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What's so Special about Short Films?
by Shelly Schoeneshoefer

Probably most of you have never been to the Hamburg Short Film Festival but you should definitely check it out. Don’t expect short films to resemble a full-length feature film which is there to tell a story. That is not to say that a short film can’t tell a story but it can do much more, even stretch the boundaries of the imagination. A short film can be as simple as conveying an idea, working as a movable canvas, or expressing a feeling or series of emotions. Due to its low production costs, short films have the advantage of being a very creative and innovative media. Looking back at history, all the early films were short and due to the development of sound and color have become much longer. There are some discussions as to the criterion of what exactly a short film is including the length of them. Here in Germany a short film is 60 minutes or less. In some festivals in other parts of the world, the films have to be 30 minutes or less and a third category even describes a full-length film as being 70 minutes or more; therefore the short film has to be less then 70 minutes. 

At the Hamburg Short Film festival this year I saw some retrospective films with the oldest one dating back to1906. The French film La Peine Du Talon by Gaston Velle was naturally a silent film but actually had color and the subject was a butterfly hunt. The film was stylistically typical of the era with people dressed as insects and dancing a butterfly dance with a butterfly hunter among them. It reminded me of an antique postcard set into motion.

There were two films from the French Biologist Jean Painieve who combined his scientific work with art.  The first film was The Vampire, which showed the eating habits of the Vampire bats, was made during WW2 and one can only wonder if this was his commentary of what was happening around him during this time period. The second film was done in the 1960s. The film The Love Life of the Octopus seemed to be stretching out its multiple arms and was attempting to make some social commentary about the current times.

One of the most haunting films was from the Czech Republic by Victor Vokjan called LeBut.  The film simply showed a swan getting caught in the undercurrent of a dam. The focus started with a plastic ball that would disappear under the turbulence and then reappear over and over again when finally the camera eye moves to a swan which is caught in the same cycle and it seems inevitable that it can not escape. The music was heavy and dramatic and it made the film harder to sit through because the ending seemed to be already determined.

I also had a look at early works from famous artists which included the first film from Polanski when he left the U.S and moved back to France. The film Le Gros et Le Maigre is a strange and disturbing tale of a fat master and his thin slave who plays music for him.  The tale illustrates how difficult it is to escape the destiny chosen for you.  Looking at what has recently happened to Polanski, I wonder if he sees this early film as a foreshadowing of what was to happen to him.

There were two shorts that were a small section of a large project to come. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film Foutaise films a sequence on what he likes and what he doesn’t like. This he uses later in the film Amelie (2001). The other film, The Cart Boy by Mike Clatterburg, tells a story of a man who tries to earn money by finding lost shopping carts and then retrieving them and getting a reward for it. Two security guards try to stop him since they feel he is being dishonest until they realize why he is doing it. This short was to introduce the characters he planned to use on his television show.

My favorite short film was British and called Wasp by Andrea Arnold. This film dives into a single-mum nightmare. She is young and strapped with four children and lives really on the edge of poverty.  An old boyfriend asks her out to the local pub; she naturally wants to go but can’t find anyone to take care of her kids so she brings them and has them hang out in the dark parking lot while she has her date. The kids rummage through the trash looking for food to eat but are confronted with wasps. The film does end where you think it will end and it truly is brilliant.

I had this déjà vu feeling as I watched this last film but I couldn’t put my finger on it. The film made in 1963 is considered a classic. Mothlight by Stan Brekhage is a film that takes a journey into the life of a moth from birth to death. He tries to describe what a moth experiences during this time period. Brekhage took actual insect parts and glued them to the film and then redeveloped it, making a path for experimental film. As I sat watching these Rorschach images passing through the screen, I keep thinking why do I know this film? Boy, I must be getting old; of course, I had Brekhage for a film course at the University of Colorado way back when. My days at this short film festival were fun, interesting and fulfilling and I certainly recommend it to anyone who would like to expand their horizons.