The most surefire tickets for the festival year in and year out are for the multiple short film programs that occur throughout the schedule. It's a great chance to see filmmakers before they hit the big time (for example, critical darling and MFF Super Secret Screening subject Short Term 12 originated as a short film that played at the fest years ago before it was recently adapted into a feature-length production), and get a diversity of styles and viewpoints that just aren't possible when sitting down to one person's vision for 100-plus minutes. Shorts Programmer Anna Sampers was so gracious as to take some time out of her busy festival schedule to give us an idea of what to expect from the eight (!) separate shorts programs that are playing the festival this year. And as a person who's served on the Shorts Film Committee that collaborates with her in order to put the best shorts forward, I also will point out some shorts of interest taking place throughout the festival in addition to elucidating the massive amount of quality control that I feel makes the shorts programs the safest bet for entertainment every year of the festival.
The selection process is rigorous. The MFF's lack of an entry fee for filmmakers to submit their short films make it a destination spot for those looking to make their mark, and this coupled alongside shorts collated from the multiple festivals Anna attends yearly to scout the best of the best provides the baseline from which she goes to work. Along with an intern she then watches every submission and selects the cream of that crop to go for further deliberation from the Short Films Committee, a group of volunteers who further separate the wheat from the chaff and allow for Anna to create each uniquely themed program to play at the festival (there are “old standbys (like “Date Night” and “Out of This World,” etc) but each year we also have a few new themes based on the type of shorts in consideration (like “Stranger than Fiction” or “Obsession” this year”). And even further than that Anna collaborates with Executive Director Jonathan Jackson in order to “to place each short in specific order within a program to create the best possible viewing experience,” with the end result being a fine-tuned machine ready to wreak easily digestible portions of havoc on its viewing audience.
And this year, it can be said, has seen the quality of submissions rise greatly from year's past, as can be seen from the expansive array of programs strategically placed every day throughout the schedule. There's the tradition late-night raucous compilation that plays under the sub-heading “The Best Damn F*#@ing Midnight Program Ever. Sh*t.” which this year features the surreal psychosexual bar confessional that is Sea Pig alongside The Apocalypse (starring Martin Starr of Freaks and Geeks fame as well as mumblecore darling Kate Sheil) , which Anna sees as “the midnight program epitomized in one short: Gore, comedy, sex” - what more could you ask for? The perenially fantastic “Date Night” program returns this year, with tales of amour both bitter and sweet, with Anna suggesting Mud Crab and Taboulé saying that “the sweetness between the characters in these shorts will melt your heart straight out of your chest”, playing alongside The Bird Spider (La Migala) and its fatalistic tale of love lost.
For the always popular “Let's Get Animated” program, Anna suggests the nearly indescribable Oh Willy... (“this short changed my life”), a beautifully handcrafted tale of mourning, nudists and mythical creatures. The “...Make Lemonade” program features Summer Vacation, which takes a potentially hoary premise and mines genuine drama and pathos out of a surprise guest visitor to an Israeli family's beach side sabbatical. The “Modern Families” program houses Grandpa and Me and a Helicopter to Heaven, a tale almost certain to wring a few tears from all but the most heartless amongst us. The newly added “Obsession” program features the blistering short Gun which “puts a real, human face” on a topical issue “through well-crafted storytelling” which has the added bonus of director Spencer Gillis being in attendance for tonight's screening! For those unwilling to sink to the depraved levels of the midnight program, “Out of this World” provides equally strange subject matter in a slight more palatable format with the stunning Record/Play being my particular favorite out of the bunch, and quite possibly my favorite short screening at this year's festival. Finally, short-form documentary get its day with “Stranger than Fiction”, where Anna suggests the hypnotic Unravel for its “beautiful photography that easily transports the audience to a world and way of life that is drastically different from their own” as it examines unwanted clothes being shipped en masse back to India.
No matter where your taste in cinema skews, there's definitely a program built towards it at this year's festival. And the beauty of a shorts program is that if you're in any way disappointed in whatever you're currently watching (unlikely, but play along with me for a moment) there's a wholly different style and viewpoint coming your way in less time than it takes to cook up some easy mac (right? I don't know how to cook things). We're incredibly lucky to have such a devoted short film presence at the Milwaukee Film Festival, and with the quality of the shorts never having been higher, this is the perfect year to treat yourself to this smorgasbord of the cinematically succinct.