It’s a good thing W.C. Fields isn’t around to be a juror at Aspen Shortsfest. What the late actor, who had a legendary distaste for children, would see on the screen would drive him to drink. (Not that Fields, whose fondness for booze rivaled in magnitude his revulsion to young ‘uns, would have needed much prompting toward the bar.)For three years, Laura Thielen, the executive director of Aspen Filmfest, has seen a jump in the number of short films spotlighting children submitted to Shortsfest, Filmfest’s annual celebration of short films. Thielen is hesitant to speak generally for the nearly 2,000 filmmakers who submitted shorts for consideration to this year’s festival, which opened Wednesday and runs through Sunday. Different filmmakers have different motivations for telling stories about kids, or taking the child’s point of view. But she does construct connections between the current political climate, the forces of globalization, the nature of the short form, and the prominent billing children receive in Shortsfest 2006. (By the numbers, there are 49 films in the Shortsfest International Competition; at least 15 of those focus on characters in their teens or younger.)Another companion trend in short films has been a tendency to address pressing global situations: war, immigration, globalization, displaced persons. Thielen points out that this is characteristic of shorts: With relatively minuscule budgets, tight time schedules and little oversight, filmmakers creating shorts are far better able to respond to the day’s concerns than makers of feature-length films. Thielen says, “What’s so great about shorts is, unlike features, it’s a very reactive and immediate film form.”
Placing children at the center of such stories affords a unique opportunity for the filmmakers. Children – children in danger, or on the run, or facing the complexities of a world even adults have trouble comprehending – tend to raise the emotional heat of a film, and personalize the story, while cutting the political content down a notch or two. This seems appropriate to short films, whose restraints – length and finances – make it difficult to give a broad perspective on, say, Israeli-Palestinian tensions, but are ideal vehicles for a small-scale examination of the effects of such a situation.”When you use adults,” said Thielen, “it politicizes it in a way that using children doesn’t. And I think that’s a very smart strategy.”I think we assume a child’s perspective is the least-loaded perspective. Sort of, what you see is what you get. Because we tend to think of children having a more innocent take on life; they’re in the process of being molded, whereas adults are already molded. Adults can perpetrate, but kids don’t perpetrate. Kids are often not perpetrators, but perpetrated upon.”
The Norwegian production “Bawke,” by Hisham Zaman, is a perfect example of all of this. The 15-minute film (which was screened Wednesday in Aspen, and also shows in the Carbondale Program B tomorrow) follows a father and his 7-year-old son, refugees, most likely of Turkish descent, crossing a border to what the father says will be a better life. The son is clueless about the politics, the opportunities; he just wants to hang onto his cards of soccer stars – and to his father. It is a wrenching story of child-parent ties played out against a backdrop of contemporary sociopolitical realities.Similar is “Lucky,” which also had a screening Wednesday. Directed by the UK’s Avie Luthra, the film follows a recently orphaned South African child as he leaves his village for the city. Determined to hear a tape of his mother’s dying words, Lucky must navigate his way through his new surroundings, and a hostile uncle, to find a cassette player.”There’s a kid who’s totally open,” said Thielen. “He doesn’t know enough; he just keeps bumping up against some things. But he’s still an optimist, and that’s why he’s able to break through. He starts to develop an edge, but he keeps pushing it.”
At one level, “Lucky” is the story of a troubled boy. But Thielen marvels at how much more that story hints at. “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,” said Thielen.Also in this realm is “Be Quiet” (which shows in Aspen tomorrow, in Program Six, and in Carbondale’s Program C on Sunday), directed by Sameh Zoabi, a Palestinian studying film at Columbia University. The film tells of a father and son confronting hostility and fear at a military checkpoint in the West Bank. Through the compliant father and the more resistant son, “Be Quiet” reveals the generational differences toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”He’s starting to ask pretty pointed moral questions,” said Thielen of the son. “You see that defiance in his face, that he’s so angry. And his father trying to placate him. It’s a father-son drama, about a generational point of view shift.”
Not all the child-focused films are charged with politics. In the Indian coming-of-age film “Rajkumari,” by Victoria Harwood, a young village girl gets a harsh exposure to life not through political arrangements, but through bad parenting.And not all films are such downers. In both the dialogue-free Spanish short “The Great Zambini” (today in Program Four at 5:30 p.m., and tomorrow in Carbondale’s Program B), and the French “For Interieur” (also in Carbondale’s Program B), adults use a bit of magic to ease the pain of children. Both express the hopeful innocence of childhood, when we want to believe that adults have extraordinary power to heal and entertain.Two films capture the conflicted desires of teenagers. The Australian film “Small Boxes” (tomorrow in Aspen in Program Six at 5:30 p.m., and in Sunday’s Program C in Carbondale) tells of the difficulties of aspiring toward a higher station in life. Directed by Rene Hernandez, the film also examines immigration issues in Australia. And the quiet, but disquieting British film “Antonio’s Breakfast” (which showed yesterday), by Daniel Mulloy, looks at a teenage boy’s dilemma, between caring for his ill father and joining his friends on the streets.
Thielen observed a clean break between the way kids are often used in feature films and the way they comes across in Shortsfest. “In the films we’ve selected, the kids are very natural,” she said. “I think that says a lot about the filmmakers, getting performances from kids without them being precious and cute, all those things that kids often are in movies.”What the short-film makers mostly seem to aim at in using young actors is the sense of a clean slate. “Having the child’s perspective, they are the most vulnerable protagonist,” said Thielen. “They are the most open, the most receptive. And maybe, in some ways, the most clear-eyed. Because their responses are the most immediate. One of the things, when you use kids, you’re stripping it down to core issues and core emotions.”And, Thielen concludes, there is one other very good reason to employ young talent.
“Kids are cheap,” she said. “Let’s not forget that.”—-In addition to two Aspen film programs and one Carbondale program, today’s Shortsfest schedule includes a Director Spotlight event with Jason Reitman (noon). Reitman, the son of filmmaker Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters,” “Stripes”), is a Shortsfest veteran, having presented three films here, including “Consent” and “In God We Trust.” Today, he will speak about his experiences making shorts and commercials, and show clips of his work. Reitman will also appear Sunday at 7:30 p.m., with a screening of his feature-film debut, the satire “Thank You for Smoking,” followed by a Q-and-A session.
Other Shortsfest events include the Masterworks event In The Director’s Chair (Saturday, noon), where moderator Frank Pierson and filmmakers Paul Haggis, Tom McCarthy and Mark and Michael Polish will discuss movie issues. Pierson returns to the stage Sunday to present “Dog Day Afternoon,” and break down his Oscar-winning script for the 1975 film.The ScreenPlay! Family Program, recommended for moviegoers 10 and up, shows Sunday at 1 p.m.For a full Shortsfest program, go to http://www.aspentimes.com/film.
(All photos used with this story are courtesy of Aspen Filmfest.)Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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