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Interview with Sharon Badal, Tribeca Film Festival

Space Cadet

By Gary M. Kramer.

Sharon Badal has curated another terrific program of shorts for the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Starting with 2,870 entries, she and her staff/screeners have selected 60 shorts, 30 of which are World Premieres.

“I think that’s great to have this many new short films to introduce at Tribeca,” she boasted in a recent Skype session.

World Premieres are one reason Badal and her staff showcase short films. She wants to make Tribeca different from other festivals like Sundance, Berlin, and South by Southwest.

“That’s part of the fun, finding new stuff,” she admitted. “Our mission has always been discovery, so selecting work that is brand new allows both the audience to discover the work, and the filmmaker discovering the experience of sharing that film with the audience for the first time.”

But, she maintains, premiere status is “a factor, not a mandate. The only mandate is that the film is a New York regional premiere.”

This year Film International spoke with Badal about two specific shorts programs playing at Tribeca. One is the recurring “New York shorts” program, untitled Unlimited Ride this year. The other is “Deadbolt” a late-night genre program, which returns to Tribeca for the first time since 2008.

Gary M. Kramer: What makes a good New York short? That it gets the feel of the city as ZZZZZZZ does, or that it shows something that would only happen in New York, like Playdate, perhaps? Or is it that the characters are quintessential New Yorkers, such as the bartender’s wife in Ice?

ZZZZZZZ

Sharon Badal: I think a good New York short is one that shows some aspect of what’s unique about living here. Whether that’s the drama of survival—that it’s a tough city to live in—or the quirkiness of the characters themselves that mirror this kind of resilient quirkiness they all have. We like to explore the different neighborhoods, or a certain demographic. You have Ice’s Kevin Corrigan juxtaposed with the married couple in Playdate. I like the program to be almost like a double-decker tour bus ride through New York. You get little peeks of different people’s lives.  

GMK: I like that you showcase a bunch of different characters and neighborhoods—Chinatown in Fortune House, 103rd street in Close My Eyes; Brooklyn in Atlantic Avenue and Ice. But Space Cadet doesn’t show off the city; it takes place almost entirely in the New Yorker’s home. What are your criteria for a New York short?

SB: To me, the cops coming over and the dialogue in Space Cadet was very New York. And it was about a family, and I liked exploring that. I liked the almost claustrophobic-ness of that short. It differs from the claustrophobia of Playdate, [also set in a New York apartment]. Every short has a different feel to it. Space Cadet also ended the program on a lighter note. Some programs we intentionally structure them to do the heavier dramatic pieces at the beginning so when the lights go up so the audience has a lighter hearted ending.

GMK: New York is always magical on film—always. Do you try to make New Yorkers in a New York City-based festival feel at home—i.e., you are what you watch—or are you trying to give tourists something that will make them re-evaluate the city?

Atlantic Avenue

SB: I think it depends on the crop of shorts we have to look at. I can’t decide that until I see what I’m working with. And that dictates the journey. It’s a labor of love. This program celebrates home. And whether that is the out-of-towner experiencing these snippets of life in New York, or a local laughing at something they totally relate to, I think they are not exclusive; they can happen simultaneously. We don’t construct the program for one or the other.

GMK: The director of Atlantic Avenue was French. So you don’t limit this program to only New York-based filmmakers? Is that a happy accident or a rule?

SB: We flag them in the submission process “NY” so that as we get to that final [selection] stage, we know which films are NY films. The country of origin and nationality of the filmmaker are not important. A non-native New Yorker made The New Tenants a few year back and won an Oscar. He told a great New York story.

GMK: Do you think wordless shorts like ZZZZZZ in the Unlimited Ride program or The Girl with the Mechanical Maiden in the Deadbolt showcase, can have more power than one with characters talking?

SB: I think they have to be strong enough to be able to carry the lack of dialogue—and that’s the challenge. I don’t think it’s a gimmick; it’s a way of storytelling that is very difficult to accomplish. Especially in Mechanical Maiden, which is long to have no dialogue. It’s kudos to the filmmaker to engage the audience to that extent without dialogue. ZZZZZZZ is such a lovely piece….

GMK: You mentioned the last time we spoke that the story is the key for you. What about style? I mention this particularly in respect to the genre films in Deadbolt program, where it’s the feel of the work that gets me (e.g., Exit Room, Honeymoon Suite), not necessarily what happens.

The Girl with the Mechanical Maiden

SB: I think a genre program requires you to suspend your connection to reality in order to enjoy it. To experience another world, and accept the strangeness of the storylines, and not be so focused on the detail but on the feel and the look of them. Each short looks different from the other. Peanut Butter and Jelly has authentic characters and then there are vampires. It’s all about twisting reality. The Root of the Problem has a distinct color spectrum to it, which affects the viewer. I can’t see ending with any other short in the program. Delicacy may be a strong short, but it’s short [in length], so not an end piece.

GMK: Is it tough to diversify the shorts in a genre program? You have all kinds of creepy—dreams, sinister people behaving badly, a vampirish tale, a mythical beast, etc.

SB: Normally, yes. For me, that is the challenge of creating a genre program, which is why I haven’t had one in the past several years. Do I want to see seven shorts about zombies? This year the crop was strong and they work well together in a genre program. Will that happen next year? It didn’t happen last year. You want diversity in storytelling in a genre context so audiences know what to expect, but it’s not repetitive.

GMK: How do you feel the Deadbolt program rates against something like the anthology feature V/H/S/2, which is playing at the fest?

Exit Room

SB: I think the difference is horror vs. genre. In a genre program it’s lots of types of shorts, it’s not horror (only). Genre is not expected. What differentiates it from a feature is that with a feature, you have the time to build the audience’s tension, fear, and suspense. With a short, you have to get them on the emotional track right away, which is why genre shorts have been not as prevalent because it’s difficult to succeed—to get someone from A to Z in 12 minutes vs. 80. It’s a different execution—no pun intended. So these shorts in particular work because they engage the audience with the emotions that they need—fear, tension, etc.

GMK: What kind of feedback do you get/what do you learn from your audience about programming?

SB: The New York program, because it’s home, I always want to do it. It’s part of who we are. It’s in our DNA. As far as the genre program, again it’s dictated by quality of films. I will be interested to see how the audience responds. I hope they like it and are into it. Audience feedback is interesting. I have two types of ticket buyers. One type is my regulars. Every year they come to the shorts program. I recognize them. They say hello. Then there are the people who have never seen a shorts program before—it’s their first time. Maybe they got a ticket because it’s available. My regulars tell me what they like the best, but the newbies are great feedback too. They are short film virgins and they come out and come up to me at the end and say, “I didn’t know what a shorts program was, this was fun, these were great, where can I watch them?” And I say, the only place you can see them is the film festival. I’m like a mother at her child’s violin recital. I stand in the back and listen. I watch the film in my head—I never see the [full] program until the first screening. It’s the audience response—they applaud, laugh, jump—at the first screening of a program that I truly love and know it worked.

Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the forthcoming Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.

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