True Short Films By Thomas Rothschild
What makes a short film a true short film? Does a documentary running 65 minutes become a short film when it’s cut down to 60 or 45 minutes? A symphony remains a symphony whether it lasts 20 minutes or less — like a symphony by Haydn or by Prokofiev — or four times that length like a symphony by Mahler or Bruckner. But a short story by Chekhov, Hemingway or Maupassant is not simply an abbreviated version of a novel by Tolstoy, Flaubert or Henry James. If short is to indicate more than just a reduction of length or time – if it should describe a genre – it must relate to structure.
At the Krakow Film Festival which used to concentrate on short films and is now flirting with feature-length documentaries as well, one could see quite a number of fiction films that deserve to be regarded as short films. They tell stories that have one line of narration only, with no complicated twists or lengthy exposition. They are not just studies for as-yet-unrealized feature films. They have a quality of their own. Their unlucky destiny, though, is that apart from a few festivals and some TV programs for niche audiences, there is no place to show them. Cinema has forgotten about their existence.
Take, for example, Checkpoint, by the Australian director Ben Phelps. In just 11 minutes, Phelps gives the audience the thrilling impression of threat. The story is extremely simple: A family in its car is harassed by what appear to be soldiers on a lonely road. But it’s exactly this concentration on a single theme and the renunciation of ornamental surplus that makes this film exciting. It might be using a similar idea (from, let’s say, Cape Fear), but it transforms this idea to a proper short film, or Barney Elliott’s True Colours from Great Britain. Elliott also needs only 11 minutes to depict the humiliation people must endure if they have no money. This film can’t take the place of a sociological lecture, and supposedly it doesn’t want to. But it creates a nearly physical impression of what goes on in the soul of a father who can’t afford the promised ice cream for his kid. These films work with little dialogue and strong cinematography. They are depressing because they ring true.
The funny alternative as My Last Play (Mon dernier rôle) by the French filmmaker Olivier Avache-Vidal usually has a punch line. The joke only works if everything in the short film is structured to facilitate its delivery. And here, again, the short film is the appropriate genre: Jokes aren’t funny if they take too long to tell.
Somewhere between the depressing and the humorous lies the Romanian film The Tube with a Hat (Lampa cu caciula) by Radu Jude. The story of a father and his son who undertake a long journey to repair their broken television isn’t funny in itself, but it makes the audience smile because it seems as absurd as reality actually is. The film does have a comic payoff, but it’s not essential; what one remembers most are the two poor figures carrying their heavy load, wrapped in a blanket, through the mud. One can of course read this film as a parable for today’s Romania.
Perhaps the most sophisticated short fiction film in Krakow this year was Daniel Elliott’s The Making of Parts. He plays with the viewer’s expectations. The situation seems dangerous. One waits for something terrible to happen. But it doesn’t. This short film makes us aware of how misleading images can be, how we project our experiences and fears into things we see and imagine. Again it is also the superior cinematography, the slowness of object and camera movement that add to the effect of a film that simply wouldn’t work if it were ninety minutes long instead of fifteen. Short films have unique value — if they are genuinely short films, and not just shortened ones.