2016 Film Essays

Why Criticism: We Need to Talk About Short Films


Not all short films are created equally and most critics (present company included) are generally ill-equipped to write about them. The system might be stacked against shorts, as the audience that follows them remains small. And for the most part, they are not as deeply entrenched in the capitalist model that motivates what we watch, what we read and what we write about. Writing about short films has become a political act that refutes traditional ideals of auteurism and challenges the profit-based model of filmmaking.

Music videos, which began and still operate largely as a promotional tool, have become the most written about shorts for most critics today. And the path from music video to feature filmmaker has already been paved by artists like Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and David Fincher. In the 1990s, this market was dominated largely by men, but the industry has shifted in the past few years, and the most discussed music video directors are increasingly women, specifically women of color. Rihanna and Beyoncé, most notably, have found an audience through producing self-liberating films by way of their music.

The importance of these new voices cannot be undermined, though they still operate within a capitalist structure; their mere presence as artistic and political voices has made some audiences uncomfortable. As celebratory as the response may seem in certain echo chambers, their videos also challenge the status quo. A Twitter movement that pushed major publications into hiring black women to write about Lemonade was a powerful response to what kind of images audiences are being typically sold, but also a movement that challenged the identity of the cultural gatekeeper. Some of the pushback against these videos seems to be a response to the impact that celebrating (and writing about) a film like Lemonade can have on the status quo — not only in what kind of art we celebrate but who we allow to write about it (read Bell Hooks’ “Moving Beyond Pain” for a thoughtful critique).

Music videos are just the tip of the iceberg, though. For most artists, their videos are widely accessible via different platforms like YouTube or Vimeo. Many of us grew up watching MTV and Much Music, and music videos have long been extensions of the music we love. You can’t grow up in that bubble and not understand how a music video can be a work of art.

Other short films are less accessible, whether they are narrative or experimental. Parsing through the ones that are online (and are not among the venerated few considered a part of the canon) can be overwhelming, if not completely fruitless. Programmers and curators play a huge role in their success — helping shape a narrative and a need for them to be seen — yet these programs are all too often underpopulated. A challenge for a critic looking to expand their horizons should be to attend at least one shorts program per festival, if not more.

Short films fall into the rare case where it’s unequivocally worth supporting the often too narrow gaze of national cinemas as a tool of discourse, at least in some cases. While the idea seems continually outdated, for smaller nations it is still very much a valid and perhaps even necessary approach. With emerging filmmaking nations that don’t have state sponsored film programs, or are gripped in conflict or political instability, short films fill the gaps. In many cases, shorts will offer individuals the only opportunity to hear, see and experience the voices of filmmakers who have no other avenue: this should be appreciated as an incredible gift and an even greater opportunity for you as a critic.

Many critics are caught in a kind of bubble through a gap in knowledge and experience that sometimes makes it difficult to write about short films. We don’t watch enough of them, so judging the quality can be difficult. Reading about them presents another difficulty as they are rarely treated in mainstream publications. There are a number of writers right now who consistently write about short films (and short film programs) and hopefully that number will continue to grow. The most recent “Partycrashers” featuring Michael Pattison and Neil Young offers a thoughtful exploration of short cinema (especially experimental shorts) and some good context and information on how to treat (and where to find) good short films. 

In Canada, we also have a strong legacy of documentary and animated shorts, meaning that most histories on the National Film Board of Canada will be almost exclusively about short film programs. (The NFB also has one of the most extensive collections of short films online, if you want to explore more short films, it’s a great place to start.) Many countries that are not internationally competitive in terms of box-office (and have some government mandated film board or office) will similarly be dominated by shorts. The writing about these countries’ industries, therefore, will be as well. Smaller journals, like the Canadian Offscreen, do a fairly good job balancing coverage of feature and short films.

Here’s my challenge to you, as the reader (and maybe writer): watch short films, write about them and support the ones you love. Short filmmaking lies at the heart of the medium’s birth, and we’ve mostly just cast it aside as something to be dealt with later. Share articles written about short films, and write them yourself. Consider it an act of rebellion, giving due to artists and forms that challenge the way the industry sees itself.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.


4 replies »

  1. Thank you for the article. I’ve hosted a short film festival for last 9 years called Film Brothers Festival of Shorts. It’s far more difficult to tell a story, develop likable characters and have the audience care in 30 minutes or less. We don’t select music videos, as many are more vignette style. We are very impressed with the short film explosion. There are many quality ones, among the many that fall short. LOL. Anyone who criticizes this art form may want to try to write, produce, direct and edit a short film themselves.

    • Hi Gordon!

      Thank you so much for the comment,

      As someone who has made short films, and watches at least a little more than the average person you are 100% correct. I think in particular for narrative filmmaking, it’s incredibly challenging to get it right. While more often suited to experimental or documentary, a good narrative short is something truly special. Too many filmmakers don’t treat it as something different than a feature, and it ends up feeling far too rushed or disorganized. Short films are very tricky and require a huge amount of work.

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