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Examine Your Shorts, Part II: Aspen, Academia, and Alternatives

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire January 6, 1999 at 2:0AM

Examine Your Shorts, Part II: Aspen, Academia, andAlternatives
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Examine Your Shorts, Part II: Aspen, Academia, and
Alternatives

By Amy Veltman




From all accounts, the Aspen Shortsfest is one of the pre-eminent shorts
festivals in the country, with both the bank and the will to fly in and
host its filmmakers from all over the world. Amy Talkington ("Second
Skin") notes that the environment created at Aspen by having the
filmmakers gathered in one place, far away from urban distractions or
feature film showings that could be perceived as more important, allowed
for "an exchange of ideas" between filmmakers that she has yet to find
at another festival. The programming of the fest also wins her kudos as
being thoughtful, diverse, and giving Aspen's dedicated local audiences
both crowd-pleasing work and more challenging films. Additionally, she
lauds the fest for getting the filmmakers publicity and the concrete
reward of press clips at the fest's end.


In the further interests of serving both filmmakers and audiences, it's
worth taking a look at different programming strategies. Many shorts
fests, including the SIFF and the NY Expo, program according to genre,
dividing things up into Comedy, Drama, Student, Documentary, Animation,
and Experimental, for example. These divisions can be problematic. For
example, some documentaries are funny, and some films classified as comedies,
to my mind, are not. Two hours of comedy begins to render everything
supremely unfunny, and two hours of drama can begin to feel like a lead
weight pressing on one's head, no matter how moving and wonderful each
of the films might be on its own. Also, in this country where the
government provides such an insignificant amount of funding for short
films compared to Europe or Canada, student films constitute an enormous
percentage of the shorts that are made domestically, and I personally
don't like seeing them ghettoized into a separate category. It might
highlight the virtues of all of the films if more festivals designed
their programs thematically like Aspen's Shortsfest or Seattle's One
Reel. This strategy allows viewers to draw their own conclusions about
relationships between works.


If one is interested in seeing student shorts as such, New York and LA's
numerous film schools play host to wads of student showcases throughout
the year. These events can be wonderful for filmmakers, giving them the
chance to show their work on the big screen with audiences made up of
friends and industry pros alike. Indeed, many filmmakers, myself
included, have established either their earliest or most significant
ties with the industry, including producers and agents, as a result of
student showcases.


As an audience member at student festivals, as well as at most
festivals, it can be worth one's while to check out a selection of films
beyond the pre-filtered award winning selections, which only deliver a
small sampling of what's available. For instance, Jay Rosenblatt's
"Human Remains" has swept awards at SIFF, the Aspen Shortsfest, and the
NY EXPO. While its portrait of the daily habits of the century's most
famed dictators is indeed unforgettable, I'm glad I also got to see
Daniel Baer's "Horse Dreams in BBQ Country" a quirky, poignant tale that
works much more quietly but at least as affectingly, just to name one
film from the SIFF documentary category. Many festivals, especially the
student showcases heap the bulk of their praise on more sanitized or
politically palatable offerings, but those with a taste for something
more off-kilter might appreciate some programs beyond the awards
screenings. Especially after viewing the winning programs from four or
five festivals -- where you might begin to think there are only ten
short films in the whole world every year.


As there seems to be a lot of cross-pollination between the winners of
different festivals, it might be a welcome change in the landscape if
each festival began to develop a more distinctive voice. For instance,
if one fest became known for its decidedly bleak outlook and another for
its films of good cheer, or one for stellar writing and another for
slick production values, it could help both audiences and filmmakers
focus their time and financial resources appropriately instead of making
the experience of attending a shorts fest either the crap shoot or the
overly predictable experience that it often is.


The NY Expo actually did seem to have an identifiable slant towards
academia. Its location at the New School as well as its glaring lack of
celebrity and the academic tone of the panel I attended ("Directions in New
Media") all pointed to the festival's seeming focus on cinema as an academic
discipline. Even the one person I had the guts to approach cold at the
festival's party at Life was there as a distributor of educational documentaries.
I admire the Expo for having a distinct perspective, which, while not to
everyone's particular taste, can help it attract the work it wants to
screen and the audience members who want to see that work.


Indeed, there will be opportunities to see winning films from some of
New York's local shorts fests in the coming months. The 1998 Expo award
winners will be screened in NYC at the Donnell Library Center
Auditorium, and the winning films from the SIFF will be traveling to LA,
Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Washington DC and Dallas, as well as screening
on the Independent Film Channel in the spring of 1999. If you have
access to any of these venues, you will be able to weigh in, yourself,
on the state of the short film fest in North America.


[A native of Portland, Oregon, Amy Veltman is a filmmaker living in New
York. She also writes for the website Girls on Film.]


[Coming soon, Part III of Examine Your Shorts, a run down of outlets to
sell to and find exposure for short films.]