The list of good things that can be said to have come out of 9/11 in any sense is not long. Without a doubt though, one is The Manhattan Short Film Festival. Beginning in 1998 Nicholas Mason ran a yearly series in New York City. He projected 16 shorts onto a screen attached to the side of a truck that first year. The turn out? About 300. This year’s festival will take place simultaneously in 300 cities around the world and reach an audience of more than 100,000.
Wow, you say. But what does that have to do with the terrorist attacks? The answer’s a fascinating one. It’s often said that horrible day changed everything. Whether that’s accurate may be debatable but, according to Mason, it definitely did change a generation of filmmakers and the kind of films they were making.
“The idea of sharing this event with a wider audience,” he’s explained, “was inspired by all the films that entered this festival during the years right after 9/11. I found them more revealing of what was happening in the world and how people in the world were feeling at that time than say, watching ABC or NBC or any other form of news channel.”
Forces were dividing people, pitting culture against culture in part as a result of ignorance, suspicion and fear. It occurred to the young impresario that a global festival of shorts underscoring its audiences’ common humanity might have the potential to bring people of different backgrounds together. There’s a reason it’s been called “the UN of film festivals.”
Hey, there are less inspired excuses for a celebration. So here we are twelve years later and what started with a single screen on Mulberry Street in Manhattan has grown into the world’s first global film festival. From September 27 through October 6, movie houses, universities, galleries, cafes, museums and maybe even a truck or two will feature the same ten finalists-selected from a record 628 entries from 48 countries-more or less simultaneously on six continents from the midwest to the Middle East. For the first time ever, the series has venues participating in all 50 states in the U.S. “It’s become like Earth Day, ” Mason says, “only with film!”
The line up of the 16th annual competition is as distinctive as it is diverse with shorts from six countries including Finland, Australia, Ireland and France and a rich mix of styles and genres, animation and live action, guaranteed to earn any true movie lover’s love. Past selections have gone on to Oscar noms and wins and the quality of this year’s offerings left me little doubt we’ll be hearing about several of these mini-masterworks again when March 2nd rolls around.
With almost nothing in common aside from their maximum 18 minute running time, standouts include Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? (6:35), which could be a pilot for a quirky Finnish update of Roseanne; # 30 (8:53), a twisty take on society’s obsession with celebrity from Aussie auteur Timothy Wilde; Friday (17:30), British director Seb Edwards’ white knuckle meditation on terrorism’s sick cycle with a powerful performance by a young actor named Reece Noi and Pale of Settlement (17:58-New York filmmaker Jacob Sillman came closest to using all 18 available minutes), the harrowing true story of a 10-year-old Jewish boy’s attempt to evade conscription by the Russian army during the Crimean War and the picture most likely to turn up in feature length form a few years down the road.
My personal favorite has to be I Am A Great Big Ball of Sadness (8:36) from playwrite-director Ken Urban who, I discovered, teaches at Harvard and is half the band Occurrence (You can download their music free from Bandcamp. I’ve been listening to it for days-sort of Brian Eno meets Hank Williams.) Anyway, his film goes behind the cocktail smiles of guests at a trendy party in New York and juxtaposes their chipper chatter and inner monologues in a manner that’s at once sad and hilarious. My guess is we’ll be hearing much much more from Mr. Urban.
One of the many innovative things about this competition is that it lets you be the judge. When you buy your ticket, you’re given a ballot and, along with film fans around the world, get to vote for the winner, which will be announced Sunday, October 6 at 10 PM EST on ManhattanShort.com. So grab your popcorn and make like Samuel Goldwyn. Here’s your chance to turn some struggling artist into a star. Though every one of these shorts is a winner in its own way and proves beyond a shadow of a digital doubt that less, in the right hands, definitely can be more.