Programming Shorts for Tribeca 2017 – An Interview with Sharon Badal
By Gary M. Kramer
This year’s Tribeca Film Festival, held April 19-30, features 10 shorts programs curated by the esteemed Sharon Badal (an 11th program, handled entirely by ESPN, is out of festival competition). The programs this year include a strong mix of documentary and narrative shorts from 18 countries. There were 4,385 submissions, which Badal calls “a huge jump from last year, which had 3,553 entries.” Of the 63 films in competition, approximately 40% are directed by women, and 41 are premieres. The animated shorts program (curated by Whoopi Goldberg) is in competition for the first time this year. The programs change from year to year, but there is always a New York program. This year’s entry is called “Group Therapy.” One of the “new” programs this year is titled, “Surf’s Up” which features 2 fantastic documentary shorts about surfing. Badal discussed this year’s crop of shorts in a recent Skype interview.
Gary M. Kramer: Who or what were the hot discoveries for you this year?
Sharon Badal: It wasn’t as much that, so much as we spent far more time curating the programs and trying to think very seriously about the tone we wanted to present to the audience. Needless to say, the world is in a tough state right now, and we consciously looked for shorts featuring “dreams, life, kindness and compassion.” There were many serious and somber films. And we felt life was somber enough, so we wanted to work out a balance of starting lighter and ending more dramatically — which is what you see through these programs. We wanted a buoyant tone, rather than six serious dramatic shorts in a program. I tipped the balance and have an extra documentary program this year.
GMK: What I liked about several of the shorts I saw was how some educate (Viola, Franca, Shooting War), and others entertain (Lemon, Don’t Mess with Julie Whitfield). You don’t mix documentary and narratives in this year’s programs. Can you talk about process of assembling the programs, and the decisions you made?
SB: It’s challenging to mix narratives and documentaries; you get different audiences. Documentary program people are interested in news, journalism, current affairs, and the contemporary. They become different journeys if you mix them with narrative shorts. We’ve mixed doc and narrative shorts in the New York program in the past, but that’s because it’s thematic.
GMK: I want to talk about the “Postcards” program, which contains four films directed by women. (Tokyo Project, the program’s one male-directed film, was not available for preview). The shorts here are uniformly strong, with Fry Day by Laura Moss—a talent to watch—being my absolute favorite short this year. Can you talk about this program, and how it came to be?
SB: The program came together by itself. We saw Tokyo Project, which was challenging because of its running time. [31 minutes] To put that in the program, we had to find shorts that were strong enough that they wouldn’t disappear and be overpowered by it. All shorts should be balanced in a program. After we got Tokyo Project, we got Viola, Franca. We loved Viola, Franca, and it was a female story too. We did not intend to group the female filmmakers in one program—that just happened. We wanted them to be female-driven stories. I had the middle of the puzzle, Toyko Project, and had to match the beginning and after. The films we got took place in different places, and they are female driven stories, and they have history. “Postcards” has a beautiful tone throughout.
GMK: I was pleased by the number of films with LGBTQ content this year, from Dive and The World in Your Window as well as Love the Sinner. I like that you incorporate queer content in your programs, but I don’t recall you ever had an LGBTQ-specific program. Can you talk about that?
SB: I didn’t want to put together “all-female” director programs with “Postcards.” I don’t like to “marginalize.” I don’t do separate student programs for the same reason. Everyone is in the boat together. Putting them in a “student” or “gay” program, you aren’t being fair to the films because you want to expose them to a broad audience. To bind them in a program, your audience will be interested in those types of films, but we want everyone to see all types of films. If I had more programs, sure, I’d [focus] but I have to live within the number of program I get. I miss doing the sci-fi and horror/genre programs this year. But we have to make decisions every year what works best with the crop. The surfing program was new and more interesting this year. We’re open to any possibility.
GMK: I am glad you put the “Surf’s Up” program together. It consists of only 2 films, Resurface and Under an Arctic Sky. It just over an hour long. What make this program stand out/ alone?
SB: I loved the surfing films. I intentionally kept it at two because I loved each story, and they fit together nicely. I spoke with the filmmakers and they are bringing everyone in the films with them. I’m going to do an extended 30-minute Q&A after the films.
GMK: Can you describe how you try not to overlap theme and content? There are two films with 9/11 themes (11th Hour, The Suitcase), but they are in different programs. Likewise, I could see pairing the shorts The Escape and Cul-de-Sac in the same program but you separated them out.
SB: We go through each film in the program and say “father/son,” “dysfunction family,” and how many are subtitled/English language. We thought “Last Exit” was a good program for Cul-de-Sac. We wanted The Escape with The Foster Portfolio to keep that program, “Your Heart’s Desire,” more dreamy. That program’s theme is: What do you want? and it includes Alive and Again. These shorts were about thinking about what your life could be, and what your frustrated with.
GMK: I found several shorts this year played with issues of time, from Revolving Doors and Again to Dive and Buckets. I liked that a film that is 10-20 minutes long covers so much ground. What are your thoughts about that?
SB: I think it’s very interesting how filmmakers in short films use flashbacks and think about creating a narrative construction that propels the story backwards and forwards. It’s difficult to do with a feature. It’s very suitable to short storytelling. It’s a talent to do that. You can easily go off the rails if it’s not done thoughtfully, or the script isn’t strong enough. If I don’t understand it, and I’m frustrated, that’s different than I’m intrigued and go with you on the ride.
GMK: Can you talk about the international films this year?
SB: I‘m happy we have films from different countries. Dive is from Venezuela. Retouch is from Iran. Alive is from South Korea. I think it’s great to have all this storytelling. Technology has helped us to be more accessible for these films. Dive is a student film. With platforms like Without a Box, it’s easier to get the submissions.
GMK: The Beehive was one of several films (Again was another) that had some absurdist humor. Those films, I find, are often the trickiest because they have to hit audiences the right way. Lemon and Approaching a Breakthrough also had a quirky sense of humor. What can you say about films that take chances?
SB: The New York program, “Group Therapy” plays Hair, Lemon, Approaching a Breakthrough, Joy Joy Nails, and Beehive in that order. We did look at that. Hair and Lemon are yuk yuk comedies, Approaching a Breakthrough and Beehive are absurd comedies, and then Joy Joy Nails between them has dark humor. I like how they play off each other. If you do something tonally like that, it has to be consistent so you don’t lose your audience. You have to think about emotionally getting them ready to move from yuk yuk to a different type of humor.
Again (in the program “Your Heart’s Desire”) is sad, and yet has great notes of humor. That’s the mystery of all of this. You never know if it works until the audience sees it. We have had times where we thought a short was serious and the audience took it as a comedy. Even the filmmakers were shocked! And it depends on the audience. A Sunday afternoon audience is different than a Tuesday at 10pm crowd. A film will never play the same way. It depends on the demographic of the audience in the house. It plays depends on the city. We’re programming for a New York audience.
GMK: I know you love all your children, but any favorites, or Oscar projections?
SB: I had three shorts world premiere at Tribeca last year that got nominated for the Oscar this year. I don’t think of the shorts individually once we program them. It’s like we create 10 feature films. I like creating new programs. This year’s program “S.O.S.” is the essence of what we’re trying to do— to help each other and our planet. It’s positive, inspirational, and a call to action program of documentary shorts. It is humanity-based. “Postcards” provides a lovely journey, and “Surf’s Up” is different than what we’ve shown before.
What strikes me about the programs this year is that the documentaries are firmly rooted in humanity, and they take a strong perspective on understanding each other. The narrative programs are all about life in a fictional way—our hopes and dreams. They balance each other so nicely, and create this overarching tone of “We’re all in it together.” That was intentional—to take more of a perspective on the world, and try to put a helpful, kind and compassionate spin on it.
Gary M. Kramer is the co-editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 and 2, and the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews. He write about film for Salon, Slant, and Cineaste as well as Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, and the San Francisco Bay Times. Follow him @garymkramer.