Fourth annual D.C. Shorts Festival highlights artists

Like many of the films it features, the D.C. Shorts Film Festival has a fantastic director and an intriguing story, breaks new ground and reaffirms old friendships – and is over all too soon. The festival, which screened 89 short films over the competition weekend of Sept. 13, culminated in an awards brunch Sept. 16.

Inspired by Oregon’s Ashland Independent Film Festival, local filmmaker Jon Gann created D.C. Shorts in 2004 to focus on art and artists rather than glitz and glamour. Disenchanted by the impersonal, commercial atmosphere of other festivals, Gann established D.C. Shorts to celebrate and encourage the D.C. filmmaking community and its members. This goal is evident during the festival, as local filmmakers and actors can be found in abundance, chatting with their peers at the E Street Cinema between festival screenings.

In addition to 18 films by local filmmakers, this year’s program included 21 foreign films representing 14 different countries. Of note were “Angel,” by Nikolas List of Belgium, and “20 mil,” by Maria Gamboa of Colombia. List’s film is a dark tale of a doll repairman and a girl born without a spine. The latter is a story of childhood friendship and its difficulties.

The prevalence of foreign films is one of the ways the festival continues to evolve. The festival has attracted high-profile sponsors, including the Discovery Channel and Apple, but Gann is careful to ensure that sponsors augment the festival experience, not dominate it. Collaboration with Discovery HD Theatre, has allowed D.C. Shorts to present two showcases of films shot in high definition – a boon to digital filmmakers, as most traditional cinemas do not feature this ability.

Although some of the HD films showcased were impressive, it was clear that these films were showcased because of their heightened visual quality, not necessarily because they were the best films at the festival. But one exception was Christian Remde’s “The Wine Bar,” the recipient of both an audience favorite award and the filmmakers’ choice award. Remde’s film transformed an initially comical situation into a touching scene about the importance of communication, sometimes through the unlikeliest of avenues. Also of note were Stephanie Sellars’ “Julie and the Clown” and Jonathan Browning’s “The Job,” the latter of which won an audience favorite award from another (non-HD) screening.

Also new to the festival this year was the screenplay competition, sponsored by Final Draft, a screenwriting software. During Saturday’s live script-reading event, actors performed seven screenplays yet to be filmed. Gann described the event as a cross between a table reading and a live performance – props, sound effects and blocking were used minimally throughout the performances. Enhanced as they were by the spectators’ imagination, the performed scripts were a highlight of the festival and, in some cases, surpassed the weaker films.

Highlights included Ian Grody’s “Pray,” about the relationship between a Hasidic rabbi and his estranged son; “The Spinach Inquisition,” by Dia Hancock, which followed an office worker’s quest for answers to a question of personal hygiene; the suspenseful and horrific “Camera Obscura,” by Kiyong Kim; and “Birds,” by Mark Betancourt, about the avian strain placed on an elderly couple’s relationship. The audience favorite, as determined by exit poll and revealed at the Sunday Awards Brunch, was “The Spinach Inquisition.” Hancock will receive funding to turn the successful script into a film to be shown at next year’s festival. Considering the quality of the other scripts, it would not be surprising to see another script resurface at next year’s festival.

D.C. Shorts 2008 is a year away, but Gann is tight-lipped about any future changes to the festival. Presumably all of this year’s additions will return, from the screenplay competition to the high-definition screenings.

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