Once upon a time, short films were seen as the key to a successful Australian filmmaking career. Ideally, at the start of your professional trajectory, you’d make a stunningly crafted short film that would win awards locally or receive recognition internationally at Cannes, Venice or Berlin. Maybe your short film would even win an Oscar, like Adam Elliot’s Harvie Krumpet (2003) or Shaun Tan and Andrew Ruhemann’s The Lost Thing (2010) did. Then you would be supported to make a feature film, and away you’d go.
Or that was the plan, anyway; successful shorts have never guaranteed sustained filmmaking careers. But, since the Australian filmmaking renaissance of the 1970s and the establishment of our film schools – including the Australian Film Television and Radio School, the Swinburne Film and Television School, and the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) – around the same time, the short film has held a sacred place in the industry as a training ground, stepping stone and artform in its own right.
While numerous short films continue to be made and submitted to dedicated short-film festivals like Tropfest, Flickerfest and the St Kilda Film Festival, Donna Lyon suggests that ‘the short film as we used to know it is dead’. Speaking to me in a 2019 interview for screenhub, Lyon – associate director for teaching and learning at the VCA and a film producer herself, with a number of short films under her belt – recounted her experience of overseeing the huge project of digitising and making accessible all the school’s graduation films since 1966. Following a public exhibition in October, the historic archive of over 500 celluloid films and 1200 magnetic tapes – including early works by filmmakers such as Ariel Kleiman, Justin Kurzel, Robert Luketic, Billie Pleffer and Corrie Chen – is now available for researchers, film students and the interested public alongside the projects of all VCA students (graduating or otherwise).
In light of the completion of this extensive archival work, Lyon does take pains to clarify that she’s ‘not arguing that we shouldn’t keep making [short films]’: ‘They’re a celebrated cultural icon and an important way to build, refine and test your craft. I just think we need to think more carefully about story and audience in a flooded market, and how much we’re spending on them.’
Screen Australia no longer funds standalone shorts except as proofs-of-concept for longer projects, through its story-development funding. But, while the short film may not be the prestigious industry calling card it once was, the form is far from dead – even where the screen agencies are concerned. Film Victoria, for instance, told me by email that it still ‘fund[s] short form content through initiatives with market partners’. These include continued support for the St Kilda Film Festival alongside the Indigenous-focused initiative NITV Treaty Docs, the ABC Content Initiative and the SBS Scripted Short Initiative.
On a related note, in September, SBS on Demand ran the SBS Short Film Festival, a three-day showcase of short films made through a partnership between SBS and five Australian screen agencies: Film Victoria, Screen Queensland, Screenwest, the South Australian Film Corporation and Screen Tasmania. The four scripted and ten non-scripted short-form productions were in keeping with the multicultural broadcaster’s mandate, celebrating diversity and featuring creatives from under-represented communities.
Having retreated from short-film viewing myself in recent years, I watched four of these rather worthy-sounding SBS shorts as research for this column. I found them unexpectedly compelling. First on my list was the heartwarming festival opener, Out of Range (John Harvey, 2019), featuring Aaron Pedersen as a struggling actor taking a road trip with his estranged twelve-year-old son (Araluen Lee Baxter). The film is the kind of lyrical, artfully shot short that audiences tend to rate highly. Then there was the suspenseful Tribunal (Mason Fleming, 2019) – inspired by real-world newspaper articles – about an Afghan asylum seeker (Mansoor Noor) facing a barrage of embarrassing questions from officials trying to prove that he is not ‘gay enough’ to be granted refugee status. The only person who can help him is his translator (Shideh Faramand), whose kids happen to be obsessed with RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Next up was Limited Surrender (2019), about writer/director Kirsty Martinsen’s quest to maintain an art practice while living with multiple sclerosis. The film documents her real-life experience of learning to paint using the wheels of her chair to mark big canvases on the floor. Finally, busting several disability stereotypes was The Loop (Lorcan Hopper & Johanis Lyons-Reid, 2019), a documentary tracing Hopper’s work as a first-time TV director living with Down syndrome and working with soap-opera actors on the autism spectrum.
These stories may not be as sprawling as those in feature films or TV series, but they nevertheless do their work quickly and beautifully – both on screen and in the consciousness of their viewers.