Darryl Macdonald talks about Palm Springs International ShortFest 2009

Palm Springs International ShortFest Short Film Festival & Market is, without a doubt, one of the best short film festivals in the world. Last year, Palm Springs ShortFest won the Cinema Without Borders Seal of Excellence as the Best Short Film Festival of 2008.

I sat down with Darryl Macdonald, director of the Palm Springs International ShortFest Short Film Festival & Market in his Palm Springs office and we talked about the 2009 event.

Bijan Tehrani: Please tell us about 2009 Palm Springs International ShortFest Film Festival. Are there changes we should expect to see from previous festivals?
Darryl Macdonald: Well, it is still early because we are still in the viewing phase; we are watching literally hundreds of short film submissions a week. We are seeing some trends, including the emergence of a lot more women making short films. A lot of the really strong films we are seeing are coming from women; not just in the countries you traditionally expect, from the countries with state supported funding for filmmaking, such as the Scandinavian countries and Great Britain, but all over the world, America included. There is no one thing that you can put your finger on that points to the reason for it, but the emergence of so many talented young women filmmakers at this particular time shows that there is definitely a convergence of female filmmaking talent that is remarkable. That is something that has been very evident in the viewing sessions. Also there has been a moving away from some of the topics we have seen over the course of, well, the last eight years, dare I say it?..During the Bush Administration. Not as much focus on strife in the Middle East, not as much focus on war. We are seeing films that revolve around the economy, and the personal effect that the economy has had on individuals, families and groups of people. That has been an interesting change as opposed to films that focus on war and military strife that we have seen so much of over the last half decade. We are also seeing a lot of films that play with genre conventions, and that reinvent the traditional genres. We are seeing a lot of films with wry humor as well. We are not seeing as much stress put on immigration, although it is still an important subject. We went through a few years where there was a very large number of films that dealt with immigration issues, particularly between Mexico and America, and Arab immigration into European society, and we are not seeing this so much anymore. At least based on the evidence of the films we are watching, those problems no longer seem foremost among the concerns of filmmakers, which is of course always a reflection of what is going on in society at large. The national stories we are seeing have to do with, yes, assimilation, but more than that we are seeing films about the family’s role in society; obviously a lot of the LGBT films have that point of view. Maybe fifty percent of the films really revolve around family units of whatever stripe. So these are the trends that we are seeing, but again, we are so early on in the actual viewing and programming, at this point we only have probably 40 percent of the lineup together. But that being said, a lot of it comes together late in the game because we like to see as much as we possibly can first, and withhold the greater number of our decisions until we have had a chance to see almost everything.

BT: What was the reason for changing the date of the festival?
DM: Changing the date was something that we have been talking about for the last two or three years. First of all, you have been here to Palm Springs in August, and it is somewhat akin, while I have never been there personally, to the seventh circle of hell. It is really hot, and hot is something you come to get used to, but it is also the most humid time of year here. It is almost amusing to see the filmmakers, because they fly in from all over the world, swoon when they hit the tarmac at Palm Springs Airport – they just are not used to that heat and humidity. It makes standing in lines for films challenging, and apart from that, we do a lot of parties outdoors, and you have a few drinks in that kind of heat and humidity, it is not a pleasant thing. So those were two of the reasons. But the larger reason is that we felt that there would be even more opportunities for the filmmakers themselves in terms of industry who would want to come here in June as opposed to August. So far that seems to be playing out as true, given the industry registrations that have come in. Ultimately, Short Fest is all about providing filmmakers with opportunities, and the more industry that can be here and see their work is better for the filmmakers. That was our main reason for moving it up earlier.

BT: Do you expect to see a lot of guests this year coming to the festival?
DM: Oh, absolutely. Last year altogether there were over 350 filmmakers who attended. All told with filmmakers and industry it was well north of 650. So it is probably the most highly attended short film fest in North America, at least in terms of industry. That is what really provided opportunities for short filmmakers; that coupled with the fact that they have the opportunity to see their films presented in front of a large, discerning, and generally enthusiastic audience.

BT: As far as the market, which was very successful last year, will there be any changes this year?
DM: No. It’s the old story of if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Every year we try and expand the market capabilities, providing more viewing booths and better physical setup. One thing that will be changing slightly is the filmmakers forum that we do for the three days of the festival, and which happens at the same area as the marketplace. The panel discussions in the past, while excellent, have not had an overall big picture. This year it is going to be much more focused. The first day will deal with digital issues, new forms of distribution, exhibition, and filmmaking itself. The second and third days of the forum will be much more focused on the nuts and bolts of getting to the next step. You may have made a short film, or several, but how do you reach that next step, whatever that next step may be. So I think a more structured forum will make for a more interesting experience for the filmmakers who participate. Those forums are largely devoted to filmmakers, but also anybody who has an interest in the art and business of filmmaking.

BT: Besides the festivals you organize, you also have the International Film Society of Palm Springs. Please tell us a little about this organization, and what it does.
DM: It is a year round organization. We present screenings all year long; screenings of upcoming films and oftentimes with filmmakers to discuss them with the audience afterwards, and in that sense it is not unlike any film society of any major city in the US. But beyond that, we do year-round series of films that are devoted to a genre, style or aspect of filmmaking. The first series starts this month, and it is called “Behind the Scenes”, and this has to do with the lesser known personalities that work in film. It is about people who are not a director or screenwriter, and has to do with the various arts and crafts of filmmaking, and even esoteric areas like casting. We have experts who work in the industry, and they will basically do a presentation about what exactly they do in films, and we will have a Q&A; with the audience afterwards. That series will be ongoing year round, one program a month. We also do a thematic series usually in the late summer and fall. We have also put together educational programs focused on students in local schools. Part of our programming is focused on community enrichment, part of it is focused on High School and College students – giving them more background on film history, and how to read a film. We bring them together with people who make films or who commentate on films. These programs, coupled with our year round screenings, are all part of the overall game plan that the film society pursues.


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Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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