This month the acclaimed ITVS/PBS showcase "Independent Lens," which bills itself as "the film festival in your living room," launches its first annual Online Shorts Festival, debuting a stellar array of short documentaries on its website and rebranding itself as "a film festival at your fingertips."
Of the ten docs that won the inaugural online festival, eight are currently available at www.pbs.org/independentlens/onlineshortsfestival/. The two grand prize winners will be viewable the day after their national televised premiere on "Independent Lens Short Stack 2006," airing on Tuesday, December 26 on PBS (check your local broadcast listings.)
The grand prize winners, selected by the curators of "Independent Lens," are Mai Heiselmann's "Someday Flowers Bloom," a surprising portrait of a Japanese woman living in Montana, and Jasmin Gordon's "Paris, 1951," an artful investigation of the filmmaker's family secret. "We chose these shorts because they demonstrate great promise by two emerging filmmakers," proclaims "Independent Lens" series producer Lois Vossen. "Both are exemplary of the kinds of stories we feature on 'Independent Lens.'"
Although "Independent Lens" is best known for longer films, the Emmy Award-winning weekly anthology series airing Tuesday nights at 10 PM on PBS has always been a supporter of short films via their popular "Short Stack" installments. Like all films anointed with the "Independent Lens" imprint, the shorts airing in the hour-long block on December 26, 2006 are linked via their demonstration of independent artistic vision. In addition to "Someday Flowers Bloom" and "Paris, 1951," two non-docs round out the hour. "The Zit," a five-minute long animated short by Mike Blum, tells the story of boy versus pimple. And receiving special billing is Eric Byler's "My Life...Disoriented," a half-hour fictional drama about two Bay Area sisters whose family moves to Bakersfield. Written by Claire Yorita Lee, "My Life...Disoriented" features a host of well-known actors, including Tamlyn Tomita of "The Joy Luck Club."
Cathy Fischer, senior producer ITVS Interactive/"Independent Lens," points out that the ability to offer up additional short docs via the new online festival means that there's a much wider and varied selection of storytelling for viewers to sample. "It's like making a meal of appetizers," she offers as a comparison. Series producer Lois Vossen adds, "We created the Independent Lens Online Shorts Festival to support and encourage more independent work distributed on new platforms."
There is indeed a great variety of subject matter among the eight online docs, each of which have their own web page on the PBS site complete with production stills, credits, and filmmaker biographies. Stanford's Department of Communication continues its tradition of turning out excellent short docs with two beautifully filmed pieces, Erin Hudson's five-minute depiction of elderly swimming pool devotees, "Afloat," and Christie Herring's seven-minute exploration of how plucky poultry adapt to urban-dwelling, "Chickens in the City." An opinionated deep sea diver is the focus of Roger Teich's "Devil's Teeth," while a gay-bashing minister and a big-hearted spoken word artist sound off in Dean Hamer's "The Preacher and the Poet." Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer's "Leonard & the Mountain" and Robert Lughai and Tashai Lovington's "Le Fe'e Rouge" are portraits of renegade artists, the latter manipulating dolls, the former a mountainside.
The seventh online film is Iris Rose Ichishita's "Homeless Karaoke," a tear-inducing story of Skid Row salvation. A six-person jury chose this doc (made as part of the International Documentary Challenge 2006) as their award winner. Juror Mark Glaser praised the eight-minute film as having a "great message, great story, very touching."
However, if you only have time to sample one film online, the one to watch is Kristina and Nick Higgins' "The McCombie Way." The seven-minute long portrait of an eighty-one-year-old landscaper/philosopher is so unexpectedly moving that juror Mark Eitzel commented after viewing, "Damn that was kinda perfect. Thank you for that." The filmmakers discovered their heroine when they moved to Wonder Valley in the California desert and stumbled across sombrero-wearing Ann McCombie, a one-woman dynamo who toils in 100 degree heat to beautify her little corner of the world while issuing such practical advice as "What is past is past...you've got now and if you're going to have a happy life, you enjoy all your nows."
A second annual Independent Lens Online Shorts Festival is in the works, and filmmakers who want to submit should look for forms to be posted in January 2007 on their website. The deadline is Monday, April 23, 2007. To be considered, films must be 10 minutes or less, and all genres are welcome. Independent artistic vision is, of course, mandatory.
[Kim Adelman is the author of "The Ultimate Filmmaker's Guide to Short Films."]