How the ShortList Film Festival Finalists Overcame Dark Subject Matters, Unexpected Production Challenges (Video)

Entries ranged from a documentary on abortion helpline workers to a love story in space told with puppets

Last Updated: August 24, 2020 @ 12:02 AM

Each of the 12 finalists in TheWrap’s ShortList Film Festival 2020 faced creative, emotional and logistical challenges. Some found it difficult to separate themselves from their subject matter. Others, despite the best planning, ran into unforeseen production issues that required quick decisions.

In a Zoom conversation with TheWrap Awards Editor Steve Pond, the diverse group of filmmakers from the U.S. and abroad discussed the work that went into their shorts — which ranged from animation to scripted stories to documentaries.

Barbara Attie, who along Janet Goldwater and Mike Attie chronicled the workers at an abortion helpline in “Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa” talked about how emotionally difficult shooting would be. “Every time we would leave a shoot we would all be like feeling devastated at what our subjects were going through,” the documentarian said. The subjects would often be young women who needed to get hundreds or thousands of dollars in a short window of time to be able to pay for their procedures.

“I was in a very, very dark place and I didn’t cope well,” admitted director Valerie Barnhart, whose animated documentary “Girl in the Hallway” dealt with the kidnappings and murders of indigenous girls and women through the lens of one man’s nightmare. Barnhart — who revealed that she personally was a survivor of violence — turned to her team and psychiatrists for help but says that raising awareness on the subject helps her “keep her eye on the bigger picture.”

Seeing personal issues reflected in their subjects also affected Terrance Daye, who directed “-Ship: A Visual Poem,” a story about a family mourning an unimaginable loss and mental illness in the Black community. “It was important that I didn’t shy away from some things that I’d prefer not to look at myself,” Daye explained. “So it was really hard presenting a young boy’s suicide on screen … some of the imagery was really hard for me.”

Mourning was also the subject of Keisha Rae Witherspoon’s “T,” which looks at the Southern tradition of people wearing memorial t-shirts in honor of those they’ve lost. Although that was a community Witherspoon knew well, as a first-time director, she admitted struggling with self-doubt and “imposter syndrome.” She explained, “you get to a point where you have to find yourself and trust yourself and so that was part of the journey.”

Ryan Maxey had to overcome his status as an outsider to the community he was capturing in his film, “How to Make a Rainbow,” about young Alaizah and her mother, Jade, a trans woman. “My biggest challenge was wondering if I was the right person could tell this story being a white cis male,” Maxey said. “It’s something that I still put a lot of thought into and continue to put a lot into as I tell other people’s stories.”

Charlie Tyrell, whose “Broken Orchestra” captured the efforts by a community to repair and return damaged instruments to students, echoed the need for integrity. “When someone trusts you with their story — and especially when a whole community trustee with their story — especially as an outsider or a foreigner, it’s daunting. But it’s a worthwhile challenge that was definitely the hardest thing that we had to make sure that we had always on top of mind well making this film.”

Elivia Lasher, who profiled an off-the-grid doctor in Fresno, Calif., for her documentary “The Clinic,” also at times questioned her involvement while documenting her subjects. “There was a lot of scenes actually where people said yes or even the doctor was pushing me to film something and I just was like, ‘I’m not gonna film,'” she admitted. “I had set some rules for myself story-wise and narrative-wise and ethically before I went in and learning to follow my own rules when there’s crazy stuff happening around you I learned so so much about myself as a filmmaker.”

On a technical and logistical level, some of the finalists were making their directorial debuts, including British playwright Abraham Adeyemi, who made the leap from writing to directing his own script in “No More Wings,” which centers on a fast-food chicken shop in South London. “My greatest hurdle was the entire experience,” he said. “It kinda got thrown at me and I had to figure out how to do it in the space of 10 weeks.”

Israeli filmmaker Tomer Shushan, whose “White Eye” was shot in a single continuous take over an evening with no hidden cuts, was tasked with figuring out how to nail the entire film in one take. “To understand the choreography that I need to build for the staff — the technical people and also the actors — I needed to build literally a dance for everyone,” said Shushan. “Every step was counted and known.”

For Dylan Holmes Williams, whose “The Devil’s Harmony” follows a bullied teenage girl who uses her music group to get revenge on her fellow classmates, shooting for a cast of 17 is something “I would highly recommend not doing.” “One of the shoot days I think we had 90 people on set, we had this cast of almost 20 and then a big crew and then 30 school children were playing extras and then all of their supervisors and we just went particularly equipped to kind of deal with that level of that many people and so that became quite kind of chaotic at times and I think they were definitely days where we sort of scraped through by the skin of our teeth,” he said.

Jonathan Langager spent a decade working on his animated short “Cosmic Fling” about a man stuck alone on an asteroid in space. “Every shot was a visual effect shot so doing that on the budget was really stressful and down to the wire,” said Langager. “There’s a lot of things to juggle between the marionettes, the computer animation, the compositing and, everything else done within a very short amount of time.”

For his part, Macedonian director Georgi Unkovski said that he didn’t face any major obstacles in making his short, “Sticker,” in which a trip to renew car registration turns into a bureaucratic and personal nightmare. “I hope I’m not jinxing my next movie,” he said.

You can listen to the ShortList finalists discuss their challenges below:

The ShortList Film Festival 2020 is sponsored by Heineken, Topic and the Los Angeles Film School.