FESTIVALS: Go East, Young Filmmaker! American Short Shorts Festival in Japan
by Ellie Lee
Too often in film festivals, short films are sadly mistreated as the homely stepchildren to feature films. Short filmmakers often spend money they don’t have to travel thousands of miles to a festival, only to find lukewarm reception from staff and little to no introduction at their own screenings. There are rare exceptions, however, the newest of which is the American Short Shorts Film Festival in Japan.
An idea born in the Fall of 1997, American Short Shorts was founded by Douglas Williams, a Los Angeles-based broadcast journalist who has worked as a popular news anchor and reporter in Tokyo for 8 years, and Tetsuya Bessho, a highly celebrated Japanese film and television star. After going crazy for the fxM short, “Angry Boy” by Josh Gordon and Will Speck, they discussed how amazing it would be to have a showcase for shorts in Japan, especially since there was such a lack of independent film there. They immediately set up a company, Pacific Voice — and using their celebrity in Japan, Bessho was able to secure the support of major sponsors, while Williams and the festival’s Associate Producer, Helen Zeilberger, went to U.S. festivals to solicit entries. Pacific Voice’s aim is to showcase films in a traveling festival to 4-5 Japanese cities, and then target television broadcast and other media platforms throughout Asia.
Phase one of American Short Shorts involved a tour through Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Okinawa from June 4-19, 1999. The festival showcased 27 American shorts, anchored by the first retrospective outside of the U.S. of George Lucas’ shorts from his U.S.C. days. I attended the festival with my animated documentary, “Repetition Compulsion,” and was blown away by the efforts made for the films and their makers. Of the 60 festivals where my short has screened, the two that most warmly embraced and championed shorts were the Berlin Film Festival and American Short Shorts, which, in its inaugural year, ran like a seasoned veteran. They provided free business-class airfare through Northwest for 8 filmmakers to Tokyo, and, over 6 days, held multiple press conferences, a private dinner party at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence with George Lucas himself, and wild galas with Japanese actors. They even assigned us translators to help us navigate through scenic tours of Tokyo, press parties, and Q&A’s after our programs. Kodak supported the festival with a prize of 3,000 feet of 16mm stock. Because of Pacific Voice’s partnership with one of Tokyo’s top PR firms, Sunny Side Up, they were able to generate massive media coverage across Japan, selling out all their seats in four cities to 10,000 viewers.
It’s not every day that the director, producer, and actor of a short like Michael Mayer’s “The Robber” are detained for an hour after their screenings by awe-struck fans in need of autographs and photographs. For shorts makers, this is a festival that will spoil you — a guaranteed recipe for postpartum depression once back to the thankless grind of the good old U.S.A.
Apart from the festival itself, there was also the immense joy of touring Tokyo with a tightly knit group of filmmakers. We went from ancient Imperial Palaces to ultra-modern centers in Shibuya, where we ran to karaoke parlors and high-tech arcades to play games where you breakdance in order to win. We celebrated a Shinto religious festival in Asakusa, where we happened upon a party thrown by the head of one of the Yakuza (yep, the Japanese mafia). In what other city could you find half-naked men with missing fingers and full-bodied tattoos who’d insist that Marliese Schneider, producer/actor in the hilariously profound “Turkey Cake,” go on stage to drink a giant bowl of sake to the gods? Where else would I be able to witness an auction of prime tuna at $20,000 a head and enjoy fresh, twitching sushi with fishermen at 6:30 am?
The second phase included viewings at the U.S. Embassy and its cultural centers (the “American Centers”) located throughout Japan. This year, they invited directors Rick Wilkinson (“A Short Wait Between Trains“) and Chris Tashima (the Oscar-winning “Visas and Virtue“) to tour and speak about their films and the world of shorts.
As the festival expands next year to include Sapporo on its itinerary, it will tour 5 cities in 5 weekends, and will again feature the shorts of an acclaimed director, as was done this year with Lucas, to garner attention and audiences. For commercial broadcasts and other distribution efforts, Pacific Voice is confident they have firmly established a solid brand with their fledgling showcase. With their presence throughout Japan and the celebrity of the festival organizers, Pacific Voice plans to establish the relationships necessary to make American shorts a hot item.
[Ellie Lee is the Boston-based director of “Repetition Compulsion,” which became the first animated film on PBS‘ “P.O.V.” At age 28, she is the recipient of 16 awards and fellowships, including grants from the Los Angeles Women in Film Foundation, NEA, and Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media. Currently, she is directing a 35mm short, “Dog Days,” adapted from Judy Budnitz’s “Flying Leap.”]