Palm Springs ShortFest Gets Back Into Gear

The Palm Springs International ShortFest will mark an in-person return to the California desert oasis from June 21-27, showcasing 300 short films in 51 different curated programs. If that seems like a markedly high number of films considering all of the disruptions in both the film production and festival space over the past two years, interim festival director Sudeep Sharma has an explanation.

“One thing I’ve been saying a lot is that the pandemic has seemingly affected everything except for the production of short films,” says Sharma, a ShortFest veteran currently manning the festival helm while director Lili Rodriguez is on maternity leave. “I mean that kind of tongue-in-cheek, but our submissions numbers did not drastically change.”

ShortFest has always cast a long shadow in the world of short filmmaking, with last year’s hybrid festival featuring eight of the year’s eventual Oscar nominees, and two winners. This year promises plenty of star power onscreen, with the likes of Amanda Seyfried, Vicky Krieps, Isabella Rossellini and Zachary Quinto among the talent featured in competing films. But ShortFest’s real raison d’etre is the discovery of new voices, and it’s hard to think of a time when general audiences are as primed to meet short films on their own terms. With platforms like YouTube and TikTok acculturating a greater familiarity with short-form content, the potential reach of short films is longer than it’s ever been.

“There have never been more avenues for people to watch short films, and not just the YouTubes, but also the New Yorker, the New York Times, Nowness…there are more publishers and places than ever looking to share short film content,” Sharma says. “People get what a short film is, and they’ve actually seen short films. Five or ten years ago that was not necessarily the case.”

ShortFest takes pains to maintain a market and a forum for filmmakers to meet industryites who attend, and Sharma underscores that plenty of shorts do sell out of the festival. But he stresses that the main motivation for attending is less about making a deal than nurturing craft and connections.

“It’s very difficult to make a short film, and if the goal is ‘I’m going to make money or a profit off of this,’ that is usually not going to be successful,” he says. “I think the real value is in career development and the experiences of the filmmakers themselves, from going to festivals and meeting people, and also to have something you can point to – not just as a ‘calling card’ – but something where you can say, ‘this is the type of thing I’m capable of, and this is the type of voice that I have.’”

Indeed, the idea that a successful short film is merely an entry ticket to feature filmmaking opportunities appears to be on the wane. Filmmaker Varun Chopra has shown his shorts at festivals from San Sebastian to Oaxaca, and comes to ShortFest with “Holy Cowboys,” a strikingly intimate documentary about India’s “cow vigilantes,” groups of Hindus who rescue the sacred animals from mistreatment, and which have lately become incubators of right-wing anti-Muslim sentiment. The 24-minute doc was born during the research process for a feature Chopra is developing, when he realized his unusual access to this world offered the opportunity for a standalone short.

“I feel perhaps [the short film] has become more than just a calling card for a filmmaker,” he says. “There are ample avenues [for exposure], and there is a certain degree of amplification, so that you won’t find your film just sitting there on Vimeo collecting dust.”

Writer-director Lena Hudson will be attending ShortFest with her narrative short, “Daddy’s Girl,” which premiered at last winter’s virtual Sundance and has since played in-person at SXSW, Sun Valley, and others. She says she hopes to find a home for the short and eventually develop it into a feature, but says her priorities for ShortFest are just as much to see other shorts, connect with fellow filmmakers, and simply to experience her film with that most elusive of commodities: a real live audience.

“I think you hear things differently when you’re watching your film in a room with people who haven’t seen it before,” she says. “Hearing people laugh at something you made is always such a thrill, but then there’s also this sense that, because people are seeing it for the first time, you’re seeing it differently, and there’s always an interesting sense of discovery there.”

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