ARTS & CULTURE

Short Films Are Too Hard To Access, But Too Important Not To Watch

Ahead of Nitehawk Cinema’s fourth annual Shorts Festival in New York City, filmmakers and cinema programmers discuss the democratic and experimental medium.

06/06/2016 02:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016
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In 1971, George Miller, the now-renowned wizard behind the “Mad Max” franchise that included last year’s Oscar-nominated "Mad Max: Fury Road," made a weird little film. 

It begins with a dogmatic lecturer picking apart a phenomenon that was hotly discussed among viewers and critics at the time: violence in cinema. This was the year “A Clockwork Orange” shocked audiences and the year “Harold and Maude” found an adoring cult following, so an intellectual breakdown of the phenomenon was due. But the film, as Miller fans may know, was not the space for such a discussion. Not long after the lecturer begins talking, he’s interrupted by an intruder who glibly shoots him in the head.  

It’s a shocking scene, one that succinctly communicates criticisms of blood-soaked movies -- they can belittle or completely distract from thoughtful themes -- and embraces how evocative and primal they can be. It’s the kind of statement that can only be made in a short film, a story straightforward enough to tell in under 30 minutes. There isn’t much of a plot to carry a two-hour-long feature, and viewers can only handle so much gore.

Short films make up a unique medium, one that lends itself neatly to subtler scenes and visual experimentation. They also, not-so-coincidentally, carve out a space for voices often quelled in the world of big-budget blockbusters.

Although the film, “Violence in Cinema: Part 1,” was not well-received by everyone, its inflammatory nature paved the way for Miller's reputation as an irreverent director. Just eight years later, his first installment of the "Mad Max" franchise was released. He’s been directing feature-length movies ever since.

And Miller isn’t the only recent Academy Award nominee who got his start directing shorter narratives. Alejandro González Iñárritu worked on short films and commercials before making the jump; Richard Linklater ironed out his own experimental aesthetic in the short-form before working on the low-budget feature "Slacker," and, eventually, “Dazed and Confused.”

For these directors and many others, short film served as a launching pad for success, a way to find a directorial voice, and -- hopefully -- to secure grants and studio funding for bigger projects. But ask any movie fan, critic or director, and they’ll tell you that short film is a unique medium that lends itself neatly to subtler scenes and visual experimentation. They also, not-so-coincidentally, carve out a space for voices often quelled in the world of big-budget blockbusters. Produced in film school or financed by grants or the filmmakers themselves, they allow for aesthetic and narrative independence, not storylines bound to the potential for commercial success.  

A trailer for Sara Broos' short film "Homeland"

Sara Broos, a director and producer who’s created both feature-length documentaries and shorts at her own small studio in Sweden, attests that while both short films and features can involve big budgets and daunting time investments, shorter tends to mean cheaper, which tends to mean a bigger payoff -- in terms of artistic experimentation, that is  -- for deviating from the norm.

“You can follow a very traditional dramaturgy, but you can also experiment and create your own structure,” Broos told The Huffington Post. “Of course you can also do that in a feature-length film, but it is so much harder. Since you can make a short film for a very small budget, you have the freedom to experiment in another way.”

"I think it is beautiful how you can focus on one thing, zoom into something that maybe at a first glance doesn’t look like anything. Just a grain of sand," she continued. "But when you come closer and focus, you discover a whole microcosmos. That [is the] feeling I sometimes get when I watch a really beautiful short film. A slice of life, a moment which can contain a whole world.”

A short film can be anything. Just like a poem. But that doesn’t mean it is easier. Sometimes it’s much harder to write one great poem than to write a whole novel. Director Sara Broos

Broos’ short film “Homeland,” about a Syrian refugee who can only return to the place she hails from through its music and the memories it invokes, was screened at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. It’s a quiet story that creeps into the senses, creating a mood rather than carrying a plot -- a necessary distinction for a film about a topic that’s ongoing, unresolved.

Broos decided to work on the film while on hiatus from producing and directing features, viewing the medium as a worthwhile palette-cleanser rather than a full-time gig. She said she had the film-editing equivalent of writer’s block and was looking for "that wonderful feeling of having completed something." But she hedged: Short films, especially documentaries, can be a time investment, too.

“A short film can be anything. Just like a poem,” Broos said. “But that doesn’t mean it is easier. Sometimes it’s much harder to write one great poem than to write a whole novel.”

Her reverence for the medium is clear, but Broos, like others of her ilk, segued into features after starting off making short films. The reasons are easy enough to surmise. If a filmmaker wants to reach an audience outside of her own insular industry, she’s better off directing full-length movies. Cinemas have long been the easiest means of watching films and monetizing filmmaking, so grants and other funding tends to be reserved for features. It’s a transition akin to food trucks moving into brick-and-mortar restaurants, a model that fosters a breeding ground for experimentation from which the most successful endeavors can be plucked.

Kiki Lambden Stout, whose short film “Father’s Day” was screened at the most recent Tribeca Film Festival and Newport Beach Film Festival, says that producing and directing features has long been the goal driving her production company, Mudcat Films, which aims to serve underrepresented groups both behind and in front of the camera. As a woman of Chickasaw descent who writes about both her gender and racial experiences, Stout is one of the many burgeoning filmmakers working against deeply embedded prejudice and daunting statistics: Of the 100 top-grossing movies in 2014, fewer than 2 percent were directed by women, according to research from the University of Southern California. Compare this with the climate of inequality in television -- only 16 percent of new episodes were helmed by women, according to the Directors Guild of America -- and progress for anyone who doesn’t fit the directorial stereotype can seem downright impossible.

Most shorts are financed independently so short filmmakers don't have to ask permission to cast actors of color or older actors.

According to Stout, starting out with shorter features was the least rocky avenue toward telling her stories and having them heard. 

“Most shorts are financed independently so short filmmakers don't have to ask permission to cast actors of color or older actors,” Stout told HuffPost. “Women directors don't have to wait for a studio to hire them to get a chance behind the camera.”

But it’s not a sustainable path. Stout laments that, although she “enjoys the challenges” of both feature-length and short formats, “grants for shorts are very rare,” making the format less viable for filmmakers in it for the long haul. That is, until more grants are made available.

For women and minority filmmakers actively fighting to secure the funding needed to bring their stories to life, progress -- at least among big-budget production companies -- can seem halting. Solutions, both concrete and idealistic, are suggested but not pursued. Yet if independently financed films, and short films in particular, are already a thriving medium brimming with untold stories, couldn’t a solid platform for distributing them pose one potential solution?

A trailer for the 2016 Oscar-winning short film, "A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness"

Movies, after all, weren’t always long -- certainly not “The Revenant” -style, will-it-ever-ever-end long. They were short, much shorter than 90 minutes, due to the technological know-how that length required. In the early days of cinema, audiences began favoring longer films precisely because they were a feat, and they fit more neatly into the popular modes of live entertainment at the time.

In "A Long History of Short Film," Rebecca Davies writes for The Telegraph: “Features were regarded as more respectable than shorts. Their length and narrative complexity allowed them to be compared more favorably with theater and opera than with the base pleasures of the fairground.”

Today, though, succinctness is a sought-after facet of storytelling both in digital news and streaming entertainment. Watching 20-minute Netflix episodes in quick succession (OK, binge-watching) is as fun and socially acceptable a pastime as hanging out at the theater. Web series are occasionally picked up by studios after gaining popularity on YouTube. With this mode of viewing growing in popularity, dispersing shorter films becomes easier, and some streaming services are catching wise.

If independently financed films – and short films in particular – are already a thriving medium brimming with untold stories, couldn’t a solid platform for distributing them pose one potential solution?

Caryn Coleman, Senior Film Programmer at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn, explained that short films are typically relegated to festivals or “shorts programs." Those are exciting opportunities for directors and more involved movie lovers to mingle, but less accessible platforms for anyone unable or unwilling to buy a ticket to far-off locations (not to mention the cost of festival entrance at events like Sundance and SXSW).

Coleman helms Nitehawk’s Shorts Festival, a thrilling annual mashup of narrative, horror, music videos, documentaries, animation, artier shorts and more, set for a six-day run in November of this year. Both established and emerging directors and producers from around the world submit work and mingle with fellow members of the international film community. 

Beyond the festival, Coleman also plans to work short films into Nitehawk’s regular programming.

“It used to be more prevalent for short films to accompany the theatrical release of larger movies. Today that's more rare,” she told HuffPost. “A recent example would be Wes Anderson's 'Hotel Chevalier' that accompanied his 'Darjeeling Limited' release in 2007. We frequently play short films before some of our features, and it's actually programming we plan on doing more of in the theater.”

Nitehawk isn’t alone in promoting the work of short filmmakers. Pixar regularly screens animated shorts before its features, and Sundance’s streaming service, SundanceNow, recently launched its Take 5 platform, which groups together five five-minute-long short films centered on a single theme, megaphoning a range of views on topics like “Justice in America.” The films in the first installment discuss gentrification in Brooklyn and beyond, the shortcomings of America’s prison system, and the effect of the 2013 Voting Rights Act on minorities. 

Marcus Lee, General Manager of SundanceNow Doc Club, told HuffPost: “Short-form is more digestible. Our goal is to reach as many people as we can and it’s a much easier ‘ask’ of people to watch a five-minute short film than a feature-length doc. Short form is also more portable to different platforms. You may come across one of our short films in your Facebook feed and you may end up watching it on your phone. Long-form content doesn’t reach people like that.”

Not only does Sundance’s streamable series bode well for the future of short film distribution, it shows promise for representation within filmmaking, too. Of the five short films on the platform’s first slate, three were directed or co-directed by women, and all confronted issues American minorities face today.

It may not be a complete reframing of the issue of on-screen representation, but it’s a swivel away from the same old scene.

The Nitehawk Shorts Festival will take place November 8-13, 2016, at the cinema's location in Brooklyn, New York. Huffington Post Arts & Culture is the Media Sponsor for the festival and will provide the inaugural Huffington Post Impact Award. For filmmakers looking to submit their own short films, early submission to the festival opens on Monday, June 6 at 2 p.m. Read more about the requirements for entry here.

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that George Miller's "Mad Max" was funded by Byron Kennedy. In fact, the two formed their own production company, Kennedy Miller. We regret the error.]

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