The Film, Video
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Magazine of Northern
December 1, 2014
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Big Sur and Its Big Shorts Series
by Mike Scutari
Big Sur residents, visitors and filmmakers gather for the fourth short film series in August 2010. photo: M. Toren
How did a little bookstore by the side of the road—a rather pleasant road it should be noted, Route One on the California coast—come to host one of the biggest festivals of short films in the world with Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass and Kirsten Dunst serving as judges? Well, it’s a bit of yarn, so you might want to get out of your vehicle and sit a spell.
Magnus Had a Great Idea
In 2005 Magnus Toren, director of the
Henry Miller Library
in Big Sur—a non-profit book store and music venue located just south of Nepenthe’s—was visited by a film producer friend from Santa Cruz who proudly showed off his new digital projector. Magnus was blown away. “It would be easy to set up a movie screening,” he thought.
A week later, a UCS film school graduate stopped by the library and decided he would gather some of his fellow grads for a film night of their graduation films.
Magnus Toren, longtime Big Sur resident, and director of the Henry Miller Memorial Library, which hosts the film festival. photo: M. Jackson
Magnus bought a used projector on EBay— paid for with his own money, since he didn't think the Library Board would approve —and scrambled to find a screen. He found someone in Monterey with two old screens, which they kindly donated, and his wife, Mary Lu, sewed them together.
Opening Night 2005: A Series is Born
The first film night was a huge success: over two hundred, mostly locals, showed up. Four budding film directors screened their shorts; there were great discussions, there was wine and everyone was happy.
Given the superlatives of their success, Magnus figured it'd be a shame to do it just once. So he researched the short film scene and found that many filmmakers were eager to show their films. At the time, it was a "buyers market" for shorts, if you will.
It became obvious: Big Sur… Henry Miller Library… under the stars in the redwood grove. He knew this would work and the Big Sur International Short Film Screening Series (or simply Series) was born.
2006 to Present: Not Your Grandfather's Film Series
Magnus’ hunch was spot-on: In its first year, the Series received 600 films from 30 countries and it has been getting better and better ever since!
Built by Emile White an old friend of Henry Miller, the library lingered in obscurity until Magnus took the helm and began booking performances by Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson as well as other cultural events including the film festival. photo: M. Jackson
But improvements needed to be made, especially regarding the screen. Fortuitously one day, Magnus was chatting up the groom who rented the Library’s beautiful lawn and sculpture garden to get married. He had worked for David Bowie and, at that time, was the light and vision director for Carlos Santana's “Supernatural” tour. A week later, a brand new, super reflective 30' x 20' screen arrived via UPS.
The next weak link: The projector. While the new screen was great, it couldn’t be fully utilized without radical improvements in projection capacity. By that time, the Big Sur Series' list of filmmakers, distributors, and production folks had grown to over 10,000 people. Magnus realized they had generated a tremendous amount of good will over the past five years and decided to seek out a sponsor.
Two weeks later, Epson shipped the Library a state-of-the-art projector. Throw in professional audio from Monterey's Live Oak Sound, and the Series has truly become an incredible multi-media—and multi-sensory—experience.
2011 and the Secret to the Series’ Success
This last year’s festival, which screened in August, had 800 films submitted from 35 countries. Given the fact that there are no restrictions on genre, trends in style and subject were all over the map, figuratively as well as literally. And that’s what makes the series so special: on any given Thursday, viewers can watch a hilarious cartoon followed by a harrowing third-world documentary capped by a surreal two-minute art house piece.
The amount of films is impressive but, more important, the quality is improving. Magnus speculates: “The filmmakers realize that it is very competitive and that the chances of being selected for the Big Sur Film Festival is less than at other festivals in general.”
A still from 'The Danish Poet' by Torill Kove which took the Grand Prize in 2008. photo: T. Kove
So the quantity and quality of films are improving but what, ultimately, accounts for Series’ success? Magnus has one theory, “It’s good ol’ fashioned artistic freedom.” Unlike other film festivals, the Series has no submission fees and no restrictions on genre. Anything goes, and filmmakers find that liberating.
There are only two rules: One, the film must be less than 40 minutes long and, Two, the film can not have been shown at a previous screenings.
Ultimately, the greatest metric of success rests with the filmmakers themselves. And every year, they tell Magnus that they found the Big Sur Series to be the best one they'd ever participated in.
“‘Better than Cannes!’ ‘Better than Telluride!’ ‘Better than Sundance!’ are some of the complements we get every year,” he said, which is music to his ears. “It never gets old.”
A Great Festival Needs a Great Jury
Their continued success, in both the quantity and quality of films, is due, Magnus feels, to their jury (not selection committee), which is comprised of a host of accomplished and talented individuals. It includes:
• Laurie Anderson: Performance Artist/Composer
• Philip Glass: Composer (3 Oscar nominations)
• Kirsten Dunst: Film Actor
• Susan Littenberg: Film Editor
• Vilmos Zsigmond: Cinematographer (4 Oscar nominations, 1 win)
• Lawrence Inglee: Film Producer
• Michael and Mark Polish: Film Directors
2012 and Beyond: Into the Future!
“I think the film series will develop beyond showing film,” Magnus says. “I see us reaching out to the wider community of film professionals and fans to offer workshops, seminars, and get together around the creative process—including making our own films! Of course we will not slow the ambition of maintaining our status as a place that offers the finest short films in the world."
A still from last year's winner, 'BEAST' by Lars P. Arendt, also from Denmark, a coincidence which may indicate the Series renown in Scandinavia (Magnus is Swedish). photo: L. Arendt
Each Year's Winners Tell the Story
“Chienne d’Histoire / Barking Island,” by Serge Avedikan, France (Winner)
“Bottle,” by Kirsten Lepore, USA
“Next Floor,” by Dennis Villeneuve, Canada
“Il Gioco/The Game,” by Adriano Giannini, Italy
“Pass the Salt, Please,” by Tatjana Najdanovic, USA
“BEAST,” by Lars P. Arendt, Denmark (Winner)
“Born Sweet,” by Cynthia Wade, USA
“Vs.,” by Ben Bruhmuller, Canada
“Kus,” by Joost van Ginkel, Netherlands
“This Is Alaska," by Gunilla Heilborn, Sweden
“Auf der Strecke (On the Line),” Director: Reto Caffi, Germany / Switzerland (Winner)
“Chainsaw,” Director: Dennis Tupicoff, Australia
“El Pasajero (The Passenger),” Director: Andres Faucher, Venezuela
“It's My Turn! (Bende Sira),” Director: Ismet Erguen, Germany
“I Met the Walrus,” Director: Josh Raskin, Canada
“Sable (Sand),” Director: Joost Van Ginkel, Netherlands
“The Danish Poet” - Torill Kove, Norway (Winner)
“Bitch” - Lilah Vandenburgh, USA
“The Torchbearer” - Vaclav Svankmajer, Czech Republic
“Koest (Doggie)” - Simone van Dusseldorp, Germany
“Traumalogia - Daniel Sanchez Arevalo, Spain
“Anolit” - Stefan Faldbakken, Norwegian
“For Interieur” - Director: Patrick Poubel, France (Winner)
“Robota” - Director: Marc Beurteaux, Canada
“I’ll See You In My Dreams” - Director: Miguel Angel Vivas, Portugal
“Massima Punizione” - Director: Filippo Macelloni, Italy
“The Fan and the Flower” - Director: Bill Plympton, USA
“When Elvis Came to Visit” - Director: Andreas Tibblin, Sweden
“Bonjour Danny Bonjour” - Director: Brett Shumway, USA
“Copy Shop” - Director: Virgil Widrich
“Binta and The Great Idea,” Director Javier Fesser, Spain/Senegal (Winner)
“7:35 de la Manana,” Director Nacho Vigalondo, Spain
“Yellow Bird,” Director Jessie Wallace, Canada
“Charlie Noir,” Director Keith Davidson, USA
“El Gran Zambini,” Director Igor Legarreta, Basque/Spain
“Destino,” Director Salvador Dali/Disney, USA/Spain
“Harvey Krumpet,” Director Adam Elliot, Australia
To Submit to the Series
Next year’s festival will be held June through August of 2012 and it is open for submission now. See
Posted on Oct 12, 2011 - 05:48 PM