A great man once said that shorts are to film what poetry is to literature. Okay, that man was me and maybe I’m not so great, but I stand by that statement. I love shorts, but for some reason they don’t seem to be all that popular with the general movie-going public, despite the ironic fact that many pundits decry the increasing short attention span of the typical American. It seems that the only place to see shorts in a theatre these days is at a film festival, but most people can’t travel just to see great shorts.
Along comes the Manhattan Short Film Festival with an incredible idea—instead of making the viewers travel, let the festival travel to the viewers—to a hundred different places simultaneously. The MSFF, which is now in its tenth year, solicits the best shorts from around the globe (456 filmmakers applied this year), narrows them down to twelve finalists, and then sends copies of those twelve films to 99 venues around the world. This week—the week of September 23 to 30, these films will be seen by people in 32 countries on three continents; from as far north at St. Petersburg, Russia to as far south as Buenos Aries, Argentina. Audience members are asked to vote for their favorite. On the final night, this Sunday, September 30, the films will screen at the festival’s home base which is—yep, you guessed it—in Manhattan, New York. Union Square, to be specific. The New York audience will be the last to vote, and then the winner will be announced. The winner gets a feature movie deal—what an incredible prize!
Last night, I was fortunate to attend the MSFF screening in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. I must say I was quite pleased. Normally, when you view a group of shorts, there are some excellent, some mediocre, and some lousy, but in this group, every single one was excellent. Some were more excellent than others, but I must say I had a hard time deciding, at the end, which to vote for.
It’s quite a show. The twelve finalists represent nine countries (for some reason, Great Britain actually managed to get four of the final positions this year). Some are comic, but most are dramatic and serious. Several deal with themes of war and violence, several deal with themes of childhood and schooling, several have surprise twist endings. The program is a little over two hours long and is presented with an intermission. Most of the films are introduced by their directors.
“King Ponce” is a British film about a boy who loves ballroom dancing but is ashamed to tell his friends. The American film, “Lines,” is about a nonconformist high school student who is being punished; made to write lines, she finds a creative way to deal with the situation. “I Met the Walrus,” from a Canadian filmmaker, takes an audiotape from an interview of John Lennon by a teenager in 1969 and illustrates it with creative animation. “The Trainee,” a comedy from Singapore, is about a man who attempts to rob a convenience store. The entry representing Israel is called “Boris’s Complete Book of Rules.” It’s a cute little story about a boyfriend and girlfriend who are fighting in a public restroom and the janitor who helps them patch up their romantic relationship. And “The Prestidigitador,” from Spain, is about a schoolboy who finds clever ways to cheat on a test.
As much as I enjoyed those six, the following six, in increasing order, are my favorites:
feeling_lonely?: This short film from Australia dealt with a topic important to so many of us who use the internet on a regular basis. A man who is lonely tries to reach out, across cyberspace, to a woman. But, as sometimes is the case on the net, things aren’t always what they seem. (Something a good friend of mine knows only too well.)
Clooney: Inspired by a quote from George Clooney in the movie “Out of Sight,” this German short looks at the fate of a young man who is invited to be in two places at the same time: the birthday party of one friend, or the concert of another. He flips a coin to decide which to attend. If he follows one path, events lead to other events where he’ll meet the love of his life. But if he follows the other …
I Want to Be a Pilot: Half fiction, half documentary, this short from Kenya poetically and sadly tells of a 12-year-old boy growing up in the East African slum of Kibera. It focuses on many of the socio-economic problems brought on by poverty as well as common health problems and prejudice in Africa. I recently heard a statistic that over one billion people on this planet live in poverty but it’s films like this that can really make you feel it. And you can begin to understand what a human problem is it, when so many boys dream of being pilots—so they can fly away. This was the number one film for my sister who accompanied me to the screening, as well as several other people who were sitting near us.
Cherries: An excellent British film about a class of teenage boys, most of whom have no interest in the outside world. But that suddenly changes with a new government program that will turn these boys into pre-soldiers as the war outside continues to go badly. This movie had a lot to say—about war, politics, government, school, draft, growing up. And as a former teacher myself, I could really identify strongly with the teacher who had to implement a program he didn’t agree with. The only thing that kept it from getting my vote as the number one film was that it didn’t go too far beyond its premise. Granted, it’s a short, and shorts are often just a premise—that’s why they are not features—but I wished it could have pushed just a wee bit farther.
One Hundredth of a Second: When it was all over and my vote was called for, I really struggled on whether or not to vote for this powerful British film. It was almost a toss-up. This short is about a war photojournalist who, out of professional necessity, must remain objective and divorced herself from the horrific events she is covering. But what is the emotional and moral cost of that?
Soft: In the end, however, it was “Soft” which finally got my vote. This film made me uncomfortable, and I guess that’s what I really want in art. I want something that’s going to shake me out of my comfort-zone and force me to confront something I’ve been pretending, for years, doesn’t exist. It brought back unpleasant memories of being bullied as a child, and wakened deeply-hidden fears of being bullied as an adult. This film, also British, shows a father and a son who are both terrorized by the same gang of teenagers. For the son, this is something he has been forced to deal with on a regular basis, but for the father, it’s something he hasn’t had to confront for decades. How does a middle-aged man, unaccustomed to violence, respond to a group of hostile teenage bullies, and what kind of example should he set for his son? The movie does eventually answer this, but it’s unclear if it’s the best answer, and it also leaves open what the next step will be. I found it to be a very important and powerful film, and I’ll be rooting for Simon Ellis, its writer and director.
Although the week is more than half over, there are still many places the films have yet to screen. To find out if they are playing near you, go to this link:
You won’t be sorry.
To find out the winner, late Sunday night, you can go to the festival’s website, or check this space. I’ll post the winner here as soon as it’s made public. If you’re in New York, though, go to Union Square as it promises to be quite an evening. It’s free, there will be music, you’ll get to vote and root for your favorite film, there’s an after-party at The Ear Inn (326 Spring St.), and you’ll get to meet lots of other people who love shorts. I sure wish I was in New York right now.
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