Five years ago, in the attic of the White River Junction public library, around 25 cinephiles attended the first Shredder Film Festival. It was about as DIY as film events get: five films displayed on a bedsheet with a half-broken projector. The festival director's mother served homemade cookies and a fruit plate.
This week, in the renovated, 325-seat auditorium of Hartford High School, the significantly larger Shredder Film Festival will celebrate its fifth anniversary with an expanded slate of international films, a panel of judges and live skits featuring a guy in a "bear-gorilla" costume.
What happened in the interim? In short, festival director Jake Haehnel, 22, decided to solicit submissions using withoutabox.com, the website that has come to be the means of film-fest call-to-artists in the digital age. "We've been bombarded with submissions," says Haehnel, acknowledging the blessing and the curse of taking to the web. "I've had to turn people away."
A week before the festival, entries are still trickling in.
Even though Shredder's purview is limited to short works made by young film and video makers, Haehnel and his co-organizers have received a wide variety of submissions: animated and live action, foreign and domestic. The one-night festival will showcase 15 films (actually videos, since they aren't projected on film; Haehnel cheerfully admits to the misnomer) whose common thread is that their makers are students or recent graduates.
"We wanted to open this year's festival ... as a 'gateway' festival," says Haehnel, who regrets that the phrase "student film" carries a stigma. "We want to allow people to show their films to complete strangers in a large audience. They can also attend a festival and see films that are more highly acclaimed and think, This is where I'm going and this is what I can strive to be."
Haehnel and coprogrammer Niko Pearson, a recent graduate of Champlain College, have been making videos together since their high school days in Hartford. Haehnel describes their youthful work as "Jackass-type, 30-second-to-three-minute" projects, many of which featured bike and skateboard stunts. They called their informal group the Shredders, and the name stuck, even when they moved on to make what Haehnel calls "more serious films."
"I enjoy the art of telling a story," he says. "Film just happens to be the medium that I enjoy the most."
The fest's lineup includes three projects made by the original Shredders, but they'll screen out of competition. The virtues of the other submissions will be weighed by a panel of judges: Vermont filmmakers Nora Jacobson and Bess O'Brien, Dartmouth College professor of psychology John Pfister and Haehnel's father, Alan, who teaches English and theater at Hanover High School.
Haehnel raves about some of those submissions, including "As It Used to Be," a four-minute French film that was produced during a 48-hour film slam. He also praises "Another Life," about an unexpectedly violent family reunion; and the Italian film "Margerita," which concerns a young pickpocket.
Why the live skits with a guy in an animal costume? "We wanted something that would further separate Shredder Film Festival from the rest," Haehnel explains. "So this year, we're kind of theming the festival on our first official Shredder short film." That film, "Apple Simple," is about a weird beast that chases a young boy. Both boy and beast will be present at the fest, greeting patrons and roaming amiably through the audience.
Haehnel is hopeful that the festival will break even but acknowledges the possibility of taking a loss. He has secured some sponsorships from local businesses, but most are in the form of food donations for the wrap party. In the spirit of cinematic camaraderie, the organizers of the annual White River Indie Festival, also focused on film, did donate money to Shredder.
While Haehnel is grateful for those contributions, he says the festival is going to need funding to grow. Toward that end, Shredder's organizers are pursuing nonprofit status; they expect to complete that process in time for next year's festival.