Aspen Shortsfest: The 'great cultural exchange'

Apr 9, 2017

Audience awaiting the first evening of Shortsfest programming at the Paepcke Auditorium. Aspen, Colorado.
Credit Claire Woodcock/Aspen Public Radio News

Last week, dozens of filmmakers from across the globe were in town for the 26th annual Aspen Shortsfest.

President Donald Trump has been proposing cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts, which this Aspen Film festival is funded by. That puts the future of the festival — and international film exchange — in a tight spot.

Filmmaker Damien Ounouri is in Aspen to showcase his 40-minute short film Kindil El Bahr. It examines the targeting of female bodies in a fantastical setting not so far off from reality.

“The film is a kind of metamorphosis, like a mosaic,” Ounouri said. “It’s not very polite. And I think in the current days and time of the world, the film can be like that.”

The French-Algerian filmmaker wanted to open up a conversation with audiences about the politics that surround the female body.

“For me, cinema is universal, so in my film I have to be the most specific as possible with my culture and story, and I think U.S. audiences can feel it,” he said.

When it comes to film, Ounouri sees a universality with societal politics that transcends borders.

Kathleen McInnis is the new director of programming for Aspen Shortsfest. With filmmakers from 31 countries participating this year, she said hosting these international conversations is essential right now.

“Funding for arts is being questioned all around the world,” said McInnis.

Throughout the United States, cultural organizations are awaiting a decision from the Trump administration that would cut, defund or eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

John Thew, Aspen Film’s executive director, says his nonprofit has been receiving federal funds for the past 15 years, specifically for Shortsfest.

“100 percent of NEA funding goes into Shortsfest, he said. “We receive anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 a year. It’s enabled us not only to maintain an affordable ticket price, but also make possible our school programs, up and down the Roaring Fork Valley.”

Thew said, if Aspen Film loses that money, the financial burden would shift from the NEA to the community. This would result in locals paying more for tickets and memberships that would normally go to support the nonprofit. He calls the recent proposed cuts “short sighted.”

“We don’t save business plans, we save the great works of art,” he said. “We build buildings called museums to house those works of art. And they provide inspiration for generation after generation. That’s what society values, and for us to think ‘Oh, we don’t need to fund this because, you know, right now we don’t need it. That’s just being shortsighted. It really is our legacy to the next generation.”  

Wendle Whiting has been attending Shortsfest regularly since he first moved to Aspen two decades ago. You might recognize him as the guy who hands out the audience award ballots when it comes time to vote.

“I started doing that probably in the late ’90s because it was becoming quite expensive to attend every screening,” said Whiting. “It adds up if there’s 10 or 11 and you’re paying $10 to $15 a program.”

Every year, Whiting has made it his mission to experience all of the programming Shortsfest has to offer. He said it’s important for people who haven’t been exposed to cinema, other than Blockbusters, to be able to attend this festival.

“It definitely helps bridge the gap between people who may have come from an educational background that was pretty plain vanilla and to be exposed to these films, especially a lot of international films,” he said. “It’s definitely eye-opening.”

McInnis, the festival’s programming director, said the “great cultural exchange” of films is vulnerable on a global scale.

“The countries that have traditionally been the most supportive in terms of funding for their arts communities are the Northern Europeans and the Brits,” she said. “So the Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Netherlands … Then you go to Germany and France who are incredibly supportive, but they are in the midst of exactly the same issues that we are right now.”

McInnis said the future remains unknown.

“It is a box of nuts thrown up into the air, and they haven’t landed yet,” she said.

This year’s festival brought forth conversations between moviegoers and filmmakers on how to preserve the future of cultural exchange in cinema, so that international filmmakers like Damien Ounouri and others can continue to have the chance to be put on the map.