[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on April 27.]
By the time you read this, I will be at the 19th annual Newport Beach Film Festival. Since I started attending with my brother, Jay, six or seven years ago, one of the things that I’ve come to appreciate is the short film program. This will be my second year as a short film programmer, but even before last year, I found that short films were among the more interesting and provocative films I saw. In fact, short films often make a film festival worthwhile, because you’re unlikely to see many of them anywhere else.
Sometimes shorts are made to secure funding for a feature film. Sometimes they’re made as a side-project to get a filmmaker’s name out there. Sometimes they’re made as a labor of love, simply because there’s a idea there. But short films don’t usually make any money. Except at film festivals, short films are rarely seen in theaters. You can find them more often now on streaming services, but they still are not nearly as prevalent as features.
You have to tell the story in a different way from a feature if you make a short film, similar to the difference between a novel and a short story. You don’t have the luxury of letting a narrative develop over 90 minutes. Very often, if the opening scene of a short doesn’t set the tone immediately, it’s not going to be successful.
I watched more than 300 short films this year, and there were maybe a dozen that will stick in my mind. It’s hard not to be derivative, and the problems that plague bad features plague bad shorts. But one of the best things is that if you don’t like a given film, it’s over relatively quickly and you’re on to another film. Even so, there are some great ones that were accepted into the NBFF (as well as some great ones that were not).
I’m happy to have all of the films I’m programming, but I think you should especially keep an eye out on Vimeo,YouTube, or iTunes for these:
All Exchanges Final is a frequently funny and wry film that imagines what it would be like if you could exchange your life for the life of a terminally ill person. What is the actual value of human life and who decides what that value is? It’s playing with four other shorts on Saturday at 3:30 pm.
I love Scandinavian films, so anything that takes place in dark, snowy, remote places automatically gains some points with me. Of the films I’m programming, the Norwegian film Seven is one that struck me. Tiny religious sects, arcane punishments, and ingenious ways of deciding cases all come together in a spare, minimal setting on a large lake surrounded by mountains. It’s playing with five other shorts on Sunday at 1:15 pm.
Hotel Room is a well-made and twisting examination of the ways that human lives interact, beyond what any one person can understand or control. What effects do our decisions have on other people? What if we had made different decisions? The answers to those questions might be beyond us, but Hotel Room is effective in making us think about them. It plays with five other shorts on Sunday at 3:30 pm.
I think that unique films, even if they are divisive, strange, or hard to understand, deserve to be seen. So I’m glad I get to program the Short and Surreal block. Ovum is a film without dialogue, but evocative of taking opportunities when they are presented, and chasing down impossible outcomes. The strangest film I saw this year (and, for that reason, had to have it) was Sea Monster. It’s a metaphor for dealing with trauma, but is the woman a killer (my interpretation)? Is it a miscarriage? What is actually going on? But the feel and sound are both great. These play with five other films on Tuesday at 6 pm.
Finally, of the films I’m programming, there is a Russian film called The Monk and an Australian film called Cold Hearts that tell great short stories, but also evoke the places where they’re made. Cold Hearts, like Seven, is about justice and what actually makes for it. The Monk reminds me of The Island, and explores the nature of forgiveness in the context of an irreparably broken marriage. These play with four other shorts on Tuesday at 8:30 pm.
There is one other short playing this year that I’m not programming, but is perhaps the one that’s stuck with me the longest. Another Scandinavian film (also from Norway), You’ve made your bed, now lie in it is really about what things we hold on to in this life, and whether revenge is worth the trouble it causes, including the damage to ourselves. (I liked it so much, I used it in a sermon here.) It’s playing with four other shorts on Saturday at 1:15 pm.
If you have the opportunity to see short films at a film festival, take the chance. You’ll see things you’d likely not otherwise see, and a short film block is a completely different kind of experience from a feature. And if you’re close to Newport Beach this coming week, come say hi. Maybe I have an extra film ticket lying around.