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Shorts Monthly: "The Witness" Captivates Audience and Jury at Aspen Shortsfest 2009

By Kim Adelman | Indiewire April 8, 2009 at 3:59AM

On February 22, 2009, Adam Pertofsky walked away empty handed when his 32-minute documentary, "The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306," lost the Oscar race to "Smile Pinky." On April 5, 2009, Pertofsky's film was trophy magnet, winning both Best Documentary and Audience Favorite at the 18th annual Aspen Shortsfest.
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On February 22, 2009, Adam Pertofsky walked away empty handed when his 32-minute documentary, "The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306," lost the Oscar race to "Smile Pinky." On April 5, 2009, Pertofsky's film was trophy magnet, winning both Best Documentary and Audience Favorite at the 18th annual Aspen Shortsfest.

At Aspen, five different groups sit in judgment on the films that play the highly prestigious international short fest. This year, 60 short films from 21 countries screened from April 1 - 5 in Aspen and Carbondale, Colorado. On Sunday afternoon in the bar area of Aspen's historic Wheeler Opera House, champagne glasses were raised after a dozen accolades and cash prizes totaling $14,500 were doled out at the festival's low-key but extremely heartfelt award ceremony.

The Los Angeles branch of BAFTA sponsors an Award for Excellence, which this year went to "Concerto," directed Columbia University student Filippo Conz. The taunt 16-minute drama follows a detective who forces his wife's violin teacher/lover to take a trip to a crime scene. Luke Doolan's suspenseful school-set mystery "Miracle Fish" was additionally honored by the BAFTA/LA team with a certificate of excellence, as was Martina Amati's captivating seafaring adventure "A'Mare."

The second group to judge at Aspen is a youth jury consisting of a panel of local teenagers. The teens also named "Miracle Fish" as their pick.

The Ellen Award, given by the original founders of the festival, was bestowed on Nicolas Engel's delightful French short "Copy of Coralie," whose Hollywood elevator pitch is "Amelie" meets "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," set in Kinkos.

The fourth group empowered to bestow an award at Aspen Shortsfest is the audience, who in the past have tended to favor documentaries. This year there were many short docs that generated much audience discussion at the post-screening question and answer sessions. Jill Orschel fielded questions about the very candid Mormon heroine in her 11-minute portrait entitled "Sister Wife." Will Parrinello offered details about his Richard Gere-narrated restoration project "Mustang - Journey of Transformation." And a young man asked filmmaker Susan Cohn Rockefeller "What can we do to help?" after "Making the Crooked Straight" showed what medical maladies Dr. Rick Hodes is up against in Ethiopia.

When all the audience ballots were tallied, the $1000 prize went to "The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306," which documents Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles's remarkable first-person account of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s ill-fated mission in Memphis.

The international competition jury also contributed to filmmaker Adam Pertofsky's coffers, giving "The Witness"' a $2,500 Best Documentary cash prize. Sadly, although Pertofsky flew into Aspen for his screening, he was not able to stay in town long enough to attend the award ceremony and accept his trophies in person.

In addition to the traditional awards, jury members Lisa Kennedy, Jon Bloom, Louis Teague and Robert Weide anointed four films with special recognition at the ceremony.

Louis Teague began by honoring Deborah Koons Garcia's organic farming doc "Soil in Good Heart" for exploring a topic "close to our hearts and important to the world." Lisa Kennedy next paid tribute to the cheeky tone of Doug Karr's family history "Ten for Grandpa." Robert Weide followed with praise for Destin Daniel Cretton's youth rehabilitation center-set drama "Short Term 12," which Weide described as eye-opening. And Jon Bloom called Rene Hernandez's teen bullying coming-of-age story "The Ground Beneath" "superb." Upon accepting his award, Hernandez credited Aspen Shortsfest, which had previously shown two of his shorts, as motivating him to become a better filmmaker.

"Most accomplished in its entirety" is how the jury described "Ralph," the story of a British lad stranded in France with only an incomplete phone number to reconnect with his one true love. Columbia University student Alex Winckler was not on-hand to receive his Best Student Film cash prize.

"Lynchian" was the high praise adjective the jury gave to the animated winner, Veljko Popovic's "She Who Measures." Best Comedy went to Katie Wolfe's very funny husband-stealing narrative "This Is Her." Denis Villeneuve's Gilliam-esque extreme carnivore adventure "Next Floor" split the Best Drama Award in a tie with David Michod's pitch perfect father-son-bunny tale "Netherland Dwarf."

[Full list of Winners on page 2]

Check out indieWIRE's New Guide to Film Festivals (listings will be updated throughout the year):
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Two short comedies rounded out the festival's remaining prizes. Declan Cassidy, who flew in from Ireland, enthusiastically accepted the Best Short Short for his charming 4-minute "Whatever Turns You On" while NYU animator Stephen Neary picked up the High Five to Lo-Fi award for his kooky western "Chicken Cowboy."

In his entertaining acceptance speech in which he mentioned his father and brother accompanied him to Aspen to show support and to get some skiing in, Stephen Neary expressed a sentiment that the many filmmakers attending this year's Aspen Shortsfest felt after spending five days embraced by the welcoming mountain community: "It's awesome."


The full list of Shortsfest 2009 Award Winners

International Competition Awards

Animated Eye Award - $2,500
"She Who Measures," by Veljko Popovic, Croatia

Best Comedy - $2,500
"This is Her," by Katie Wolfe, New Zealand

Best Drama (shared) - $2,500
"Netherland Dwarf," by David Michod, Australia and "Next Floor," by Denis Villeneuve, Canada

Best Documentary - $2,500
"The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306," by Adam Pertofsky, USA

Best short short - $1,000
"Whatever Turns You On," by Declan Cassidy, Ireland

Best Student - $1,000
"Ralph," by Alex Winckler, UK/France; Columbia University

Special Jury Recognition

"Ground Beneath," by Rene Hernandez, Australia
"Short Term 12," by Destin Daniel Cretton, USA
"Soil in Good Heart," by Deborah Koons Garcia, USA/India/Norway/UK
"Ten for Grandpa," by Doug Karr, Canada

The Ellen Award - $1,000
"Copy of Coralie," by Nicolas Engel, France

BAFTA/Los Angeles Award for Excellence
"Concerto," by Filippo Conz, USA

BAFTA/Los Angeles Certificates of Excellence
"Miracle Fish," by Luke Doolan, Australia
"A'Mare," by Martina Amati, UK

High Five to LO-FI
"Chicken Cowboy," by Stephen Neary, USA

Youth Jury Prize - $500
"Miracle Fish," by Luke Doolan, Australia

Audience Favorite Award - $1,000
"The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306," by Adam Pertofsky, USA

Check out indieWIRE's New Guide to Film Festivals (listings will be updated throughout the year):
JAN | FEB | MAR | APR | MAY | JUN | JUL | AUG | SEP | OCT | NOV | DEC

This article is related to: Aspen Shortsfest





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