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PALM SPRINGS -- Every year, one of the cinematic highlights of the summer (and the whole year for that matter) is certainly the Palm Springs International Festival of Short Film, or ShortFest for short.
Running through June 28, ShortFest offers more than 320 shorts from 40 different countries for your viewing pleasure.
In addition to the screenings, ShortFest also offers a Short Film Market for industry people and filmmakers, as well as seminars, master classes, director panels and of course the beloved nightly receptions. Gay!La anyone?
So it’s always a pleasure to have a little phone time with Darryl Macdonald, the executive director and chief programmer for the Palm Springs International Film Festival and ShortFest and his partner in crime, PSIFF Film Curator and program director Kathleen McInnis.
Before I could even dive into the 411 about this year’s ShortFest I just had to ask Kathleen, what does a film curator do?
Images of librarians tucked away in musty storage files had immediately popped into my mind when I heard her title.
“Ok, not that I don’t think librarians aren’t completely sexy,” she jokingly clarified, “but man I hope your readers have some good images of librarians when it comes to mind.”
“Basically what I do,“ she continued, “Darryl and I together, watch the films and choose the films that get into the Festival. That’s the short answer to what I do. The difference between being a film curator and a programmer, for example, is I travel to festivals throughout the world to find short films I can bring into the mix. I reach out to filmmakers, actively engaging them to find shorts.”
Last year marked a big change for the ShortFest venue, namely, moving the event from the sweltering August time slot to the more simmering temperatures of June.
How did it go?
Darryl Macdonald explained, “The transition went very smooth, very successful. Ticket sales were up about eight percent, and the audiences were appreciative, as you can imagine, for the less extreme temperatures outside.”
That’s not too shabby a percentage of growth either, especially in this economy. “It was a better experience for everyone I think. That’s why we’re repeating the time slot this year.”
Darryl and Kathleen really have a daunting job before them each year to put together ShortFest once you strip away the glamour of being involved with such a prestigious event.
It involves a lot of dedication and sometimes grueling screening sessions to cull through the films to find ShortFest-worthy titles. “Just trying to maneuver our way through 3,000 submissions over the course of about four or five months is a never ending story.”
“I have to agree,” Kathleen pipes in, “the sheer number of good work that comes to us that we are watching through the course of the year and just, “maneuvering it” is such a good word for it. I would say that at this particular juncture another challenge is once you have those films you like so much, to weave them into the thematic packages that we use for the scheduling is tough. I have to say, and I’m not just sucking up to you Darryl,” they both laugh before Kathleen continues, ”he is a master at thematically linking films together into a program.”
“Well for someone not trying to suck up you’re definitely doing a good job of it,” Darryl counters jokingly.
Even over the phone it’s easy to feel the common bond these two share after working closely together for 19 years. You’d have to get along to do what they do so well. But I was curious if they ever butted heads over films.
“Occasionally,” Darryl laughed as he answered, “less and less as the years go on. We also allow leeway with each other. Films that I love that Kathleen doesn’t, well, her famous often-used expression is, ‘You bumped your head.’ Or she tells me, ‘You’re smoking crack!’ Sometimes she talks me out of film and sometimes we have relatively heated arguments because we see things differently. But that’s a good thing. Variances in perspectives make for a good festival. If everyone involved in the process had exactly the same taste it would be a boring festival.”
“But there’s also a benefit to our heated discussions,” Kathleen explained. “Sometimes we actually talk each other into a film.”
Besides the good rapport between Darryl and Kathleen leading to a successful ShortFest, to borrow from the old African proverb, it takes a village to put on such an event.
“Oh my God I wish we had a village! Actually it takes a village to run the festival—to get it up and running. And our village consists largely of volunteers. Compared to the feature film festival in January, which has a staff of around 80-100, the ShortFest staff only numbers around 13—we have a very small staff. Thank God for volunteers!”
It is the dedicated volunteers, numbering close to 150, who man the theaters, pre-screen films, act as gofers, man the hospitality suite and run the shuttles that make for a smooth ShortFest experience.
“We have such a small, dedicated and incredibly talented staff for a Festival this big. We bring 314 films into the festival itself, 3,000 into the market and really almost each year we have over 350 filmmakers from a couple dozen countries arriving for the five-day event. This is really a tiny, dedicated and passionate staff that does such an amazing job,” Kathleen adds.
So what does the 2010 ShortFest have in store for the LGBT crowd?
According to Darryl, the running meme for this year’s submissions seems to be relationships. “Not that relationships aren’t an ongoing theme for both Feature Fest and ShortFest, but this year in particular was striking how many of the films revolve around one on one relationships.
That’s something we found reflected in both the non-gay films and the LGBT films submitted to the festival. More so than any other year I’ve worked the ShortFest and I think it’s reflective of the times. …I think people are pulling back in on themselves and really focusing on things that are meaningful and make them feel good in tough times.”
“A lot of it is the feel good,” Kathleen hastens to add, “but a lot of it is also the questioning of what are relationships and how do we find that commonality between two people.”
There are a few stand out films for this year’s Fest.
“I have one new emerging filmmaker who has blown me across the room, and that’s Alain Hain,” Darryl claims. “He actually did a trilogy that we are going to be featuring in ShortFest. It’s three, very striking, emotionally moving and in terms of subject matter, really rich films. …The actual techniques of live action and documentary style with voiceovers lend the films particular impact.”
Hain’s short films, Curious Thing, the in-between and A Lack of Gravity offer such a striking overview of contemporary gay life in America, that they’ll be featured in The Gay!La event to be held Thursday, June 24, at 7:30 p.m. at the ShortFest host theatre, Camelot.
Kathleen’s favorites for this year include actor/artist James Franco’s submissions to this year’s fest. “The strength of the gay storytelling in his work is amazing. I really didn’t expect that and it made me think of him in much different ways than just a…, you know, fluffy actor.
“The girl’s package,” she continues, “always has some fun stuff in it. We have a little 10-minute documentary about Annie Leibovitz, which is always an interesting character to study, no matter what you say about her. I like Recess which is sort of a Mean Girls type of story. I think there’s a quality of depth to what girls can do to each other at a certain age. We can be awful. I think the filmmakers have a deft hand with the subject.”
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
There are 35 short films divided into the five LGBT programs for the gay moviegoer to experience at ShortFest, not to mention the hundreds more straight shorts we couldn’t cover in our pages. In short (awful pun intended), the 2010 ShortFest is a cinephile’s dream—perfect for all of us having a “staycation” this summer.
What better time to see a slice of life through someone else’s directorial vision?
If you go
The Palm Springs International Festival of Short Films and Film Market continues through June 28. All films are screened at the Camelot Theatres at 2300 E. Baristo Road in Palm Springs. For tickets, information and a complete schedule of films and events, visit psfilmfest.org or call (800) 898-7526.