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Why Make Shorts?: Filmmakers and Jurors Address the Purpose of Short Filmmaking at the Bermuda International Film Festival

Photo of Casey Cipriani By Casey Cipriani | Indiewire April 2, 2014 at 11:40AM

Bermuda shorts aren't just brightly colored bottoms that one wears with matching knee socks. At the Bermuda International Film Festival, shorts are the highlight, and for good reason.
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"Wasp"
"Wasp"

Bermuda shorts aren't just brightly colored bottoms that one wears with matching knee socks. At the Bermuda International Film Festival, shorts are the highlight, and for good reason.

The winner of BIFF's short film competition is then eligible to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short. In BIFF's seventeen years, two of their winners have gone on to take home Oscar: "Wasp" in 2005 and "Toyland" in 2009. Lookout for a potential 2015 Oscar nomination for this year's BIFF winner: Iraq's "Baghdad Messi."

Yet, outside of film festivals and awards season voting, short films are rarely seen by the general public here in America. Many cinephiles may nostalgically recall a time when a short film was shown prior to a feature, but those days are long gone, replaced by ever lengthening trailers that might as well be considered short films themselves. Perhaps this is because there's not much consensus on the purpose of the short film format, even among filmmakers, festival programmers or students. Some view them as merely a warm up, while others would rather they be supported for their own artistic achievements. Though infrequently seen, that doesn't diminish their ability to tell a great story, or have a big impact.

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Head juror Jan Harlan, producer of many of Stanley Kubrick's films, believes short films are still important even in today's era of modern filmmaking. He teaches a seminar on short films as a calling card. "I'm very interested in short films," said Harlan. "Most of them are pretty boring, but some you can really see there's new talent. That is most satisfying." He encourages students to use their short filmmaking opportunities to put their stamp on something in hopes of making an impression. Making a short he says, "Is a must and they know it. They know it and they're struggling. What you have to do is complete your toolbox, and there are many things that you have to totally brutally realize." Harlan, who is originally from Germany and now lives in England, has no doubt been more exposed to a culture of short films already ingrained into society.

Juror Lauren Wissot, a journalist for Filmmaker Magazine who has also programmed film festivals, pointed out that America doesn't have the same built in appreciation for short films that Europe has. She would rather that short filmmakers here embrace the medium in its own right. "I have a hard time with these calling card films here in the States designed solely to tout the director or raise money for a longer film," she said. "Too often I feel like I’m sitting through vanity projects where I’m being pitched. I like to see work that fits the format; a director telling his or her story within a certain amount of time because that’s exactly the running time needed to make a complete film."

Yulin Liu receiving her Special Jury Prize from Jan Harlan
Casey Cipriani Yulin Liu receiving her Special Jury Prize from Jan Harlan

Fellow juror film critic Peter Rainer also isn't crazy about the idea of short films essentially as a warm up to a feature. "A lot of film schools tend to promote films as resumes for studio work so then the students don't take enough chances often times," Rainer said. "If you don't take chances making your student film, when are you going to take a chance?"

Some filmmakers, whose shorts were screened at BIFF, tried to do exactly that. Michael Lukk Litwak's short film "The Life and Death of Tommy Chaos and Stacey Danger" has been described as "Blue Valentine" meets "Jurassic Park" and featured dinosaurs, submarines and space ships all on a limited budget. Though he's taking chances with content and effects, Litwak doesn't necessarily consider his film an audition piece for a feature, but rather a way to explore the kind of feature he'd ultimately want to make.

"Shorts give you a lot of time to find your voice as a filmmaker," Litwak said. "There's a lot of pressure. If you make a ten million dollar film and you mess it up, no one's ever going to give you ten million dollars ever again. Whereas if you make a short for a thousand dollars and it's a bust then it's the only thing you've lost is maybe five or ten days of time and $1,000." Rather than thinking, "This film will get me the funds to make my feature," many students would rather take their time on their shorts and sharpen their skills.

Yulin Liu, who took home a Special Jury Prize for her short "Door God," likes the idea of exploring filmmaking techniques before she has to decide on what style to ultimately use when she moves on to feature filmmaking. "You can explore yourself," she said." From making short films you can also find your own way for the future, say this is my way to tell the story."

Indeed, even veteran filmmakers see the benefit of using shorter format pieces to tighten their skills and perfect their craft. Rainer pointed out that feature film directors like Ridley Scott, Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze and David Lynch have all turned to making television commercials; an unexpectedly demanding task given that one has to tell a story and make it interesting in a very short amount of time. "Many of them will tell you that this is how they hone their storytelling skills, by learning how to make every moment count," Rainer said.

Susana Casares was also awarded a Special Jury Prize for her short film "Tryouts," which won a special College Television Emmy Award in 2013. The film focuses on a Muslim teenager who wants to join her high school's cheerleading squad and depicts a moving clash of adolescent desires and religious traditions in only 14 minutes. "I think the mistake is to try and make feature films into short films instead of embracing the form of itself," Casares said. "The short format allows you to explore tone and rhythm and character and also to explore moments."

Susana Casares giving a Q&A after "Tryouts"
Casey Cipriani Susana Casares giving a Q&A after "Tryouts"

Casares, who hails from Spain but now lives in Los Angeles, also hopes for the opportunity for shorts to one day have their own place in American cinema, be it through web-series, short content documentaries or even putting things up on Vimeo and YouTube.  With television getting better in quality every year, and companies perpetually trying to figure out a way to monetize the web, perhaps those who excel in short filmmaking will rise in their careers without even stepping foot into feature territory.

"I think short format used to be seen as, 'What do you want to do before a feature?'" Casares said. "Now I think filmmakers, producers and distributors are embracing it as a different animal that needs its own space."


This article is related to: Film Festival, Filmmaker Toolkit: Festivals, Filmmaker Toolkit: Student Filmmakers, Jan Harlan, Shorts, Short Film







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