"I woke up one morning wondering where I could get a six-foot suitcase," says Anita McGee, referring to the prop that dominates her 1994 short film The Trunk.
"I wanted to make a film in the back yard," recalls Rosemary House of her film When Women Are Crazy (1991).
What is a Short Film?
Their recollections reflect the enduring appeal of the short film. It can be a highly personal venture; it is the perfect vehicle for following an imaginative fancy, exploring a compelling idea, or simply improvising. Anything goes in a "short," and that sense of freedom keeps bringing filmmakers back to the format.
It can also be simple, quick and inexpensive to make, which is why the creative short film has served as a proving ground and calling card for just about every filmmaker in the province. But the extensive library of Newfoundland shorts represents much more than on-the-job training. The short is a singular art form with its own challenges and standards.
There's no formal definition of what length constitutes a short film, though the term is rarely used for anything running longer than 30 minutes. A good short is defined not by running time so much as by its creative economy: the ability to tell a story, make an impression or create a fully realized environment within a few minutes. One of the best-known early Newfoundland shorts, Dolly Cake (1976), has been described as "a satire on stereotyped women, men, film and filmmakers in a 20-minute tragic-comedy." When Women Are Crazy, Rosemary House's backyard film, addresses "sex, death and crazy women" in 11 minutes.
Changes, Improvements and Thematic Shifts
A chronological survey of the Newfoundland short film catalogue reveals the changes, improvements and thematic shifts that have defined the entire local industry over the last 30 years. The various styles and approaches explored in short films are later reflected in longer documentaries, feature films and television shows created by the same producers and directors.
The first short films were made with borrowed equipment, no budget and little experience. The Bullies (1972), a six-minute silent film in which a group of young men fight back against bullies, was Mike Jones' first effort. He would quickly become the province's busiest director, making other notable shorts such as Dolly Cake and Codpieces (1976) and working on feature films. Many others who would go on to have long careers in the local industry – Ken Pittman, Paul Pope, Derek Norman, John Doyle – also made their first short films in the 1970s.
The key to this first period of activity was the founding of the Newfoundland Independent Filmmaker's Cooperative (NIFCO) in 1975. By pooling facilities, equipment and expertise NIFCO made filmmaking cheaper and logistically manageable.
Almost immediately a steady stream of short films began to appear, addressing a wide variety of subjects. Not Home (1977) follows an outport girl adjusting to life in St. John's. Stone's Cove (1980) explores a resettled community. In Evolution (1977) is among the first local films to use animation and miniatures. On Rooftops (1980) is "a dreamy look" at St. John's rooftops. And, of course, there are the trademark Newfoundland surreal comedies such as Sisters Of The Silver Scalpel (1981).
In the 1980s, NIFCO took another major step towards developing local talent by offering affordable courses and training programs and introducing its "first time film" program. The program provides the novice with access to NIFCO facilities and an experienced crew, allowing anyone in Newfoundland to conceive and complete their first short film at virtually no cost. With more people entering the industry and established filmmakers gaining more experience and confidence, production increased and more sophisticated films emerged. Nigel Markham's first short documentary The Last Days of Okak (1985) and Debbie McGee's drama Multiple Choice (1989) were among those that won awards and helped raise the profile of Newfoundland film outside the province.
Deals with television networks and cooperation with outside producers also fuelled production of short dramas. Jack And Libby (1994) was shot in Montreal with a primarily Newfoundland cast, while Hanlon House (1992) and The Elf (1996) were television films made in St. John's for the CBC and NTV, respectively. Artists from other fields – actors, writers, dancers and visual artists – began using film as an alternative means of expressing ideas and exploring themes, making significant contributions to the short film catalogue. The Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax and the St. John's International Women's Film and Video Festival (begun in 1989), emerged as important venues and marketing opportunities for local shorts.
Despite the trend towards more ambitious films, vignettes and shorts continued to appear regularly. Come Into My Parlour (1990) a five-minute film about driving lessons, is part of the National Film Board series Five Feminist Minutes. Anita McGee's The Trunk (1994) is a brief, dream-like film exploring a story that would be more fully told when she made her documentary Seven Brides For Uncle Sam (1997).
1998 saw the release of one of Newfoundland's most widely acclaimed shorts. When Ponds Freeze Over by Mary Lewis won awards at the Atlantic, Toronto and Vancouver Film Festivals, and was named Canada's best short film at the 1998 Genie Awards. With its mix of live action, animation and colouring and its combination of fantasy sequences with more conventional story telling, it suggests potential new directions for the future of short films in Newfoundland.
A Burst of Creativity
Most short filmmakers eventually try their hands at larger projects. But the move to longer, more expensive and more logistically complex films is not inevitable. Some prefer to work almost exclusively in short films, while others return to the format throughout their careers because of its immediacy and affordability. "It's a burst of creativity that I can get out of my system," says Anita McGee.