Out in Aspen, Colorado, this week is Aspen ShortsFest. One of indieWire’s “Top 50 Film Festivals,” they’ve got a ton of fantastic shorts in this year’s program, with films from all over the world and such big names as Colin Firth and Julia Stiles starring in some of the more anticipated selections; take a look at indieWire’s round-up of fest highlights over here. Unfortunately, though, we can’t all be in Colorado this week (myself included) so I’ve thrown together a few of the better picks in the fest available to watch free on the web.
As I was looking around amongst the 80+ selections, a motif kept cropping up again and again. There are more than a few great shorts that play around with the conventions of documentary, either to personalize factual content or play around with fiction. Shorts are also in the unique position of being able to really zoom in on a specific idea without too much risk of getting tiresome, making genre games even more fun. These filmmakers can parody a nature show or a classic newsreel, and end up with a provocative and successful four minute experience. Here’s a crop of five of these shorts that are all definitely worth a look, after the jump.
I’ll start with the most obviously fictional: the delightful Swedish film “Den Sista Galaxonaut.” It’s a newsreel style short that follows the life and accomplishments of an imaginary Scandinavian hero named Sven Larsson. This strapping young blonde, we’re told, was not only a ski-jumping champion (by the age of three no less) and a great dancer, but also the first man on the moon. There’s a wonderful clash between classic non-fiction film/TV conventions, like the voice-over and quick editing and its extraordinarily fake props and sets. The effect is a terribly entertaining short film, with a delightful sense of light comedy.
“The Majestic Plastic Bag” is also silly up front, taking a mockumentary approach to a spoof of the nature program. Produced by Heal the Bay and narrated by Jeremy Irons, it follows a discarded plastic bag as it floats through San Francisco and out to sea. The little critter flies around, avoiding dangerous predators (dogs, for example) in its quest to reach the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” The film’s charm, of course, comes from the fact that while it may be ridiculous this odyssey of trash is essentially true to life; it’s a lively example of how short film can help environmental awareness, in a funny but not particularly pedantic sort of way.
The next film, an import from the UK, is a bit murkier about how fictional it might be (at least at first). “Sign Language” isn’t necessarily in the business of tricking you into thinking that it’s cinema vérité, but it is structured around the direct address style of many a documentary (or TV mockumentary sitcom, these days). Ben is a “static outdoor information technician,” which is to say that he holds up an advertising sign on the streets of London. He lets us into this calmly optimistic fantasy world of unionized board-holders and family tradition in the trade; he’s even got granddad’s pole to hold up his sign. It’s a lovely little film, endearing and quietly cheerful.
“The Unspoken,” unlike the above three shorts, is not fiction. But it’s also not really what we think of when we think “documentary short.” Australian filmmaker Jason van Ganderen has taken his tender yet unexpressed feelings toward his dying father and crafted a beautiful film that crosses a voice-over monologue with crisply photographed shots of his parents. Instead of simply saying these things directly, he has created a cinematic collaboration between his father and his thoughts, which echoes clearly out to the audience.
Finally we have “Danny and Annie,” perhaps even more heart wrenching than “The Unspoken.” It was produced by StoryCorps, a Brooklyn-based non-profit that collects and tells personal American stories, inspired by the Works Progress Administration of the ‘30s. The short consists of recorded interviews with Danny and Annie Perasa, a long-married and aging couple living in Brooklyn, which were then animated by Tim and Mike Rauch. The charming and touching story begins with their first date and follows them through twenty seven years of marriage and Danny’s final days with terminal cancer. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll truly appreciate how animated short film can bring a story to life more tenderly than quite many a feature-length tear-jerker.
Here’s a bonus, entirely off topic: another Aspen short, which answers the burning question “I wonder if anyone could top The Badger Song?”
Other Aspen 2011 shorts available online:
“Das Tub” – Live Action Comedy
“Turning” – Live Action
“John G. Morris – Eleven Frames” – Documentary
“The Screamers” – Very Short Live Action
“Snow” – Very Short Sand Animation
“Yelp: With Apologies to Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl'” – Live Action Poetry
“The Holy Chicken of Life & Music“ – Extraordinarily Strange Animation