By Gary M. Kramer.
Sharon Badal is the shorts film curator for the Tribeca Film Festival. This year, she received a record-breaking 3,074 submissions. “We broke 3,000 for the first time!” she announced buoyantly in a recent Skype session. The Festival is showcasing 57 shorts from 16 countries in 9 programs this year. Half of them are World Premieres, and only one short is accompanying a feature. Badal spoke with Film International about this year’s programs.
Gary M. Kramer: The trend I noticed this year is more documentaries. Do you think shorts are starting to lean toward non-fiction?
Sharon Badal: What I think has changed is that documentary shorts are really thinking about storytelling and not just documenting. What I found very interesting this year is that the doc shorts really had a journey to them. It wasn’t the traditional talking head [style], and that’s what made them pretty powerful this year. We have three doc programs: After Words, Before Long, and City Limits. The docs were so strong we did our [annual] New York City program as an all- docs program. Which was fun.
GMK: One of the experimental shorts, A Film is a Film is a Film, claims that the way we watch movies is like the way we see the world. Do you believe that? How does it hold true about seeing short films?
SB: I prefer short stories over novels. Perhaps it’s the way we individually digest art. I think that’s a personal preference, but I also think that the experience of watching a program of short films is different from watching a short film singularly. In that sense, it’s a similar experience to watching a feature in that you are consuming 90 minutes but you are doing it in a segmented way.
SB: Record is directed by David Lyons, who is the evil General Monroe character in J.J. Abrams’ Revolution. This is his first short and it’s always interesting to see actors go behind the camera. It is a mood piece, and these kinds of shorts embrace you; you have this experience of being there with that film in the moment. I liked Record because it was about the senses and memory and this past/present/future connection. I found it very touching. It was quiet. I liked that about it. It allowed you to just be with it.
You want a program to be textured. You want bright and snappy and quiet and moody or something that has more of a traditional storytelling arc to it. You don’t want the audience to see the same style six times. You want them to experience a diversity in the art form. You want to expose them to these films–especially with short films because people don’t have an opportunity to see them outside of the festival circuit.
GMK: Nesma’s Birds asks viewers to consider one of the many stories that unfold on the rooftops in a foreign land. Can you talk about the power of short film storytelling, and the idea of seeing a narrative about learning about some stranger’s life?
SB: I call those “moment in time” shorts. It’s just this piece of someone’s life. There’s no real protagonist, or lead up to act three. No traditional structure. You live in that particular moment with that particular story, and it doesn’t have to conclude.
GMK: Likewise, the documentary short, Of Many, about a Rabbi and Imam who become friends in New York City, shows the power of understanding the narrative of another. Why did you find this tale so compelling?
SB: I think it was a human story about two different people who connect under extraordinary circumstances. I love that Imam got married and walked all the way to the wedding because it was the Sabbath. There’s so much with New Orleans and Joplin and 9/11, but the throughline was about the shared humanity.
GMK: You have only five returning filmmakers, and many new ones. What can you say about the crop of new talent?
SB: With short film so many of them are by new filmmakers. You must see what’s there, and see the essence of the film. It may not have the polish you would hope for, but part of what we do is discover. That sometimes means you look into the film and see the potential of the filmmaker that you want to bring to an audience.
GMK: Speaking of which, For Spacious Sky was an interesting short by a first-time filmmaker. It deals with recent history–Obama’s election. What made this film stand out?
SB: I would call it a period piece. It’s set in a specific time and place in recent past. It was Americana to me. It dealt with family and politics and living somewhere between New York and Los Angeles, and you don’t see that combination of elements often. The word I used when I met the filmmaker, was that it had many layers, and you could look at it from different perspectives. The guys [in the film] were very different characters and yet you could believe them as brothers. For my audience, it’s a nice departure that they could see something like this.
GMK: You are also screening Helium, which won the Best Short Film Oscar this year. What makes a short “award-worthy” for you?
SB: We invited that film before it got nominated. I saw something in Helium that was unique—that visual context, and the acting was really good. I thought it was a unique story. That last shot was so physically beautiful to me, it was the perfect ending shot.
We do a letter to our jurors and we talk about what the “criteria” is, that they have to look at storytelling, acting and directing. But it’s more than that. It’s the experience of viewing it. How did you feel at the end? Did it come to fruition? Did you leave feeling satisfied? We tell the jury that you are seeing so many different styles—content-wise, subject-wise, and style-wise—and you have to decide if the film was a fully realized vision. It’s a different answer for everyone.
GMK: Another short, Human Voice, provides an outstanding showcase for Sophia Loren. She gives a magnificent performance. Do you think the acting in shorts is often more difficult than in features because of the compressed narratives?
SB: I think it’s challenging for an actor to elicit the emotional response from the viewer in such a short amount of time. Their performance has certain boundaries that they don’t have in feature films. It’s one of the most challenging short formats when you direct one actor. It’s [Loren’s] show—to be able to command an audience’s attention in that structure, for that running time. It was incredible and I loved seeing her.
Let me tell you a story. Edoardo Ponti directed it, and he won last year’s fest with his short, The Nightshift Belongs to the Stars. The cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain (2005)) was at Tribeca last year as well with a short he directed called Likeness. He met Edoardo at the fest and they hit it off and decided to collaborate. That to me was such a perfect example of why film festivals exist. It’s about discovery. It’s about collaboration and helping filmmakers move forward in their career. I was thrilled [they] came back with this one for its world premiere.
GMK: From the sublime to the ridiculous. I’m a Lifeguard is a broad, comic entry. It’s fun and zany. But there is not a real comic program this year; Totally Twisted is more a horror showcase, yes? Did you not find enough comedy films for a program?
SB: We’re calling it “fun, creepy, weird.” So many of the shorts did not have a genre, but they were blackly comic. So you have scary stuff with funny notes. I have to tell you, speaking for programmers everywhere, there are not enough comedies. If you make one like Fool’s Day last year, you’ll get a great festival ride. Every festival wants a comic piece to brighten up the program.
GMK: Let’s end with a discussion of the infectious musical entry, Today’s the Day. It’s rare and wonderful to have musical shorts that aren’t videos. What can you say about this film?
SB: I love the production quality. When Glee went on the air, that started this genre. One [musical] number is appropriate for a short film. But with Today’s the Day, the set up and the variety of characters and the physical camera movement and production design are what made this short. It was perfect.
GMK: And taking a cue from Today’s the Day, that short has a message about the purpose and meaning of life, and following your dreams. How can you say curating shorts at Tribeca fulfills that mission for you?
SB: I am in my 20th year of teaching at NYU and I’m going to celebrate my 15th anniversary with Tribeca next week. So for me, I find this job very creative. I love making people aware of this format. I don’t know why short films got under my skin, or how it happened. Part of it I guess is being in this industry. I started working as the usher in my father’s suburban theater when I was 14, and I fell in love with the movies. I think that you evolve to a point where you love being part of something. I love being part of Tribeca, and I’m proud of what we do. Every year it’s new again. You change, and what you want to do changes with you. Somehow, someway, this short film world really connected with me. In the end, I guess what’s really important is that you love what you do. Otherwise, every day is a bad day. I’ll do it as long as I love it, and I love discovering and nurturing filmmakers. I know what programming a film in this fest can do for a filmmaker. Nothing pleases me more when you go to another festival and say, that’s one of mine. You take responsibility. My work is so solitary, and then at the fest, it suddenly comes alive for me. I meet the filmmakers and connect them with their work and they keep in touch all year long. That’s so incredibly gratifying.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the recently published Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 17th to April 27th. For more information on screenings, visit their website here.