Your Guide to Aspen Shortsfest 2021
Ones to watch at the virtual Oscar-qualifying film festival
What: Aspen Shortsfest
Where: Eventive via aspenfilm.org
When: April 6-11
How much: $15/single program; $60/Five Program Pass; $150/Full Virtual Pass; $250/VIP Pass; $45/student pass
More info: Film programs can be viewed anytime during the festival run
Aspen Shortsfest was the first major Aspen event to go virtual in spring 2020, during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic and the stay-home order in Aspen. A year later, Shortsfest is launch its second virtual iteration with a diverse 80-film lineup of titles vying for awards in the Oscar-qualifying festival as it celebrates its 30th anniversary.
A whole digital ecosystem of virtual events have sprung up since then, though film festivals are arguably the best suited to move online and offer the most upside to audiences as they break down geographic barriers of entry to festivals big and small.
Film societies like Aspen Film, which produces Shortsfest, have honed the viewer experience over the past year as virtual event companies have innovated to serve the masses attending festivals from home.
“Within the last year, they’ve really gotten a lot more sophisticated in terms of what they’re able to do and what they offer with livestreams and an interactive component,” said Aspen Film executive and artistic director Susan Wrubel. “There’s a lot of customization that you can do.”
Shortsfest will be hosted on the Eventive platform, which has also hosted Aspen Film Presents screening throughout the pandemic and the online portion of the hybrid Aspen FIlmest in the fall. Co-founder Iddo Patt is also leading a panel about virtual cinema and how the last year of online festivals has changed the landscape.
Such panels, Q&A sessions and interactive spaces at Shortsfest are being produced by Filmocracy, which has created a virtual Wheeler Opera House, Red Brick Center and Aspen Art Museum to host the livestream events and give a taste of the physical Shortsfest experience.
The 80 films in the lineup are spread across 10 programs, each including a dose of drama, comedy, documentary and animation, plus an 11th “Family Fun” program with international kid-friendly fare. Competition was stiff as ever to screen at Shortsfest, despite the pandemic shut down of film production and theatrical distribution over the past year. Shortsfest received about 3,000 submissions for 2021, only about 100 less than last year.
Women filmmakers landed the majority of festival selections, a rarity in an industry of persistent and savage gender inequity. More than two-thirds – 55 – of Shortsfest titles are directed or co-directed by women.
The virtual event space includes daily live events including two Filmmaker Q&As daily, interactive Sip & Chat meetings with filmmakers, three workshops and an interview with director Reinaldo Marcus Green on Saturday night. The Shortsfest Awards Presentation will livestream at 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 17m followed by a screening of all the winners. Details at aspenfilm.org
The festival includes films from 28 countries and, as audiences and the industry have come to expect over the past three decades, an eclectic mix of animation, comedy, documentary, drama and “short short.”
The 2021 slate of films features six world premieres, three international premieres, seven North American premieres and 15 U.S. premieres. There’s also a bumper crop of stand-out films made by established actors going behind the camera.
All 11 programs will be available on-demand throughout the six-day festival. If you’re having trouble picking a program, you can’t go wrong with the titles in our “Ones to Watch” list here.
“Close Ties to Home Country,” Program 8
A clever and scathing comedy from the Chicago-based director Akanksha Cruczynski, “Close Ties” pairs a dog-sitter from India with an Instagram influencer’s fur baby while the couple is traveling in India. Shortsfest is its world premiere.
“David,” Program 2
A therapist (Will Ferrell!) attempts to balance the demands of a needy patient (William Jackson Harper of “The Good Place”) and a high school wrestler son (Fred Hechinger from “News of the World”). Hilarity ensues, of course, with a sneaky dose of pathos in this directorial debut from actor Zach Woods.
“The Price of Cheap Rent,” Program 4
“Daily Show” alum Wyatt Cenac stars in his quick but deep 7-minute mock doc about an artist trying to find affordable housing in the city skewers gentrification while reflecting on economic and ethical challenges for Black millenials in its slipstream.
“The Recorder,” Program 8
Surreal and genuinely surprising, it takes viewers on a bizarre journey to buy a recorder from an eccentric played by the brilliant and every-quirky character actress O-Lan Jones. This is a world premiere and the second short made by Denver-bred actress Justine Lupe (“Succession”), whose “South of Bix” played the festival last year.
“Affairs of the Art,” Program 4
The latest from animator and two-time Academy Award nominee Joanna Quinn, this 16-minute short is rendered in her signature charcoal-drawn style and her long-running character Beryl, who here hilariously details her family’s odd obsessions. The Shortsfest screening marks the British film’s U.S. premiere.
“Bandit Hill,” Program 11
Playing in the “Family Fun” program, this short-short hybrid of animation and live action by the adventure filmmaker Scotty Carlson is sure to be a hit with mountain bikers of all ages. Shortsfest is its U.S. premiere.
“Dream Eater,” Program 11
An imaginative and kid-friendly South Korean entry, “Dream Eater” imagines a monster that eats happy dreams. This is its U.S. premiere.
“Old Dog,” Program 6
This heartbreaker of a short-short by Ann Marie Fleming is about love, an elderly pug named Henry and his owner.
“Roborovski,” Program 1
Co-directed and written by actor Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “Lion”), this pet shop-set animated adventure follows the titular hamster as he hatches a dastardly plot to stop being ignored by the people and animals around him. Shortsfest is its international premiere.
“E14,” Program 10
One of just a handful of Shortsfest selections about the COVID-19 pandemic, this incisive doc tells the story of the initial spring 2020 lockdown in London from the window of a high-rise apartment. You won’t have seen anything like it before, and after its 20 minutes you will have new questions about the post-pandemic world to come.The festival marks its North American premiere.
“Squirrel Wars,” Program 2
Stranger than fiction and emblematic of our polarized moment in time, this is the true tale of how in 2020 even an online community focused on cute squirrels and the cute things they do was ruined, infiltrated by actual Nazis and turned into a bitter hellscape of American politics. The latest from “Fight Like a Girl” director Jill Morley, Shortsfest marks “Squirrel Wars” world premiere.
“Welcome Strangers,” Program 9
What happens to detained asylum-seeking immigrants are released from an ICE facility into the unfamiliar streets of Denver every night? Here we meet the young activists and volunteers who greet them, clothe them, house them and attempt to reunite their families.
“Are You Still There?” Program 6
This is the debut narrative film by Oscar-winning documentarians Rayka Zehtabchi and Sam Davis (“Period. End of Sentence”), which mines emotional depths in the story of a teen in a car with a dead battery.
“Chuj Boys of Summer,” Program 1
A must-watch for anyone who lives in a Colorado mountain town, this is a based-on-a-true story slice of life about a pair of young indigenous Guatemalans living and working in Telluride.
“Plaisir,” Program 1
Eleanore is a young and naïve American who barely speaks French. When she goes to work on a farm in the French countryside, she has to find a way to communicate and to find herself.
“Proof of Loss,” Program 8
In this melodrama, Dylan McDermott and his daughter play a father-daughter pair trying to look ahead among the ashes of a wildfire that destroyed their home, exploring an increasingly familiar American experience and a fear of anyone living in the West.
“Silvertone,” Program 3
Actress Kerris Dorsey (“Ray Donovan”) directs and co-stars in this smart and observant exploration of the creative process. Her film follows a pair of musicians retreating to a Hollywood Hills mansion to write the last song for their sophomore album. It marks Dorsey’s directorial debut and has its world premiere at Shortsfest.
Due to the pandemic-delayed timeline of the Academy Awards, for the first time in the 30 year history of Aspen Shortsfest the festival is happening during Oscar voting, when cinephiles around the world dig into the nominated short films.
Most of the nominated films are available via streaming and video-on-demand. If Shortsfest, whets your appetite for more, here is where to find the 2021 nominees:
Best Animated Short Film
“Burrow, ” Disney+
“Genius Loci,” Vimeo
“If Anything Happens I Love You,” Netflix
“Opera,” not yet available
Best Documentary Short Subject
“A Concerto Is a Conversation,” YouTube
“Do Not Split,” YouTube
“Hunger Ward,” Pluto TV
“A Love Song for Latasha,” Netflix
Best Live-Action Short Film
“Feeling Through,” feelingthrough.com
“The Letter Room,” Vimeo
“The Present,” Netflix
“Two Distant Strangers,” not yet available
“White Eye,” not yet available