Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Now in its 18th year, the Aspen ShortsFest (April 1-5) has long had a reputation as one of the premiere North American showcases for short films. The Academy Award-qualifying festival culls together eight short programs each year, two of which unfold daily over four consecutive nights in Aspen’s elegant, reconstruction-era Wheeler Opera House. Spearheaded by the team of Executive Director Laura Thielen and Director of Programming George Eldard, the festival has a penchant for programming a sharp, international selection that showcases work that runs the gamut of budgets, sizes and aesthetic compositions.
Fifty-nine films, culled from over 2,500 entries, screened in this year’s international competition. A quiet, stately affair, the festival does a terrific job of reaching out to the citizens of this wealthy resort town, one where everyone seems over 60 or under 20, capturing their imaginations with films that offer a strong counterpoint to their Hollywood-fed assumptions of what filmmaking can and should be. Drawing heavily from Sundance (Dustin Daniel Cretton’s Grand Jury Prize-winner Short Term 12) and Claremont Ferrand (Claire Berger’s Forbach), Aspen is not a hot world premiere destination for Shorts but nonetheless has the feel of a discovery festival. Due to the intimacy of its program, films that may have slipped through the cracks in larger festivals get the attention they demand in this snowy mountain setting.
One such film is Luke Doolan’s Miracle Fish (pictured above), a searing and mysterious Australian short about a school shooting that bowed at Sundance this year and was perhaps the most well-received film in Aspen. Doolan focuses on a troubled child, delivered to school late by his irresponsible mother, made fun of by his unforgiving classmates for his mother’s welfare status, who feels ill and takes a nap in his elementary school infirmary. When he wakes up, he discovers that everyone in his school has vanished. What begins as a troubled child narrative quickly begins to play out like a supernatural tale, with hints of David Lynch in its haunting, claustrophobic framing and a gaunt, washed out color scheme. The film envelopes us effortlessly in the mystery of where all the other students and faculty members have gone, trolling down hallways and through classrooms in graceful tracking shots reminiscent of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, but the finale Doolan has in store for us is frighteningly grounded look at the morbid finality of guns and the abstraction that an unsuspecting child may make of a deadly and tragic circumstance.
Among narrative short filmmakers, although there was much to like on display from just about every corner of the world, the most intriguing films seem to be coming from down under. Doolan, like fellow Aussie and Kiwi short filmmakers like David Michod (Netherland Dwarf), Rene Hernandez (The Ground Beneath), Katie Wolfe (This is Her) and Julius Avery (Jerrycan) brings a keen sense of youthful melancholy and an accomplished visual style to tales of the disappointments and dangers of childhood. Together, they represent the largest outpouring of talent to come from the isles since the Australian New Wave of the late ’70s. While it’s tough to lump these filmmakers together because of the breadth of the work, they all are making formally challenging and very dark films, many of which center on the disappointments and dangers of Aussie and Kiwi working class life.
Although in the past I’ve found that Aspen’s animated and narrative programming was stronger than its documentary programming, this year’s festival included a host of terrific documentaries. Will Perinello’s Richard Gere-narrated, Dali Lama-featuring Tibetan restoration doc Mustang – Journey of Transformation, Susan Cohn Rockefeller’s Jewish-doctor-goes-to-Ethiopia-and-adopts-sick-kids chronicle Making the Crooked Straight, Jill Orschel’s unforgettable portrait of a Mormon polygamist Sister Wife and Deborah Koons Garcia’s modest organic-farming doc Soil in Good Heart found loving partisans. The most powerful of the docs and winner of the festival’s best documentary prize was The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306, Adam Pertofsky’s Oscar-nominated profile of Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles, who was standing next to Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. when he was slain outside a Memphis hotel room in 1968. While maintaining a hopeful tone that doesn’t succumb to melancholy, the doc accurately captures the contours and fissures that were developing in the Civil Rights Movement at the time and the hearty sense of disappointment and doom that King felt as he restlessly campaigned for the rights and wages of waste workers in that particular southern city. It’s an unforgettable cinematic experience.
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