By Gary M. Kramer.
Sharon Badal is the Head Shorts Film Programmer at the Tribeca Film Festival, which unspools April 18-29, 2012. Badal started with Tribeca in 1999, she said in a recent phone interview, “Since before Day One.” She was one of the first three employees of TFF back in 2001, and during her first year at the fest, she started screening shorts and assumed other responsibilities. The following year, she took on the role of shorts programmer and has been curating the program ever since. A member of the faculty at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Badal spoke with Film International about her role as a film programmer, what makes a good short—and a good shorts program.
Gary Kramer: Let’s start with some numbers. How many films do you screen for the fest and over what time frame?
Sharon Badal: We start accepting submissions in September. I start watching in October. I generally average 1,500 films myself. My high one year was 1,800. We received 2,800+ submissions this year. I have a great co-programmer and five screeners that I hand pick who watch them. This year I saw 1,200 shorts, and watched my screeners’ and co-programmer’s top picks. I then think creatively about [what we’ve seen]. We finalize titles by the end of February, so it’s four very intense months.
GK: So how do you determine the programs—themes, content, order?
SB: From 2,800, we narrow down to 200, then 100. Then I know how many programs we’re going to have—5 narrative, 3 documentary, and 1 experimental—which is curated by John Gartenberg. Once you shake it down to the last 75, you look at them, and that’s the magic part. You start putting them together and think: Where do you want to start and where do you want it to end? Favorites are good program starters. The audience needs time to settle in. You want a strong short to end with. It’s what comes between that’s really critical. If you start dramatic and end comedic, how do you get from A to Z? What plays nicely after this? What’s a good transition piece? Every time a short ends, you have to reset emotionally so [as a programmer] you really create the overall journey by guiding viewers through the experience. The themes [of each program] reveal themselves only at the very end. The last thing is the title and the descriptive—which happens after you lock the program. What is nice is finding the thematic ribbon that ties these all together. The New York Shorts Program [Men-Hattan this year] is the only one that we pre-conceive. We hope that we have enough good New York shorts for it every year.
GK: What are your criteria for a good short film?
SB:For me, it’s always rooted in the story. Seeing a world depicted in a way that I haven’t seen it before—even a universal story, portrayed in a different way—in under 40 minutes. The running time has to support the story—it’s got to be a great ride. I think of a shorts program like a group of short stories. You might not like every short story, but the point of the shorts program is to give a variety of subjects, textures, and a variety of storytelling [styles]. Not every person is going to feel the same about each short, but everyone brings their own opinion to it. And that’s the beauty of it. If you don’t care for this one, maybe you love the next one. We love all of them.
GK: Can you discuss the art of creating a shorts program?
SB: When you put a program together, you are putting together a larger narrative out of the individual shorts. Watching them out of context has a different feel—the mood of how you get to it. That’s why I tell our jury that they will experience them differently if they don’t watch them as a whole entity of the program. It’s the journey of and through. The last short should have some emotional pop. You don’t want a program of wrist-slitting dramatic shorts. That’s why we try to mix comedic and dramatic, especially with the documentary programs, which are starkly serious and emotionally personal. It’s exhausting for 95 minutes, so you include a lighter tone to give audiences an emotional break. But a slick Annenberg funded short like Beauty Culture is as opposite as you can get from Voice Over. The international representation gives you lots of different styles of storytelling for audience. A Spanish short is very different from a Croatian one.
GK: One of the best shorts I saw in the titles I screened was Jean Lewis, a remarkable documentary portrait of a woman with a fascinating legacy. The filmmaker uses animation, and other inventive styles of storytelling to reveal her. Jean Lewis created two very different feelings in just 10 minutes.
SB: Jean Lewis was very unique, especially for a doc. What is difficult is that it can’t just be talking heads for a documentary short. It takes you on this emotional history of this character. You feel so bad when her stuff is all that’s left and you realize what kind of person she was. And as a doc, the construction of it was brilliant.
GK: I was also dazzled by the power of a short called Finding Benjamin, about a man with a very specific identity crisis. This short inspired me in a way that a feature on the same topic could not.
SB: This is a student film! Finding Benjamin is shocking to me. It made me actually think why we called the program it is in Help Wanted. A lot of the shorts inspire action on the part of the audience, or further discussion or more research. Every short in that program is a situation people can get involved with. My Neighborhoodexplored a political situation [Palestinians in East Jerusalem] that I wasn’t clear on.
GK: My Neighborhood is co-directed by Julia Bacha, who made Budrus, a feature-length documentary that played Tribeca last year. Do you have many “returning” filmmakers?
SB: Curfew, [in this year’s Men-Hatten program], is by Sean Christenson, who had a short in last year’s New York program. I loved seeing the director’s progression. There are twelve returning filmmakers this year. But I like to screen blind—make decisions on the film and the film alone—not on the background of the filmmaker. What I love about this year’s program, is not only that there are more World Premieres—26!—but that 25 countries are represented. That’s fantastic! What you are doing is developing and nurturing talent. We help these filmmakers launch their career, in a World Premiere context. Neil LaBute (Double or Nothing) and Edward Burns (Doggy Bag) play alongside Asad, by Bryan Buckley, about a young boy in Somalia who has a choice between becoming pirate or a fisherman. Brian is a commercial director. So you have this great, incredibly variety, with great levels of experience.
GK: I’ve often thought shorts are great calling cards for feature filmmakers. Do you find that many short filmmakers go one to make features?
SB: A short is a good showcase for a good writer/director. Unmanned, a Sloan Foundation grant winner, covers a tough subject in a short amount of time. And the content—about a [military] drone operator—has become more timely as time passes. A short like Unmanned is beautifully directed. When you think that it’s a student film, and the director brought to fruition a tough subject—kind of a Hurt Lockerin short form—that shows their talent as a director, especially in creativity and storytelling.
GK: Stars in shorts are always fun to see, and this year’s crop features Michael Fassbender in Pitch Black Heist, and Lily Tomlin and Jesse Tyler Ferguson in the world premiere of The Procession, among others. What do you think celebrity brings to shorts?
SB: I think it’s enjoyable to see a familiar face in a short, especially if you are not familiar with them in a short format piece. It adds nice spice in a program, but I would never put a short in a program just because it has a celebrity it in. It goes back to the story. It’s the story—not the actor—that carries the short.
GK: Okay, we have to wrap this up, so let’s talk endings. What I love about shorts is that they can really give you a knockout punch or punchline. One of the best shorts I saw—my personal favorite—was the British film Donkey. I liked the way the voice-over and the visuals forced viewers to really focus on how the image reflected what was being said.
SB: A lot of [short] filmmakers don’t spend enough time thinking about the ending. They get you in, they have you in their hand, and then they don’t know how to end the short. It’s the final taste that’s left with you and it’s got to have a payoff. That’s why Donkey and Jean Lewis are great. The filmmakers thought about how you would feel. Donkey would have a different impact without that last line.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews and a frequent contributor to Film International’s Around the Circuit column. His coverage of the Tribeca Film Festival is forthcoming in the next issue.