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Short Cuts
The InDPanda Short Film Festival proves that short films are more than just YouTube videos.

By John Robertson | Jul 17, 2008

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In May last year, local film distributors refused to take up the first picture by a Hong Kong director ever to win an Oscar. Ruby Yang’s “The Blood of Yinzhou District” had just won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject, yet nobody seemed interested. While some attributed this to the film’s bold subject­—AIDS-afflicted orphans in central China—the director herself put it down largely to the film’s brevity. “A 40-minute film is hard to market,” she said, adding that local cinemas had commercial priorities to worry about.

The film was eventually taken up by InD Blue, a two-man organization promoting short films, who managed to arrange a few screenings at the Arts Centre. This year’s “InDPanda” festival, running from July 25 to September 3 at Broadway Cinematheque and the Arts Centre, will be the fourth of InD Blue’s annual international short film festivals, intended to bring 120 films in similar situations to Hong Kong audiences.

They know they have their work cut out for them. “No matter how much you promote them, it’s hard to get people interested in short films,” says Jonathan Hung, one half of the organization. “My sister goes to the cinema every week, but refuses to attend our festival. People dismiss short films as amateur home videos that belong on YouTube—they’re not deemed professional enough to pay to see.”

Hung and partner Henry Chan have been toiling away to try and reverse this misconception. Chan works a full-time job as an editor for a newspaper from 3pm to midnight, and comes into the InD Blue office in the mornings. At midday he changes over with Hung, a freelance journalist, who often ends up slaving into the wee hours of the morning there.

It’s hardly a lucrative pastime. On the contrary, the two would consider themselves profoundly lucky if the festival were to break even—it hasn’t yet. Rather, they’re motivated by devotion to the world of cinema, and a conviction that short films have as much a place in it as do their more popular counterparts.

So why do we need short films? According to Hung, the simple reason is that many themes and topics don’t call for a feature-length picture. “You have to fix the length of your film around the topic,” he says. “Too often you see films that are longer than they should be. They feel empty, slow and boring.”

A short film can impart just as much as a feature-length one; just as the short story can so often be more powerful and more moving than a novel. Indeed, short stories are frequently adapted into short films: “The Tonto Woman” (2007), based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, appears in the collection of Oscar-nominated shorts at this year’s festival. Set in the American West at the end of the 19th centuy, it tells the tale of a woman destroyed by kidnap and slavery, and a mysterious stranger who awakens her to the possibility of regaining control over destiny.

So just as the short story isn’t simply there for budding writers to practice ahead of their first great novel, the short film isn’t solely the preserve of amateur directors. Hung points out that several films in this year’s festival come from directors with well-received full-length features under their belts. “Happy Birthday” (2004) is by Korean director Kim Sung-ho, who made the horror film “Into the Mirror” that same year, while “Judgement” (1999) comes from fellow Korean shocker Park Chan-wook, of ultra-violent “Old Boy” fame.

Indeed, a canonical director is selected every year for the festival to pay tribute to. This year Eric Rohmer and Agnes Varda share the spotlight. In Hung’s view, “anybody who wants to have a full understanding of these directors needs to see the short films created alongside their feature-length work.” Four shorts from French New Waver Rohmer appear here. Love stories of a typically philosophical bent, they revolve around young men torn between hopelessly conflicting desires. “Charlotte and Her Steak” stars a young Jean-Luc Godard in the lead role.

Classic realist Varda’s shorts are grouped here as “Love Letters to Paris,” celebrating both the beauty and the ugliness of the city. Cinema critic Alain Bergala describes them as cinematic “essays“ that present “indirect self-portrtaits, a map of her life and tastes, an outline of a personal philosophy.” Hung’s own favorite among them is “Opera-Mouffe” (1958), which captures the drunks and tramps of Paris’ La Mouffe neighborhood through the affectionate eyes of a pregnant woman.

Of course, short films clearly also allow us glimpses of fresh new talent otherwise under the radar. This includes local talent struggling to get by in an industry stuffed with heavily cemented reputations. This year’s festival includes two collections of the best works by students at the Academy for Performing Arts, who don’t shy away from breaching mainstream rules and conventions. For instance, “And Beyond Ten Years...” (2007), about a young girl’s coming of age, is told entirely from the perspective of her legs. Two local films also appear in the animation category: “Give And Take,” about an alien looking for love in all the wrong places, and “Red Buds,” about relentless self-sacrifice in a similar pursuit of love.

However, this novice element to many short films is naturally also a large part of what keeps many potential viewers at bay. With so many independent short films out there, it appears impossible to know what to go see. After all, 65,000 videos get uploaded to YouTube everyday.

Yet Hung vows that he and his partner go to painful lengths to sort the wheat from the chaff for us, previewing countless films and selecting only the cream of the crop for the festival each year. And their arduous efforts have not been in vain. According to Hung, “every year we get new people who say they’ve never watched short films before, and suddenly they’re hooked.”It’s something worth bearing in mind, especially for the cinemagoer who normally wouldn’t give a half-hour film a nanosecond’s thought. If that mammoth three-hour epic looks a little daunting this summer, you might want to consider giving a collection of short films a try instead. After all, if you get stuck with one you don’t like, you’re always just minutes away from the next.

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