Fresh Mountain Air, Skiing, and Short Films: Aspen Shortsfest, a Real Filmmakers Festival
by Tim LaTorre
The snow wistfully drifts through the canyons of snowcapped mountains while a mix of locals and their esteemed out-of-town guests fill the seats of the historic Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, Colorado. The lights go down and instead of a tenor and mezzo soprano, the audience is treated to the familiar flicker of light on a movie screen, revealing, at different times, two combatants at a squash game, a lonely undead girl, and a New York-based muse pontificating different meanings on Ground Zero. So it's another year, another batch of shorts at the country's premier short film festival, the 12th-annual Aspen Shortsfest, which took place April 2-6.
Aspen Shortsfest is a real insider's festival of filmmaking, but not in the same way as Sundance, Toronto, or Cannes. The filmmaker-to-industry member ratio is the strongest of any festival around, something like 20-to-1. There is only one festival-related activity going on at a time, which means that you see the same people at each screening. Also, the festival is fantastic at attracting the attendance of the people who create the films. This is where real filmmakers from all over the world go to meet each other, hang out, eat, drink and compare notes on their various artistic (and business) experiences.
With the recent addition of the MasterWorks program, which brings accomplished artists covering a specific topic (this year, directing), aspiring filmmakers have fantastic access to veterans of the business. This year, this program was the real highlight of the festival, bringing such luminaries as Bruce Beresford ("Driving Miss Daisy," "Tender Mercies"), George Hickenlooper ("The Man From Elysian Fields," "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse"), Alexander Payne ("About Schmidt," "Election"), David Siegel & Scott McGehee ("The Deep End," "Suture"), and Julie Taymor ("Frida," "Titus"). Excellently moderated by former president of the Screen Actors Guild, Richard Masur, the panel examined the director's relationship with all the main creative collaborators on a film (the writer, director of photography, art director, etc.)
Of the films themselves, this year's strongest group came from the French contingent. Armed with a fantastic script, two outstanding actors, a simple location and a video camera, Lionel Baillu's "Squash" demonstrates how ingenuity can overcome limited means. An exploration of machismo, the story centers on a boss and underling who meet for a game of squash and subsequently test each other's fortitude as their game intensifies. Baillu uses all his resources -- speech, the pounding of the ball against the wall, their sneakers screeching against the wood floor -- to skillfully build the tension until it ultimately overflows.
Frederic Pelle's "The Security Guard" harkens back to the lyrical storytelling of the French New Wave. A simple story of a sensitive man who takes on the job of a security guard, Pelle uses black-and-white photography and muted performances to examine the misalignment of spirit and occupation. Philippe Orreindy's "I'll Wait for the Next One" uses the conceit of a male Paris Metro passenger announcing his plea for love (like a familiar panhandler asking for money) to explore the inner romantic yearnings of people commuting on an average subway ride. When a female passenger feels her fire stoked, she takes action, only to find that love is not what it seems.
Other dramatic standouts include "Shadow Man" by Amanda Rudman, about a girl, who when left alone by her working mother and self-obsessed sister, finds friendship from a couple of rough-hewn male squatters in the house behind her flat. Delicately crafted -- it would be easy to wander into sickeningly sweet territory -- and with great cinematography, the film uncovers society's inherent mistrust of the homeless. Martin Jones' "At Dawning," succeeds because of its use of unexpected circumstances -- a woman leaving her lover's apartment finds a man hanging in a tree outside his window. It sounds less interesting as a written description than in the film's execution, which deftly engrosses the audience as the story unfolds in a continuously surprising way.
On the comedic frontier, Brad Peyton's "Evelyn: The Cutest Evil Dead Girl," invokes comparisons to the expressionistic style of Tim Burton. A simple dead-girl-wants-friends, dead-girl-meets-boy story told in the form of a poem, Peyton creates a vibrant world using, in his own description of his methods, "plywood and cardboard." The result is a funny little gem with great art direction and pacing.
The genesis of "Tom Hits His Head" mirrors the subject of the film: writer/director Tom Putnam hit his head, which catapulted him down a road of anxiety and fear over the following months. While this may sound like a documentary subject, Putnam his taken this inspiration and crafted a very funny stream-of-paranoia tale guest starring his good friend, the devil baby. Sound off kilter? It is.
Sandy McLeod's "Asylum" is a heart-wrenching documentary that tells the story of Baaba Andoh, a young African woman who, by searching and finding her absentee father, almost becomes a victim to ritual female genital mutilation. Ultimately, she escapes persecution from her homeland's male-dominated society by fleeing to the U.S., only to be treated as a criminal by the INS. To great effect, McLeod uses haunting interview photography juxtaposed with vibrant video of the woman's homeland, Ghana, to create an intimate, yet confrontational tone.
The biggest guilty pleasure of the festival was veteran experimental filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt's "I Used to Be a Filmmaker." Close to the filmmaker's own heart, the piece centers on video of Rosenblatt's infant daughter over the first couple of years of her life. With an eye for framing important moments in a way only an established filmmaker could, Rosenblatt turns what is essentially a well-structured and witty home video into a joyous, funny, and touching work of art.
Other highlights included Richard Linklater's Timothy 'Speed' Levitch pontification "Live from Shiva's Dance Floor," Sundance standout Stefan Nadelman's "Terminal Bar," Oscar winner Martin Strange-Hansen's "This Charming Man," and a gaggle of short shorts from Nick Park's "Wallace and Gromit's Cracking Contraptions" series.
The final day of the festival consisted of special screening of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" to commemorate the passing of one of America's finest cinematographers, Conrad Hall ("Cool Hand Luke," "American Beauty"), where awards were also handed out to the filmmakers.
[Tim LaTorre regularly writes about short films for indieWIRE.]
Complete list of Aspen Shortsfest Winners:
International Competition Jury: Todd Black (producer), Jonathan Darby (director), Marcus Hu (producer/distributor), and Carol Littleton (editor).
ANIMATED EYE AWARD ($2,000):
"The World of Interiors," Bunny Schendler, UK
BEST COMEDY ($2,000):
"Tom Hits His Head," Tom Putnam, USA
BEST DOCUMENTARY ($2,000 shared):
"Asylum," Sandy McLeod, USA
"Twin Towers," Bill Guttentag and Robert Port, USA
BEST DRAMA ($2,000):
"Here Was the Anthem," Sergio Umansky, USA/Mexico
BEST STUDENT ($2,000):
"The Trinket-Maker," Paul Daley, UK National Film & Television School
BEST SHORT SHORT ($2000):
"Hyper," Michael Canzoniero and Marco Ricci, USA
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY sponsored by Kodak ($2,500 in film stock):
"The Shadow Man," Mary Farbrother, UK
BEST DIRECTION ($500)
The Shadow Man Amanda Rudman, UK
BEST WRITING ($500)
"Squash," Lionel Bailliu, France
BEST EDITING ($500)
"Terminal Bar," Stefan Nadelman, USA
MOST INNOVATIVE ($500)
"Fits and Starts," Vince Di Meglio
SPECIAL JURY RECOGNITION ($500 each)
"I Used to Be a Filmmaker," Jay Rosenblatt, USA
"A Ninja Pays Half My Rent," Steven Tsuchida, USA
THE ELLEN for "most original film" ($2,000 each)
"Fits and Starts," Vince Di Meglio, USA
"The Trinket-Maker," Paul Daley, UK
(The Ellen Jury: Ellen Hunt, Steve Alldredge, Gail Holstein, Alex Kohner, and Lynda Palevsky.)
AUDIENCE FAVORITE AWARD ($1,000)
"Twin Towers," Bill Guttentag and Robert Port, USA
(Audience Favorite selection by Aspen Shortsfest audience ballots.)
THE HORIZON AWARD for a film with humanistic and educational value for youth ($500)
"From the 104th Floor," Serguei Bassine, USA
LOCAL FILMMAKERS CATEGORY: IMAGINE A WORLD ($500 shared)
"For Those Who Teach the Art of Peace," Terry Glasenapp, USA
"Tundra II," Brandon Richardson, USA
(Horizon Award and Local Filmmakers Award selected by panels of local educators, parents and students.)