A Bigger Splash: Celebrating Shorts

By Mark Cosgrove

diver-pv-lehtinen-1.jpgDiver, PV Lehtinen

Short film has long been viewed in the UK as a calling card for the feature film lurking within the production team or director. This is no bad thing. What else is a potential funder going to base decisions on? However, shorts have a vitality of their own and can be a fertile source of experimentation, ideas and creativity rarely seen in feature films. From this year's crop of shorts for example, there is some extraordinary work coming out of Scandinavia: Danish director, Karin Westerlund's Helgoland is a poignant point of view, colour-saturated portrait of a woman swimming; Svitjod+2000 is an experimental road movie-documentary exploring issues of immigration in Sweden; and The Diver, is a beautifully shot, documentary from Finland, which swept the board at the 2001 Tampere Short Film Festival.

diver-pv-lehtinen-2.jpgDiver, PV Lehtinen

Since the start of the Bristol-based Brief Encounters Short Film Festival seven years ago, I have seen a strengthening of the short film as a form within mainland Europe. In this country the picture is still erratic. Watching over eight hundred submissions can be a disheartening experience when the majority of work from the UK has a tendency to ape the prevailing cinematic trends. A few years ago it was the influence of Tarantino. Last year it was the influence of Dogma. This could be a good influence but often the difference between say Festen (Thomas Vinterberg) and some of its progeny is that the former has a damn good script and the latter simply has a shaky camera. One advantage in Europe is the infrastructure of short film festivals dedicated to quality from Tampere in Finland to Clermont Ferrand, the Cannes of short film, in France, Oberhausen in Germany and Vila do Conde in Portugal, not to mention platforms to promote work at the many other festivals. These all offer markets for buyers and sellers and a range of work and formats.

Two initiatives launched at this year's Brief Encounters festival both of which support short films for their own sake, give reason for optimism that things might be changing in the UK. Ways to Leave Your Lover is a BBC2/Choice initiative bringing together a range of filmmakers, writers and producers to make films on this theme which will be transmitted on the BBC next year. 81/2 is a scheme run by the Short Film Factory in Glasgow, funded by Scottish Screen, which concentrates on the development process and skills training. The scheme selected from one-page outlines instead of full scripts, and was not necessarily looking for people who had already made films but for original ideas which the organisers would spend time nurturing through intensive workshops. The results were people from a range of backgrounds making short films which did not rely on dialogue to tell their story but on the image.

diver-pv-lehtinen-3.jpgDiver, PV Lehtinen

There has also been a marked shift in the technology with the availability of reasonably-priced DV cameras, computer editing and a proliferation of web-based exhibition outlets. Although Atom may have gone the route of corporate takeovers there was always more to web-based distribution than the industrious Atom site. Take a look, for example, at a website which comes out of the University of West of England: www.plugincinema.com. It not only aims to distribute work made specifically for the web but also runs a self help courses in getting to grips with the technology and opens up debate on the aesthetic issues at stake.

Generally, web-based distribution and exhibition offer an important area of access beyond the festival circuit and the economic whims of theatrical release. During Brief Encounters we run Depict, a 90 second short film competition – www.depict.org. It always amazes me how much energy and inventiveness can be packed into ninety seconds. Work used to arrive on VHS but is now increasingly on CD-Rom. A jury of industry professionals (in 2001 these included Terry Gilliam, Simon Relph, Chair of BAFTA, and Jeremy Howe, Executive producer at the BBC) select winners in live action and animation categories and the top ten are screened during the festival and also made available on the website.

day-of-the-sub-genius-chris-hopewell.jpgDay Of The Sub Genuis, Chris Hopewell 

At the Watershed Media Centre in Bristol we recently screened the New York-based Resfest digital film festival – www.resfest.com. After a programme entitled Shorts by Design a colleague remarked that; 'the deal is you have to forget all notions of conventional narrative'. He nailed it down absolutely. We are in thrall to the traditional conventions of telling stories. But some people armed with the technology are bringing the barriers down in both production and narrative style. For example, digital artists Joe Magee and Alistair Gentry's new piece, Hypnomart, is a visually ravishing piece on the hypnotic state reached while shopping in out-of-town malls. Magee comes from a design background. He has filmed the piece digitally in Cribbs Causeway, a mall outside Bristol, reworked the images in a computer and produced a 4 minute film which could be played as well before a feature in a cinema as on a loop in a gallery installation.

Digital technology has opened up the language of short film. Whether with its mathematical mixing of algorithms or the texture of the pixel, the short film has really come of age as a form in its own right.

Mark Cosgrove is Head of Exhibition at the Watershed Media Centre and programmes Brief Encounters Short Film Festival.