Access to All: Filmmakers Shake Up Industry at Aspen Shortsfest

By Christine Benedetti, Aspen Daily News

Aspen Shortsfest will present the world premiere of Sean Baker’s “Snowbird” next weekend, and it’s notable for many reasons.

The first is that Baker has previously been only an award-winning feature-length filmmaker, and “Snowbird” is 11 minutes. It’s a piece commissioned by luxury French fashion house Kenzo, of LVHM, and he shot it entirely on an iPhone 6. These facts may seem mundane on their own, but are more interesting when combined to be seen as a reflection of the industry.

“I never considered myself a fashionista, but they (Kenzo) saw some style in ‘Tangerine’ they like. When I agreed to do it, I didn’t want to do a one-off, and didn’t want to make a director-for-hire project,” he says. “I took it as seriously as a feature. Unlike a commercial, this isn’t an anonymous thing.”

His 2015 release of “Tangerine,” a story about a transgender sex worker who goes searching on Christmas Eve for the pimp who broke her heart, was a film circuit hit, winning awards and nominations around the world. Among those were nominations for Best Breakthrough Artist (Baker) and Director to Watch in numerous festivals. So it may have been this fresh eye and unique talent which attracted Kenzo to contract him for a short film subliminally promoting their spring and summer lines.

In a world where content is now king, but direct marketing isn’t, getting emerging talent to produce for a company is a smart move. Besides locking down Abbey Lee, of “Mad Max,” to be the film’s beautiful and talented lead, he put in place a solid team of production support, and then used regular people to be the film’s other characters.

After “Tangerine,” he drove home the point that using an iPhone let down people’s inhibitions, but when he started to work on the short he was going to use real cameras.

“And then I thought, ‘Why I am not learning my own lesson and preaching about how everyone should shoot on the phone?” he adds.

“Snowbird” is filmed in Slab City, a trailer village set in a Martian landscape (actually California’s Sonoran desert). It’s about a girl with a cake, and even though it’s short, Baker says he worked hard to make sure the narrative arc and mood shift of a feature film were still part of it.

“It was definitely as challengings as I thought it would be,” he says. “It’s a very different art, and a whole different way of telling a story to compress time and hopefully be just as emotionally impactful as a feature.”

It is a beautiful piece. While Kenzo is using it as editorial content for its ad campaign, Baker took it upon himself to market it as a film, entering it in festivals like Aspen Shortsfest, where it premieres Saturday, April 9, at 5:30 p.m. It will be followed by a conversation with Baker, producer Darren Dean and the editor of Bright Ideas magazine about breaking the standard rules of filmmaking.

Aspen Shortsfest begins Tuesday, April 5. Celebrating its 25th year, the festival features 56 short films divided into programs -— nine in Aspen and three in Carbondale — each featuring a handful of films, along with a family program honoring the 40th anniversary of Aardman Films, an animation company.

“You can see the beauty of a single, but I pride myself on my ability to make a mixtape,” says Aspen Film’s programming director, Maggie MacKay. That means pairing films that evoke a variety of feelings together in a way which creates a certain final emotion from the audience.

Sometimes, films can’t be followed, she says, and that means they go last.

While it’s hard whittle down 3,200  film entries to one generalization, MacKay does say one thing she noticed in the screening process was the representation “of the struggles that this world is going through right now and how we’re all trying to make sense of things.”

She cites everything from a gun violence story in Cincinnati to a film about an African refugee in Italy as examples.

The only local filmmaker to be accepted into the festival is Gayle Embrey, a Carbondale resident. She too wanted to bring her sense of global awareness to Aspen.

“I’ve had preconceived ideas about Muslim women and about what their lives are like and how they were treated, and Mais changed that for me,” she says. “It’s an entirely different view of what Palestinian women are like.”

Mais is the lead character in her short documentary “God Willing.” She’s also an artist, and the seven-minute film follows her throughout her daily routine and allows the audience to see a different side of Islamic society.

It’s also a world premiere and Embrey specifically set her sights on Shortsfest for that reason. The festival allows the audience to armchair travel, exposing them different ideas, cultures and as Baker proves, even approaches to filmmaking.

The breadth is wide and no film is the same.

Shortsfest Numbers:
11 world premieres
3 North American premieres
25 countries represented by filmmakers
3,200 entries
56 films
1 short from 2015 Shortsfest which won the Academy Award

Aspen Shortsfest
April 5-10
Wheeler Opera House
Crystal Theatre
$15/program
Schedule: aspenfilm.org