Sounding Off: What is it about the lack of regard for short films?

Mick Hannigan asks why short films are so diregarded – continuing Film Ireland‘s ‘Sounding Off’ section – the place for debate and discussion on the topics that you find most compelling.

What is it about the lack of regard for short films? Sure, they’re considered useful in providing hands-on experience in learning the craft, and they can be ‘calling cards’, whatever that means, but in being regarded as ‘art’, why the neglect?

Unless cultural production is written about, analysed and critiqued, as an art form, it just doesn’t exist. Look at the Cinema section of any bookshop, – try the bookshop in the Irish Film Centre even – you will look in vain for any book on the aesthetics of the short film. You will find books on making shorts, or marketing shorts, but will you find books on the history of the short film, an anthology of writings on shorts or critical papers on the short form? Not a bit. Nada! There are books about directors and actors and editors, on film theory, film history, on movie stars, on documentary, animation, and digital art. Why this lack of commentary on a significant area of cultural production? Every other art form seems to have its literature. Even the most outré cultural activities receive intelligent critical commentary!

There have been a couple of BFI monographs on exceptional shorts, like Un chien andalou and Un chant d’amour, for example. The work of Richard Raskin of Aarhus University on the short fiction film is admirable, but, shamefully, there is little else. There is also one other notable exception in Cinema16’s series of short film DVD compilations, but this is an exception to the rule.

Consider how many shorts are produced each year. Cork Film Festival looks at over 2,500. Only a tiny number would be considered works of genius but each year, in creativity, in imagination and in exploration of the possibilities of cinema, many outclass most of the feature films on offer – and yes, I include the ‘art house’ sector here as well.

There are an ever-growing number of festivals devoted to the short film. The problem is that many see their function as supporting the (mostly young) filmmakers who make shorts as opposed to giving a platform to the best productions. The best festivals serve as filters of the immense number of productions each year as well as mounting retrospectives of classic shorts and championing artists who work in the short form. I am proud of the work of Cork Film Festival in this regard.

It always surprised me that at a time when shorts were produced on 16 mm that the screenings at Cork Film Festival were not thronged with film funders, producers or advertising executives searching for new talent and new approaches to filmmaking. The short-film world is the R&D dept. of the industry! This is where the experiments are being made, where new styles and cinematic approaches are essayed, where exciting new talent is on display. Thankfully with show-reels now available on DVD or on Vimeo, filmmakers can more easily get their films viewed by prospective funders, however, a live screening in front of an audience is still the optimum viewing experience.

Take one example. Some years ago we received a number of films directed by Ken Wardrop and produced by Andrew Freedman. We were so impressed by the creativity of these short documentaries that we devoted a whole programme to their work. It’s not that we were especially perspicacious, one would have had to be myopic not to see the quality of their work. It is rare for a film festival to mount a retrospective of the work of two guys straight out of film school, yet other then the great support given by IADT there was no response to this from any sector of the industry. No one wondered what the fuss was all about! A couple of years later, the only Irish film in any of the official sections of Cannes was Wardrop’s Undressing My Mother, screening in International Critics Week. It had won at Cork, at Tampere, and also won Irish and European Film Academy awards for Best Short!

So shorts are important. One of the paradoxes about the form is that despite, or because of, the restrictions of money and experience there is an abundance of inventiveness. To use a slogan of the Hamburg Short Film Festival: ‘minimum resources, maximum imagination’. Short films occupy an imaginative strand in the history of cinema. Quite simply, shorts are art. They deserve better!

Mick Hannigan

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6 Replies to “Sounding Off: What is it about the lack of regard for short films?”

  1. I think most funders/producers would be more interested in filmmakers who can “get off their ass” and make a successful feature rather than travelling to Cork to watch a 16mm short?

  2. The “neglect” that you describe comes from the fact that shorts reach a very small and select audience when they do the rounds at the film festivals. They need proper exposure such as being broadcast on TV or shown before a feature at the cinema. Why more short films cant be shown late at night instead of the crap they show just to plug a hole in the schedule is a mystery and a shame. And a hot short film on the bill along with the main feature at the cinema would be an incentive to most people to buy a ticket and would be great exposure for the film-maker. Win / win situation. But it’s not the norm right now and directors with a heavy background in commercials being handed their first feature is now fashionable again.

    But yes, shorts are art and it should be remembered that short films were an important part of the early careers of Tim Burton, James Cameron, Steven Speilberg, Ridley Scott… to name but a few.

  3. Another example of ‘neglect’ happened with the Corona film festival for after spending 18 months making my own film (full-time) and submitting it to this years Cork Film festival I was ignored and received no reply or feedback. So whats a film maker to do?

    ‘Minimum resources, maximum imagination’ is certainly the reality however the work can sometimes only begin when a film maker is applying to festivals etc. It can be a full time job and seems never ending until the film’s ‘festival shelf life’ expires. I think some token of appreciation or acknowledgement for all the hard work would be welcome.

    Shorts are very important and very often a film maker’s first experience of film making as mentioned by Gerard. I think Gerard has hit the nail on the head regarding late-night TV screenings/broadcasting. There is a well of artistic talent in this country and it is often overlooked. Excellent idea for a tv programme. Anyone? It would make a great New Years resolution! Shorts that screen prior to a feature film is also an excellent idea and it would be a great idea if more were screened in cinemas and not just at festivals.

    Merry Christmas everyone!!

  4. In August 2010 I filmed Eammon McAllister at Gavigan’s Pub.
    He would be 74 years of age now. If he can’t be in a feature film, he should be included in a documentary, along with Ted McCormac from the Doolin area and others.
    I don’t know what Eammon’s life has been heretofore, but on that night in August, he was the embodiement of Irish Folk tradition for about 60 European tourist that I know of.

  5. I would agree with Gerard in that broadcasters need to get behind short films and screen them at times when people can watch them both North and South of the border.

    Engaging meaningfully with filmmakers rarely happens. When it does it is with people who are altruistic by nature, but unfortunately have no funds to help the filmmakers in the way they need to progress their careers.

    I have worked with entry level filmmakers in the North for nearly a decade and sadly I have yet to see an improvement in how shorts are viewed as an artform. Also filmmakers are suffering from waiting longer than they can afford to move from short to feature film.

  6. Very late to this discussion but I think it’s up to TV stations to get behind short films. Screening them before a feature in cinema sounds ideal but in reality I doubt if many cinemas want to cut into the time they have for advertisements. I doubt if many producers of big films would want to share the bill with some low-budget short either, as they would argue (probably with some justification) that it could deter mainstream audiences. I also think this system would be ripe for corruption as people with money bribed producers and cinema owners to get their shorts on the bill.

    I think TV stations, particularly state-funded ones, are the best platform and with 24 hours a day 7 days a week of airtime RTE could help create a market and appreciation for short films, not just IFB-funded projects either.

    BTW, the short has also become a neglected form in literature. Up until the 50s many writers earned a living writing short stories for the numerous magazines that were the main form of home entertainment before TV came along. Nowadays the novel is the only currency in literary fiction, to the detriment of the short story and novella writer.

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