When Nicholas Mason thinks about short films he thinks about Bob Dylan.
He’s not thinking about songs like “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.” He’s thinking about anthems like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” or “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Dylan’s more timely anthems. Like the short films Mason likes to see, those songs came with a message.
“He would write songs around topical issues,” Mason said. “What I like to see, not with all films, but some films, is where filmmakers bring up an issue of the boundaries of their country and their culture and create something we can all identify with.”
Mason has once again brought that ethos to the Manhattan Short Film Festival, which will take over the Center for the Arts’ Center Theater starting at 7 tonight. The two-and-a-half hour program will show 10 short films, most of which are about 15 minutes long, that run the gamut of stories from all over the world.
One film, “Debris,” which was made in the United States, tells the story of human-trafficking in a place you might not expect: a construction site in Los Angeles. Another, “Driving Lessons,” asks what happens when an Iranian woman’s husband and driving instructor don’t get along, especially when that country’s laws forbid women from taking driving lessons solo. And another, a film from the United Kingdom, “Sylvia,” asks a big, human question: What does it mean to lose something — or someone — you love and care about?
The stories are universal and, for Mason, who has organized the festival for 22 years, that’s exactly the point.
“I’ve got nothing else in my life to do than to put something with a positive feeling of understanding and all that out into the world,” he said.
Part of that is the films. But another part is how Mason invites audience to participate.
The Manhattan Short Film Festival isn’t a touring festival. It’s a one-week affair that invites over 100,000 filmgoers from 350 cities on six continents get together to watch the 10 films Mason and his team select.
But festivalgoers aren’t just viewers. They’re also judges.
Votes cast by those who attend, including Jackson’s resident cinephiles, are tallied, sent back to the organizers, and plugged into a spreadsheet, where they determine Gold, Silver and Bronze Medal winners as well as the festival’s Best Actor.
It’s a democratic process and one Mason sees as uniting the world, if even for a brief week.
“I started it, but the public created it,” he said.
A tease and a leg up
Compared with feature-length films, short film is definitely the less popular medium.
You’ve probably heard about Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway flubbing and announcing “La La Land” as the Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards (“Moonlight” won). What you probably don’t know is which films won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film (“Sing”) or Best Animated Short Film (“Piper”) or the Best Short Subject Documentary (“The White Helmets”).
That’s in part because short films usually lack the star power of bigger, feature-length productions. But that doesn’t mean shorts skimp on quality.
“Good shorts are ones that give you a glimpse and then shut the door,” Mason said. “They always leave you wanting more.”
“Sylvia” and “Debris” do exactly that.
Both films come to a resolute conclusion but leave the viewer asking questions. And while the former might leave you asking a question about the human condition, the latter leaves larger societal questions lingering.
Julio Ramos, the director of “Debris,” said that was more or less the point.
“I don’t think we’re aware of our relationship to labor trafficking,” he said. “We always say it happens somewhere else, but you have the truth that it could happen right under your nose.”
And while Ramos’ film exposes the dark underbelly of labor in the United States, it inspires empathy for its subjects — and for the real people whose story he seeks to tell.
It’s also a stepping stone for him. Having graduated with his master’s in film production from the University of California-Los Angeles in 2013, he’s hoping to turn “Debris” into a feature-length film.
Richard Prendergast has a similar goal, though not necessarily for “Sylvia,” which is first narrative film he’s ever made. He has his eyes set on a feature-length film, which he described as a merger of “the big short and Forrest Gump.”
“Sylvia” was a great starting point. He learned things along the way, like how to craft an original reality-based work of fiction and to free himself to leave the narrative open-ended, rather than sealing it off with a definite conclusion.
He also sees “Sylvia” as something else: a shot at the Oscars. Being selected as one of the 10 finalists in Manhattan Short Film Festival automatically puts shorts in the running.
Prendergast and his wife, Rachel, who produced the film, knew that going in. They wanted to throw their film in the hat, even though it was a big step for first-time narrative filmmakers.
“Go big or go home,” Prendergast said. “If you’re going to do it, then you may as well just aim for the top. And then if you fall short, which we probably almost definitely will, at least you’re aiming for the top prize.”
Pleasing the people
But with 10 films a year automatically thrown into Oscar territory, Mason doesn’t seem like a guy who would describe himself, or his team, as responsible for getting those films in the running. For him it’s not about finding a film that’s an pleaser for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
It’s just about finding films that people will like.
Mason uses his vote collecting spreadsheet to figure out what type of films people like. When he watched the 1,200 or so submissions that came through this year he looked for films that touched on shared human experiences.
Last year the film that went on to win the Gold Medal, “Two Strangers Who Meet Five Times,” was one of those shorts.
Mason remembered it as a real crowd pleaser, though it wasn’t “technically perfect” and didn’t have an expansive festival run. He asked the director, Marcus Markou, who he described as an “incredibly smart English dude man,” why he thought it was doing so well in the Manhattan Short Film Festival.
Markou’s answer was straight to the point.
“Most film festivals, they’re run by broken filmmakers and they select broken films,” the director said then. “And this is a festival that’s run by the public — the cinema-goers.”
That gave Mason some pause.
“I thought that was smart,” he said. “He knows my film festival better than I do.” ￼