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PARK CITY ’07 SHORTS NOTEBOOK | With a Strong Emphasis on Storytelling, Columbia University Filmmake

PARK CITY '07 SHORTS NOTEBOOK | With a Strong Emphasis on Storytelling, Columbia University Filmmake

[EDITORS NOTE: This is part one of two features that indieWIRE is publishing about the 2007 Sundance Film Festival’s shorts program.]

The early rumblings began with a heads-up email from Kimberly Yutani, one of the four new Sundance short film programmers, “BTW, if you haven’t already covered this story for indieWIRE, you’ve got to find out what they’re doing at Columbia U. We saw so many great shorts that have CU connections….” With 4,445 shorts submitted from around the world, the festival programmers whittled the official selections down to 71 films – with seven out of the 71 helmed by Columbia University Film Division students (and three others by recent alumni). Sundance senior programmer Trevor Groth heralded this stunning statistic in an article in the Hollywood Reporter, and the School of the Arts called further attention to the numbers in a large congratulatory ad in Variety.

When asked to comment on Columbia’s success at Sundance this year, Dean Dan Kleinman credits “the nature of our program which treats all aspects of filmmaking from the point of view of storytelling.” While proclaiming that there is no “house style” defining the film school, the Dean notes that six of the ten Columbia-associated shorts are directed by women, a not-surprising percentage considering “the current first year class is exactly 50% women, and some of our most prestigious alumni are female, including Kimberly Peirce and Lisa Cholodenko.” Diverse backgrounds also contribute to the students’ broad range of stories (six of the Sundance-anointed feature characters speaking languages other than English). Pressed for a more detailed explanation for Columbia’s triumph, Kleinman boils it down to one simple truth: “The students tell their stories – and they’re terrific.”

Sundance festival-goers can catch the “Columbia 10” in the following short film programs:

Shorts Program I:

The Dawn Chorus” (Dir. Hope Dickson Leach, USA, 2006, 15 Min.) The lead characters in this compellingly off-beat dramatic short are a brother and sister wearing mousekeeter ears who come back every year to the site of a horrific airplane crash to reenact the event. But this year, the sister goes off script.

Pop Foul” (Dir. Moon Molson, USA, 2006, 20 Min.) From the very first shot, the viewer knows this isn’t going to be your standard little-leaguer-and-his-dad story. Excellent dialogue, acting, and camera work make the encounter between the caring father and a threatening rival riveting moviemaking.

Windowbreaker” (Dir. Tze Chun, USA, 2006, 11 Min.). With nine other short films under his belt, director Tze Chun cast youths from local Chinese schools to star in this tale of a suburban crime spree that causes an outbreak of paranoia in a mixed-race neighborhood. Interesting crew note: Anna Boden, writer/producer of “Half-Nelson,” edited this short.

A scene from Moon Molson’s “Pop Foul,” which is screening in the Sundance Film Festival’s short film section. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Shorts Program II:

Graceland” (Dir. Anocha Suwichakornpong, Thailand, 2006, 17 Min.) This intriguing drama about an amateur Elvis impersonator’s one-night stand with a beautiful stranger has been on many insiders’ “one to watch” list ever since it became the first Thai short to be an official selection of the Cannes International Film Festival (Cinefondation).

Happiness” (Dir. Sophie Barthes, USA, 2006, 11 Min.) Barthes, who recently attended the Sundance screenwriters’ lab, exhibits remarkable writing and directing talent, constructing an unforgettable fable about a middle-aged factory worker who discovers that happiness doesn’t necessarily come in a box.

Shorts Program III:

Bitch” (Dir. Lilah Vandenburgh, USA, 2006, 15 Min.) This laugh-out-loud romantic comedy shows what happens when a violently antisocial girl gets knocked silly by unrequited love for an equally maladjusted guy.

Bomb” (Dir. Ian Olds, USA, 2006, 14 Min.) An Air Force bombing range isn’t your usual setting for a teenage love story, but director Ian Olds doesn’t have a usual teenage love story to tell.

Shorts Program V:

Conversion” (Dir. Nanobah Becker, USA, 2006, 9 Min.) A member of the Navajo Nation, Nanobah Becker employs dialogue delivered in the actors’ native tongue to depict the aftermath of meddling missionaries, who convince a tribal elder to give up his medicine pouch and distribute pictures of Jesus.

Salt Kiss” (Dir. Fellipe Gamarano Barbosa, Brazil, 2006, 18 Min.) How can anyone resist the spell of an aging lothario determined to sabotage a friend’s so-called happy engagement? Surely there must be a feature version of this charmer in the works…

And lastly, screening with the World Documentary Competition feature “Enemies of Happiness,” “Make a Wish” (Dir. Cherien Dabis, Palestinian Territories, 2006, 12 Min.) This short, which is also an official selection of the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival and the 2007 Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival, won Best Short at the 2006 Dubai International Film Festival. The story of an eleven-year-old Palestinian girl on a mission to buy a cake for a special occasion gives a glimpse of what ordinary life is like for those growing up under occupation.

A scene from Cynthia Wade’s “Freeheld.” Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

In addition to the above-listed programs featuring Columbia filmmakers, the Animation Spotlight and Documentary Spotlight programs are also well worth checking out.

While audiences should be eager to view the new films by acclaimed animators Martha Colburn (“Destiny Manifesto“) and Don Hertzfeldt (“Everything Will Be OK“), don’t overlook “Golden Age” (Dir. Aaron Augenblick), a 22-minute anthology of goofy cartoons – consider it your “Adult Swim” break.

Another animated treat is the shortest film in the festival, “T.O.M.” (Dirs. Tom Brown & Daniel Gray), a three-minute oddity from the UK about a little boy whose actions start weird and get weirder. “T.O.M” screens with the Spectrum feature “Expired.”

In the Documentary Spotlight program you’ll find the longest short in the festival, “Freeheld” (Dir. Cynthia Wade), a thirty-eight minute look at the captivating court case of a New Jersey police lieutenant in the last stages of lung cancer who is fighting city hall to allow her benefits to extend to her life partner.

A few other notable short docs to catch before features: Sundance regular Jay Rosenblatt‘s portrait of anti-gay activist Anita Bryant, “I Just Wanted to be Somebody” (screening with “For the Bible Tells Me So“); William Lorton‘s “Spitfire 944,” which makes great use of recently discovered footage to tell the story of one veteran’s experience in WWII (screening with “In the Shadow of the Moon“); and Mariam Jobrani, Kenny Krauss & Teresa Deskins‘ “The Fighting Cholitas,” an amazing look into the world of female wrestling, Bolivian-style, complete with braids and long skirts (screening with “Miss Navajo“).

In addition to the screenings in Park City, at least half of the seventy-one shorts can be watched for free on the Sundance’s website or downloaded via iTunes. These shorts will be reviewed in indieWIRE later in the week.

Get the latest coverage of Park City ’07 in indieWIRE’s special section here at indieWIRE.com

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