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One of the pleasures I’ve allowed myself at this year’s Edinburgh fest is more time than usual to graze the handpicked short film programme – annually a point of pride for the festival, though inevitably swamped in the attention stakes by even the most negligible features in the lineup. That’s understandable: it’s hard to cover films that your readers have no certain way of accessing, and even with advances in online exhibition, distribution of shorts remains a niche affair. Taking aside from the annual release of those fortunate shorts rather randomly singled out by the Oscars, civilian cinemagoers are unlikely to see any at all.
That’s a shame, since a film like “Vultures of Tibet,” from Austin-based director Russell O. Bush, is one of the standout documentaries of the festival, length be damned. This 20-minute study of the fascinating, somewhat poetically macabre Buddhist ritual of ‘sky burial’ – whereby a human corpse is sacrificed to carrion vultures, birds believed to house the souls of spiritual elders – belies its length with remarkable depth of interpretation, as anthropological observation gives way to sobering socio-political commentary. Coupled with the poised, panoramic sweep of Drew Xanthopoulos’s lensing, it’s a reminder that “short” and “small” are not interchangeable adjectives.
Others make a virtue of the form’s limitations, like Karin Hammer and Stefan Hafner’s nifty gallery experiment “Funny Games Ghost,” a series of synchronized, overlaid scenes from both the Austrian and American versions of Michael Haneke’s brutal home-invasion chiller. In feature form, it’d be a gimmicky endurance test; at 10 minutes, it’s precisely as long as it needs to be to convey the eerie oppressiveness of repeated narrative, proffering the remake as a form of voluntary confinement.
I’ve also seen more snazzy animated shorts than I can list here, the range of techniques and effects between them driving home the point of just how aesthetically conformist most feature animation – even at its most expensively hi-tech – can look by comparison. I was particularly taken with “Woody,” the debut short from Australian animator and editor Stuart Bowen. A monochrome stop-motion charmer about a wooden artist’s mannequin whose lifelong dream of becoming the next Liberace is thwarted by his fingerless, paddle-shaped hands, it’s jauntily animated and shot through with mordantly goofy Down Under wit: most inspired is an instructional montage demonstrating appropriate lines of work (air traffic controlling, pancake flipping) for the non-articulated likes of Woody. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Seattle Film Festival a few weeks ago, which, if I remember correctly, qualifies it for Oscar consideration: I wouldn’t be surprised to see it pop up in that race.
One way of ensuring wider attention for shorts – if only those by the name auteurs who tend to participate in these endeavours – is the trusty old portmanteau picture. There’s at least one of these patchwork affairs at almost any major festival: an omnibus of shorts linked by a common theme or cause, bound together as a feature-length film. They invariably receive (and deserve) the “mixed bag” label, but the strike rate is pleasingly high in “Historic Centre,” an alternately whimsical and mournful anti-travelogue commissioned by the Portuguese city of Guimaraes to celebrate their appointment as 2012’s European Capital of Culture.
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