FESTIVALS: Aspen Shorts, Making the Festival Experience Personal
by Tim LaTorre
(indieWIRE/4.19.2000) -- The Aspen Shortsfest, which took place April 5 - 9, might just be one of the most enchanting events the film world has to offer. Who would think that in this obscenely rich mountain ski town you would find an incredibly supportive film community? On the other hand, rich people do like the arts to come to them (after all, many wealthy enclaves have their own film festivals -- Nantucket, Newport, Palm Springs, etc.). But the Aspen Shortsfest isn't your typical festival.
First, for nine years it has celebrated an art form that, until recently, has been seen as the awkward and unnoticed younger sibling to feature films. Feature filmmakers received all the glory, even though there were just as many short films produced, if not more. Now, because of current bandwidth limitations, short films have become the premiere form for entertainment on the Internet. Nowhere was this clearer than at the Aspen event, which included AtomFilms and Pop.com as sponsors and was attended by hungry acquisitions staffers from Atom, Pop, MediaTrip, ReelShort, and Quickband.
Second, it does what few other festivals can accomplish: it makes the film experience personal. Because the festival has grown in stature (and has a very pleasing geographic location), it attracts filmmakers from far and wide. This year's festival included participants from Australia, Iran, Ireland, Sweden, and Russia. Because only one screening takes place at a time and you see the same faces at many events, the filmmakers are recognizable and accessible. Over the course of the five days of the fest, attendees have the opportunity to meet everyone and start some great friendships.
It's like going to camp. You spend so much time with these people that when it's time to go home, you feel a sense of loss. At the closing night party, the filmmakers were so moved by the generosity and caring of the festival and its staffers that many stepped up to the microphone to express themselves personally. The night culminated in an Elvis-looking man singing "I Can't Help Falling In Love With You" to Executive Director Laura Thielen as the filmmakers joined hands and circled them.
Of the new films, Belgian Writer-Director Frederic Roullier-Gall's "Echo" stood out as a stirring and visually powerful tale of an elderly couple, both of whom were victims of Nazi medical experimentation, leaving one deaf and the other virtually blind. Centered on a train trip, the filmmaker skillfully uses the visual and aural elements of travel to evoke vibrant flashbacks of the couple's first meeting -- in the experimentation room of a Nazi doctor. The flashbacks, while brief, conveyed an intense energy by juxtaposing the couple's love-at-first-sight recognition with the horrible desperation of their situation.
"Brother" is the final installment of Australian director Adam Elliot's family trilogy of films. The film examines brotherhood through the eyes of a younger sibling's remembrances of an older asthmatic brother. Using black-and-white claymation techniques, Elliot is able to combine poignant and tragic elements into an art form that is usually recognized as naturally outlandish and comedic. Which is not to say that it isn't funny, it's just that the humor is based on the real (but ridiculous) occurrences of childhood.
Irish director Barry Dignam's "Dream Kitchen" takes the cliche "coming out" theme and turns it on its head. Playing with typical stereotypes of heterosexual normalcy -- an oily mechanic father and a chirpy housewife mother -- the protagonist attempts to get the strength to tell his mother that he is gay. Typical situation? But instead of actually going through with it, we witness an imagined world with parents who talk with Shakespeare-tinged exclamations of outlandish pride.
Other highlights included: Russian animator Konstantin Bronzit's hilariously funny "At the Ends of the Earth"; English director Gregory Cooke's "$30"; Australian director Amanda Brotchie's "Break & Enter"; Karl Gromelski's "Thibideaux"; and Jeff Lester's "The Last Real Cowboys" (starring Billy Bob Thorton).
Films which had already made a splash at other festivals included: Sundance favorites Peter Sollett's raw "Five Feet High and Rising"; Michael Horowitz and Gareth Smith's visually stunning "This Guy is Falling"; Jason Reitman's very funny and well-paced "In God We Trust"; Simeon Soffer's rip-roaring doc "The Wildest Show in the South: The Angola Prison Rodeo"; and Hope Hall's personal doc "This if For Betsy Hall." Other notables included Torill Kove's Oscar-nominated "My Grandmother Ironed the King's Shirts" and Joe Nussbaum's crowd pleasing "George Lucas in Love."
Putting their money where their mouth is, on closing night the festival announced winners of their juried awards, most of which included cash or services so that the filmmakers can continue developing their voices. The jury included British filmmaker Jon Amiel, New Zealand writer-director Christina Andreef, director Jonathan Darby, Radical Media's Jack Lechner, and FILMMAKER Magazine co-founder Holly Willis. Please see the complete list of winners below.
If you're a filmmaker and you have the opportunity to go to the Aspen Shortsfest, you should take it. It will be worthwhile. With short form entertainment on the rise, you can bet that the Aspen event will become one of the premiere short film events of the year. Although, personally, I hope it never gets too big, since that would ruin the intimacy of an event I'll definitely go back to.
ANIMATED EYE AWARD ($2,000)
"At the Ends of the Earth" (Konstantin Bronzit, Russia)
BEST COMEDY ($2,000) sponsored by AtomFilms
AUDIENCE AWARD ($1,000)
"In God We Trust" (Jason Reitman, USA)
BEST DOCUMENTARY ($2,000)
"The Wildest Show in the South: The Angola Prison Rodeo" (Simeon Soffer, USA)
BEST DRAMA ($2,000 shared)
"Echo" (Frederic Roullier-Gall, Belgium)
"Home" (Morag McKinnon, England)
BEST STUDENT FILM ($2,000) sponsored by Time Warner
"Five Feet High and Rising" (Peter Sollett, USA)
"Small Change" (Marc-Andreas Bochert, Germany)
BEST SHORT SHORT ($2,000) sponsored by POP.com
"Brother" (Adam Elliot, Australia)
SPECIAL JURY AWARD ($1,000)
"The Picnic" (Song Ilgon, South Korea)
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY ($1,500 of film stock) sponsored by Kodak
"Scarecrow" (Alexander Kott, Russia)
THE ELLEN ($3,500 shared)
"When the Day Breaks" (Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, Canada)
"The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun" (Djibril Diop Mambety, Senegal)
HORIZON AWARD ($1,000)
"Protest" (Steve Katz, USA)
SPECIAL RECOGNITION FOR EXCELLENCE
"Bats" (Jim Trainor, USA)
"Flowergirl" (Cate Shortland, USA)
"Flux" (Michaela French, Australia)
"Hungry" (Richard Clark, England)
"My Job" (Joern Utkilen, Scotland)
"The Periwig-Maker" (Steffen Schaffler, Germany)
"Six Miles of Eight Feet" (Ben Tomlin, USA)
"This Guy is Falling" (Michael Horowitz and Gareth Smith, USA)
"The Wolf Man" (Tim Hope, England)
[Tim LaTorre is a contributor editor to indieWIRE and the publisher of EBInsider.]