While father/son stories were omnipresent at the 15th edition of Aspen Shortsfest, the short that dominated the closing night award ceremony of the highly prestigious short film festival held April 5 – 9 in Aspen, Colorado was animator Torill Kove‘s quirky love story, “The Danish Poet.” The 15-minute Canada/Norway production, which made its North American debut at the festival, garnered the International Competition Jury’s Animated Eye Award, The Ellen Award for Most Original Film, and the Audience Favorite Award, which it shared in a three-way tie with Jennifer Kent‘s live action domestic horror flick “Monster” and Nancy Kelly‘s art world documentary, “Smitten.”
“The Danish Poet,” narrated by Liv Ullmann and drawn on paper with computer rendering in the same signature style Kove displayed in her Oscar-nominated previous short “My Grandmother Ironed the King’s Shirts,” tells the story of a burnt-out wordsmith who travels to Norway hoping to find inspiration. The International Competition Jury, comprised of cinematographer John Bailey, director Patricia Cardoso, film critic Bob Denerstein, and writer-director Jason Reitman, praised “The Danish Poet” for “surprising us at every turn.”
This year Aspen Shortsfest introduced two new awards to the International Competition, which featured 49 shorts from 15 countries: the AtomFilms Studio Award, a $5,000 production prize which went to Luke Morris and Toby MacDonald of the United Kingdom for the teen comedy “Heavy Metal Drummer,” and a $1,000 Youth Jury Prize selected by a panel of local middle and high school students, which went to a South African-set short, “Lucky,” directed by Avie Luthra.
Juror Patricia Cardoso (“Real Women Have Curves“) applauded all the films in competition, saying “they inspire me to want to see more shorts — and make more shorts,” while calling particular attention to the stellar work of the very young actors featured in many of the pieces. The jury went out of their way to honor these pint-sized thespians by creating a Special Jury Recognition for Outstanding Performance by a Child prize and giving it to Broa Ako Rasol of “Bawke” (directed by Hisham Zaman, Norway), Alaa Ighbaryah of “Be Quiet” (directed by Sameh Zoabi, Palestine/France), Aishwatya Atul Shidhaye of “Rajkumari” (directed by Victoria Harwood, UK), Yassine Jari of “Heavy Metal Drummer,” and Joy Mwandla of “Lucky.”
Juror Jason Reitman (“Thank You for Smoking“) privately joked “Can we give an award to a country? Let’s give one to Spain.” Indeed, the Spanish shorts were particularly strong. Borja Cobeaga‘s “Eramos Pocos,” which the jury named Best Comedy, showcases a slovenly father and son who are so desperate for a housekeeper that they rescue a barely-remembered grandmother from an old folks home to do their cooking and cleaning. Nacho Vigalondo‘s “Crash,” which juror John Bailey (“The Producers“) confided came very close to winning an award, explores why a bumper car rink in a suburban arcade isn’t exactly the ideal location for a romantic date. And Igor Legarreta and Emilio Perez‘s near-silent “The Great Zambini” follows an aging circus performer’s complicated relationship with his young son.
Aspen Shortsfest executive director Laura Thielen made note of the many shorts in this year’s festival focusing on father and son issues, including award-winners Daniel Mulloy‘s “Antonio’s Breakfast” (Best Drama), Sameh Zoabi‘s “Be Quiet” (Best Student), and Hisham Zaman’s “Bawke” (BAFTA/LA Award for Excellence, chosen by members of the Los Angeles Chapter of the British Academy of Film and Television).
“Badgered” was awarded the festival’s Best Short Short prize, a nice consolation for animator Sharon Colman, who didn’t get to take home a statuette when her film was nominated for an Oscar earlier this year. Having flown in from the United Kingdom, Colman clutched the star-shaped Shortsfest trophy, confessing it was the very first time she was present to accept an award.
Filmmakers came from around the world to be part of the festival, which has a sterling reputation for building a strong community among its attendees. Yishai and Eliraz Orian jetted in from Israel for the international premiere of their romantic comedy “Happy Birthday Yemima” while Australians Rene Hernandez and Kristina Ceyton came up from Down Under for the world premiere of their drama “Small Boxes.” Sam Hearn and Richard Penfold were expected to arrive from the United Kingdom to world premiere the second installment of their canine series “Dog Years Chapter 2 – Health,” but work commitments curtailed their plans. Fortunately, Los Angeles-based directors Samuel Dowe-Sandes and B.J. Schwartz were present to present their respective unrelated woods-set world premieres, “Out of the Woods” and “Wolves in the Woods.”
In addition seeing each other’s work and enjoying a sunny afternoon cross country skiing or snowboarding, those attending the festival were privileged to attend special events helmed by master Hollywood storytellers. “Five Easy Pieces” director Bob Rafelson held court with a two-hour session entitled “Confessions of a Filmmaker,” in which he explained why it still bothers him that the film’s famous restaurant scene wasn’t essential to the storyline. Screenwriter Frank Pierson presented clips from “Dog Day Afternoon” and admitted that Al Pacino threatening to quit the project in pre-production actually made the film better. And a panel entitled “In The Director’s Chair” allowed Paul Haggis (“Crash“), Mark Polish (“Northfork“), and Peter Segal (“Anger Management“) to provide case studies and share war stories from their experiences directing features. Let it be officially noted that Peter Segal does a killer Jack Nicholson impression.
The festival concluded with a Shortsfest alum returning to present his feature directorial debut. In addition to being a juror, Jason Reitman came to Aspen to show “Thank You For Smoking.” Along with his producing partner Dan Dubiecki, Reitman reminisced that Aspen Shortsfest actually rejected the pair’s first two shorts before embraced the duo’s subsequent pieces. Executive director Laura Thielen’s continued support of his filmmaking endeavors means a lot to Reitman, who made a point of also bringing his latest short film to share with festival-goers. “Lighting Will Guide You” is a brief experiment in low tech digital filmmaking, which Reitman shot in airports while on a promotional tour for his feature. Once a short filmmaker, always a short filmmaker.