What makes a Sundance-winning short film?

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Entries close soon for the 2019 SundanceTV South African Shorts Competition.

Fiona Walsh spoke to local judges Aletta Alberts and Sara Blecher to see what they look for in a great short film.

For Aletta Alberts, one of the biggest take-outs from watching the shortlisted films in 2018’s inaugural Sundance TV Shorts Competition was the wealth of talent on display by local filmmakers. Currently executive head of content strategy and third party channels for Africa’s giant pay-television business MultiChoice, Alberts has over 30 years’ experience in the competitive African television market. For her, last year’s winner Ian Morgan ticked several crucial boxes with his short Good Mourning.

“I loved the subject matter, the creativity and the originality of his storytelling, plus he brought it to life with great characters and high production values,” says Alberts. “Good Mourning is definitely a film that provides great entertainment value to the viewer.”

Journalist-turned-director and producer, Sara Blecher, points out that the short form is a genre unto itself. An award-winner for both documentary and fiction, her fourth feature Mayfair had two sold-out screenings at the London Film Festival last year, followed by a general release across South Africa, while her previous movie Ayanda premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where it received a special jury mention. Vital for her in transforming your short from good to outstanding is to embrace the specifics of the genre.

“Don’t submit a tome when you’ve been asked for a poem. Submit a short film. Also experiment: stretch the limits and push the boundaries,” advises Blecher. “We aren’t looking for a remake of Black Panther or any other Hollywood blockbuster. We’re looking for something unique and original, an idea we haven’t seen before, a voice we haven’t heard before.”

Morgan describes winning the competition as “an incredible experience,” notably because the prize included a trip to the Sundance Film Festival: London and a chance to network with filmmakers and producers from across the globe. “I think the most rewarding part was how people received the film and how the judges were drawn to interesting characters, rather than big budget production values. Winning also gave the film an extra push when it came to entering other festivals, and it’s a great stepping stone in your career.”

Young filmmakers are often constrained by very tight budgets, but – according to Blecher – it’s still possible to make an impact with limited resources. “Keep it simple. The best short films are the ones that embrace the genre and aren’t trying to be feature films. There’s enough space in a short film for one single idea. Don’t throw everything you’ve ever thought plus the kitchen sink into it. You’ll have the opportunity to make more films. This isn’t the one and only. Think of one great idea and then try and explore that. One single thought. But don’t compromise on either your actors or your DOP.”

Reflecting on the competition, Alberts comments: “The SundanceTV South African Shorts Competition provides local filmmakers with an opportunity to showcase their unique points of view. SundanceTV is synonymous with the kind of innovative and independent filmmaking that has kick-started the career of many award-winning and commercially successful directors. But more so, it exposes the work on an international platform, side by side with other filmmakers and to a much broader audience. Hopefully, we can expect to see many more of our local filmmakers following in the footsteps of award-winning SA directors such as Gavin Hood, Neil Blomkamp and Darrell Roodt.”

To be in with a chance to take your short all the way to an event during the Sundance Film Festival: London and to see it premiere internationally on SundanceTV, log on to www.sundancetvshorts.com for all the details and to watch last year’s prize-winning films, including Good Mourning.

The SA jury will be led by Mike Plante of the Sundance Institute and – alongside Blecher and Alberts – will also include Harold Gronenthal from SundanceTV.

Local entries must be submitted by Tuesday, 16 April at www.sundancetvshorts.com by the producer or director and should be no longer than 15 minutes. Entries also need to meet SundanceTV’s official rules and technical requirements, which are available on the website. Films will be judged on a number of criteria, including creativity, entertainment value, original storytelling and production values, with the winner to be announced in May.

SundanceTV is available exclusively in SA on DStv channel 108, and the satellite broadcaster is partnering with the channel for the second year running to support the Shorts Competition.

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