A local celebration of the short form
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Noted writer Raymond Carver, who died prematurely in 1988, devoted himself to the art of the short story, becoming one of the great American practitioners of the form (along with displaying equal facility in poetry). Director Robert Altman paid tribute to Carver’s work in “Short Cuts,” his adaptation of several of the writer’s stories. The match of filmmaker and source material was perfect in that Altman’s genius lay in his ability to string together loose collections of details, any of which, at a moment’s notice, could sum up a world of human experience in a frame, while Carver laid such pieces bare on the page, granting readers a chance to share and appreciate his sharp vision.
“The Washington Post Book World,” in praising “Where I’m Calling From,” a late-career collection, recalled that “[these stories] overflow with danger, excitement, mystery and possibility of life … Carver is a writer of astonishing compassion and honesty, his eye set on describing and revealing the world as he sees it. His eye is so clear, it almost breaks your heart.”
Short films, like short stories, have the ability to capture that same “possibility of life,” those crystallized moments that encapsulate a lifetime of experience and shorts are the first tentative expressions in the realization of the voice of a budding filmmaker. When collected as a series of portraits, short films grant audiences the opportunity to see and hear these transmissions across a broader spectrum than possible through the somewhat sprawling drone of feature films.
Vanessa Query, director of The Second Annual Yellow Springs Short Film Festival, keys in on this notion and its practical implications in terms of the impetus for their upcoming event (February 5 and 6) at the Little Art Theatre in downtown Yellow Springs.
“Due to their length, short films are frequently more accessible to beginning and experimenting filmmakers,” said Query. “There is generally less production time involved, and lower budgets – therefore, less pressure to have the film be successful, financially. Short films have historically been the realm of experimentation for both novice and established filmmakers. Also, having a festival focus just on short films allows for exposure of more films than possible with features.”
Where can fans of films pay $10 for a lineup that includes “14 films of 15 minutes or less that showcase the best of local filmmaking talent, from students to professionals?” The Little Art Theatre plans to devote its single screen to such an afternoon of programming that begins at 1 p.m. on February 5 and will be repeated on Sunday, February 6 at 1 p.m., with the proceeds going to the non-profit Little Art Theatre Association.
The region is poised to seize this filmmaking initiative. In November, FilmDayton devoted their monthly Film Connections meeting to programs at Strivers High School (in conjunction with the NAACP’s annual Act-So Opportunities), Centerville High School (part of a collaboration between FilmDayton and Muse Machine Film Club at the school), and Yellow Springs and Fairmont High Schools (and the Sundog Student Film Festival), supporting the development and the works of student filmmakers. Thanks to funding from the Ohio Arts Council and private and corporate sponsors, teachers and artists are bringing film (both an appreciation of it and hands-on exposure to it) into high school classrooms and after-school programs.
And events like the Yellow Springs Short Film Festival provide a showcase for the presentation of completed projects, films that can be used as auditions for students seeking to enroll in local, regional and national film production programs, calling cards for filmmakers looking to further their careers, or personal documents of identity.
Query gets to the root of the regional appeal, which is even more fundamental.
“There’s an increasing interest and awareness of local, community-based things, whether it’s food, economy, art, etc. Our region is full of locally-based artists who are proud of where they come from and where they live,” Query said. “Many of these artists have venues to share their work, such as galleries, music venues, or community theaters, but local filmmakers – particularly amateurs – often do not have access to cinemas to screen their works. The goal for this festival is to provide such a venue for short films – the least-shown films – from filmmakers who are not just professionals, not just students, but everyone, with any level of experience and budget.”
Technology has increased the possibility for exposure, granting amateur filmmakers access to a global audience (and the ability to track the size of that viewing audience through outlets like YouTube), but that format cannot replace the experience of a filmmaker sharing that first-hand screening with a captive audience and then engaging in meet and greets, or Q&As afterward. That encounter shifts the dynamic for both artist and patron. And the Yellow Springs Fest, following Saturday’s program, will feature a reception and the presentation of audience awards.
The focus of the festival, in its second year, is about the nurturing of that community of artists and fans of the form. From the selection committee, which Query points out, “varies – they’re generally small, between three and eight people who are affiliated with the Little Art, and/or with film and/or the arts locally,” to the number of filmmakers who submitted works for consideration, “last year we received 25 submissions, (and) this year it was nearly 30,” the event seems intent on expanding an already sizeable niche market. Film is a firmly established art form in the region and proving to be a powerful means of expression.
In “Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard,” critic Richard Brody documents the early days of the New Wave master, especially how his, and his influential compatriots (Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol) desperately scrambled to create the personal short films that defined their place in the pantheon of great filmmakers. It was through these shorts that they found their voices and became the “auteurs” that they had envisioned could exist in the medium of film, while working as critics for “Cahiers du cinema.” But just as quickly as Godard and a host of other filmmakers made a name for themselves with the short form, they abandoned it for the glory of features.
The announcement of the nominations for the 83rd Academy Awards reminds us of our fascination with filmed narratives. This second year with a field of 10 Best Picture nominees speaks to the desire of the Academy to widen the casting net for the show to the broadest audience. Ten films means a greater likelihood that there will be a few selections that the occasional mainstream viewers may have seen at their local multiplexes or art house theaters. But everything skews towards full-length features, the studio moneymakers with the best actors, actresses, and their supportive brethren, the directors, the costumes, the cinematography and the editing.
The overlong telecast footnotes the short form in all of its incarnations (Live Action, Animated and Documentary); a particularly galling omission last year for regional viewers with hopes pinned to Documentary Short nominees Steve Bognar and Julie Reichert (“The Last Truck”), whose film was an unflinching portrait of the economic downturn and its impact on a local community. Carver would have been proud of Bognar and Reichert because he would have recognized their compassion and honesty.
It is a shame that audiences never see the nominated shorts, that they aren’t collected in traveling road show formats and exhibited across the country. Film, if it is to be appreciated and have the power to inspire, needs to be seen. Future filmmakers, from the students in classrooms to critics seeking to further sharpen their critical eyes and voices to the anonymous mass of humanity that might not ever consider telling their own stories, must be exposed to film in a way that makes it accessible, that illustrates how now, picking up a camera is no different than putting a pen to paper.
Fortunately, this festival and others like it, in cities large and small, capture visionaries and voices working in this ever-evolving democratic format. Shorts festivals in New York and Los Angeles cater to global diversity, but it is in the outer regions, away from the cultural capitals, where collective expression takes shape. Film belongs to the masses, even more so now, thanks to the emergence and proliferation of digital technology.
The surest sign of this democratic revolution is the buzz accompanying the upcoming screening of “Paranmanjang,” a 30-minute horror fantasy from Park Chan-wook, a celebrated South Korean filmmaker who shot the film using only iPhones. Of course, it should be noted that “Paranmanjang” had a budget of over $100,000, and Park Chan-wook could tap his rich network of production and editing assistance to transform this short “experiment” into an internationally marketed event unto itself. The filmmaker is not speaking for a locality, a region, or even a country; although the film will debut locally in Korea, this is a global affair and not necessarily a personal artistic statement or expression.
Think globally, act locally was the catch-phrase, the call to arms for the green/organic movement. We have turned our attention to all sorts of efforts and products found in our own backyards. So the question that hovers over events like The Yellow Springs Short Film Festival is this: How does this festival fit into the growing film community in Dayton/Yellow Springs and the state as a whole, one that seeks to appropriate some of this homespun energy?
Query hopes “that it will be a well-attended event, and that it will be entertaining and inspiring for both the filmmakers and spectators. I hope it will be a networking opportunity for the filmmakers and inspire potential filmmakers to make their own local films.”
Film, if indeed “Everything is Cinema,” can be “a matter of loving or dying” (to sample a chapter title from Brody’s book), the Yellow Springs Short Film Festival and its participants on both sides of the camera seek to guarantee their love of film and the short form will give birth to a local movement with longevity, maybe even proving that cinema isn’t everything, it’s the only thing that matters.
The Second Annual Yellow Springs Short Film Festival will be held February 5 and 6 at 1 p.m. at the Little Art Theatre in downtown Yellow Springs. Cost is $10. For more information, go to: www.littleart.com.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at T.T.Stern-Enzi@daytoncitypaper.com.