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SFIFF Spotlight: Experimental Shorts

Photo: Tommy Lau, courtesy of San Francisco Film Society. Closing Night of San Francisco International Film Festival at the Castro Theatre.

PopMatters takes a look at why experimental short films are such an essential part of film festivals—and how they work to create meaningful dialogue between film creators and viewers.

SFIFF Experimental Shorts Program

City: San Francisco, CA
Venue: New People Cinema
Date: 2013-04-30

Artifacts and Artificial Acts. These broad concepts of relics, ideas and artifices inform much of the work we see in theatres. Whether it's a mindless romantic comedy or a challenging documentary, we must grapple with questions about how the truth is vetted and what makes the stories or pieces that we watch meaningful. The experimental shorts program at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival aptly uses those two broad concepts as its title. As the audience watched the nine selections in this portion of the shorts program, they were asked to grapple with ideas of meaning and presence.

I'm the first to admit that experimental shorts aren't the biggest draw at American film festivals. After all, these pieces are generally entirely devoid of the narrative structure that even more 'challenging' feature-length films tend to use in some way or another. It's often the case that the audience feels somewhat lost while watching some of the short pieces. We might not understand what they're about or even know if we're supposed to understand what's going on or if that's just another way of missing the point.

The friendly SFIFF volunteers at the door handed out a program with short descriptions of each of the films as the audience entered, but I try not to read these little overviews before the show. To my mind, what's important about experimental shorts as we watch them is grappling with the visual and sonic information that they are presenting. As we watch, we must ask questions about how we can place the material or what it might mean. I often feel like I've learned something about how I perceive the world when I deal with these films. When I read the descriptions after watching the films, I discover new layers of meaning and have plenty of "a-ha!" moments that make the experience all the more joyful.

This year's SFIFF experimental shorts selection, curated by Kathy Geritz and Vanessa O'Neill, was a challenging program. Confronted by diverse yet stylistically different pieces, the audience was asked to give their attention to a blur of images and sounds whose meanings can take a long time in emerging. The shorts "A Few Extra Copies" (Bobby Abate), "Bloom" (Scott Stark), "Verses" (James Sansing) and "Artificial Persons" (Katherin McInnis) in particular stood out. These pieces used either archival footage and videos or actual artifacts to craft and communicate meaning in ways that were emotionally intelligent and challenging. It was delightful to feel the audience response to each of these pieces. Whether through a tilt of the head or a thoughtful hmm, the fact that experimental shorts are important because they deconstruct the process of making meaning was felt.

What's interesting about seeing such experimental films isn't just that they can be visually stunning. It's that even the ones that a viewer doesn't like can lead to a constructive dialogue about communication and meaning. (This is something, I'll point out, that particularly crappy Hollywood romantic comedies simply can't do.) Although I rather disliked the short "The Indeserian Tablets" (Peter Rose), I was still engaged in understanding what the creator was communicating and dissecting what about the style I found ineffective and irritating. It's this sort of triggering of engagement that makes short films well worth the while for festival goers.

I absolutely encourage those folks who have the opportunity to see experimental shorts at a festival to do so. Those who aren't near a festival or theatre that shows experimental shorts will find a treasure trove of experimental films streaming online. Take some time to check out some of these films and interact with their creators when possible. Watching experimental shorts offers a fresh frame of reference that will serve as a way to evaluate and understand any film, no matter how serious or silly.

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