The jurors at this year's Aspen Shortsfest, which took place April 2 - 6 in Aspen, Colorado, were so enamored with the shorts in the documentary competition category that they couldn't pick just one. Instead, they split the prize between two British films, "Elegy for the Elswick Envoy" and "Peter and Ben." The ticket-buying public was also doubly impressed and voted two American docs, "Come Back to Sudan" and "One Bridge to the Next," co-winners of the Audience Favorite Award. Even the industry insiders were abuzz. "This was the strongest doc lineup the festival has ever had," declared Scott Dwyer, a PBS programmer who has attended Aspen Shortsfest for the past seven years.
During its four day run, Aspen Shortsfest 2008 unspoiled 53 competition shorts from more than 24 countries. Among the six world premieres, thirteen North American premieres, and three U.S. premieres, the strongest films were decidedly the non-fiction offerings.
"Come Back to Sudan" by Boulder/Denver-based filmmakers Daniel Junge and Patti Bonnet had its world premiere at the festival. The half-hour film, which follows a Colorado woman's journey with her two adopted children to their native homeland, received a hometown hero's welcome and the Audience Favorite Award.
Another buzzed-about world premiere doc was the 23-minute "Pickin' & Trimmin'" a look at a barbershop/hootenanny by Matt Morris. Many were surprised when the audience-pleaser failed to win any official kudos at the fest.
Clocking in one minute longer than Morris's film and making its US debut, Nancy Willis's "Elegy for the Elswick Envoy" did capture the jury's eye. An artist with muscular dystrophy, Willis turned her camera on herself and her trusty but dying car. Both Willis and her beloved Elswick Envoy have personality to spare, and her film shines with a sunny disposition.
Willis shared the jury doc prize with fellow UK filmmaker, Pinny Grylls, whose ten-minute "Peter and Ben" is also a look at a person and his unexpected beloved -- in this case, a sheep called Ben. The eloquence of Grylls's subject makes the cinematic portrait a delight. Peter and Ben" previously world-premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA).
Kim A. Snyder's 33-minute "One Bridge to the Next" was the fourth documentary to take home a prize at this year's festival. The audience favorite focuses on a very personable doctor who practices street medicine among the homeless in Pittsburgh to great success.
Three other buzzed-about docs fall into the fifteen-minute-or-less category. Jeff Lester's snowboarder piece, "Speed of Life," effortlessly glides through its nine-minute running time. The Sundance-winning "My Olympic Summer" by Daniel Robin covers a lot of family history in its thirteen minutes. And Stanford student Peter Jordan's striking portrait of a teenage female boxer, "The Champ," knocks out viewers in only six minutes.
On the narrative front, industry buzz about future Oscar contenders circled around "Auf der Strecke" (On the Line). Reto Caffi's thirty-minute Germany/Switzerland co-production about a good man who makes a bad decision enjoyed a North American debut at Aspen and walked away with the Best Student award. The mesmerizing drama had previously won the Swiss Film Prize 2008 and the Grand Prize at Clermont-Ferrand.
Two other narrative films that had heat before even screening at Aspen are the celebrity-helmed dramas. Kate Hudson's assured directorial debut, "Cutlass," stacks the deck with strong performances from Virginia Madsen, Kurt Russell, and Dakota Fanning in a dual story of what parents will and won't do for their demanding daughters. A late addition to the festival, Josh Brolin also contributed a father-daughter story, "X." Brolin wrote, produced, and directed the sixteen-minute road movie.
At a festival known for audience-pleasing comedies, laugh-out-loud pieces were surprisingly scarce this year. Without real competition, Nash Edgerton's "Spider" easily earned the jury nod for Best Comedy while also snagging the festival's Hard C High-Five to Lo-Fi award.
Adrian Sitaru's "Waves" also took home more than one trophy. The seventeen-minute Romanian beach-set story won Best Drama, Best Cinematography, and a Certificate of Excellence from the Los Angeles chapter of BAFTA.
The jury's animation award went to Konstantin Bronzit's nine-minute romance about a restroom attendant with a secret admirer, "Lavatory Lovestory." Another animated romance -- this time between a house-bound penguin and her groveling polar bear suitor in Matthew Walker's four-minute "John and Karen" -- garnered the Best Short Short prize.
The jury at this year's Aspen Shortsfest consisted of "Juno" producer Daniel Dubiecki, legendary animator Bill Plympton, "You, Me, & Dupree" screenwriter Michael LeSieur, British Council Film Programmer Simona Marchegiani, and Emmy-winning writer/director Steven Schachter.
[A full listing of all Aspen Shortsfest 2008 winners can be found on the festival's website http://www.aspenfilm.org/index.cfm?S=1:2.]