Aspen Shortsfest Awards Big Bucks to Small Movies
by Amy Veltman
This year's five-day Aspen Shortsfest concluded on April 11th with the announcement of awards worth more than $20,000. The event, superlative as a fest of any stripe, draws much of its energy and support from the local community and does its utmost to give something back.
The uniqueness begins with the screening process. This year, approximately 900 films were submitted. George Eldred, Chair of the 30-person Screening Committee, explained to me that each submission was seen by at least three people before a decision was made whether or not it would go before the complete group. This assured that each film was given careful consideration and that the final line-up was diverse in nearly every way imaginable.
As part of the festival's Education program, a number of the filmmakers brought their movies into area classrooms and answered questions for students. Other local students were bussed to the festival's Wheeler Theater to see programs of shorts. Festival Director Laura Thielen explains that this effort is intended to expose kids to other world views and cultivate visual literacy. One area in which Thielen hopes to see the festival grow is in its representation of Spanish-language films in order to serve the area's burgeoning Latino community.
Two panels were included in the festival line-up. The first, "Lunch with the Filmmakers," erred a bit on the side of blandness as it strayed into a discussion about commercials, but the second panel, "Down the Yellow Brick Road: The Future of Short Filmmaking," held at a UN-like facility, the Given Institute, was an informative and unusually optimistic view of the future of short filmmaking. Megan O'Neill, head of Forefront Films, spearheaded this positiveness by stating, "I don't think there's ever been a better time to be in the shorts business." The panelists encouraged filmmakers not to be pessimistic about the possibility of making money with their short films and to refrain from giving away the rights to their work for free to either TV or the Internet when opportunities to sell these cost and labor-intensive works are blossoming.
A new $3,500 award, The Ellen -- named after the festival's founder Ellen Kohner Hunt who doesn't look old enough to have found a beer 20 years ago, let alone a festival -- was awarded to the Portuguese film, "The Voyage," sponsored by Portugal's Expo '98 and directed by Christian Boustani. Once the amazement at the visually spectacular mix of painterly animation and live action wore off, there was little story or heart to the film and many found it a disappointment as the winner of the festival's highest prize, especially since so many films shown during the week acted so powerfully on the emotions.
Two of these shared the $2,000 award for Best Drama, Jean-Marc Valee's "Magical Words" (Canada), and "Patterns" by Kristen Sheridan (Ireland). Vallee's film, the tale of a man fantasizing about confrontations with his alcoholic father, was so strong that it inspired one audience member to stand up during the Q & A following the film and thank the filmmaker for a work that resonated so strongly with his own experience. While such public confession is a bit much for my delicate sensibilities, many in the audience seemed touched by what was undeniably a strong moment. "Patterns," the bittersweet story of an autistic boy whose younger brother is the only person capable of understanding the tormented code of his thinking, also earned Special Recognition for its two lead actors, Ben Engel and Joshua Gregory McCarthy.
Nicole Cattell's "Come Unto Me: The Faces of Tyree Guyton" won $2,000 for Best Documentary, adding credence to my theory that documentaries with colons in their titles do well with awards. Glibness aside, the film was a moving portrait of the mystical inspiration that creates art and art's power to transform lives. Jay Lowi's USC student film, "12 Stops on the Road to Nowhere," snagged both the $2,000 award for Best Comedy and another grand for Audience Favorite. This super-slick, violent tale of luck, both good and terrible, was long on style and cleanly executed. Best Student Film went to Michael Burke's "Fishbelly White," whose ambiguity and tough climax challenged some viewers. "Fishbelly"'s DP, Vanja Cernjul also garnered a Best Cinematography Award ($1,500 in Kodak film stock) for the movie.
"Bingo," Chris Landreth's in-your-face aggressive Beckettesque short, picked up the $2,000 Animated Eye Award. A few expressed surprise that Mark Osborne's "More," an elegiac piece mourning the dehumanization that can result from industrialization, only got a Special Recognition nod instead of the big kahuna in this category. Another animated short worthy of mention was Australian, Adam Benjamin Elliot's "Cousin," the second in his trilogy of claymation pieces about his family (Last year, Elliot's "Uncle" appeared at Aspen and he's currently working on "Brother"). The jury awarded this film $1,000 for Best Short Short (under 4 minutes).
"Chrysanthemum," Virginia Wilkos' animated piece, narrated by Meryl Streep, won the award for Best Children's Film. Appearing in special sidebar program, called Screen Play, a slate of films aimed specifically at families, the contenders for this award were judged by a special kids' jury. I came to think that a program with films earmarked for the young set wasn't such a bad idea after I spent a grueling hour sitting next to a new eight-year old friend, Tucker, wondering what was going through his mind as we watched people screwing and giving birth during one of the more explicit evening programs. One of these adult films, Georg Ridsten's "One Night with You" (Norway), won a Special Recognition Award, and was much more enjoyable the second time around when I was seated between two grown-ups. Stephen Stein's super-funny spoof on the French New Wave, "Open the Window," Tommy Pallotta and Bob Sabiston's animated doc, "Roadhead" and Mike Mitchell's well-done, humorous, alien movie, "Herd" also received Special Recognition awards. Special Recognition in the Audience Favorite category went to Rachel Griffiths' bovine tale, "Tulip" ( pronounced, "Chew-lup" in Australian) which also garnered Film.com's $1,000 Watch It! Award.
Lastly, the documentary, "Life in Fog," a difficult story about a young boy in Kurdistan forced to work to support his orphaned siblings, pocketed the $1,000 Horizon Award, selected by educators of grades K-12. The bleak Iranian film was made by Bahman Ghobadi and is educational, if for nothing more than giving anyone reading this on the Internet some perspective about how comparatively fortunate we are.
The regular jury consisted of actress-director Adrienne Shelly; filmmaker Jessica Yu; journalist Ken Eisner; Good Machine Exec. Mary Jane Skalski, and filmmaker Mark Christopher. Travel stipends and free accommodations are provided to all filmmakers for the duration of the festival, so most attended. A central gathering place with VCR's for casual screenings was open most of the time, and no programs overlapped, allowing everyone to have and give the support of fellow filmmakers. A number of social events were planned and some erupted spontaneously. Because industry presence at the slightly out-of-the-way event is minimal, there is much more bonding than hustling among the filmmakers, and the craft of the short, for once, does not take a backseat to longer forms of filmmaking.