By Gary M. Kramer.
It’s Tribeca Film Festival time again, which means my annual conversation with Sharon Badal, curator of the festival’s shorts programs. This year’s fantastic line up offer some new programs: California Dreaming, which features stories from the other coast; Warped Speed, a first-ever Sci-Fi program (in honor of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary) and a New York Then series, which is not archival films of the Big Apple, but rather, films that create a nostalgia factor for New York stories. Badal spoke via Skype about the films and filmmakers, themes and content from this year’s bumper crop of shorts.
Gary M. Kramer: Let’s talk diversity. I’ve noticed a number of films featuring African-American protagonists, and ethnic characters in key roles. Have you noticed an uptick in minority inclusion or even minority filmmakers?
Sharon Badal: I can’t speak to filmmakers; I’m colorblind when I screen. But I do see a strong diversity this year in casting. I do think people are thinking, especially in shorts, about casting to be more reflective of our world.
GMK: Likewise, Tribeca has a mission to support female filmmakers. I noticed that women have directed several of the short films, with the Sci-Fi entry Reality+ being a highlight. Can you discuss that? Is there a greater pool of female talent?
SB: I thought Reality+ was so creative! In the end, you pick the best films. You hope that you have good representation. We did keep track as we were going along and winnowing it down. We had a record, record number this year: 3,553 submissions. That was 500 more than last year. I would stop and see how many female filmmakers we had. But they had to be among that final group [72 shorts will screen this year] in order to be considered for the program. I didn’t look at male vs. female and pick the female. But I wanted to be aware of it.
GMK: So let’s talk numbers. How do you winnow down 3,553 to 72?
SB: I have a team of screeners. Everyone is watching 200, 300, 400 shorts. I watched 800. Ben watched 600. You get down to about a couple hundred that the screeners think are great, and then you think of stories. Can you really show 10 shorts on single father/son relationships? That was a common theme. Among this year’s crop, I ask: What is our audience going to enjoy most. What is going to resonate the most? It’s not about does it star a celebrity, or is it a first time filmmaker. It’s the experience of the film. Shok, [an Oscar-nominee this year] is an astounding piece of filmmaking. The emotions I went through watching it…it still has the same impact on me three months later. That’s what I’m looking for. It can be funny, sad, shocking, or tense. There just has to be an impact.
GMK: Yes! I loved Curve! It was reallllly nervy and intense…
SB: We can’t wait to see the audience at Curve. They will be holding on to their seats!
GMK: I also loved the shorts in the First Impression program. I marveled at One Good Pitch, and Catch a Monster, and gasped at Balcony. Without giving too much away, what can you say about this program?
We didn’t set out to put together this thematic program together. These were some of our favorite films. They played well together because they are different stories. They have that “replay” moment. That’s what each one does. It makes you think about it, and replay it in your head. The reveals in all of them are very different; all is not what it seems. They challenge preconceived notions. Operator shows the woman’s job is just like any other job, but it makes you look at that job differently. I would rarely pick a three-minute film, but One Good Pitch, there is something to it.
GMK: Agreed, One Good Pitch is really terrific. It’s a Tisch school student film. What can you say about student filmmakers?
SB: It’s one of my former students. I think that what makes your “film school” short films stand out is that film schools in general spend a great deal of time on storytelling with their students. So their scripts are really strong, and they have that foundation. They are the emerging talent.
GMK: There seems to be a focus on youth this year. Wannabe, Joe’s Violin, Girl Band, Balcony, Catch a Monster, El Pulgi, Homeland, Shok, and so many others. Are you looking to find younger audiences? Are you seeing a trend towards younger filmmakers telling their stories?
SB: Younger filmmakers are going to write scripts about what they know: Parent/child relationships, growing up, first crush, and that’s where you see a preponderance of these stories. They are writing based on experience and imagination. We used to have family-oriented programs, but I like to pepper youth shorts in with shorts that feature adults. I don’t think folks want to see all grown ups or all teens. What’s interesting is I’m at the mercy of the crop—and that’s not a disparaging comment. This year, the crop was about a single father and a child. I can’t give you a number, that’s how many there were.
GMK: Let’s talk about some of the specific programs. What can you say about developing the New York Then and California Dreaming series?
SB: It was about looking back and telling a story that already occurred. Mulberry is really about the decline of Little Italy. It had a sense of nostalgia, and living in New York at a certain time. The Carousel, about Rod Serling’s carousel—everyone wants to go to Binghamton to see that carousel. I loved that this program is all about things with a backstory. It’s rooted in the past. I’m a big fan of the vanishing New York Movement. For California Dreaming, we wanted to do different stuff. That happened organically. It wasn’t intentional. They were set in LA, like Girl Band.
GMK: You have done genre film programs in the past. This year the genre is Sci-FI with Warped Speed. Can you talk about the motivation behind that?
SB: I liked The Last Journey of the Enigmatic Paul WR. We did Sci-Fi because we’ve never done it before. Once I found Reality+ it was: Let’s see if we can do a Sci-Fi program! What we were impressed with is the quality of the visual effects in sci-fi shorts. It’s been cheesy in the past. But the quality of the technology is living up to the quality of a script in a short. Most filmmakers couldn’t do a sci-fi short—who had the money? We decide to go out of the box. We’ll see how it does.
GMK: Yes, I was impressed with the special effects in the sci-fi comedy, Future Boyfriend. But looking at reality, there is a strong lineup of documentary shorts.
SB: There’s actually a shortage of short documentaries. People aren’t making them. They go for one-hour broadcast docs or features. They don’t see the value in a short doc. They shoot so much footage they can create a feature easily. If there were 300 doc submissions out of 3,500 this year, that’s generous.
GMK: But the music doc shorts program is fantastic. I loved The Gift of Gab and raced to download Blackalicious’ CD after seeing that short, it was so inspiring!
SB: I think that’s great! That is why we did the music doc program. We found that it is interesting to see someone and get their story when they are off-stage. The Gift of Gab, I wanted to know more. That film did what it was supposed to. It made you interested in the artist to go listen to the music. That to me, with performance-based docs, whether it’s dance, music or art, if you look them up, or read or listen or watch them, the film has done its job. Shorts are conducive to that. They give you more than a trailer less than a feature. In Let’s Dance: David Bowie Down Under, the filmmaker goes to Australia to find the girl in the red shoes from the video. It made me want to listen to the song again to think about what I learned about Aboriginal culture. I will never hear that song the same way again—and that’s a good thing. It’s also nice to have short documentaries that aren’t about serious, life-altering subject. You need that balance in the program. Starring Austin Pendleton is light, and enjoyable.
GMK: Tribeca is known for its sports films. You have a shorts program this year, with El Púgil/The Boxer being a highlight. In that short, the filmmakers have a trainer talking about the grace of this young fighter, and we see it, vividly in the film. Can you talk about the sports films?
Angel Manuel Soto, the director of El Púgil/The Boxer, has a really great eye. He’s really very talented. I’m interested to see where he goes from here. El Púgil/The Boxer, along with Skateboarding’s First Wave, and Porzingod are not part of the ESPN program. We did a nice well-rounded program in Sports Shorts.
GMK: Let’s talk form and content. Subway Story is a gem; it wisely uses animation to tell a simple romantic tale; Dead Ringer uses voice-over effectively to talk about the pay phones of New York; Super Sex has a corny punchline in every scene, but it’s funny; You Can Go and Neil LaBute’s The Mulberry Bush are slow burn two-handers that each pack a wallop. What can you say about how form and content create such emotion with shorts?
SB: I think you have this ability with a short to plant the seed and give information either fleetingly, or incompletely—unintentionally incompletely—but it is easily digestible. So the emotions that are evoked—discomfort, sadness, or laughs—is because the format is easily embraced. It doesn’t take a lot of investment. Features you have to do set up, and build characters…
GMK: What about casting? I think S. Epatha Merkerson gives an extraordinary performance in 9 minutes in You Can Go. I was tickled to see Malcolm Jamal-Warner in Wannabe. What is the appeal for an actor to star in a short film?
SB: I think it’s the experience for these actors to keep working and try different things. It’s a small investment of time, and with social media and the interview, a film like You Can Go could have a life, and people will see it and a discussion can start on the topic.
GMK: Last question, and one I don’t think I’ve asked before. Have you ever made a short film? Do you have aspirations?
SB: I am not a director. I’m a producer of a documentary feature, Let’s Roll, which came out a few years ago. I have to feel passionate about what I work on. I wanted to write a book, I wrote a book. I wanted to produce a doc, I produced a doc. It was about firefighters who bike across the US for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. I went to film school to be a director. I learned I’m a terrible director but a great producer.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.