Short films are seen less often than feature films and they get less attention than features as well. Filmmakers and those involved with short films might get a raw deal in terms of recognition for their work, but audiences are missing out as well. Short film formats such as cartoons and comedies were pretty common in theatres in the early days of films, until television came along and decreased the amount of short film content in theatres in the 1950s and 1960s. While the amount of short films being shown before featured films in theatres has decreased, one example of this practice continuing into the 21st century is the short films that Pixar Animation Studios puts before their feature films. Also, with the spread of internet access, the availability of low cost software, and the ability to obtain quality semi-professional equipment, short films can be made by more people.
Short films allow filmmakers to explore subjects that they might not be able to do in a feature film and experiment with filmmaking. Filmmakers just staring out can use short films as a way to hone their abilities. The budget of short films are lower than features, so this gives filmmakers a chance to create something without the pressures of feature filmmaking.
Festivals are one way for short films to be recognized and reach an audience. Another case of recognition of shorts films is the Academy Awards, which recognize short films with the categories of animated short film, documentary short subject, and live action short film. Going back to film festivals, the Sundance Film Festival Shorts Program is one of the most notable festivals for short films. Films are awarded prizes in categories such as U.S. Fiction, International Fiction, Non-Fiction, Animation, Outstanding Performance, Best Direction, and the Grand Jury Prize.
Some notable past participants in the Sundance Film Shorts Program include (with some noted feature work in parentheses): Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Her), Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel), Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice), David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle), Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Team America: World Police), and Damien Chazelle (whose feature film Whiplash was based on a short he did). The Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour is an opportunity to show case some of the festival prize winners and other films to audiences in independent theatres across the country. Fortunately, I got a chance to check out the short film tour and will discuss the films here.
Affections was the first film in the tour program. Directed by Bridey Elliott, this USA short (16 min) tells the story of a young woman (Bridey Elliott) who lacks intimacy in her long-term relationship and looks to anyone to form a close connection with. The film starts with Bridey attempting to have a conversation with an installation guy, with awkward and hilarious results. This ends with an awkward hug. As the film goes on to meet a homeless man (Rob Michael Hugel) who she tries to form a relationship with. The film lightly touches on the issues of connection with others and expectations in relationships with some nice comedy. The camerawork is done well, with some nice shots of a sunny California beach. Bridey does some nice comedic work as the main character, doing some unexpected things to gain a connection to someone else. The character might approach quirky caricature for some, and I felt a bit of that as well. I do believe that the short film format helped to not make this a bigger issue.
Jungle, by Asantewaa Prempeh, tells the story of Amadou (Yacine Djoumbaye) and Yaya (Mamadou Mar), who are two Senegalese vendors working in New York. An opening shot looking towards the sky enclosed by skyscraper is accompanied by a voice over (Amadou) espousing the ambitious romanticism of the Big Apple (“If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere”). But as we envision scenes of Broadway, the crowded Times Square, and other landmarks, we are introduced to Amadou and Yaya selling bootleg merchandise on the street. These two have made it to the city, but the idealistic view of success eludes them. These are street vendors trying to get by and there a lot of them in NYC. Amadou wants to get a more lucrative vending spot while Yaya has to haggle a store owner about money the store owner promised him.
Betrayal and broken trust occur between the two Senegalese vendors. While I felt this was an interesting subject to explore (street vendors), I felt this was both too short and that didn’t allow time for the audience to get invested in the characters. Also, the audience is dropped in an odd place in the story. We don’t have time with these characters to know who they are and connect with them. Oddly enough, this makes the film seem long (it’s only 13 minutes). If the audience can’t really get into the characters, there might not be interest in what is happening on the screen. With that being said, I did like this idea. I believe it could maybe work as a television show or a miniseries.
Edmond by Nina Gantz (U.K., 9min) tells the story of Edmond, a man contemplating ending his life while he is about to end it by jumping in a lake with a rock tied to one of his legs. This animated tale tells Edmond’s troubled life story through dark comedy and bizarre visual gags all with sparse dialogue. The felt like settings and characters are an interesting choice in this stop motion animated film and the transition between scenes is inventive.
Bacon & God’s Wrath by Sol Friedman (Canada 9min) is one of my favorite films in the tour program, if not the most. This mixed live action/animated documentary tells the story of Razie Brownstone, an elderly Jewish woman who is trying bacon for the first time. This premise seems odd in a culture that has elevated bacon to a somewhat hallowed status, on the internet at least. But the documentary is at times funny and tragic. Razie discusses growing up in an orthodox Jewish environment (through animated flashbacks of an incident her mother dealt with as a child) and of discovering the internet at an elderly age. The internet allows Razie to discover atheism and allows her to leave a belief system that she believes is oppressive. Bacon & God’s Wrath shows how people can use systems such as religion as a tool to oppress people through one woman’s journey to try bacon.
The Grandfather Drum by Michelle Derosier (Canada, 13min) is another film that has interesting subject that hasn’t been widely told in an unconventional way. This animated film shows the decline of the culture/way of life of the Anishinabek people through the use of cut out animation in mostly black and white with sparse voice over and dialogue. When his grandson gets sick and his people are threatened by evil spiritual forces, Naamowin builds a drum to protect them. This drum protects Naamowin’s people only for so long, as Christian missionaries and the Canadian government force the Anishinabek people to assimilate while also banning and destroying their culture. The dances and rituals of the Anishinabek people become a thing of the past as we see plight of their lives on a reservation. The titular drum ends up in a museum, unreturned to its people. This and the earlier mentioned Edmond show how animation can show more mature subjects in unconventional ways, something I discussed in my last review.
The Procedure is the shortest film of the tour program at 4min. The film, by Calvin Lee Reeder (U.S.A), tells the story of a man who is captured and forced to endure a procedure. That’s all that can be said because the procedure is something that is unexpected, bizarre, and funny.
Her Friend Adam, by Ben Petrie (Canada, 17min) tells the story of a jealous boyfriend (Robert, played by Petrie), who is suspicious that his girlfriend (Liv, played by Grace Glowicki) is having an affair with her gay male friend (Adam, played by Andrew Chown). The dialogue before the confrontation is my least favorite part of the film in my opinion, since it seems comprised of Gen Y people saying random and quirky things, which I guess is how some of us in that generation actually are. The confrontation, however is effective, through its use of blunt and intense dialogue. The power dynamics in the confrontation shift as Robert reveals his insecure and unfounded fears and Liv feels the pain of broken trust.
Thunder Road is the last film in the tour program. Directed by Jim Cummings (U.S.A. 13min), the film is about a police officer (Jim Cummings) who has his unique way of grieving and paying tribute to his mother at her funeral. All in one continuous shot (no cuts), officer Jimmy Arnaud (Cummings) gives the funeral attendees stories of who his mother was and how she loved him. These range from funny, tragic, and a mixture of the two. Jimmy provides intentional comedy in a funeral by going off on tangents and adding unnecessary information to his narratives.
The real centerpiece of the film is when officer Arnaud dances to and attempts to sing his mother’s favorite song, “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen. Jimmy pays tribute to his mother, embarrass himself and his family, have some catharsis, and cause the funeral attendees to become bewildered all at the same time. The comedy is derived from this; this is not how a person gives a eulogy at a funeral, thus it is unacceptable behavior. I believe (and others might agree), that people should be able to pay tribute to their deceased loved ones in their own unique way and be able to grieve in their own unique way, it is most likely harmless. With that being said the situation in the film is still funny and I enjoyed this film a lot. This film probably get a large share of the recognition from the films that were a part of the Sundance Film Festival Shorts Program this year, seeing as it won the Grand Jury Prize at the festival and has won awards at other festivals.
I overall enjoyed the program tour this year, despite believing that some aspects could have been executed better. Also, since I saw the 2015 program tour last year, that might shade my thoughts on these films, since I can’t help but compare the two years. These films still showed promise for the filmmakers and showed the ability for short films to tell unique stories that might otherwise go untold.