By Gary M. Kramer.
This year, the Tribeca Film Festival, unspooling April 18-29, features 10 competitive shorts programs curated by the masterful Sharon Badal. (An ESPN program of four sports shorts also screening at the fest is outsourced and out of festival competition.) The programs this year feature documentary, animated, and narrative shorts from 22 countries. There were 4,700 submissions, 55 of which were selected, and 29 are World Premieres. The animated shorts program (curated by Whoopi Goldberg) is Academy Award qualifying for the first time this year.
The programs change from year to year, but there is always a New York program. This year, it is entitled, “Homemade,” as it features shorts by New York-based filmmakers. (Two of the entries are set outside the Big Apple.) Of particular note this year, there is a family friendly program entitled “Magic Act,” featuring a trio of shorts that are suitable for younger viewers, and “Aftermath,” an hour-long program of two shorts about the impact of gun violence. Badal discussed this year’s programs in a recent phone interview.
Let’s start this year with an overarching question and then discuss each individual program. What trends did you notice while screening entries?
I think we wanted to try something family friendly. We’ve been seeing so much adult content – adult in terms of language and visuals – that makes it tough for parents to go to the movies with their children. We decided to put a program together for family to go to, enjoy, and discuss together. It’s an experiment. We’ve never done this before. That’s why we did “Aftermath,” an anti-gun violence program. We’ve never done a hybrid [pairing a documentary short with a narrative short] before. The hybrid program, “Aftermath” was unusual because we tend to keep docs together and they tend to have a different audience. The reason to see a narrative program is different than a doc one.
There’s a difference between what the submissions were like and what we wanted to do. As I’ve said before, my personal opinion is irrelevant. It’s what the audience needs. We needed the audience to have a little more fun. So “Lighten Up!,” the comedy shorts program; “Into the Void,” the Sci-fi shorts; “Magic Act,” the family friendly shorts; and animated ones. The documentary programs “Home Sweet Home,” “Bold Moves” and “NY Shorts: Homemade” are poignant, but we thought: How do we want people to feel when they leave the theater this year? For many people it was a tough year for a lot of different reasons. We wanted to gracefully combine timely work with entertainment.
You have a very topical shorts program about gun violence with “Aftermath.” Can you talk about creating a conversation with these shorts? You couldn’t have foreseen the movement when you programmed these two films!
Surviving Theater 9 [about the Aurora, CO shooting] and Notes from Dunblane: Lessons from a School Shooting were the first two films we invited back in November. And it was funny, because when I watched them separately, I told Ben [shorts co-programmer] that we should play these together. They are two sides of the same coin – a fictional interpretation and a real-life story, about what happens to someone when [gun violence] happens to someone. I had no idea how sad and ironically how profound this program would become since November. We felt these two films had to be strong enough to backbone each other. You want the conversation to be the two different stories. It’s going to be an amazing extended Q&A with the filmmakers. I felt in the zeitgeist that it was something we should show, and it had to be the right thing. I’ve seen a lot of amazing shorts on this subject, including Dekalb, Elementary, and I needed two—two shorts. It’s going to extraordinary.
The “Animated Shorts Curated by Whoopi G.” are a real mixed bag in terms of content, style, and approach. There were some very funny shorts (Fire at Cardboard City) and some more serious ones (Surprise); there were whimsical ones (Brooklyn Breeze) and a documentary one (Velvet Underground). Can you talk about curating animation, where there are so many different styles and genres?
I think you have to start out from the beginning knowing it’s going to be a tapestry of textures. Unless you are doing children’s Nickelodeon-style animation, you couldn’t find animation that replicates a specific style or tone. When you come out with the eight films you want to program, the journey is going to be a little tough. We started out happy and light, then we get serious, serious, serious, and then we pop back out. That’s the only way to create coherence. Working with Whoopi and advising the order of play was fun to do. This is the hardest program to curate.
“Bold Moves” featured five documentary shorts about risk takers. These were inspiring stories about “what if,” and finding common ground; bravery, trauma and healing. What observations do you have about the documentary short format?
I think with “Bold Moves,” it was important for us to basically, illuminate people who do something different. Every subject in each of these docs is taking a risk in some way or another, and that’s what I like about it so much. They are doing something different. What I like about 9 at 38, and Hula Girl is that they take risks they don’t win.
I really liked the travelogue doc program, “Home Sweet Home” for taking me to places I would not otherwise see. I especially appreciate how the films focused on identity, customs and language as articulated by River of the Kukamas. But the shorts also promoted tolerance and understand of ourselves and each other. Can you discuss this theme?
“Home Sweet Home” starts out so charming, and the lady in the golf cart in Wendy’s Shabbat – that was my favorite! Destination Park talks about people and their problems. River of the Kukamas, the setting [the Amazon basin in Peru] was physically beautiful, and it lead into EarthRise [about the Apollo 8 astronaut’s images of earth from space] made me cry. We went backwards from EarthRise, because I thought it was so beautiful. I didn’t appreciate that photo of the earth as much until now.
“Into the Void,” the Sci-Fi genre program plays with time and space. I like the economy of some of these short like Let Them Die Like Lovers, or even UI – Soon we will all be One. Can you talk about how shorts can be minimalist in size but maximize ideas and emotions. The technology on display is fantastic. I loved The 716th. I want to see that as a series!
You might, you might! We didn’t have a Sci-fi program last year. It’s dependent on the quality of the crop. I am happy each short in “Into the Void” has a great feel and look to it. There is no weak link. We try to create synchronicity between the pieces. I am so excited we were able to do. The technology even five years ago was economically prohibitive for filmmakers.
Time is critical in shorts and with humor and your “Lighten Up!” program highlights that. I’m curious how you feel time is used in these films. UGH! is brilliant because it’s a time loop (Exit Strategy, which I loved in the “Into the Void” program is similarly structured). Welcome Home also works because of how it carefully builds its narrative. Can you talk about pacing and humor in a short film?
We loved Welcome Home because it was funny. It is a great example of addressing issues of immigration and refugee crisis and cultural dynamic of someone relocating. And it was a really funny story about an [Iranian] couple in Norway on a totally different track than these Jehovah’s Witnesses. It spoke about moving to a new country and trying to assimilate, and it did it by making us laugh.
I continue to beg every short film filmmaker to make a comedy. People like to laugh. Comedy is hard, and a lot of filmmakers are under the impression to be taken seriously, they have to make something serious. I think it’s challenging – the beats are hard to get.
The “Loose Ends” program was a mixed bag for me. I loved Phone Duty, and Salam, but some of the other entries (Paper Roof, Souls of Totality) just didn’t appeal to me. What advice do you have for viewers who are simply bored or uninterested in a film?
You want to give the audience a sense of international work, and that work has to be accessible. Paper Roof is one of those quiet stories. It’s a quiet film. I think that for folks who watch a shorts program, it’s like a cocktail party. The pigs and blankets come around but you don’t like pigs in a blanket. But the mini quiche is coming out next. I don’t expect the audience to like every short in the program. That’s a difficult ask for an audience. But we hope they walk away feeling good.
I love Souls of Totality, which was shot during the eclipse, which I found fascinating. They had one shot at it! I thought it was incredible. The Motion of Stars, which is also set during an eclipse, was a student film. We don’t marginalize student work at Tribeca.
I really was pleased you included the “Magic Act” program because I think shorts are perfect for young viewers, but kids can be demanding? Can you discuss how shorts are made to appeal to kids?
How Tommy Lemenchick Became a Grade 7 Legend is just a fun short to start the program. It sets you up to have fun. Mirette and Earthly Encounters are technically beautiful. Younger audiences are sophisticated; they have video games. We want the shorts to be family friendly and engaging and not condescending. Mirette is a mature work, and a younger audience can appreciate it. We don’t want to dumb it down. We want it to be an enjoyable experience; we didn’t want it to be inappropriate.
“Make or Break,” the narrative shorts program, is my favorite because these films compress high drama in 20 minutes or less. I noticed that all of the entries in this program are from countries outside the U.S. Any observations about that?
“Make or Break” is primarily international and it’s the toughest program to get an audience to buy tickets for. It’s tough to convince people to see subtitled shorts. The shorts Time Traveler and Knuckles in this program are not subtitled. But it’s a tough sell. The hook was that they are character driven stories about individuals.
“Lighten Up!” sells out first, “Animated” second, “Into the Void” third… this program is still selling tickets.
The “NY Shorts: Homemade” give a real flavor to the city and its people, but two films in the program, Big Elvis and Sidelined take place (far) outside the city. Is it difficult to get exclusively New York City-themed films?
Yes. Yes. Yes. That’s what happened this year! We didn’t have enough strong enough films for the rest of the program after I Heart NY, Saul’s 108th Story, and Into My Life. So, we had to think of another way. We made it a NY-based filmmakers program. Sidelined [about the treatment of NFL cheerleaders in 1978] is extraordinary. Big Elvis [set in Las Vegas, ‘natch] is a great transition piece. Normally, we would program it as docs or narratives that take place in New York. It fits the mold for us. We tried a hybrid and it didn’t work, but this program works based on how we positioned it. We wanted to show Sidelined and it wound up being the anchor of the NY program. We had to select the best films.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.
Social Critique, in Truth and Fiction: 2018 Oscar Nominated Live Action and Documentary Shorts