THE SHORTS REPORT: Shorts Thrive in Extraordinary Times, Shorts International's Struggles and Discoveries
by Tim LaTorre
(indieWIRE/ 11.13.01) -- The last few months have been a trial for many different facets of American life. In times when many are losing their livelihood and the nation is concerned for its own security, the arts can seem expendable. But it is the arts, in all its different forms, that challenge our thinking, help us heal and remind us to continue to dream. Which is why it is important to take the time to engage the arts in a time of crisis. In its own struggles to hold an event this year, the fact that the Shorts International Film Festival could not only survive, but also thrive, demonstrates the true grit of the independent film spirit.
The Shorts International Film Festival, continuing today through Wednesday at New York's Lincoln Square Theater and the TriBeCa Grand Hotel, was founded 5 years ago by Lisa Walborsky and Jeremiah Newton. Walborsky was running the First Look film series down at the TriBeCa Film Center and receiving a lot of calls from filmmakers to show short films. At the time, there weren't a lot of shorts-focused festivals. "There wasn't a lot of buzz at the time," Walborsky explains. "The idea was to put it in the most commercial place I could, not to put it in an arthouse theater. I think a lot of people get intimidated by the idea of 'arthouse' -- they think it's something artsy-fartsy. Although now, 5 years later, things have changed a lot."
While large festivals such as the recent New York Film Festival benefit from being the progeny of a well-endowed arts organization with long-standing sponsors, the threat of the recent economic downturn compounded with the September 11th terrorist attacks have complicated the process of hosting a smaller festival in New York City. In fact, there were many times that it looked like it might not happen at all. After September 11, first there was overcoming the psychological factor. It was regular New Yorkers who helped change Walborsky's initial attitude. She explains, "On the Thursday after the World Trade Center, I volunteered to make sandwiches down at Chelsea Market. Talking with other workers, everyone was asking what each other did. I mentioned that I did this festival, but of course we wouldn't be doing it now. Everyone said. 'Well, you've got to, we're going to need something like that by November.'" Afterwards, thinking about how close they were to their financial goals, she decided to go forward.
However, several more trials were in store before the festival could take place. Because of the temporary discontinuation of postal service immediately following the tragedy, when they were finally able to receive submissions for the original Sept. 15 deadline, 500 came in one day as opposed to the normal 50 at that point. With many in the screening committee stuck in Toronto and unable to return to New York for a few days, the amount of submissions would prove to be a lot to take while simultaneously dealing with the fact that the city they were returning to had forever changed. In addition, three weeks later Walborsky found out that they were losing half of their funding due to companies with WTC-related setbacks. At this point, according to Walborsky, she "sounded like a complete psychopath, trying to raise money for a film festival in the midst of people giving money to help families. We got a lot [of the funding] from some pretty extraordinary people" Trio [the new arts cable company], The Liman Foundation, The Kaplan Foundation, and David Koepp".
Of course, now that the struggle to continue the festival for another year is over, it's time to enjoy the fruits of their labors. This year, the festival consists of 14 different 2-hour programs in seven categories, including animation, comedy, documentary, drama, experimental, student and digital. With many filmmakers of the total 106 films representing 23 countries coming into town for the festival, it is truly an international event. Some discoveries:
Pawel Parthka's "The Fantastic Flowershop" (Denmark) and Rene Castillo's "Hasta Los Huesos/Down to the Bones" (Mexico) are both vibrant, music-oriented animated films with beautifully saturated colors. "Flowershop" celebrates different dance styles, from Flamenco to the Argentine Tango, by showing the secret life of wire spindles that take human form and adorn themselves with flowers at night after the florist closes shop. "Bones" takes the viewer on a rousing tour of the afterlife and the trial of one man coming to terms with his mortality, all in true 'Dia de Los Muertos' style.
Daniel Bernstein's "The Cutting Room" (USA) is a humorous take on what happens to characters when they end up on film and literature's cutting room floor. In this world we find characters like Romlet, Hamlet's moodier brother, and Lucy, who was too much woman for Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." While the performances are a bit light, the overall concept and quick-witted banter is enough to make the film enjoyable.
Virgil Widrich's "Copy Shop" (Austria), already an award winner at many festivals overseas, is a black and white, grain-textured film that takes a single concept and runs with it. In this case, a man who works in a copy shop accidentally copies his hand and increasingly finds his world filled with copies of himself. From a technical standpoint, the effects are seamless and it is one of those 'How did he do that?' films.
Annette Sjursen's "Dublin I Regn/Dublin in Rain" (Norway) tells the simple tale of a phone conversation between two lovers. The muted visuals, consisting of the woman walking and talking in her apartment with husband and child in the next room, juxtaposed with the tender and sometimes erotic nature of the dialogue creates potent dramatic tension -- a balance that seems to come naturally to Norweigian filmmaking.
Other hits, previously seen on the festival circuit include David Kartch's priceless "Zen and the Art of Landscaping," Dean Kapsalis' "Jigsaw Venus," and David von Ancken's "Bullet in the Brain."
[For a full schedule of films, see <http://www.shorts.org>]