An Inside Look at the Shorts of All Sorts Film Festival


Developmentally Edited by Alexandra Hidalgo
Copy Edited and Posted by Megan Elias

The 5th annual Shorts of All Sorts, hosted and curated by filmmakers Jennifer Dean and Eric Rice, took place at Crystal Lake in Brooklyn, NY on Monday, September 2, 2019. Inspired by the Directed by Women Worldwide Viewing Party, which Barbara Ann O’Leary initiated five years ago, Shorts of All Sorts presents thought-provoking films #DirectedByWomen from all over the world as well as by NYC locals. Many of the filmmakers were in attendance for post-screening Q&As. During post-event socializing at the venue, the audience also had the opportunity to meet the filmmakers and discuss their films with them. 

On what was a somewhat soggy Labor Day, rather than going to a barbeque, I headed out to Williamsburg for the festival. What I knew in advance was that there was going to be two different programs of short films, that all of the films would be directed by women, and that many of the filmmakers as well as other people involved in the creation of the works would be in attendance. What I did not know was that Jennifer and Eric had selected films that were not only directed by women, but also significantly evoked what is often referred to as “the female gaze,” which I prefer to characterize in the context of the Shorts of All Sorts program in a less academically-oriented term as a woman’s perspective.[1]

Festival Organizers Eric Rice and Jennifer Dean

The films focused on the cultural expectations and pressures women find themselves entangled in, featured supportive relationships between women as well as thematic concerns with issues such as reproductive rights, sexual awakening, sexual violence, and the impact of gun violence in schools on children. However, at no point did I feel that these films had been made with any intention of being only for women. To the contrary, a distinctive aspect of all the films which were screened in the festival was their broad appeal as evidenced by the audience’s enthusiastic reception of them.  

Not only did the films do an excellent job of articulating their filmmaker’s visions and voices, almost all the films were centered on female protagonists. Yet in each and every one it was discernibly clear that the filmmakers’ primary drive was to make the best and most interesting film they could, given the resources they had access to and the extent of their filmmaking experience. I think this is best exemplified by a filmmaker’s response to a question about the casting of “The Escape,” whose two protagonists were originally written as a man and a woman. Immediately before shooting began, the lead male actor got too ill to do the role. The film’s director, Tash Ann, said that they quickly re-audtioned actors for the part and their overwhelming first choice was a woman — so she decided to recast the protagonists as two women. To her surprise, the change did not entail a major script rewrite despite the fact that the film’s two protagonists are involved in a sexual relationship.

I asked Jennifer and Eric how many entries they had received this year via FilmFreeway. Their answer was 245, which was up from the 192 they had received the year prior. In the years before they started charging a submission fee (which they began to do in 2018) they had considerably more submissions but many of those didn’t fit their criteria that the films had to be directed by a woman and had to be 10 minutes or less in order to be considered. Jennifer and Eric watched every film submitted in its entirety and then spent a good deal of time talking about each entry over the course of the selection process. They did not go into the selection with a predetermined thematic framework in mind. It’s wonderful and it’s evident that Jennifer and Eric utilise such a fair-minded set of criteria and selection process, eschewing the use of a list of boxes to be checked off. The tone of each year’s program arises from happenstance rather than a predetermined agenda. Their aim is to show the highest quality films that will create a cohesive event when shown together in one evening.

A night dedicated to films #DirectedByWomen is sure to make everyone smile

 

Jennifer and Eric’s decision to embark on the creation of the Shorts of All Sorts program in 2015 was sparked by Barbara Ann O’Leary’s call-out to film lovers around the world to engage with her #DirectedByWomen campaign and to participate in it by organizing screenings that would exclusively feature works created by women filmmakers. [2] They had met Barbara online through their shared passion for films helmed by women. It was a time when new and older grassroots organizations that advocate for women were once again pressuring the film and television industry to end the discriminatory practices that keep women from advancing their careers and/or result in them leaving the field entirely. It was at this moment that Jennifer began her M.A. in Liberal Arts with a Film Studies emphasis at the CUNY Graduate Center. She immersed herself in the study of the women who had been prominent in the early decades of Hollywood cinema and she began The 2nd Sex & the 7th Art: Women Directors in Film, her feature documentary project, which investigates the works, history and advocacy of women in the U.S. film industry from 1896 to the present. [3]

Coincidentally, this was exactly when Eric began working on a 365-day campaign #shecandowhatyoucando to celebrate and bring attention to women filmmakers from all over the world on Twitter.[4] He set a goal for himself of watching one film directed by a woman each day. After watching, he tweeted about it under his handle @riceunderwater. 

It was during that same year, with the help of their longtime artistic cohort Leah Abrams, the Executive Director of Undiscovered Works, [5] Jennifer and Eric decided to organize their first evening of short films directed by women which they presented at Ryan’s Daughter on NYC’s Upper East Side. They held the program there for three consecutive years. In 2018, they moved the program to Videology, a screening room in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They were delighted that a full house of cinema lovers thoroughly enjoyed the presentation of an hour and a half of short films from all over the world and were engaged by a stimulating post-screening Q&A with the many filmmakers present. For the program’s fifth year, it moved once again to Crystal Lake, a venue also in Williamsburg. For the 2019 edition, Jennifer and Eric expanded the program to two distinct blocks, each with a different set of films.

A cheeky photo op with the festival booklet

From the audience at Videology, Jennifer and Eric had gotten feedback that an hour and a half of short films at one go felt too long to digest. Based on that reaction, they decided to split up the programming into two blocks — a move that fortuitously allowed them to accept more films for their 2019 event. With eleven films in the first block and another twelve films in the second block, they were able to present a whopping total of twenty-three films!  Each block ran just over an hour, and was followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers as well as other people involved in the creation of the works who were attending the event. It’s not always easy to watch one short film after another — you sometimes find yourself lost or overwhelmed in the visual equivalent of a buffet spread. Jennifer and Eric artfully overcame that issue with a selection of films that were each compelling in their own way as well as representative of an extensive array of genres and cinematic styles — including animation, dance on camera, dramatic narrative, essay, experimental and romcom — that the filmmakers mixed together in unusual and intriguing combinations. It was apparent that Jennifer and Eric had taken a great deal of care when they organized the order of each film block so that the transition from one film to another would be as smooth as possible.

Jennifer and Eric told me that many of this year’s submissions dealt with current “hot button” issues such as sexual assault, gun violence, and reproductive rights with the result that those topics were prominently featured in both blocks of programming. They received quite a few submissions whose protagonists were in lesbian relationships, but those relationships were not issue-oriented in the sense that the plot in no way addressed sexuality as more than a character trait. Although they did not preclude male protagonists as one of the submission criteria, the vast majority of the films submitted to them had female protagonists. When a particular subject came up numerous times in different films, they took notice and definitely felt that that issue should be represented in the program. As the title of the festival indicates, their goal is to assemble an eclectic group of films that explore a variety of genres and styles. Their openness to a wide-range of filmmaking approaches was apparent in this year’s delightfully diversified edition. 

Quite a few of the filmmakers utilized animation techniques to bring their stories to life. With stop-motion and a rich, vibrant color palette, Min Ding’s Fox Spirit fashioned a charming albeit chilling update to one of Qing dynasty writer Pu Songling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (Liaozhai zhiyi). Deb Ethier used stop-motion puppets to bring The Seamless Cup Society cast of characters to life in her wickedly witty mockumentary about Menopausology. In For While Jesse Irish animated the sketches she drew of the people who transverse NYC on its subways, presenting us with evocative glimpses into their quotidian experience as well as resonating with Whitman’s and Lazarus’s poetic visions of a city that embraces diversity. Claire Tankersley’s animated drawings hauntingly illustrated her A Letter to Myself at 16. The exquisite graphics created by Kelly Mann, Skye Tati and their team gave us a tantalizing glimpse into the fantastical world of New Devonia.   

There were filmmakers whose cinematic explorations of a hidden cultural treasures revitalized a community’s past. Alyssa Shea’s Moody took us into the relatively unknown story of Lady Deborah Moody, founder of Gravesend, Brooklyn, originator of New York City’s grid plan, and the only woman to start a village in Colonial America. Tânia Prates created When The Light Goes Out (Quando A Luz Se Apaga) with photos from the Fotocine Fund collection in the Municipal Museum of Coruche in order to capture the reality of the mid-twentieth century in the Ribatejo region of Portugal. 

There were captivating portrayals of real and fictional women. Erica Mann chronicled Ghanaian-American DJ Gabrielle Kwarteng’s State of Independence as her travels and sojourns in NYC, Ghana, Paris, and London in order to establish herself as a music curator to be reckoned with. Gentle and loving, Juanita Umaña’s Mujer En Día was literally a handwritten diary. Dia Jenet’s Over/Under plunged us into a surreal adventure.

Some of the filmmakers took advantage of traditional genres, turning them inside out with marvelously hilarious results. The topsy-turvy situations induced peals of laughter from the audience during Laurel Cummings’s Good Egg — where the wonders of contemporary reproductive technology produce surprising results, Erica Orofino’s Tampon — a perfectly natural bodily function clashes with imperfect romantic expectations; and Tash Ann’s The Escape — in the immortal words of Gilbert & Sullivan:Things are seldom what they seem.”

Reading the festival program full of amazing films!

 

A forthright approach to documentary aptly served the subject matter of Nicola Macindoe’s The Art of Doodling an examination of the universal activity that is doodling in which three artists answer the question: “Is it just scribbles or is it art?,” and Leslie D. Lanier’s Film Femme was an ardent call to shatter the glass ceiling. 

Dance on camera provided several filmmakers with a way to confront some of the most pressing issues of our times such as gun violence and sexual abuse. Poignant examples were Reena Dutt’s Too Many Bodies, Stephanie Patrick’s They Go Wild, and Ariel Loewenthal’s 8 Minutes. Narrative fictions tinged with psychological mystery resulted in compelling dramas devised by Stephanie Cheng (Leotard), Tara Gadomski (Signs of Aging), Naomi Chainey (Gaslit), Sarah Grant (Scare), and Cecelia Condit (We Were Hardly More Than Children).  

I asked Jennifer and Eric if they thought I was correct in my impression that the majority of the people involved in each film’s production might be women. Eric ventured to create a set of estimated percentages for me: 95.7% women writers, 69.6% women producers, 56.5% women editors, 47.8% women cinematographers and 69.6% women protagonists or lead subject. He estimated the percentages based on the availability of information from the films’ credits, further constrained by factors such as a production company being involved as opposed to an individual producer; and/or multiple personnel, both women and men, being involved in the specific job. Even though these percentages are from a limited data set, I found it encouraging that they are strikingly higher than current industry numbers — which to me is an indication that if you seek out films directed by women you will find that there are numerous women involved in all aspects of filmmaking. It’s also heartening to me that women are supporting each other in their desire to have a career in the film business.  

I was impressed with the overall quality of the work that was screened as well as by the sense of a “zeitgeist” that emerged from watching both programs — that women have so many important things to share with us in the medium of cinema when they have the opportunity to do so. It was an evening filled with compelling, moving, witty, and persuasive cinematic statements about aging, sexual abuse, sexism, violence, and climate peril, as well as community, family, and cultural heritage. There was a very positive vibe in the room after each block’s screening. Jennifer started off the QA at the end of each block with a specific question for each filmmaker present. [6] A lively conversation ensued on a diverse set of topics including the challenges faced when directing actors in difficult scenes in addition to the challenges of creating soundscapes, integrating poetic narration and commentary as well as utilizing 16mm film. 

With 23 films featured, there was something for everyone at Shorts of All Sorts

 

When Jennifer asked for questions from the audience, attendees were interested in knowing how the filmmakers got started as well as how they accomplished getting their works made and how they solved the hurdles they encountered. The filmmakers in turn encouraged those in the audience who were considering whether they should begin making their own films to jump in and do it. They extolled the virtue of doing lots of advance planning, but most of all to make a film about an idea or a story that you deeply cared about and to be prepared to be as open, and honest as possible with yourself and the people you work with. From the emotions that surged from the screen and the energy in the room, I’m certain the filmmakers whose works screened had followed their own advice. 

Jennifer and Eric told me that every year they are amazed by all the talented women working in film all over the world. Their goal is to keep expanding Shorts of All Sorts with more programs in more locations that will allow them to share the incredible work that women are creating in the independent film arena.

As we watch and experience the intricacies of the issues surrounding representation and its lack thereof as well as of sexism and racism unfold in our daily lives, I firmly believe that #nowmorethanever it is vital that we help create opportunities for women to make their stories into films and to have those films seen. In her welcome to the audience, Jennifer spoke about how Ava DuVernay has managed to influence the mainstream entertainment industry with her distribution company ARRAY by not only promoting her own work but also ensuring the stories of others who have not traditionally found an outlet have a means of infiltrating the larger scale film culture. Jennifer said that if we explore “new ways of reaching an audience, change is possible.” Let us all “make it so” by making it our business to watch films #DirectedByWomen not only in September but all year round and to create opportunities as well as take advantage of the ones that already exist for women to make work and develop their careers. 

Kudos to all of the filmmakers who submitted their works to the 2019 Shorts of All Sorts for their bravery and determination. My heartfelt congratulations to Jennifer and Eric whose thorough understanding of filmmaking and event production made for a spectacular evening. A special thank you to Barbara Ann O’Leary for her resoluteness to bring attention to films #DirectedByWomen. A personal note of appreciation for two forthright women in the industry whose tenacity, and fortitude have been an inspiration to me: Rachel Talalay and Agnès Varda.  

For complete 2019 Shorts of All Sorts program information, take a look at their website. Learn more about Irene by visiting her profile.

Footnotes & Resources

 [1] I am reluctant to use the term “female gaze” because there is such a variety of opinions as to what the term means as well as because of the many concerns that have been raised regarding the term’s overtones of ‘white middle class’ exclusivity. My reluctance is best expressed by Tori Tefler, who wrote in her discussion of Film at Lincoln Center’s “The Female Gaze,” a survey of 36 films made with female cinematographers: “What is the female gaze, then? It’s emotional and intimate. It sees people as people. It seeks to empathize rather than to objectify. (Or not.) It’s respectful, it’s technical, it hasn’t had a chance to develop, it tells the truth, it involves physical work, it’s feminine and unashamed, it’s part of an old-fashioned gender binary, it should be studied and developed, it should be destroyed, it will save us, it will hold us back. The female cinematographers involved in the project have as many opinions on the female gaze and its helpfulness (or lack thereof) as you might expect from a group of talented, thoughtful, highly trained people who are more than just ‘female cinematographers.’ | How Do We Define the Female Gaze in 2018? — Tori Tefler in Vulture Aug 2, 2018 return

[2] For more information about Barbara Ann O’Leary’s #DirectedByWomen initiatives including the annual World Wide Viewing Party in September, the Crucial 21st Century Cinema #DirectedbyWomen—a communal blogging initiative #Crucial21DbW, and the global directory of women directors visit #DirectedbyWomen’s website.  return

[3] Submission fee waivers were given upon request to filmmakers whose works had screened in previous “Shorts of All Sorts” as well as to filmmakers from Iran who reached out to explaining that they are affected by U.S. government sanctions. Jennifer Dean and Eric Rice are continuing to gather information and interview women directors for their documentary project — “The 2nd Sex & the 7th Art: Women Directors in Film.” Discover the scope of their project: The2ndSexandthe7thArt.com return

[4] Results of Eric Rice’s #shecandowhatyoucando campaign, with links to many of the works, can be found on his website.  return

[5] Undiscovered Works — a monthly storytelling series featuring artists of every variety including playwrights, filmmakers, actors, monologists, musicians, and comedians. Founded by Leah Abrams to encourage foster dialogue as well as to raise awareness and funds for the local non-profit organizations who keep our communities thriving. Find out what it’s all about and what’s happening on their website.  return

[6]  More than twenty people who were involved in the creation of the films that screened in this year’s festival attended the event. In Person for Block One: Tara Gadomski ( Director/Writer), Penny Middleton (Producer/Production Designer), David C. Valdez (Editor), Liza Gipsova (DOP), Antu Yacob (Cast Member) from Signs of Aging; Erica Mann (Director/Producer), Jessica Palenzuela (Editor) from State of Independence; Juanita Umaña (Director/Writer/Co-Editor), Troy Thomason (Co-Editor) from Mujer en Día; Dia Jenet (Director/Writer) from Over/Under; Laurel Bacon Cummings (Director). Kathryn Dines (Co-Writer Story & Screenplay/Co-Producer/Cast), Eiseley Kotchoubey (Co-Writer Screenplay Co-Producer) from Good Egg; Alyssa Shea (Director) from Moody |In Person for Block Two: Claire Tankersley (Director/Writer/Producer) from A Letter to Myself at 16; Tash Ann (Director) from The Escape; Stephanie Cheng (Director/Writer), Tony Yang (Producer) from Leotard; Stephanie Patrick (Director) from They go Wild; Ariel Loewenthal (Director); Adrienne Civetti (DOP) from 8 Minutes; Jess Irish (Director/Writer/Animator) from For While. return