Taking lengthy means to find short films

March 19, 2024

Taking lengthy means to find short films

Aspen Shortsfest’s director of programming, Jason Anderson, is sitting in his home in Toronto, preparing to leave for Glasgow, Scotland, where he is on the jury of a short-film festival.

He literally scours the world for the best shorts to feature at Aspen Shortsfest, which is celebrating its 33rd year and kicks off on April 1 and runs until April 7. Films are screened at the Aspen Film Isis Theater and the Wheeler Opera House.

Individual tickets for the festival go on sale Wednesday and can be purchased at aspenfilm.org. Festival passes are also available for $220.

This year, the festival received 3,100 submissions and only 70 made the cut. Those films are divided among 10 different programs — 16 films are world premieres, 15 are international, North American and U.S. premieres. Twenty-four countries are represented in the program.

“We’re one of only four Oscar-qualifying festivals in the U.S. strictly dedicated to short films,” said Susan Wrubel over a cup of coffee at Felix Roasting Company. Wrubel is the executive and artistic director of Aspen Film, which produces Aspen Shortsfest.

The Oscars have five categories for short films — animation, comedy, documentary, drama and short shorts (films under 10 minutes). Aspen Shortsfest has had several films over the years that have gone on to be nominated for Oscars.

“Just in the last two years, ‘How We Get Free,’ directed by Geeta Gandbhir and Samantha M. Knowles, had its world premiere at Shortsfest 2023 and was shortlisted for Best Documentary Short at the 2024 Academy Awards,” Wrubel said. “The year before that, ‘The Martha Mitchell Effect,’ directed by Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy, was screened at Shortsfest 2022, before going on to be nominated for Best Documentary Short at the 2023 Academy Awards.”

Wrubel noted that the Shortsfest’s own categories include Best Student Short, Youth Jury, Audience Award and the Ellen Award for artistic merit and originality, selected in honor of Aspen Film founder Ellen Kohner Hunt.

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Josh Brener (“Silicon Valley,” “The Last of Us”) stars in Ethan Kuperberg’s “Paper Towels,” another film that will be screened during Aspen Film’s Shortsfest, which runs from April 1-7.

Shortsfest prides itself on having premieres, but finding great shorts is easiest when the programmers can see the films at other festivals and attest to their quality and success with audiences.

“The films that are having success on the festival circuit already tend to be really great,” Anderson said. “But this year we were lucky because there were so many really amazing films that we are going to premiere, or films that maybe played only once or twice.”

A few of the films at Shortsfest that have already won awards include “The Masterpiece,” which earned the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the film “Bob’s Funeral,” which took home Best Short Film Jury’s Non-Fiction Award at Sundance.

Notable award-winning U.S. premieres include “A Study of Empathy” by Denmark’s Hilke Rönnfeldt — winner of the Golden Leopard for Best International Short Film at the Locarno Film Festival in 2023 and the U.S. premiere of “Motherland” by Jasmin Mozafarri, winner of the Short Cuts Award for Best Canadian Short Film at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2023.

There are three films made by Colorado filmmakers at this year’s Shortsfest. “Dash 92” is about a 92-year-old Aspen snowboarder, directed by Cheryl Hess. Tristan Owen will screen his film “SAR: Search and Rescue,” a true story of wilderness heroism, and Denver-based photographer and musician Andrew Segreti will screen “The Dream Machine.”

The educational component of the festival is called FilmEducate, and Wrubel said it is crucial to the core principles of Shortsfest. “First and foremost, tickets for students are free,” said Wrubel, adding all they must do is show their student identification at the box office for admission.

“In the schools, we screen age-appropriate films and try and engage students and start a conversation,” Wrubel said. “We have a youth jury made up of middle and high school students who award a student prize to the film in the festival that they feel best reflects today’s youth. There’s an event at Glenwood High School where we show some festival films and a film made by a young Colorado filmmaker, along with a filmmaker Q&A.”

As the programmer of Shortsfest, Anderson said he strives to “present the most compelling, the most unique, the most impactful short films that anyone could see in that moment in the world.”

“In terms of performance, storytelling and visual style,” he said, “these films are as good as anything you’re going to see on a screen or in a movie theater. They are incredibly mature and accomplished films, even if they’re 5 minutes, 10 minutes or 15 minutes. And finally, you’re seeing the newcomer talent. Instead of waiting 5 years, 10 years, you can be discovering these filmmakers today.”

Anderson noted the depth of the selection process.

“I have a team of four programmers, and when we see things we’re passionate about we make sure we all see it and when we all agree, those are the films that end up in the  festival. But it is a very big challenge to go through everything.”

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