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, one is the Manhattan Short Film Festival. Beginning in 1998, Nicholas Mason ran an annual film series. The first year, he projected 16 shorts on a screen attached to the side of a truck. The turnout? About 300. This year’s festival will take place 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 September 11? The answer is fascinating. It’s often said that horrible day changed everything. Whether that’s accurate may be debatable, but, according to Mason, it 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 explains on the fest’s website, was inspired by all the films that entered this festival during the years after 9/11.” Mason found those films “collectively … more revealing to what was happening in the world or how people in the world were feeling at that time, than, say, watching the ABC or NBC” It occurred to the impresario that a global festival of works underscoring its audiences’ common humanity might bring people of different backgrounds together. There’s a reason Manhattan Shorts has been called “the UN of film festivals.”
So, 12 years later, what started with a screen on Mulberry Street in Manhattan has grown into the world’s first global film festival. From September 27 to October 6, movie houses, universities, galleries, museums and maybe even a truck or two on six continents, from the Midwest to the Middle East, will feature the same 10 finalists. The films were selected from a record 628 entries from 48 countries.
The lineup of the 16th annual competition is as distinctive as it is diverse, with representatives from six countries and a rich mix of styles and genres, animation and live action, guaranteed to earn any true movie lover’s love. Past selections have won Oscars, and the quality of this year’s offerings left me in little doubt that we’ll hear about several of these mini-masterworks again when March 2 rolls around.
With almost nothing in common beyond 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”; “Friday” (17:30), British director Seb Edwards’ meditation on terrorism’s sick cycle; and “Pale of Settlement” (17:58), New York filmmaker Jacob Sillman’s harrowing true story of a boy’s attempt to evade conscription by the Russian army during the Crimean War.
My personal favorite is “I Am a Great Big Ball of Sadness” (8:36), from playwright-director Ken Urban, who teaches at Harvard and is half of the band Occurrence. (I’ve been listening to their music for days — sort of Brian Eno meets Hank Williams.) His film goes behind the cocktail smiles of guests at a trendy New York party and juxtaposes their chipper chatter and inner monologues in a manner that’s equally sad and hilarious.
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. (That winner will be announced on October 6 at 10 p.m. on manhattanshort.com.)
So grab your popcorn and make like Samuel Goldwyn. Here’s your chance to turn some struggling artist into a star. 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, can be more.