"A good short film needs to grab the audience from the opening moment and just not let go for 20 minutes,” says award-winning American-Israeli film-maker, Lior Geller.
An alumnus of the Steve Tisch School of Film and Television at Tel Aviv University (TAU), Geller says that this is what he tried to achieve with Roads, his 2007 graduate short film, which has played at over 100 international film festivals, earning him a Guinness World Record for the most highly decorated student film of all time and an Academy Award nomination. Set in the drug-ridden Arab slums of Lod, it focuses on 13-year-old Ismayil, who is trying to find a way out of the neighbourhood for himself and his younger brother. When a traumatised Israeli ex-soldier comes to buy drugs, an unusual opportunity arises.
Roads was screened in the UK in 2008, as part of Tel Aviv University Trust’s annual Night at the Movies. The event, now in its 10th year, showcases films made by students at the Tisch film school and London audiences will have the opportunity to watch the fast- paced film again at this year’s gala, which will be held next week at BAFTA.
“To celebrate our 10th anniversary, we wanted to include a film from the archive,” explains the trust’s chief executive, Cara Case. “Choosing Roads made the most sense. The quality of the film-making and the fact that it presents social and political issues which still resonate today meant it was a stand-out choice.”
Short films are often screened at film festivals and are predominantly made by students or independent film-makers on a low budget. The art form does not get the academic or public attention that it should, says Amir Tausinger, production co-ordinator and tutor at the Steve Tisch School. “It’s not like literature, where the best short-story writers are considered masters.”
He believes the form can be liberating for a film-maker, enabling its creator to experiment in a way that they might not have the chance to do with a feature.
“You don’t have a producer or a network making demands on you. There are no box-office expectations,” he says. At the film school, students are encouraged to try and make “whatever they want, whatever they dream of because they won’t have many opportunities to do this outside.”
But a successful student short can help launch careers. Lior Geller acknowledges that Roads brought him to LA, where he now lives and works — he currently has three films in development.
Tasnim, writer/director Elite Zexer’s 12-minute film about a young Bedouin girl, was made as part of Coffee, an Israeli-Palestinian undergraduate project at TAU. “Her case is a wonderful demonstration of how a world-renowned student short film led to the making of her [debut] feature, Sand Storm, which is basically an elaboration of her short,” says Tausinger. Sand Storm was selected as Israel’s 2017 Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film.
Another TAU graduate, documentary film-maker, Maya Sarfaty, won a student Oscar in 2016 for her film, The Most Beautiful Woman, which tells the tragic, true story of a love affair between a teenage Jewish inmate in Auschwitz and SS officer Franz Wunsch. At the time, she did not think winning was so important but the award gave the story publicity, endorsed her professionally and subsequently opened doors to financiers and producers. “It’s like I’m coming with an insurance certificate now,” she says. Sarfaty is working on a full-length version of the film with Yes Doco, the Israeli documentary channel.
Short film can also have educational value and purpose, says Sarfaty. The Most Beautiful Woman focuses on a rarely explored — and taboo — aspect of the Holocaust, raising moral issues for its viewers. For these reasons, she intends to show the film to high-school students in Israel.
Making a short film presents specific challenges, which can make it harder to make than a feature. According to Elite Zexer, “the shorter the film, the less time you have for plot and character development.
“Writing is not an easy task. You have to create characters as deep as possible and a world as layered and complex as you can master. You have to make your point very efficiently and effectively. You must be extremely precise with every movement, with every word the character says.” Tausinger agrees: “Sometimes you have to tell the whole background to your story in 30 seconds, which in a feature would take you an act. With a short, you need to learn to think in a condensed manner — you need to think about describing one moment and the whole short has to serve this one moment. Basically, you cannot describe a life. It’s a different mindset and difficult [to achieve.]” Sarfaty likens the process to poetry. “You have short sentences and every shot is [vital] — it forces you to be [exact].”
The difficulties of precision extend to editing too. “A lot of material for The Most Beautiful Woman was left on the editing room floor and it was a long process for me to let go, to understand it’s OK, that it was good for the film,” admits Sarfaty.
However, shorts are becoming longer, says Tausinger, due to digital technology. He recalls that, 15 years ago, students received 10 minutes of film stock that was used to make two-, three- or four-minute exercises. “You treated your material like it was something holy. Every take had to be correct. Now, your only limit is your time.”
‘Roads’ and ‘The Most Beautiful Woman’ are two of the films included in Tel Aviv University Trust’s ‘Night at the Movies’ on 7 March at BAFTA.