Category gives spotlight to early docmakers

Short documentaries? Even in the film industry, many know them best as the basis of that obscure Academy Awards category that becomes the tie-breaker on the ballot during the annual office Oscars pool.

But to those who make and admire short docs, they’re an important art form as well as a venue for launching careers and an outlet for stories that need to be told.

“It’s a wonderful format — it’s very focused, and can be an illuminating and satisfying way to get a point across,” says Arthur Dong, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ short documentary exec committee. “Short documentaries are important in the same way that short stories are important to literary writing.”

Finding exhibition can be tough — even docu-friendly network and cable outlets rarely program shorts, which are defined in Academy rules as subjects of 40 minutes or less.

“It’s not the end of the film if it doesn’t get shown on television,” says veteran doc-maker Les Blank, who is so committed to the form that he cut one film,’60s classic “God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance,” down to 22 minutes after it played at 30 on PBS.

“It was absolutely a better film at 22 minutes,” says Blank of the paean to the idealism of hippies and flower children, which was accepted to the New York Film Festival after it was recut. “A lot of people will stretch a film out to make it the standard TV hour or theatrical length. My short films are the length they are because that is the length at which they work best.”

For the most part, aficionados of the short form catch the docs in screenings at museums, universities, cinematheques and festivals, including the more than 300 annual events around the world dedicated to short subjects.

At least 30 short docs were included in the film program at this year’s Los Angeles Intl. Short Film Festival.

Still, many of the people in the audience are in some way connected to one of the projects. “Shorts can be a hard sell with the general public, because they don’t know much about them. They haven’t been written up,” says fest director Robert Arenz.

Bright spotlight

One way the Academy Award category is important is in giving a rare spotlight to short docmakers early in their careers. Even a nomination can give a film the momentum to find additional kinds of exposure.

“After my film was nominated it got a lot of media attention — I was on ‘Good Morning America’ and ‘Charlie Rose,’ ” says Daniel Petersen of his “Fine Food, Fine Pastries, Open 6 to 9,” a portrait of the life and characters at a diner in the Washington area. After he traveled with the short doc to screenings at festivals and museums around the world, it wound up in the permanent collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art.

Petersen has gone on to a career making feature docs, as has Arthur Dong, who received an Oscar nom in 1982 for short subject “Sewing Woman,” about his Chinese mother’s journey to America and years of toil in the San Francisco garment district.

Dong says the Academy is bent on encouraging exhibitors to show short docs in theaters, particularly on arthouse and specialty screens. “That’s the way the filmmakers intend them to be seen. It’s a challenge and a lot of work, but filmmakers are starting to see that they can work with exhibitors to make this happen.”

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