AFI Fest Director of Programming Robert Koehler granted indieWIRE an extensive preview of the shorts playing this year's festival, which runs October 30 - November 7 in Hollywood, California. Explaining in great detail why he and Senior Programmer Lane Kneedler selected the nine films in the official shorts program, Koehler offered a rare insight into the thought process that goes into crafting a compelling viewing experience for festival-goers.
"We wanted to have the shorts program reflect the larger curatorial drive behind the general festival programming. It's more selective this year; there are deliberately fewer films," clarified Koehler. "The intension was to winnow down the selection to reflect an even higher quality of films across the board. It's impossible, as anyone who knows short films [can attest], to winnow down a shorts program to the absolute best films. What we did was create a selection that reflects tendencies that can be found in short films, as well as present [work] by major filmmakers."
Here is the AFI FEST 2009 shorts program rundown, in screening order, with commentary by Koehler:
"S/T," directed by Lisandro Alonso, Argentina, 2009, 1 minute
Description: A trailer commissioned by the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema.
Koehler: "This film serves three purposes. One is to open the program with a statement of cinema, i.e., this one-minute film is Lisandro's own statement on cinema, which is to watch and listen. An owl stares at the viewer, and it demands that you stare back. It draws you in immediately, all your senses are opened, and you're watching and listening. It's the perfect beginning point for the program - a statement that this shorts program has a beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes short programs don't have that structure - they're just a collection. Two, to present a film from someone I think is one of the world's greatest filmmakers. Three, it's a way of immediately internationalizing the selection so that it's not so U.S. heavy."
"The History of Aviation," directed by Balint Kenyeres, Hungary/France, 2009, 15 minutes
Description: Set on the beachfront of Normandy in 1905, this highly accomplished period piece centers around the search for a missing little girl. The film won the Grand Prix at the 2009 Vila do Conde International Short Film Festival.
Koehler: "The second film is by a veteran short filmmaker from Hungary. There are a couple of reasons we wanted to play it right after Lisandro's film. We wanted to show that the short film is capable of a grandness. This is a really grand film - it's widescreen. It has spectacular landscapes. You could imagine this almost being a sequence within a larger feature film. It also provides a way of immediately creating a disturbance for the viewer: okay, you're not going to be able to drift comfortably into this program. It's going to make you realize that the short film is capable of a lot of different things."
"The Citizens"/"Lead"/"The Simple Antennae," directed by Kevin Jerome Everson, USA, 2009, 6 minutes/3 minutes/1 minute
Description: Of this trio of pieces by Kevin Everson, only "The Citizens" was available for preview. It's a captivating collage of newsreel footage anchored by an interview with young Mohammad Ali.
Koehler: "This section of the program does something fairly unconventional. It's actually a mini-section within the section, a triptych by one of America's most interesting filmmakers, Kevin Jerome Everson. The grouping of these particular three films told a greater story by giving three views of black men in America."
"Short Term 12," directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, USA, 2009, 22 minutes
Description: A gripping drama about adult supervisors and troubled teens whose lives coexist in a residential facility. This short has been a major festival prizewinner, racking up accolades at Sundance, Seattle, CineVegas, and GenArt.
Koehler: "Lane Kneedler and I both thought that this really represents a very good example of American independent filmmaking in the short form right now. Beautifully cast, extremely well told story, not overtly commercial but also very much in a mainstream indie form. An actor-focused kind of short. Then we shift again in an entirely different direction, to Don Hertzfeldt."
"I Am So Proud of You," directed by Don Hertzfeldt, USA, 2008, 22 minutes
Description: Animator Don Hertzfeldt's latest masterpiece continues to explore the difficult life of Bill, the protagonist of his previous film, "Everything Will Be OK."
Koehler: "Don Hertzfeldt is as unique a voice as Lisandro Alonso or Kevin Jerome Everson. It was impossible to resist including his film. Certainly it's one of the most popular short films of the year, yet it has not had a Los Angeles festival screening before AFI FEST 2009."
"Oil Change" Directed by Todd Luoto, USA, 2009, 13 minutes
Description: This relationship drama, which previously played the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, is an intentionally uncomfortable encounter between two couples who get together for a meal and a dip in the pool.
Koehler: "This one touches another tendency in American indie short film. There's something Neil LaBute-ish about it."
"John Wayne Hated Horses," directed by Andrew T. Betzer, USA, 2009, 10 minutes
Description: A Cannes Director's Fortnight entry, this father-and-son story is told though unexpected imagery, including an obscene toy soldier tableaux.
Koehler: "Andrew Betzer is another unique filmmaker. He has his own visual grammar. His film is open to many different readings and interpretations; it prompts query. "John Wayne Hated Horses" has been circulating quite a bit, and the selection of a film like this reflects the larger programming of the festival - a festival of festivals - picking films that have been playing the festival circuit, bringing them to Los Angeles. "
"Dick Cheney in a Cold, Dark Cell," directed by Jim Finn, USA, 2009, 3 minutes
Description: An ice-skating incident on an insufficiently frozen pond takes on another meaning when one contemplates the implications of this film's title. This very American short next screens at the Rio de Janeiro International Short Film Festival, followed by festivals in Colombia and Venezuela.
Koehler: "Jim Finn's body of work is like no one else's. Such a distinctive voice. Always able to surprise the viewer with big ideas/big concepts made out of very little. The connection between Dick Cheney and the images we see on screen, it's kind of mind blowing."
"Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair," directed by Guy Maddin, Canada, 2009, 7 minutes
Description: Guy Maddin's latest experimental collaboration with Isabella Rossellini premiered at the 2009 Rotterdam Film Festival.
Koehler: "The final film is so obviously the finale. You show this film - an explosion of imagination, energy, a kind of almost orgasmic excitement celebrating silent film and the power of editing - and you can't possibly top it."
In addition to the official shorts program, AFI Fest is screening a program of Mike Plante's "Lunchfilms." CineVegas programmer Mike Plante challenged filmmakers to repay him for taking them out to lunch by making a film with the same amount of cash used to pay the restaurant bill. Plante personally selected the thirteen playing AFI from his catalogue of fifty pieces. Randy Walker & Jennifer Shainin (lunch bill = $27.73), Kelly Sears ($35.44), Brent Green ($43.05), and Bobcat Goldthwait ($26.79) are among the directors whose "will work for food" films will be shown.
Both the "Lunchfilms" program and the official shorts program will only be screened once, on Monday November 2 at 1:00 PM and 4:00 PM, respectively. Additionally, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's short, "A Letter to Uncle Boonmee," will screen in front of the feature "The Anchorage," and Jean-Marie Straub's "Le Streghe, Femmes Entre Elles"
precedes "Ne Change Rein." Check the AFI website for screening details.