Thursday, September 17, 2009

Short films a glimpse into the future of cinema

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner:

While people may dismiss short films as a juvenile or insignificant pastime, to me they represent nothing less than the past and future of cinema.

The first films ever made were shorts, as the medium's inventors experimented with technology and audiences. Many all-time classic cartoons, now considered children's fare, premiered as shorts in adult screenings not originally aimed at children.

My own introduction to repertory cinema was through shorts. Studying at the University of Waterloo, I was peripherally aware of the Princess Cinema, which screened foreign and independent "art" films -- not something I ever expected to follow. But classmates dragged me to a shorts showcase and I was hooked. It was the Sick & Twisted Animation Festival, or something similar -- lots of cartoons that were hilarious and a bit too much (or a lot too much) for TV. (This was long before the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, of course.)

It was exactly what thrilled rowdy students. A similar attraction was a compilation of the year's best commercials from around the world. If you think TV ads are boring, you should see the amazingly funny (and risque) ads that run in Europe. We also saw very moving, even shocking, public service announcements. If all ads were this great, we'd prefer them over the shows.

Before you know it, I was a Princess Cinema member and expanding my horizons beyond the short and silly. But I still hold a soft place for them in my heart, and upon moving here and learning of Barrie's annual film festival, what drew me in was the shorts program.

Shorts also represent the future of cinema. Many famous directors got their start with a popular or critically-acclaimed short. Remember the hopping desk lamp and other characters of early Pixar work? Pixar now has dozens of Oscars, billions in sales.

This summer's sci-fiand social commentary hitDistrict 9began as a six-minute short film which so impressed Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Ringsfame) that he bankrolled a $30 million full production. Disney shorts screened before black-and-white movies paved the way for the colourful feature-length productions that spawned an entertainment empire.

After falling from prominence in the 80s and 90s, short film has seen a massive resurgence with the ability to upload your work to the world on YouTube-type sites.

One of my favourite volunteer roles is with the Short Film Competition of the Barrie Film Festival. Although I help here and there with the organization, my chief task is taking part in judging the films submitted. It's an amazing experience. I get to see all of the dozens of films sent in by budding young cinematographers, or lifetime hobbyists.

There's good, there's bad, there's certainly ugly, but each expresses ideas and feelings. Sometimes the judges quickly agree on a film (whether great or ghastly), but other times we are sharply divided. Humour that seems fresh or clever to one, is a groaner to another. Luckily, we have a complex grading system to systematize our reactions and create a numeric ranking.

The result is quite a showcase of talent. As many as half the films screened are produced by Simcoe County residents. And about half are by high school or college students. These give a window into the amazing artistic sensitivity and technical skills that our youth have, and show that our area produces artists with a compelling vision. We also get submissions from around the world.

Most important, you too can be a part of this. If you (or someone you know) has produced a short film -- submit it. You could win a prize, or an audience. The Short Film Competition is taking submissions right up until Sept. 25. Visit contest information. If you're worried about the postman missing the deadline, they can be dropped off in person with Julinda at Bandito Video (in the Wellington Plaza) right up to the 25th. Don't be shy -- we look beyond technical merit to the value of expression.

Even if you aren't a filmmaker, you will certainly enjoy attending the Shorts screening at the Imperial on Oct. 17, voting for your favourite film, and meeting the filmmakers at our special reception afterwards.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

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