Innovation Abounds at Aspen Shortsfest 2015

Aspen Shortsfest 2015
(from left) James Surls, Austin Lottimer, and Maitland Lottimer from ‘The Journey’; Mathieu Lalande from ‘Zero’; Festival co-director Laura Thielen

In the age of virtual reality goggles and groundbreaking advances in computer animation, the film industry is hungrily cracking open the window to a new frontier of creative storytelling. While heavyweight filmmakers like Christopher Nolan (in one end of the cultural boxing ring) and Jean-Luc Godard (occupying the other corner) garner the majority of the attention for their boundary-pushing techniques, much of the medium-and-message experimentation has its roots in the oft-overlooked genre of short film.

Short films typically run less than 40 minutes, and their emotional punch comes from the condensed, in media res drama that contrasts sharply with the narrative diffusion of your modern-day, three-hour blockbuster. Think: Anders Walter’s Helium (23 minutes), a tearjerker about a terminally ill boy and the hospital janitor who befriends him, or Eoin Duffy’s trippy, whimsically apocalyptic The Missing Scarf (7 minutes), a cubist animation tale of a squirrel who ventures out in search of his missing scarf and confronts a few existentially disturbed friends in the process.

The 24th annual Aspen Shortsfest (April 7-12, 2015) is screening over 70 short films from 30 different countries, and they run the gamut from uplifting to gut-wrenching, with dozens of variations in between. Below, read through a brief selection of the shorts that made a longer-lasting impact.

Note: Audience rating system spans 1 – 4, with ‘1’ being the lowest rating and ‘4’ being the highest.

The Edge of Impossible (USA, 14 min., Documentary)

Conor Toumarkine’s upbeat documentary follows quadriplegic skier Tony Schmiesing on his mission to take on Alaska’s Chugach Mountain. All of the campaigning, fundraising, and logistical planning took place behind the scenes, as the film focuses on the thrill of big-mountain powder-skiing and the incredible can-do attitude of Schmiesing and his entire support team, including Brian Sheckler, Schmiesing’s “one-in-a-million ski partner, fellow collaborator, and friend.” The duo’s dynamic enthusiasm is contagious, and their winter wonderland adventures are captured in rudimentary but effective GoPro footage. Aside from a brief mention of Schmiesing’s condition (along with, of course, the ubiquitous wheelchair), we don’t receive a detailed explanation of Tony’s physical limitations—mostly because he, himself, doesn’t view his “disability” as limiting. As Tony expresses with a roguish smile, alluding to the aptly-titled name of the short: you’ll never know what is and isn’t possible until you try. My vote: 3. (Available on Vimeo)

The Bigger Picture (UK, 8 min., Animation)

Writer/ Director / Animator wunderkind Daisy Jacobs created a superbly original animation from scratch. She painted impressionistic, life-sized character murals and built an elaborate, papier-mâché set, weaving it all together through stop-motion animation. The illustrative medium allows Jacobs to show rather than tell her tale of two brothers caring for their elderly mother, and the effect is all the more poignant because of it.The Bigger Picture won a whopping 23 festival awards, not to mention a 2015 Oscar nom for Best Animated Short. My vote: 4. (Clip)

Zéro (France, 10 min., Fiction)

A bird takes flight through a quiet, suburban apartment complex; another hobbles along a dirt path, appearing faintly bored. Nearby, on a hilltop overlooking the same town, one boy takes a puff of his inhaler, and another observes him cautiously, also appearing bored. Throughout the remainder of music video specialist Tony T. Datis’s fantastical short film, “Zero” attempts to prove his cosmic worth to his classmate in a series of overeager—yet not completely misguided—superheroesque demonstrations. My vote: 3. (Trailer)

The Journey (USA, 16 min., Documentary)

Filmmakers Austin and Maitland Lottimer loaded their slo-mo specialist FS700 into a minivan and tailed Texan sculptor James Surls as he transported his latest sculpture from Colorado to Houston. The 38-foot high “Tree and Three Flowers,” made of bronze and stainless steel, was commissioned by the Upper Kirby District Foundation to join several other publicly displayed Surls sculptures. According to the artist, “Tree and Three Flowers,” a piece two years in the making, represents his “big hurrah.” Though the film offers interesting tidbits of insight from Surls regarding his creative process, The Journey is minimalist in its narrative techniques—much like Surls’s sculptures. My vote: 1.

Listen (Denmark/Finland, 13 min., Fiction)

Listen is the prime example of a short film painting a dramatic masterpiece in a mere handful of scenes. Zambia-born Hamy Ramezan and Finnish-Iranian Rungano Nyoni collaborate on this harrowing piece, in which a woman in a burqa attempts to file a police report against her abusive husband. The title serves as a literal reference to the frightened woman’s appearance—her full-body burqa prevents her from being seen, so her voice is all she has. But her voice is mercilessly taken away from her as well, as her translator calmly advises her to “go home and pray,” and the well-intentioned but ultimately dismissive officers fail to understand her words or her plight. My vote: 4. (Trailer)

Lambs (Germany, 4 min., Animation)

There’s not much to dislike about Gottfried Mentor’s brightly animated, whimsical short about a ewe’s consistent disregard for its species’ traditional vocalizations. Although aimed at 3-5 year-olds, parents can also identify with the somewhat-humorous frustration of trying to get through to their kids. My vote: 3.

Grounded (France, 19 min., Fiction)

Alexis Michalik takes a mundane concept—airport bureaucracy—and concocts a high-stress story equal to any contemporary thriller. Any 21st-century traveler can sympathize with Evelyne, a young woman attempting to fly to London with her husband and 3-month-old daughter to attend her mother’s funeral. She enters traveler hell when she realizes she forgot her newborn’s ID, and is prevented from boarding the plane. If you feel like tearing your hair out based on this sparse summary, you’re not alone—my heart was pounding anxiously until the very end, and I was forced to hold back tears of gratitude when Stephanie, a compassionate ground hostess jumps through every hoop in order to assist poor Evelyne. If nothing else, this film demonstrates that we are all, ultimately, at the mercy of TSA officers. My vote: 4.

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