Of the 66 short films aired at this year’s Sundance film festival in Utah, 17 made their way to Sundance London. Exhibiting the talents of a handful of raw filmmakers, the screenings played like poetry readings, dedicating a few minutes to each slice of story, imbued with their own unique and distinct styles. With the variety of films that were on show it’s hard not to find something to like, ranging from mysterious documentaries to trippy animations, gritty criminal monologues to eccentric musicals.
While there was no lack of variety, however, many of the shorts followed the same stories, notably those of romance and coming of age: The on screen relationships spanned so many forms (married couples, father and daughter, encounters between strangers) but each remained personal and relatable, and numerous stories were imbued with a sense of lost innocence as expectation clashed with reality. To judge by their work alone it would be easy to cast the majority of the filmmakers as wide-eyed romantics taking their first steps into a larger world, and in terms of their potential future careers it seems a fitting assumption.
Apart from a select few, the shorts came from young artists looking to make their voices heard in the hopes of later going on to create features, developing their methods and devotion, and in doing so becoming more self-aware and passionate filmmakers.
To put it simply the films were young and fresh. Early productions from relatively inexperienced creators, but ones held sparks of innovative inspiration, and that were each eager to prove themselves and bring something new and important to the table. There were some veteran names, such as Charmed’s Rose McGowan, who presented her directorial debut with Dawn, however during the Q&A that followed the screenings it became apparent that she too stood as a newcomer, eager to learn and improve, and that her intentions were no different than those of the amateurs: examining something important (in her case, the roles of women in Kennedy era America).
When asked of the problems faced along the way most of the directors discussed money troubles or time constraints, but also never failed to mention how much they enjoyed the experience. All had such an obvious love for their craft and the films felt more intimate for it. Along with this intimacy came a great deal of fun; all but the most serious of the stories included some degree of humour and the risk-taking experimentation meant that it was impossible to know what to expect. The fun of creation behind the films was most obvious when watching the more surreal pieces; the abandonment of normality and the absolute embrace of their personal style seemed to suggest purely self-serving motivation, and made them all the more delightful to watch. As many of the filmmakers joked of the poor quality of their own work it was apparent that the experimentation and fun were more valuable to them than the finished pieces themselves.
Not all of the films shown were exemplary models, some simply failed to carry any significant impact. Magnus Mork’s Burger was one such example, following a handful of social groups as they visit a burger bar one evening. There were hints at some depth to be explored in the assumptions that are projected onto strangers, but it tried to cover too much ground in such a small space of time, skimming over a multitude of characters where few would have served better. It failed to build to any real sense of purpose, but more importantly failed to understand that short films lend themselves to more refined and less dense narratives. The key to condensing a film’s contents into a matter of minutes is to show more than you tell and to apply a rich subtext for the audience to explore, something that Burger fails to do.
My personal favourite of the shorts was Marilyn Myller, Mikey Please’s second short as a writer/director that followed the struggles of the eponymous sculptor (voiced by Josie Long) coming to terms with the quality of her work as she imagines herself as the universe’s creator. His animation style, which he describes simply as the most basic method of making things move, uses roughly-cut white material and creates a stark cartoonish world which seems to match the coupling of humour and meditation in his films. While maintaining the feelings of disappointment and frustration, Marilyn Myller takes a more comical approach than his earlier The Eagleman Stag, and the result is a more relatable affair that exudes homemade charm.
Emerging from the screenings I was intrigued to learn more about the filmmakers, and excited to see what might come next from them (considering how many had expressed their intentions to go on to creating feature length films, it will undoubtedly be worth keeping a weather eye on their work), but while these shorts may come to be forgotten, remembered only as a business card for budding filmmakers, there are genuinely beautiful, intense, funny, and heartbreaking moments to be found, that are readily deserving of recognition. Shorts are a vastly overlooked source of film talent, and I would urge readers to seek out the Sundance shorts and any other short films that are waiting be found and experience them for yourselves.