On Friday night the organizers of St. Louis International Film Festival did something very, very right: They started their eleven-day fest with Films of the Animated Kind, a program of animated shorts that ranged from the merely pretty to the completely astounding.
"I convinced [SLIFF artistic director] Chris Clark to give me the big theater for this," Mark Bielik, who curated eight of SLIFF's shorts programs, said before the house lights dimmed. "I selected these films, so if you don't like something, it's my fault."
Bielik's humility belied reality: an absolutely packed theater (despite wretched weather) and a slate of short films that were by turns delightful, subversive, funny and groundbreaking.
Film shorts provide some of the purest joy to be found in movie houses. But good luck finding them: With the exception of the obligatory Oscar-nominated shorts program that finds its way to town each year — and often doesn't even include all of the Academy's selections, owing to conflicts over distribution rights — these amazing artworks largely go unseen by the filmgoing public. In bringing such a distinguished collection of shorts to the big screen, Bielik and Cinema St. Louis have done right by the films and their audiences.
"We had a record number of shorts [submitted] this year," says Bielik, who received 800 submissions from around the world. "It gets very hard at the end of the process, because you have to reject all these great shorts that just don't fit into any of the programs or because we run out of room. Those rejection emails are some of the hardest to send...but for the most part all the filmmakers are wonderful people who wish us all the best with the fest and hope to submit something in the years following."
The highlights of Films of the Animated Kind for this audience member, anyway were the Don Hertzfeldt shorts "The Meaning of Life" and "Everything Will Be OK." The 30-year-old Hertzfeldt eschews computer animation in favor of pen-and-paper illustration, experimental photography and stop-motion animation. His films, which often feature stick-figure people who occupy realms both mundane and surreal, are incredible testaments to the power of the medium.
"I asked Don for 'The Meaning of Life.' I loved it so much and I knew for sure that it would be in the fest," Bielik recalls. "I had several conversations with him, and he asked me if I would like to show 'Everything Will Be OK,' and of course I said yes!"
Hertzfeldt just finished "Everything Will Be OK" in August, and in early October the film premiered at the Nevada City Film Festival (where it won the Jury Award for Best Film). The Friday-night SLIFF screening was the short's regional premiere. (Just how exciting is the chance to be one of the first to see a new Hertzfeldt film? A friend of mine, a filmmaker himself who had stopped for lunch in St. Louis while moving from LA to New York, almost rearranged his whole schedule to stay for the seventeen-minute "OK.")
Bielik has curated seven more shorts programs, the schedule for which is available on Cinema St. Louis' Web site.
Says the curator: "One positive thing about receiving so many submissions is that I know the ones that finally make it through are amazing films that need to be seen."