Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia, whose 21st edition takes place from May 29 to June 16 at venues around Tokyo, is one of the largest festivals of its type in Asia. And, starting this year, four winners of its competitions will be eligible for an Academy Award in the short film category, up from just one in the previous edition. By comparison, Sundance, North America’s premier festival of independent films, selects five shorts for Oscar consideration.
“The U.S. Academy (of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) has recognized our history and track record,” says festival founder and director Tetsuya Bessho, who is also an in-demand film, TV and stage actor. “In fact, they’ve told us that they want us to make more recommendations. But it’s great that our dream has come true.”
Growth in both status and scale has been a constant of the festival since its start in 1999, when it presented six student films by “Star Wars” creator George Lucas. (Lucas has sent the festival a message of support every year since.) For its current edition SSFF & Asia will screen around 200 films winnowed from nearly 10,000 submissions from 120 countries and regions.
Also, the festival has steadily diversified and expanded its programming. In addition to the four main competition sections — International, Asia International, Japan and Non-Fiction — SSFF & Asia will introduce several new sections and initiatives this year.
One is the Ladies for Cinema Project. Under the direction of veteran actress Yoshino Kimura, this section will present six shorts by non-Japanese women. “The creative world should reflect more of what women are trying to make with their own perspectives, points of view and ideas,” Bessho says. “As a man, I believe that will lead to new discoveries and will be incredibly valuable. They have a lot to offer that I don’t.”
The festival will also present two new online screening programs. One is the U-25 Project, which is dedicated to short films less than five minutes in length made by filmmakers in Japan who are under the age of 25. Another is the Child Actors Program, which showcases shorts featuring children, including one Academy Award nominee. All in all, about 50 titles will be streamed to online viewers.
But for those who like in-the-flesh movie glamour — or insights into the creative process from the creators themselves — SSFF & Asia will hold events featuring not only Bessho and Festival Ambassador LiLiCo — a veteran TV personality and film commentator — but also pop stars Akira and Taiki Sato from Exile, who will present two entries from their Cinema Fighters musical film project on May 29. Meanwhile, actor and director Takumi Saitoh (“Blank 13”) will co-host a June 8 talk event with members of his Team Manriki filmmaking collective and director Nobuhiro Yamashita (“Linda, Linda, Linda”) will host a Creator’s Seminar on June 9.
One section Bessho is especially proud of is Non-Fiction, with its three programs of documentary films sponsored by Yahoo Japan. The Non-Fiction section winner is not eligible for the festival’s grand prize, the George Lucas Award, which is selected from the three winners of the Japan, Asia International and International competitions, but it is considered for an Oscar nomination. And Bessho extols the quality of the section’s 16 films. “They aren’t just news footage,” he says. “They have an artistic signature and storytelling style reflective of the documentary artist or documentary journalist that made them. Also they of course have a message, since they address controversial issues.”
One is “Black Sheep,” an Academy Award-nominated film by British filmmaker Ed Perkins about a black boy who moves into a housing estate dominated by white racists and has to adjust. Another, closer to home, is “Little Miss Sumo,” Matt Kay’s documentary about the struggles of a female sumo champion as she attempts to win in the ring and deal with discrimination outside it.
For Bessho, who has described the festival as his “life’s work,” a big appeal of the short form is its openness to everyone from amateurs to master directors and its ability to push boundaries without regard for the sort of commercial, censorship and other considerations that often limit makers of feature-length films.
“I often say that, for short films, the rule is: no rules,” says Bessho. “When you make rules, that can be the end, creativity-wise. We’ve made a rule that films screened at the festival must be under 25 minutes, but essentially short films can be a variety of lengths. They also come in various genres. For example, some stick to one genre, while others are genre crossovers. We accept them all.”
That includes shorts that are frankly commercial. The four Branded Shorts programs present shorts publicizing companies and products and streamed on the internet. Bessho describes them as “communication movies.”
“Like music videos that mix music and images, they are a form of communication using the visual arts, with ‘visual arts’ meaning the short film format,” he says. “The internet has become an extremely important form of communication. And, coming as I do from the world of entertainment shorts, I believe that interesting stories, long or short, link people with people.” Even if they are trying to sell something.
The festival, however, is not trying to sell tickets to make a profit: With a few exceptions its screenings are free. And its online streaming service makes it easy to sample its offerings.
“We’ve made our online presentations a big priority this year. But of course we’d like them to come to our screenings and events,” Bessho says.
And as one who has attended SSFF & Asia over the years, I’d second that: The analog, theatrical experience is still superior — and if you don’t see a film you like, just wait a few minutes for the next one. But to make sure you get a seat, reserve online. For this popular festival, that’s rule No. 1.
Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia 2019 runs from May 29 to June 16. For more information, visit: www.shortshorts.org/2019/en.