Short and sweet

In my last instalment I promised to reveal the secrets of using the short film format to strengthen the hope of a nation so desperately ambitious to build an empire on films.

My definition of ‘short film’ is not the one minute quickie, but the five to 26 minute story that engages with the challenges of narrative structure and character development. The formula I offer, by no means unique, is a hybrid mechanism that appears to have worked for both poor and prosperous countries. It is a path towards celebrating national cinema rather than trying to emulate or compete with the might of Hollywood and its impenetrable distribution matrix.

While M-Net’s New Directors Series has diverted potential criticism about the responsibility of private corporations in nurturing young talent and developing the industry, the critical mass needed to develop a vibrant South African cinema demands that the national broadcaster come on board as well. We need to develop a platform that allows young and seasoned writers and film-makers the space to practice and exhibit their craft.

So what is it about the short film that makes it a lucrative and compelling format?

Briefly, it forces film practitioners in any of their specialised disciplines (writing, directing, camera, editing etc) to develop professional skills. Even in the case of student films, the drive to achieve an outcome with exhibition possibilities at festivals and on television facilitates a competitive product which elicits a steeper learning curve.

The best short films offer a condensed narrative, making it a manageable format for emerging film-makers. It is also the most economically viable format for seasoned practitioners (such as music video directors who want to make films) to use as a calling card for more ambitious projects. Shorts, often due to time and budgetary constraints, encourage experimentation with the medium. Innovations enable new conventions that can distinguish national cinemas from one another. Here I have in mind German Expressionism (films made in Germany between 1919-1930 and their influence on cinematic composition and lighting) or the impact of the French New Wave in securing new storytelling techniques and positioning the film-maker (auteur) as a social and political commentator.

Short films give producers an opportunity to take a chance on rookies. With the growing accessibility of digital formats and their economic viability, film-makers need to be encouraged to use new mediums to hone their skills. In this respect Promised Land, as a feature, offered an encouraging intervention to the snobbery of celluloid and successfully proved that cost effective production decisions can promote beautiful cinema. Moreover, the look of the film inspired a visual impression of Afrikaner Gothic, rendering a unique representation in this niche of South African national culture and cinema.

As a result of the budgetary possibilities and owing to the short format, the medium stimulates greater accessibility for aspiring film-makers of varied economic and social backgrounds. Hence the diversity and the scope of products on offer present greater opportunities for producers to identify talented film-makers who can be nurtured as feature length film makers.

The Sundance Film Festival, now in its twenty-second year, started off as a short film platform aimed at promoting innovative film practices that challenged mainstream Hollywood conventions. While I will reserve a critique of the canonisation of the Sundance Institute and the Festival,
there are a number of useful strategies to be learnt from Sundance that have facilitated the feature film careers of emerging film-makers. Moreover, its mentoring program has targeted women and minority groups particularly (in a South African context this would translate to historically disadvantaged groups).

This is where the value of a festival cannot be overstated. It is one thing for the NFVF or M-Net to encourage and create a forum for short film production, but a competitive context is vital for stimulating quality productions and enabling democratic participation. By democratic participation, I mean opening up a space where South African film-makers and producers can celebrate locally produced, indigenous narratives. Sithengi offers a space for trade – it is not a local film festival.

A film festival in South Africa might mirror the Sundance model, where film-makers make a desperate dash to meet deadlines in the hopes of being ‘discovered’ through their short. Winners in different categories at Sundance are taken through a year-long mentorship program and given the technical and economic support to realise feature length films. As the number of shorts grows, so does the potential for feature length films. The festival also offers an infrastructure through national broadcasters who are able to secure an exhibition platform (as they have in France and with the BBC in the U.K.).

If we step back from the allure of Hollywood as we see it today and recognise how France the past giant of cinema was toppled by America in a slow and systemic process, then perhaps we in South Africa will be less impatient.

For producers across the world, film festivals are a vibrant market for new talent, for gauging the concerns and aspirations of disparate communities across the globe, and for showcasing unique stories told in original ways. When we recognise that we have the potential to create an exciting and interesting national cinema defined in its own cinematic language, then we are on our way to creating a cinema that is authentically South African.

So, we will make movies.

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