spotlight events: Reitman will engage in a conversation about his short films at noon Friday; Sunday will see a screening of his feature-length debut, “Thank You For Smoking” (7:30 p.m.), a satire that stars Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, William H. Macy and Robert Duvall.

Other special events include Masterworks: In the Director’s Chair, with writer-director Frank Pierson moderating a panel that includes Paul Haggis, Tom McCarthy and Mark and Michael Polish (Saturday); and Frank Pierson Presents “Dog Day Afternoon,” in which the writer deconstructs his 1975 Oscar-winning script.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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