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Why Make Shorts?: Filmmakers and Jurors Address the Purpose of Short Filmmaking at the Bermuda International Film Festival

Why Make Shorts?: Filmmakers and Jurors Address the Purpose of Short Filmmaking at the Bermuda International Film Festival

Bermuda shorts aren’t just
brightly colored bottoms that one wears with matching knee socks. At the
Bermuda International Film Festival, shorts are the highlight, and for good
reason.

The winner of BIFF’s short
film competition is then eligible to be nominated for the Academy Award for
Best Live Action Short. In BIFF’s seventeen years, two of their winners have
gone on to take home Oscar: “Wasp” in 2005 and “Toyland” in
2009. Lookout for a potential 2015 Oscar nomination for this year’s BIFF winner: Iraq’s “Baghdad Messi.”

Yet, outside of film
festivals and awards season voting, short films are rarely seen by the general
public here in America. Many cinephiles may nostalgically recall a time when a
short film was shown prior to a feature, but those days are long gone, replaced
by ever lengthening trailers that might as well be considered short films
themselves. Perhaps this is because there’s not much consensus on the purpose
of the short film format, even among filmmakers, festival programmers or
students. Some view them as merely a warm up, while others would rather they be
supported for their own artistic achievements. Though infrequently seen, that
doesn’t diminish their ability to tell a great story, or have a big impact.

READ MORE: Stanley Kubrick’s Longtime Producer Trashes ‘Room 237’ and Lists ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ As His Favorite Kubrick Film

Head juror Jan Harlan,
producer of many of Stanley Kubrick’s films, believes short films are still
important even in today’s era of modern filmmaking. He teaches a seminar on
short films as a calling card. “I’m very interested in short films,”
said Harlan. “Most of them are pretty boring, but some you can really see
there’s new talent. That is most satisfying.” He encourages students to
use their short filmmaking opportunities to put their stamp on something in
hopes of making an impression. Making a short he says, “Is a must and they
know it. They know it and they’re struggling. What you have to do is complete
your toolbox, and there are many things that you have to totally brutally
realize.” Harlan, who is originally from Germany and now lives in England,
has no doubt been more exposed to a culture of short films already ingrained
into society.

Juror Lauren Wissot, a
journalist for Filmmaker Magazine who has also programmed film festivals,
pointed out that America doesn’t have the same built in appreciation for short
films that Europe has. She would rather that short filmmakers here embrace the
medium in its own right. “I have a hard time with these calling
card films here in the States designed solely to tout the director or raise
money for a longer film,” she said. “Too often I feel like I’m
sitting through vanity projects where I’m being pitched. I like to see work
that fits the format; a director telling his or her story within a certain
amount of time because that’s exactly the running time needed to make a
complete film.”

Fellow juror film critic
Peter Rainer
also isn’t crazy about the idea of short films essentially as a
warm up to a feature. “A lot of film schools tend to promote films as resumes
for studio work so then the students don’t take enough chances often
times,” Rainer said. “If you don’t take chances making your student
film, when are you going to take a chance?”

Some filmmakers, whose
shorts were screened at BIFF, tried to do exactly that. Michael Lukk Litwak’s
short film “The Life and Death of Tommy Chaos and Stacey Danger” has
been described as “Blue Valentine” meets “Jurassic Park”
and featured dinosaurs, submarines and space ships all on a limited budget.
Though he’s taking chances with content and effects, Litwak doesn’t necessarily
consider his film an audition piece for a feature, but rather a way to explore
the kind of feature he’d ultimately want to make.

“Shorts give you a lot
of time to find your voice as a filmmaker,” Litwak said. “There’s a
lot of pressure. If you make a ten million dollar film and you mess it up, no
one’s ever going to give you ten million dollars ever again. Whereas if you
make a short for a thousand dollars and it’s a bust then it’s the only thing
you’ve lost is maybe five or ten days of time and $1,000.” Rather than
thinking, “This film will get me the funds to make my feature,” many
students would rather take their time on their shorts and sharpen their skills.

Yulin Liu, who took home a
Special Jury Prize for her short “Door God,” likes the idea of
exploring filmmaking techniques before she has to decide on what style to
ultimately use when she moves on to feature filmmaking. “You can explore
yourself,” she said.” From making short films you can also find your
own way for the future, say this is my way to tell the story.”

Indeed, even veteran
filmmakers see the benefit of using shorter format pieces to tighten their
skills and perfect their craft. Rainer pointed out that feature film directors
like Ridley Scott, Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze and David Lynch have all turned
to making television commercials; an unexpectedly demanding task given that one
has to tell a story and make it interesting in a very short amount of time. “Many
of them will tell you that this is how they hone their storytelling skills, by
learning how to make every moment count,” Rainer said.

Susana Casares was also
awarded a Special Jury Prize for her short film “Tryouts,” which won
a special College Television Emmy Award in 2013. The film focuses on a Muslim
teenager who wants to join her high school’s cheerleading squad and depicts a
moving clash of adolescent desires and religious traditions in only 14 minutes. “I think the mistake is
to try and make feature films into short films instead of embracing the form of
itself,” Casares said. “The short format allows you to explore tone
and rhythm and character and also to explore moments.”

Casares, who hails from
Spain but now lives in Los Angeles, also hopes for the opportunity for shorts to
one day have their own place in American cinema, be it through web-series,
short content documentaries or even putting things up on Vimeo and
YouTube.  With television getting better
in quality every year, and companies perpetually trying to figure out a way to
monetize the web, perhaps those who excel in short filmmaking will rise in
their careers without even stepping foot into feature territory.

“I think short format
used to be seen as, ‘What do you want to do before a feature?'” Casares
said. “Now I think filmmakers, producers and distributors are embracing it
as a different animal that needs its own space.”

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