The Short Film and Critics: Do They Ever Meet?

in 50th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

by Laurence Boyce

“…festivals replace the critical examination of cinema that used to exist in feature articles and film magazines.” [Dr. Lars Henrik Gass (Director, Oberhausen International Short Film Festival), The Oberhausen Sound]

This statement, appearing in the catalogue for the 50th edition of the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival, would initially appear to be an attack on the role of the film critic. Yet, on further examination, it is anything but. As many of the outlets for the work of a critic demand more and more space devoted to mainstream cinema, it becomes increasingly difficult for a critic to be allowed to discuss work that is new, fresh and exciting. A cry of “This film is wonderful, can I write about it?” is often met with the response, “Of course. When it has a release date.” And this is just for new feature films. When it comes to short films, considering their extremely limited distribution outside of a festival atmosphere, the task can be almost impossible.

In conjunction with FIPRESCI, Oberhausen held a workshop to consider the role of criticism and short film. An examination of genres and categories in short film and of the functions of the short form, the workshop also provided a platform for critics to discuss how they saw their work in relation the debate that surrounds short film. Passionate and heated, the discussion brought forth as many questions as it did answers.

One of the initial problems faced by a critic is the definition of a short film. On reflection, to define a film simply in terms of its running time would seem spurious to say the least. By equal measure, the very term “short film” seems to carry pejorative connotations that suggest that they are somehow not ‘real films’. This is certainly reflected in a view held by many about shorts. They are ‘business cards’, used by directors to show that they are capable of making a ‘proper’ feature film. And I would argue that critics do sometimes have a role to play in this narrow definition: shorts are often only written about when a director has gone on to be successful in features, becoming an example of their early work. Whilst not denying the crucial importance that short films play as a training ground for those starting out in the film industry, the ‘business card’ definition seems to immediately consign the short to a secondary role in the history of film. Isn’t a good film, a good film, regardless of its run time? It can be argued that critics should reflect this in their work: a short should be given the same care, attention and space that a feature film would warrant.

Yet, a difficulty of shorts remains their diverse nature. As the International Competition of Oberhausen proved, many shorts can veer closer to art installation than film. Whilst it would be tempting to simply ignore films such as these, it once again creates a dangerous precedent. If anything, short films inform us about the future of the moving image and cinema. By not attempting to engage with new forms of cinema, there is a risk of ‘falling behind the times’. Indeed, there is a belief amongst some that film critics are inadequately prepared to write about certain films, feeling that people with a more art based background would be a lot better to create discussion. Whilst this may be a valid argument on occasion, it seems unfair to lambaste certain critics for not having extensive background in certain disciplines. Much like in the world of film criticism itself, there are people who specialise in certain areas. Surely the point should be are there any who specialise in short film? If not, do critics need to work on a new framework from which they can discuss shorts more fruitfully?

However, as touched upon earlier, commercial imperative often has a huge role to play – whether it be in shorts or features. It is no good being able to discuss short films within a new framework if no-one is going to print it anyway. We find ourselves back where we started. Therefore, one would say the Dr. Gass is completely correct: it seems the only time we talk fruitfully about shorts is in relation to the festival that they are shown at.

But can anything be done to improve the critical debate around short films. Well, even though distribution remains slight, the outlets for short film are growing exponentially with DVD and more and more cable channels. The opportunity for a wider audience to be able to see shorts outside of festivals grows all the time. Armed with this knowledge, critics can convince their editors for more and more space for writing about individual shorts. If that happens, maybe then can the critical debate around shorts grow.

Ultimately, the debate begun at Oberhausen has only just scratched the surface. With the festival receiving over 5000 entries, it proves that the short film (as far as the ‘short film’ exists) is far from dead. Indeed, it’s a vibrant and crucial element of the cinema and the moving image. And, if Oberhausen and festivals like it are responsible for creating debate and controversy, then so much the better. Let’s hope that the debate and controversy will return to the realm of film criticism soon.

This article was inspired by items discussed during the Workshop on Short Film & Criticism on May 2nd 2004. With thanks to all who attended the event.