KVIFF Ruminations: Some Feature Films Might Be Better as Short Films
by Alex Billington
July 8, 2019
With everyone complaining about films being so long these days (anything over two hours instantly becomes a discussion), why not go the opposite direction and just make a short film? Traveling to film festivals all over the world is a wonderful and exciting experience - not just because I hope to discover some gems (like Lara and The August Virgin) but because I get to watch all kinds of films. Big and small, good and bad. And inbetween all these screenings, there's plenty of time to think. To think about what you just saw, and how it could be better, or how perfect it is, how much you want others to see these films. Wrapping up my visit to the Karlovy Vary Film Festival this year, one thought that came to mind often (specifically about a few of the films) is: this would be better as a short film. So why not just make a short? It could be even better.
Not every film needs to be the same, and not every film needs to be judged in the same way. Some films are worthy of a three-hour running time and some films are perfect at 80 minutes. I've written about this before - at the Venice Film Festival last year in a piece titled Why So Many Long Films?. But some films (that most often show up at film festivals because of their artistic value) are good ideas stretched way too thin. Some films seem they have a basic concept for a short film that was then turned into a full-length feature, yet they couldn't come up with more to the story. They just pulled that original idea as far as it could go, and hoped that it would work extended to 90 minutes. But, it doesn't. It works well enough, but more often than not there's extended scenes where nothing happens, or slow burn dramatic moments that go on and on. And many filmmakers might write this off as a creative choice but - it doesn't always work. Just make it a short.
One example of this is The Unknown Saint, a Moroccan dark comedy that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in the Critics' Week sidebar before playing at Karlovy Vary. The film is the feature directorial debut of a young filmmaker named Alaa Eddine Aljem. He's very talented and clearly has an eye for filmmaking, and as much as I enjoyed The Unknown Saint, it really could've been a short film. The story is about a petty criminal who hides a bag of money on top of a hill, covering it to make it look like a grave. He comes back years later to discover they've built a tomb in memory of the "unknown saint" right over it and a whole town has sprung up next to it. Great concept. But this is all established in the first 5 minutes. Instead of pulling the rest of it out so thin for another 95 minutes, he could've put all that happens in that time into another 15 minutes and bam - it's a superb short. It's entertaining, proves he's talented, and leaves a better impression.
I do also understand why he made this film as a feature and not just a short. I'm sure he had the funding, I'm sure he had the potential and an idea for it, so why not just go for it. Filmmakers often see the chance to make a full-length feature as a huge opportunity, and it establishes them in a (major) way that a short alone cannot. But there's obviously much more risk in that - the film can fail, or fall apart, or it can be a complete mess. That said, short films are still worthy and still can build up a filmmaker's repertoire. Not only do they end up online and can earn a following (check out our massive short film archive here) but they can also win awards. The Academy Awards gives out three different short film awards every year during the big show (Best Live-Action, Best Animated, Best Documentary). And yes, most people don't ever watch these shorts (which is a conversation for another day) but at least they're still getting recognized because they do matter.
An actual feature-film that cannot be a short is one that fully uses its running time to take us on a journey, to tell a complete story from start to finish. Take, for example, The Matrix - which I saw at the film festival as a retrospective screening. Where that film starts is so far from where it finishes, so completely different, and so much happens over the course of the 136 minutes it runs. Most features are great at telling stories worthy of their running time. Karim Aïnouz's film The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, a Brazilian drama about two sisters, takes us through so much and progresses through so much time, it couldn't work as a short film. It needs to be a full-length feature. I also saw a long-lost Czech film titled The Cremator directed by Juraj Herz, that runs 95 minutes, and it takes us on a complete journey following a man who loses his mind and falls prey to the Nazi mindset. There are slow scenes, but it goes through a lot by the end.
It's always up to the filmmaker (and screenwriters) to make the choice about how much of a story they want to tell. How much time they should spend with each character, how long the scenes should be, where it all takes us (the audience). Some films can give us only a tiny bit of someone's life, or take place in one location telling one simple story, and can still be effective. Some films takes us on epic journeys through time, some films follow one man or woman as they change, some films don't need a neatly tied up ending. There is no guide as to what works – the filmmaker always does their best to effectively and engagingly tell the story. And as many writers attest, the script is what matters the most. If you can tell a story with even more punch, in a more effective way, in less than 30 minutes. Then make a short! If not, then try to make a feature, but slowing down scenes and drawing out the premise most often results in a film that will be quickly forgotten.
Of course, all of this is subjective. It's just my opinion. Right? Just go make whatever you want to make. I now spend most of my life watching films – features and shorts – and I adore the art of cinema. I am not a filmmaker, only a film lover. Only someone who enjoys the experience of watching films, whether they're 2 minutes, 30 minutes, 90 minutes, or 180 minutes. And I enjoy discovering great films at film festivals, and I want to tell everyone about them. But many of them really do feel like they would be better as short films. And some of them are just fine as they are. Many experimental documentaries, especially, are fascinating but waste too much time on shots of nothing, with random bits of footage that don't need to be there. Why bore us? Give us something meaningful, make a film, that we won't forget – even if it's only 5 minutes long.