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Big Sur Goes Small—Short Films, That Is!
by Mike Scutari
Sunset over the Pacific, from Partington Ridge, Big Sur. photo: D. Blair
Set the Stage, Shall We?
It’s May 28th around sunset, somewhere at the edge of the continent. A hundred or so people slowly snake down a pathway, drop a few dollars in a donation jar, and find a seat in the towering redwood grove dimly lit by the last vestiges of twilight.
Once darkness descends, a tall, lanky man with a European accent (perhaps German?) takes the stage beneath an enormous movie screen that looks like it was looted from California's last drive-in theater.
The man’s name is Magnus Toren (Swedish, actually) and he’s kicking off the seventh annual Big Sur International Short Film Screening Series (BSISFSS).
Readers of Cinesource may remember the BSISFF (we profiled it in October of 2011, see
): one of the most unique and exciting short film festivals around, thanks in no small part to its location and its refreshing lawlessness. By that we don't mean that you can come down and fornicate behind the screen (although that's also doable), rather that there are no restrictions on subject, there are no submission fees, and no there are no limits on when the film was produced—ie year of production.
This past year, Magnus and his team received over 1,000 submissions from over 40 countries. They selected the best 54 (Yep, that’s a paltry 5.4% acceptance rate for you amateur mathematicians out there.)
The selected films are showed every Wednesday night in either Carmel (June 6-20th at the Historic Forest Theater) or Monterey (June 27-August 15th) at the Museum of Monterey, and every Thursday in Big Sur at the Henry Miller Library (June 7-August 16.)
A still from Big Sur Small Film Fest Winner, 'Out of Erasers' by the Sudd Collective from Sweden/Denmark. photo: courtesy BSISFSS
Better yet, the Series’ jury, which consists of Philip Glass, Kirsten Dunst, Laurie Anderson, Oscar-winner Vilmos Zsigmond and other luminaries, then selects the “best of the best,” which are shown at the Gala Finale night at the Henry Miller Library on August 19th.
So with this summer’s series kicking off, we figured it was a good a time as any to check back in with Magnus, who is preparing for opening night with a Zen-like calm we all tend to associate with Scandinavians.
The Big Sur International Short Film Festival Comes to Town
The most interesting development surrounding this year’s series was the decision to screen the films in Carmel and Monterey in addition to Big Sur. But for Toren, it was just a natural progression generated by the series’ success.
“For the past six years, people drove the 30 or so miles in from 'town' [that’s Big Sur slang for Carmel, Monterey, SF, etc.], but given the swelling crowds, its impact on the community, and the price of gas, it just made sense to export the whole operation north," Toren explains. (The fact that it could also generate a little extra income for the cash-strapped Henry Miller Library doesn’t go unnoticed either.)
In addition, the HM Library is mounting a benefit concert in San Francisco, featuring Joanna Newson, Philip Glass and Tim Fain, Monday June 25 at the Warfield [http://thewarfieldtheatre.com/], which should be spectacular. Rarely do the realms of classical and indie meet at such a high and pleasurable level. Tickets are still available:
A Weekly Exercise in Consistent Quality, Thematic Diversity, and Emotional Depth
But, regardless of where the series is based, the series is only as good as the movies themselves. And much to Magnus’ satisfaction, the quality of 2012 series is the most impressive in seven years. Toren attributes this to the fact that, quite simply, the Series is now on the radar screen of some of the world’s most accomplished short filmmakers.
But what is it, precisely, about a film that makes it one of those rarified 5.4% that make the cut?
'Tuba Atlantic', another prizewinner, by Hallvar Witzø from Sweden. photo: courtesy BSISFSS
“It's mostly gut feeling,” Toren says. “We have no developed set of criteria. There are the rules of less than 40 minutes, and not having been shown here before, but, other than that anything goes. The tendency is for dramas and good comedy to have an advantage. Foreign films do well with us because we're all well-versed in reading subtitles (however there are often very badly- done subtitles that can hurt a film’s chances).”
Naturally, the consistently high quality of films is, from a viewer’s perspective, undoubtedly a good thing. What’s even better, perhaps, is the sheer unpredictably and diversity of the selections. The first night, for example, boasts an inventive mediation of heartbreak via Italy, a starkly beautiful “poem” (to quote Toren) about the fragility of relationships via France, and a hysterical spoof on our absurd reliance on technology via Norway. These films have depth, and while sometimes the themes are immediately evident, other times their layered meanings emerge only after a period of digestion and rumination.
“Sometimes,” Magnus explains, “I’ll wake up two days later thinking about a movie and say, ‘Ah! NOW I get it!”
The Series is a Window into the Collective Global Zeitgeist. Discuss.
With access to over 1,000 films from 40 countries, we’ll go out on a limb to assume that Toren is well-positioned to draw conclusions regarding the collective consciousness of film-makers all over the world. It’s a precarious time to be alive; are there any recurring themes that filmmakers are striving to capture?
“In the drama category, we saw several dramas about kidnapping and sex/slave trade,” Magnus explains. “Some of these very graphic and hard-hitting socially realistic dramas are hard to select for the series because the audience often is a mixed bag of young and old—on the other hand I personally think that a good drama can stir up some healthy discussions and reflections that maybe can lead to action.”
A still from 'Ever Hear the Postman Whistle?' by Bexie Bush from the U.K. photo: courtesy BSISFSS
In fact, Toren isn’t afraid to shy away from serious subjects. In 2010, the Series screened films from countries like Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Bosnia. The films were with the United Nation’s Department of Public Information, which submitted 22 short movies to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Everything a Film-Maker and Viewer Would Want in a Screening Series…Plus the World’s Best Popcorn
The BSISFSS has come a long way in seven years. (It’s now accepting submissions for next year, by the way: deadline is April 19, 2013.) Toren attributes its success to good old-fashioned perseverance, word-of-mouth and the influence of its esteemed jury. And at the end of the day, while it’s certainly nice to unwind with a bottle of wine under the stars and snack on “the world’s best popcorn” (or so they claim), the Series is ultimately about the filmmakers themselves and providing them with a platform to reach new audiences.
When viewed through that prism, the Series has succeeded beyond Toren’s wildest dreams. “Someone who had been to Melbourne, Cannes, Cairo, Sundance and Berlin said this is the best screening he had been to,” Toren explains. “The Series, by the sheer nature of being in Big Sur, is blessed with a kind natural beauty, intimacy, and serendipity that people can’t get elsewhere. It provides an inherently unique and memorable experience for both film makers and viewers.”
Case in point: it’s an abnormally mild Thursday night. The Series has just concluded for the evening and people are mingling about, preparing a cup of coffee for the ride home. A woman pulls aside Toren and says, “"We just drove by, saw the sign and stopped in. We are completely stunned. This was one of the most amazing nights of our lives, thank you!"
Toren gives a gracious bow as the woman and her family head to their car. “Somehow that happens almost every Thursday,” Magnus says with a shrug. “Feels great.”
Posted on Jun 26, 2012 - 12:54 PM