September 29th, 2011

An Election Where Your Vote Really Does Count: The Manhattan Short Film Festival Comes To Houston

This Friday night, Houston will join forces with over 200 cities across the world in casting their vote. Nope, this is not an episode of Dancing With the Stars; this is the Manhattan Short Film Festival. The festival’s mantra is “You Be the Judge,” and they aren’t kidding. For one week, from September 23 through October 2, the festival plays at over 200 venues across the country and asks audience to take an active part in the selection process. Ballots are cast at the end of each screening for attendees to determine the best film, and then tallied-up for a worldwide unveiling of the festival winner, on October 2 in Manhattan.

The Manhattan Short Film Festival (MSFF) will play in Houston at the Museum of Fine Arts at 7 p.m. MFAH has been the exclusive venue for the festival in H-town for five plus years and each year they see the festival grow. Assistant for Community Outreach for the MFAH, Ray Gomez, finds MSFF to be one of a kind. “It’s a unique festival in that the audience votes,” he says, “and it’s exciting that Houston happens to be one of the last cities this year.” Along with the festival’s own promotions, Gomez says the museum will post the winner up on their Facebook page, as soon as they are announced.

In this world of social media and viral-gone-wild, the MSFF is in an element of its own with a distinctive brand of interactivity. The festival is not online, but does permeate global walls by asking viewers, more or less, to stop watching Internet footage of wardrobe malfunctions, put on some pants and join the living – watch some independent film together!

This year’s finalists span the Earth from Hungary to Canada to Scotland, boasting big names such as playwright Neil LaBute and big name topics such as the recent uprising in Cairo. There is a comedy about broken teeth, a camping/slasher flick and a bank heist gone terribly wrong, to give you a taste of what to expect.

The Loop Scoop was able to sit down with the Screenplay Director for the festival, Tom See, and get the lowdown on what it means to be a part of a film festival that’s breaking boundaries.

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Loop Scoop: So, this is a crazy idea for a film festival. How did it all begin?

Tom See: Nick started the festival in 1997. The first year was a selection of shorts projected onto the side of a truck on Mulberry Street, I believe. It sort of grew from there. Nick is originally from Australia and had acting aspirations. (He’ll tell you he had a part on ‘Neighbors’, the Aussie sitcom, but this has never been proven.) Anyway, he came here, without two nickels to rub together, I expect, and I think all he knew at that point was that he wanted to do something. We are now at a point where tens of thousands of people in nearly thirty countries will see ten films from nine countries, all in one week. Name something else that compares to that. It’s pretty exhilarating to think about. So it’s come a long, long way and it is entirely due to Nick’s drive.

LS: How did you become a part of the festival?

TS: I met Nick while he was looking for logistical support for putting up the final screening in Union Square in 2004. We’ve put up the show outdoors somewhere around NYC every year and I began to get involved with helping him program the festival. In addition to that, I oversee the screenplay competition, for which we will be soon accepting entries, by the way.

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LS: So, there are a million film fests out there, there’s even several magazines dedicated to this very topic. What’s different about this one?

TS: What I like is that it is brought to people – to their towns, to their cinemas whereas any other festival is based in one place and people descend on that one place and usually you’re having a panel of celebs, filmmakers, critics, whoevers, pick winners, hand out awards. I think the strongest part of this festival is that you, the audience member, are voting the winner. We’ve often talked about the idea of an Olympics of film, if you will, and we’re seeing it year after year. Nine countries are represented and it’s funny year after year, you see similarities in films from certain places, every country having it’s own point of view – they come out in their films. It’s a truly international event in its content and execution.

LS: How have you seen this festival change over the years, if at all?

TS: When I first got involved we were really just on the verge of expanding to other cities in the US. We did that and the next year it was Europe, then Russia, and every year we pick up more of the world. There was an attempt a few years back to have someone at a science station in the Arctic screen it the week of but it fell through. Not the ice. It did not fall through ice.

LS: That would have been disastrous, in an amusing way. So, not counting the Arctic, where do you see this festival going next:

TS: It will continue to have a presence every year around the world. I would love to see it screened in every possible corner of the earth. Something that has been talked about is maybe finding a really amazing feature and distributing it throughout these cinemas, which would be a no-brainer for the festival in certain parts of the country and the world where it has a massive following.

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LS: I recall last year seeing some very out-there films. What can we expect from this year’s line up?

TS: This is a very balanced line-up this year. There is some serious talent behind these films. Names of filmmakers you hope to see in the future. The object for us is always to have a careful balance in the program which is always something you have to be careful with – you don’t see most festivals doing five films in a row, intermission, and then five more. It can be draining for an audience. So it’s a bit like sequencing a record, putting it together.

LS: This year you received over 590 entries from 48 countries. That’s a lot of popcorn you must have eaten. What is the internal judging process like for you guys?

TS: There’s only a handful of us putting this together. There are years where we get ten or twelve films that could be Oscar shorts but they simply don’t fit in a program of ten. You can’t play the same kind of film again and again. As Nick likes to say, the audience won’t stand for it. So that is the hardest part – finding a comedy, finding a documentary, finding something different — films that fit into what you want to do.

LS: OK, last question, which is your favorite movie this year, if you don’t mind being totally subjective?

TS: I’d go with ‘A Doctor’s Job’ or ‘The Legend of Beaver Dam’. They’re both spectacular achievements in my opinion.

The Manhattan Short Film Festival will be held on Friday, September 30 at 7 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts and is cosponsored by the Southwest Alternative Media Project (SWAMP). For tickets visit http://mfah.org/films

– Interview and Article by Abby K., Freelance Writer Extraordinaire

— The Loop Scoop

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