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Friday, Sep. 7, 2012
Movie buffs in Sapporo get the chance to see cinematic innovation at short-film festival
Special to The Japan Times
One of the promotional gambits used by the Sapporo International Short Film Festival (SSF), which takes place Sept. 12-17, is that people who see short films for the first time are often surprised by their reaction.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences defines a short as "an original film that has a running time of 40 minutes or less, including credits." That's helpful, but it doesn't address the peculiar experience of watching a short as opposed to a feature. Film theorist Johannes Riis says that the primary attributes of short films are "experimentation and novelty," and while these qualities can also apply to features, those who have seen their fair share of both tend to associate them more with shorts.
Maybe that's because they also tend to be associated with film students, which is how festival producer Toshiya Kubo became interested.
"When I was studying in the Broadcast Department of Nihon University I made 8-mm films," he told The Japan Times by e-mail. "So I've always had a desire to produce films. It was impossible for me to make full-length features, but I realized there's no place to show short films."
The only venues where short films can be seen in a theatrical setting anymore are film festivals. Conventional thinking says that for filmmakers with professional aspirations the short is not an end in itself but only a stepping stone to the feature, and one of the aims of SSF is to cultivate an environment in which shorts are commercially viable.
"All famous directors were unknown at one time," says Kubo. "They just needed a stage where their talent could be recognized. Sapporo is still a young city, and we want to discover young talent through short films and connect them to an international network." He doesn't necessarily mean that these young directors will go on to make feature films. Ideally, they would continue making short subjects, and he sees a future for the form with the proliferation of new media using mobile communications.
In actuality, shorts used to be an industry staple, as evidenced by the thousands of theatrical live action (The Three Stooges, Our Gang) and animated (Looney Toons, Tom & Jerry) shorts made by Hollywood until the late 1950s. When commercial studios abandoned the short, they effectively banished the form to universities or niche promotional purposes, such as music videos, where experimentation and novelty thrived. A good case can be made that almost all innovation in film, whether technical or thematic, came about through the short form.
"I enjoy exploring the unknown potential of short film, whether it's cultural or financial," Kubo says. "Maybe I'm strange, but it's more interesting than the business of feature films."
Short-film festivals by their nature offer the movie fan more variety than festivals dedicated to feature films. In all its programs, SSF will screen more than 200 shorts. Eighty-seven of these are in competition categories and represent 24 countries, including 21 works from Japan, chosen from a total of 2,723 submissions from 93 countries. There are six International Programs, two National Programs, a Hokkaido section featuring local directors, and two sections dedicated to spotlighted filmmakers Mohammed Reza Hajipour of Portugal, Don Hertzfeldt of the United States in one; Johannes Nyholm of Sweden, and Jason and Aya Brown, a couple from the United States and Japan, in the other. A single program is between 60 and 90 minutes in length, and contains about seven films comprising a mix of fiction, experimental work, animation and documentary.
Each of the international programs is geared toward a general topic: Women, Imagination, Cinephilia, World Drama, Mature Themes and Entertainment. The Family and Children Program, which is all animation, contains more of what the average person would consider "entertainment," meaning story-based structures with identifiable characters, usually meant to be humorous. These range from Kiminori Tanoue's hand-drawn, one-joke "Fruity Samurai," about the (very brief) adventures of a hapless bushi (warrior) with an apple for a head, to Frenchman Alex Vial's even more absurd "Ozo," about a primate and a bird on a tropical island each trying to get rid of a pesky baby creature that has imprinted itself on them. In contrast, the "entertainment" in the Entertainment Shorts Program needs to be qualified. Gergely Wootsch's surreal "This Is Not Real" is about a boy who struggles to break out of a digital existence into something genuine. One film in the Imagination Program is entertaining in a purely visceral way. "This Thirst," an experimental music video set to a throbbing, melancholic track by Kuwaiti techno artist Reham, induces vertigo with its mind-bending manipulation of footage shot from the interior of Dubai's sky train.
The "drama" in the World Drama Program also requires a broader understanding of the word. Alex Lora's documentary "Odysseus' Gambit" is a profile of Saravuth Inn, a New York City vagrant who plays chess with strangers in Washington Square Park as a means of explicating his life as an orphaned Cambodian refugee. Saravuth is an acerbic raconteur, but Lora only needs 12 minutes to make her points about the refugee mindset, chess as a way of life and Manhattan's downtown culture. Even the more conventionally dramatic "Zebu and the Photofish," a Ugandan fable about a boy with a novel scheme for ridding his family of debt, manages to make its biggest impression as a snapshot of the lives of local fishermen.
SSF has its share of infamous titles as well. Several films have already sparked outrage at other festivals. "Murder Mouth" is Australian Madeleine Parry's Michael Moore moment, though some people think she took her on-screen involvement too far. In order to interrogate her own and her audience's consumption habits, Parry kills the animals she intends to eat, right there on camera. Simon Ellis' "Jam Today" takes a frank look at the sexual curiosity of an adolescent boy during a river cruise with his parents. Paul Jaulmes' animated "Wanted Melody" could be considered a conventional Western horse opera except that the cowboys are shaped like penises. Johannes Nyholm's "Las Palmas" has offended its share of the easily offended with its casting of an infant as a drunk white tourist who destroys a beach resort where everyone else is played by marionettes.
Kubo came up with the idea for a short-film festival in 1990 but was unable to bring it about. In 2000 he attended the American Short Shorts Festival in Tokyo, organized by actor Tetsuya Bessho. He met with Bessho, saying he wanted to do something similar in Hokkaido.
"So in 2001 we set up a kind of franchise of the Short Shorts Festival in Sapporo," Kubo says. "Some local people asked me, 'Why short films?' I said I want local filmmakers to compete with other works on an international level. Then someone said, 'It's pointless to bring a Tokyo event to Sapporo,' so I convinced the city to make it a festival that's unique to Sapporo." The city's finance division eventually joined the executive committee, pledging 20 percent of the festival's budget with the hope of promoting Sapporo's contents business. Since SSF was launched in 2006 the number of visitors has grown steadily. Last year there were more than 10,000, 20 percent of whom came from outside the city.
"It's the only short-film festival in Japan with a film market," says Kubo. "Most film festivals in Japan promote movies to attract local distributors. They are strictly publicity-oriented. We're more like Cannes or Berlin, which carry out film markets and film competitions at the same time." The competition is also becoming more ambitious. This year's jury includes Korean director Kwak Jae Yong, whose 2001 feature "My Sassy Girl" was an international hit; controversial American writer Laura Albert, who for years passed herself off as sensational teen novelist JT Leroy; British film producer Nick Goldsmith; music producer and AP bank founder Takeshi Kobayashi; and TV announcer/director Iori Igarashi.
SSF also offers amateurs a chance to join the fun with its Iron Filmmaker competition, an idea borrowed from its "sister event" the California Independent Film Festival. Contestants are given a list of required "ingredients" and then have 24 hours to submit a one-minute film. The winner is chosen at the opening reception on Sept. 11. "Anyone can participate," says Kubo. "It's like pop music: If you have a guitar and an amp you can form a band. If you have a digital camera and a PC, you can make a movie. That's why short films are so powerful."
The Sapporo International Short Film Festival takes place Sep 12-17 in Sapporo (times and prices vary). All films not in English will have English subtitles. For more information visit www.sapporoshortfest.jp.