By Julian Ross (International Film Festival Rotterdam), Sungho Park (Cambodian International Film Festival, Busan International Film Festival) and Fransiska Prihadi (Minikino) for the Objectifs Short Film Forum 2021
The Short Film Forum, part of the Objectifs Short Film Incubator 2021, saw film-makers and film-lovers from all over Southeast Asia tune in to a packed weekend of free online lectures and panel discussions by international industry experts. Read on for a recap of the first session and stay tuned for subsequent recaps on our Journal.
What do film programmers look for in a short film, and how can filmmakers and aspiring film programmers make the best of film festivals? Julian Ross (International Film Festival Rotterdam), Sungho Park (Cambodian International Film Festival, Busan International Film Festival) and Fransiska Prihadi (Minikino) shared their thoughts on the changing climate for short films and how filmmakers can challenge themselves. This talk was moderated by Leong Puiyee, Senior Programme Manager, Objectifs.
Julian: I have worked for the International Film Festival Rotterdam for 5 years. Along with Sundance, we see ourselves as setting the tone for the year to come with the films we present to the public and film professionals. The festival takes place in January every year and has just celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Since the very beginning, short films have been one of the central parts of the festival. What makes our programme unique is the emphasis on artists’ moving image, that is, films that are short, and exist primarily in the museum or gallery space. We invite artists and filmmakers to our festival with the idea of showing their work on the big screen, with an audience that will watch it from beginning to end, with good sound and an opportunity to meet the audience after that. This is something that is not as easy to do in the gallery or museum space, because the work is usually played on loop throughout the day.
We show films that are anything from a minute long to 16 hours long, and we embrace all forms of the moving image. The industry says that a feature film of less than 2 hours long is the preferred format for theatrical release, but we don’t think that it’s our job to follow those standards. In fact, we see it as our responsibility to offer space for filmmakers and artists who want to explore making films of other durations.
Fransiska: Minikino is a short film festival based in Bali, Indonesia. We have several events throughout the year, including Mini Kino monthly screenings and discussions that have run since 2003. We also do workshops and other educational progammes. Minikino Film Week: Bali International Short Film Festival is an annual short film festival that started in 2015. In 2020, we screened an official selection of short films as well as a national showcase, Indonesia Raja, an annual short film exchange programme between cities in Indonesia, and S-Express, which inspired our national short film exchange progamme.
We also collaborate with other festivals or organisations each year to screen a guest programme. This year, we will have guest programmes from Indocs, Seoul International Extreme-Short Image & Film Festival, Image Forum Festival, Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival and Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival.
Last year, Minikino Film Week screened 273 short films, 17% of which were Indonesian films. Besides micro cinema and pop up cinema screenings that ran over eight days all around Bali, people can also participate in non screening events, which last year was held in hybrid mode with speakers and participants joining onsite and online. From the way things are going, it looks like we’re going to have hybrid non-screening events again this year.
The festival does not use commercial cinemas for its screenings, because we want to bring cinema to the people. There are few cinemas, and a ticket costs 5 to 7 Singapore dollars. You should not be surprised if you get no as an answer, if you ask anyone randomly in Kuta or Denpasar if they go to cinema regularly, or even ever.
Therefore Minikino Film Week is dedicated to the people. More than 90% of our audience speaks Indonesian, and so we produce Indonesian language subtitles for all the films screened during the festival. Our programmes are typically family-friendly. When we have enough resources, we dub the films in Balinese language. The festival also gives out awards in several categories for both the international official selections and the Indonesian films.
Besides the local audience, the film festival also welcomes important people in the short film circuit. It’s a chance for networking. I cannot wait for borders to be open again, and we can connect people around the world with the local audience and filmmakers.
Sungho: I’d like to start by sharing about the Cambodian International Film Festival, which is a lovely Film Festival in Phmon Penh, Cambodia. It’s very relaxed and small, with a cosy atmosphere. On the other side of the spectrum, I also work for the Busan International Film Festival, which is a really big event. I have 4 other colleagues who are involved in the short film selection, so we sometimes have arguments over which films to include.
Busan takes place in Korea every October and it is 26 years old. We typically invite about 300 films, but last year, we selected about 200 films because of the pandemic. We usually invite about 10 Asian short films and 10 Korean short films for the competition section, so it’s very competitive. All the films in competition must be a world premiere, which means their first public screening must be at the festival. I think that many short filmmakers are choosing to release their films on youtube or other internet platforms, or they might just submit their films to any film festival. It’s of course ok to do so, but when you are planning for film distribution, you need to have a strategy. So please submit to the best film festivals first. Before you are sure that you have been rejected by all the A-list film festivals, please don’t accept invitations from smaller festivals, because once your film is screened in a smaller film festival, it is very unlikely that it will be invited to a larger festival.
What do each of you look for in a short film?
Julian: We often see filmmakers use short films as a kind of calling card to attract producers and possibly funding for a feature film. I totally understand the need for that. But we are eager to see works that understand the short film format for what it is, and excel at making the most of it. The other thing we look out for are films that are exploring and rethinking the cinematic language in ways that are harder to do with feature filmmaking, which might have stronger ties to the industry. We believe that short films allow for filmmakers to play with the form. So we don’t want to see a regurgitation of known formats or narrative formats that we often see in feature films, we want to see films that really explore and challenge what we’re used to seeing in cinema.
Sungho: I want to tell my fellow filmmakers to not try so hard to make the perfect short film, but please try to have a concrete principle behind your films. It’s not really about production value, because many Asian films are made with a very low budget. But even then there are films where you can sense that the filmmakers have used whatever resources they have to polish their work. So it is this potential that I am looking for, rather than something that is very fancy or has many technical elements.
Fransiska: I am also looking for sincerity. Don’t try to be something that you are not, your story will deliver itself. I’d also like to emphasise that you should be careful about what film festivals you submit your work to.
Puiyee: What is your process when programming short films? How do you put together a programme that can excite or challenge the audience?
Fransiska: For Minikino, we start with the intention of providing a very accessible experience for the audience. We divide the programme into sections, where documentary, animation, fiction and experimental films can be paired differently. We want to have a very friendly programme so that the audience can learn how to enjoy short films.
Julian: We programme for the filmmakers first and foremost. We want to present the films in a way where they resonate with each other, but not too much, so that you’re not watching the same kind of film over and over again, and they don’t interfere with each other. So perhaps they are engaging with similar themes, but not too much because we don’t want the issue to become the centre of the programme, rather than the films themselves. In general, we try to set the stage where the films can excel individually.
Sungho: I’ll say a little bit about the audience. I would like other young filmmakers or short filmmakers to watch the short film programme in festivals, because it’s a better way for them to get a sense of the kind of films that are invited to film festivals. Sometimes financiers or producers watch the short film selection so they can search for directors to work with in the future. That’s one of the best things a film festival can offer.
Puiyee: Could each of you explain in greater detail how you go about narrowing the film selection to the final programme?
Sungho: There is no absolute principle behind our programming. Fundamentally, we are supporting the filmmakers through this big exhibition event which is an important part of the film industry. So we try to present something that is worth watching. Sometimes I like the idea of inviting films from as many countries as possible, but other times that might not be so. For example, there are thousands of entries from countries like China, India and Iran, and some of them are very good. But we can only invite 1 or 2 films from those countries because we want to leave room for others. On the other hand, we might get a film that is not as good from another country, but is the best film out of all the recent films from there, and so we need to decide if we want to invite that film. Those are the kind of conversations that I have with my colleagues all the time, which can be very time consuming, but are also satisfying.
Julian: There are about 10 people working on the short film programme, and we usually show between 150 to 200 short films. Four of us work on the narrative short film section, and 6 of us work on the competition section and programme that focused on artist films. We work year round, but the most intensive period is between September to November, because the festival is in January and the programme is announced in December. Throughout the year, we visit museums, galleries and events like film school screenings to spot films that we might want to present at the festival. The competition focuses on world and international premieres only, but for the rest of the programme, the only requirement is that the film is presented for the first time in the Netherlands, which gives us a lot of flexibility in programming. Each of us have different areas of responsibility, and I’m responsible for viewing submissions and researching artist films from Asia, the UK and Portugal.
If I’m intrigued by a film, I share it with a colleague, and if they also agree that it might be suitable, we watch it together in a viewing session. We have several viewing sessions during the year. In November, we go to an island in the Netherlands for a week, where we live together, watch films and have discussions. We select the films for their individual qualities and we shape the programme together.
Fransiska: Minikino has a pre-selection team of 7. We have weekly meetings for 4 months from the start of submissions. During the meetings, the pre-selection team will discuss the film selection. There are sometimes heated debates, but the nice part about these meetings is that everyone has different points of view depending on their background. If I could give one tip, it would be to submit your film early. It’s usually cheaper if there is a submission fee, and it’s more likely that we will watch the whole film. Also, knowing someone in the film festival does not guarantee that your film will get in. Your film needs to stand on its own.
Puiyee: What do you think is the place of short films in the current climate and what is the direction for short film cinema?
Julian: I think that short films are increasingly finding a space in more mainstream programmes. There are more and more short films on platforms like Netflix and Mubi. I hear from colleagues in those organisations that short films get a lot of views. I think that this is because people are finding it more difficult to dedicate time to a feature film, and the short film perhaps offers a break from their busy lives. I hope that short films will find more relevance with the film industry. For me, it remains the place where I find the most exciting forms of cinema, where I feel really challenged. It’s where different types of filmmaking are being explored without the constraints of the industry and the economy.
A lot of time and attention goes to feature films, but I think that the right audiences, journalists and professionals are not just looking at feature films but in other places, because they want to be the first ones to discover talent. Often, you don’t find that in the main competition, but perhaps more in the short film section of a major festival or a short film festival. If you are a filmmaker, you shouldn’t just see feature filmmaking as the end goal, but really dedicate yourself to the art of making short films. I think that will give you more chances to present at festivals and reach audiences.
Sungho: Short films are mostly funded by the filmmakers themselves and I see much more diversity and freedom. Someone asked how a film festival can be a stepping stone for new filmmakers. Finding a good audience is of course a great experience, but there are also a lot of support systems that you can access during the festival. Whether you are invited to the festival or not, it’s a chance to look around and learn about the system of filmmaking and how you might make a feature film or more short films, because there are many decision makers and opinion leaders there.
Fransiska : I think that it’s still important to be connected with film festivals if you are thinking of building a career and expanding your network. You should also choose good, reliable film festivals.
Momo Films invited me earlier this year to be part of the selection panel for their distribution grant and it was heartbreaking for me to learn that many Southeast Asian filmmakers don’t know enough or do enough research into the different film festivals around the world. I think that there is a lot more that film festivals can do to help educate filmmakers about this.
Audience: Do you go through the profile or portfolio of a filmmaker before watching their film?
Fransiska: We don’t look at the filmmaker when we consider a film at all. However, if we have screened a filmmaker’s work before, we do sometimes track their work. But at the end of the day, what matters most is the film.
Sungho: I don’t look at promotional materials before or even after watching a film. But sometimes films show at the start what other festivals they have screened at, like Cannes for example. This is sometimes great for a festival like Cambodian Film Festival, but unfortunately it automatically disqualifies it for Busan. So it can be a good idea to include information like that at the start of the film. It will open some doors but also close others.
Fransiska: Sometimes when we are trying to decide between 2 films of equal merit, we may select the film that has not travelled as much so that the other filmmaker can receive some exposure for their good work.
Julian: It’s good if the rest of the promotional material is clear. We won’t read a 3 page-long biography, but one paragraph is fine.
Audience: How do I start a career in programming for a film festival?
Julian: I think that short films are a really good place to start. Say you have never programmed film, but you’d like to organise a film series of Tarkovky’s work. It’s a lot to ask of a cinema, and they are probably going to say no. But as an emerging freelance film programmer, you could approach a film theatre or festival to propose a programme of short films, which might be more acceptable. The other thing is that you can express your curatorial vision more clearly in a short film programme, than a feature film screening. By that I mean, you can show how you want to present films alongside each other, what kind of themes you want to bring out, your ability to show a balance between new upcoming filmmakers and more established ones, films from all over the world or different kinds of films. You’ll also be able to get in touch with more filmmakers and producers than just by showing one film.
Fransiska: I think it’s also important to start your career with a good work ethic. This means getting the trust and consent of filmmakers to be part of your programme, and working with people to exhibit the work. This is a way of building your reputation, from word of mouth recommendations from filmmakers who say they trust you with their films. Then get in touch with local film festivals.
Sungho: What was helpful for me was that I attended film festivals for many years as a member of the audience, and this led to me working for the festival. It will also help if you know some basic film theory and do research on films.
Audience: How important is the director’s statement?
Julian: I think it’s very important. When we’re watching a lot of films one after the other, we sometimes don’t pick up on everything. So when I want to know a little more about the film, the director’s statement really helps emphasize things that might help with my reflection about the film. So I think that the director’s statement is the most important of all the things that you submit alongside the film, because it’s the only one I read. I don’t read the rest because it’s not necessary for my understanding of the film.
Fransiska: The director’s statement can give me a better understanding of the context, especially with international films where I might not be so familiar with their stories. However, sometimes a director’s statement promises too much, and that can weaken the film. So you really need to be careful and sincere.
Audience: What are some of the things that you see in a submission that will make you reject it immediately?
Julian: I’m careful not to immediately reject short films because they are already short, and it makes sense to watch the whole thing. But there are certain trends that we see over and over again in filmmaking, so if your film ticks all those boxes, then it will be hard for us to show your film in the festival. I think that at festivals that also show feature films, people watch the short film programme to see new ways of storytelling. So really commit to trying to tell your story in the most sincere way, and in ways that make sense to your own story.
Audience: How has moving film festivals online affected your audience? Do you think the online festival format will stay post-pandemic?
Julian: I think that the opportunities offered by the online format will change film festivals for time to come. But our hope is that it doesn’t change too much. In-person encounters are really what make the festivals what they are. It’s not just about professional opportunities. I really didn’t have that experience attending festivals online, including my own. We tried ways to create those encounters where people could meet each other and talk online, but it really isn’t the same as an in-person encounter.
If you’re starting in filmmaking or film programming, I would encourage you to attend festivals and check out initiatives the festivals have. For example, we have the Rotterdam lab for producers and a programme for young film critics, where we at least partially cover accommodation and travel costs, as well as providing accreditation so you can watch the films. This was something I did early in my career, and it was an enriching experience, to watch films, to understand how film festivals work, but also just to have that opportunity to randomly encounter somebody. Some people that I met in my first film festival remain my colleagues to this day. For us who work at film festivals, I think part of our job is to create that kind of opportunity for encounter. I’m committed to creating that space and I hope we are able to do so, pandemic pending.
Going online does offer the opportunity to reach audiences who might not be comfortable visiting the festival in its usual format. Online events also enable things like closed captioning and audio description, so that people who are differently abled, who are hard of hearing or have issues with their vision can experience films and be part of the festival. I hope we can do that at our festival in the coming years if we remain online.
Fransiska: Things like closed captioning and audio description really help bring the cinema experience to differently abled people. I think that film festivals would like to go back to being in-person, but going online does open up a lot of possibilities. I think that a lot of film festivals would like to do both in-person and online events, especially the bigger film festivals that can afford it.
For Minikino Week, we didn’t go online because half or even more of our audience have not had the chance to watch films on the big screen. We want to stick to our vision of bringing the cinema experience to the audience. As for the talks, the forum and other events, we would like to keep some online.