Think three minutes. Within those critical 180 seconds, filmmakers must entice viewers or they will disappear in one quick click of the mouse or TV remote. While reviewing the entries for the fifth annual Bethesda Film Fest, juror Sam Hampton always considered that unwritten rule of thumb.
With decades of his own filmmaking experience, Hampton, cofounder of the Silver Spring nonprofit Docs In Progress, knows how tough it is to create a piece that has a great hook, fascinating characters–and a bit surprisingly yet equally essential–perfect sound. “Audiences can ignore a wobbly or out-of-focus camera work, but if they can’t hear it, forget it,” Hampton said.
From the start, whittling down 70 films to five was not easy for the panel of three judges. “We each took a group of films to view and came together with our favorites and watched them together,” Hampton said. “Some float to the top, while others sank to the bottom. We all had our outliers that we vigorously defended, but eventually, we compiled a group that worked well together.”
Choosing the films is a bit like playing DJ. Jurors knew they needed an everybody’s-got-an-opinion film such as Lauren Knapp’s “Sandman,” which takes the viewer into the ethically questionable world of Dr. Carlo Musso, who helps the state of Georgia execute inmates by lethal injection.
They also opted for an easy-to-watch film. Fitting that bill is “Encaustic,” Joe Dzikiewicz and Jaclyn O’Laughlin’s five-minute primer on a small group of artists who use an ancient practice of melted wax to create their artwork. “Encaustic” may not be cutting-edge and it plays it safe, but grandmas will love it,” Hampton said.
As for the nine-minute short, “The Culture of Collard Greens,” the title alone stopped the jurors in their tracks. The reel explores this humble veggie’s African roots and how the healthy green is a beloved staple of the African-American community.
It wouldn’t be a film festival without a few happy tears. With only five percent of World War II soldiers still alive, “Charlie & Sam” reconnects two Navy best buddies who had not seen each other since the end of the war. Filmed at a senior center and a navy museum in Florida, filmmakers and married couple Taylor Powell and Ben Powell had no idea how it would work. Taylor wasn’t worried about Charlie Edwards, her grandfather since she knew him as “a camera ham,” but they weren’t sure if his 94-year-old pal Sam Takis would understand the reunion would be filmed. Fortunately, “as soon as they got together, it was as if they had seen each other a month ago,” Tyler Powell said.
The nagging question is why anyone would want to squeeze a story into a few precious minutes, especially when they all admit it is not a moneymaker. It’s like writing poetry, said Tyler Trumbo, whose festival short, “Frogman,” is about a seemingly average family man who, unbeknownst to his family, is a spy during the Vietnam War. “I think the short form is an excellent medium to craft a glimpse into someone else’s world for a brief moment–long enough to reveal something new, but not too long that it feels tired and predictable,” Trumbo observed.
The Powells, who had been working on a feature film for three years, decided “it was great that we could actually finish something in just a few months,” Ben Powell said.
For “Sandman” director Lauren Knapp, the short format was perfect for the subject of lethal injection. “I liked the provoking question. I didn’t want to give the audience a clear answer. I wanted them to wrestle with it.”
Unlike a feature film where people nestle into their comfy armchairs with a bowl of popcorn and let things unfold, with a short film, “every shot has to serve a purpose because there is no time to waste in such a short format. It allows more freedom to experiment with form and structure,” Trumbo said.
Even so, Vanina Harel and Aditi Desai, makers of “The Culture of Collard Greens,” were challenged to keep their film less than 10 minutes, as required by their grant from the Prince Charitable Trust, which promotes young people’s involvement in sustainable farming. “We had three storylines, and at first, we made it too long and decided we had to hone into what our message was,” Harel explained. And then, like a surgeon with a scalpel, they made decisive cuts.
Harel wished they could have made an hour-long film on the subject, but realized that “to reach people, we have to adapt to want they want.” And, the filmmaker admits she prefers watching shorter films herself.
The business of making short films has exploded with the proliferation of the iPhone and YouTube. “Ten years ago, you would have had to pay $10,000 for a decent camera. Now you can do good work with an iPhone and a decent microphone,” Hampton said. And the competition is staggering. “I’ve seen some 14-year-olds’ work that is better than mine.”
Educational shorts are a growing industry; teachers will show a 15-minute film and follow it with a 15-minute discussion, Knapp said. She hopes “Sandman” will be used in ethics classes.
Some film festivals are incorporating “pitch forums” into their events. Filmmakers can submit a five-minute pitch, and hope this will entice producers to support them. The downside is that “festivals usually have shorts, but then again you have to send them in and if you win, you have to go to the festival and that requires more money,” Knapp said.
“YouTube has helped generate an online culture hungry for content. There has been a wealth of new avenues and outlets for shorts to live and gain exposure,” Trumbo said.
And the Bethesda Film Fest’s $500 honorarium helped these filmmakers. A little goes a long way.
The fifth annual Bethesda Film Fest, presented by the Bethesda Arts & Entertainment District, will feature five short documentaries by local filmmakers at 7 p.m. Friday, March 17, and at 6 and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 18, at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. All five shorts will be shown at each of the three screenings. For tickets, $10, visit www.Bethesda.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.