Manhattan Short film festival spreads to theatres in Europe - including Prague

Just when you thought Prague couldn't support another special film event, think again. In roughly two weeks' time the Kino Svetozor in the city centre will host the Manhattan Short film festival, known previously only in the US for allowing up-and-coming filmmakers to get their work seen by wider audiences than they were used to before. The festival selects twelve international film shorts, awarding the best director a chance to make a feature film of his or her own. Not bad. The festival's founder, Nicholas Mason, started it all on a street in Manhattan nine years ago, and over the years the festival spread across the US, and now, for the first time, to Europe.

Marika Ley is responsible for the screenings here in Prague, and this week I had a chance to ask her how she, and a magazine she works for, got involved.

"I was contacted through email, through our website and it was this guy Nick Mason, and he was saying 'I love what your doing' - he's Australian - and so he asked if we would be interested in 'representing' Prague. Which I thought was important, because Prague has such a rich film history and such strong film culture. This is an international screening and voting event and I think it's the first time that something like this will be happening on this scale and that kind of fit in our paradigm of crossing borders and that we're all just one world. And, also Czechs might get bitchy if they didn't participate. Well, you know, you're too apathetic about it! {laughs}"

In the past a jury used to chose the best film, but no more. Now, audiences play the deciding role. How's that for a refreshing idea? This year at venues in nine countries in Europe and at theatres in the US, viewers will ultimately decide the winner themselves. Marika Ley once again:

"In the past they recruited avant garde celebrities like Eric Stoltz, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, so they were the ones who were the final judges. I think the fact that they moved it to the general public as opposed to the celebrities very important and is now integral to the event, and I think it made it more approachable for the public as well, rather than just something that was chosen for them. The fact that Prague has the opportunity to have the first vote, I think is the first step."

Some countries, though, have an abundance of venues, for example Finland. How did that come about?

"Yeah, Finland just called me this morning and woke me up because they don't have enough posters! They were just more interested, there are more venues in London, a few in Finland, Germany, they bit they bait."

Still, if Prague proves a success Marika envisions spreading the event to still other art theatres in other Czech cities. She needs to see first if there's enough fertile ground. On the other hand, she's happy with Kino Svetozor.

Cigarette Box
"It's perfect for that. We did an event at other places that didn't have that kind of 'built-in audience of 'cinephiles' who love seeing films in all forms, boring or not(!) or not, or interesting or moving or action films or something... this is an audience that they're the 'bohos', the Bohemians, the ones that are more open to it. We've done other events where it was like pulling teeth to get people in there: it was also a beautiful day, so that sucked!"

What do you think about short films as a format?

"It's what I call 'short attention span theatre': I went to school for conceptual and performance art in video at the San Francisco Art Institute and one of the first things that I learned early on is that if you want to get your message across in video you have the first minute to do that. So... it's more of a hybrid art. MTV kind of started this a long ago. You get three minutes to get your word across. And, you can. You can."

Hollywood Photos of Katie Mills
So what kind of short films can audiences expect? Most certainly polished productions, although in this kind of event it's always difficult to gauge preferences in taste. Some of last year's entries were very well made, including one short titled "Adventures in Nude Modelling". But, it might not appeal to everyone. This film was about a rather over-the-top drawing instructor, a terrified student, and a beautiful nude model caught up in their own small universe.

As for this year? Poland, Ireland, the US are among countries represented in the selection. Here are a few titles to give you an idea: "Cigarette Box", Who I am What I Want", and "Hollywood Photos of Katie Mills". Among the snappier blurbs in the pamphlet that might catch your eye: "I teach screenwriting. My oldest student, who is 85, gave me 2,500 dollars and said 'Make a movie with this'. Or, "It's actually based on a nightmare I had". Or, "I always had an interest in dentistry". The streetwise graphics and lettering on the posters aren't particularly refined but then, are obviously aimed at a younger, more carefree, audience with a few hours to pass the time. In terms of business, Marika Ley was set on bringing it to Prague, and getting the printing, for example, done here.

Who I am What I Want
"I wanted to do it here. I wanted interns from certain film schools or the AVU academy of fine arts - I wanted to keep a lot of the production here. All of the printing was done here: ten thousand posters, fliers, and programmes that are going out. The money came into the Czech Republic which I thought was pretty important."

As for the overall winner? I asked Marika about that too:

"They get a budget for a feature film - to do a feature. A full production. Staff, cameras, crew, the whole nine."

The Manhattan short film festival will take place in Prague towards the end of September: details are available at the festival's website easily found on the Internet. In Prague, films will be subtitled in Czech, and some will feature English titles as well.