Film: Short changed

How does the British Short Film Festival survive when audiences, producers, and even film-makers prefer features? Charlotte O'Sullivan talks to festival organiser Amanda Casson
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The Independent Culture
Basically he became very violent," says Katherine Campbell, "and I was beat up several times, under Huey's direct hand or by his directors." "Huey" is Huey P Newton. Campbell is a woman who joined the Black Panthers as a ferociously idealistic young girl. In Sienna McLean's documentary Still Revolutionaries - one of 380 films which will be shown as part of the British Short Film Festival - Campbell and a fellow ex-party member detail the implosion of a movement they believe in to this day. It is a short, sharp and shocking history lesson. And it lasts all of 16 minutes.

Sadly, few people will see this film. Like short men, short films have to fight to be taken seriously (and do not always succeed). Amanda Casson, who has been running the festival for 10 years, is used to this. "There's no outlet," she fumes, as I drag her from her cassette-crammed office for a quick chat. "Short films aren't seen as an art form in themselves. Miramax pick up a short film and run it before a feature, but it's once every three years and inevitably it'll be a film with stars in it." Soon- to-be-released Desserts, starring Ewan McGregor, is a case in point.

The general public is no better. Mostly, says Casson, they are drawn by major names - Scorsese shorts say, or commercials by Bergman. In 1995 Casson had a whole section devoted to the short films of Hollywood's big shots. It was a sell out.

What of the festival's other, more specialist punters? By Casson's own admission, the rest of the festival's attendees tend to be members of the industry (travelling incognito) or young, wannabe film-makers (waiting to be approached). In other words, their eyes are on the feature-film prize, because that is where the prestige and money lie.

Helena Appio - whose Portrait of Mr Pink, a wonderfully tender, 15 minute study of an old, lonely Jamaican man, can be seen in this year's festival - says it is not like that for everyone. She usually works on documentaries of 50 minutes, but chose to pursue this project because "I'm not interested in making loads of money and I love getting into a little world". She agrees, however, that most of her film-maker friends are a bit snooty about the genre and "want to do the long thing".

So are short films a lost cause? Jeremy Howe is the series producer of BBC2's 10x10 and The Talent at the British Short Film Festival, a one- off programme that will feature "four of the best" films. He allows that TV heads like Michael Jackson "are not going to build their evenings around short films", because "great swathes of short films are wearing". But he also feels these mini-flicks offer unique opportunities. "It's like the difference between a lyric poem and an epic one." He warms to his theme. "Some people, like Chris Newby for example, make features that are far less exciting than their shorts. Another thing to remember about shorts is audiences are often prepared to take greater risks - you can push them further because they know it's going to take up little of their time."

As with Rowe, Casson's job is to select the good ones from the dross. No easy matter, as Casson will tell you. Of the 5,000 entries which she perused over weekends and evenings ("I have no life," she admits cheerfully), most were "deeply, deeply bad - out of focus when they are not supposed to be or so self-indulgent it's untrue". Originality was somewhat lacking, too. "They all want to do Reservoir Dogs in the docklands," she says with a deep sigh. "It's a very easy genre to copy - all you need are four rough- looking chaps."

On top of that, she has market-led sponsors (including Metro Goldwyn Mayer, American Airlines and Champagne Gosset) to contend with. "They're never interested in the stuff I like," she mutters. "There's a wonderful, harrowing film this year called Extension 55 about disabled children in Poland." The sponsors choose the various prizes. Casson sniffs: "So it's bound not to get anything."

That said, Casson is a woman prepared to compromise with the mainstream. She is delighted, for instance, with the commercial success of many of her young finds. "Jamie Thraves," she confides, "was picked up by John Stewart of Oil Factory Films - he's the brother of [Eurhythmic] Dave Stewart, which is another connection because, of course, Dave Stewart makes a lot of short films." Ye gods, the heart sinks. "Anyway, Jamie's very famous. He did a Holsten Pils adverts!" Another favourite, South Africa's Koto Bolofo, is married to "a very famous and white model". Casson leans forward confidentially. "He's very black, a very political animal, but she's got lots of money, so that's good!"

This mixture of know-how and innocence is probably what keeps the British Short Film Festival going. And 1998's showing certainly contains its sparkly gems. Amongst what Casson fondly calls her "400 piles of crap" there's a new 14-minute documentary from George Hickenlooper (who helmed Hearts of Darkness about the making of Apocalypse Now) on cult Seventies director Monte Hellman. There is also a perfectly strange but rivetting entry from Jay Rosenblatt, Human Remains, which focuses on the lives of five dictators, including Mussolini and Hitler, and begins, "I always liked chocolate eclairs." There are also way too many films by young men expert at the regurgitation of Hieronymus Bosch paintings. But hey, that goes with the territory.

What keeps Casson going is her belief that short films are "tighter" than the average movie: "Jim Jarmusch still makes short films, so does Mike Leigh; it's a way of keeping themselves disciplined." Does her job not make the rest of the world seem strangely slack? Casson laughs. "I went to see a preview of Love is the Devil. The girl sitting next to me said `God, that must have seemed like two days to you, not two hours!'" Is that how it felt? Casson surveys the sky diplomatically. Then she looks down at her watch, presses her bundle of papers to her chest and scurries away.