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The Shorts at Sundance: A Conversation with Senior Programmer Mike Plante

By Tom White

In all the years I've covered the Sundance Film Festival, I've never focused my coverage on the short form. Well, mea culpa; it's about time. Over the past decade or so, in concert with the dramatic growth and expansion of the Internet, we have witnessed an explosion of online content—particularly documentary shorts—from longstanding publications like The New York Times, The Atlantic and The New Yorker, to Internet giants like YouTube and Vice and Vimeo, to omnibus projects like Cinelan's WE THE ECONOMY, to groundbreaking new ventures like Field of Vision. There's even a channel, Shorts HD, that's been airing shorts since 2008 in Europe and 2010 in the US. Prior to all that, the primary venues for showcasing shorts included POV, HBO and the festival circuit. 

Festivals like Sundance have always made room for short docs. This year's edition included one program devoted exclusively to the form, while the other eight strands screened at least one each. In addition, a selection of shorts preceded features in the festival. This work reflects a dynamism at play—a rich array of approaches and sensibilities, a broad pallet of international perspectives and an opportunity for seasoned feature makers like A.J. Schanck, Lucy Walker and Steve James to test their artistry in this form.

We spoke with Mike Plante, senior programmer and the longtime chief shorts programmer at Sundance, about his team's process of vetting thousands of entries, the art of creating a compelling sequence in a given program and his view on how the short form has evolved in this golden era.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


When I attended the Documentary Shorts Program at Sundance this year, one of your colleagues said you had fielded about 7,500 entrants. I assume that's all the genres of shorts—or was that just documentaries?

No. For short films it was 8,700 submissions, and I would guess a good third are documentaries. We can show up to 80 shorts within our budget, which is a reasonable number;  otherwise it starts to be like we're not doing as much for each film if we show too many.

So out of the 80 shorts this year, we ended up having room for 72. We're committed to doing a doc program every year, something like 90 minutes and however many we can fit in there. And then we have one documentary short in every so-called "normal" program. Actually, in Shorts Program 1, we had two docs this year:  AJ Schnack's Speaking Is Difficult and Mickey Duzyl's The Shining Star of Losers Everywhere. So all in all we had 24 short documentaries.


Walk me through the process of winnowing down to the number that you ended up with, including the docs.

In general we go from the 8,700 to what we call a "short cut," no pun intended. We get it down to as many films that we could conceivably show. There are 10 of us; that's how we get through them all. We start in May and we end in November, so we watch every short that comes in; you can get through them over time. So basically we just say, "This one is good enough that all 10 of us should watch it." So there are probably about 300, both fiction and doc, that are really, really strong. I would guess in that short list we probably have 100 documentaries from around the world.

Then we all watch a movie to comment, and it really gets down to the esoteric part of it, which is the only real hard part. Just to say something's good or bad is simple. But when we can only show some shorts and not other ones, then you talk about filmmaking skill; style or not style, or if that's important in a short; the storytelling—how the story's told besides how good the story is. And you rank. Some rise higher than others. But where it really happens is when we start to put the program in play order. 

We take four days to pick all the shorts that will be in the festival and they're all probably about 10-to-12-hour days. And it's all in this little room. We're not really even fighting; we're just talking out ideas. When you start putting shorts in a play order, you want to make a great program where those shorts become even better along with other shorts. And certain short films you're going to play no matter what, but it affects how the other ones play. And it's pretty obvious that if you're going to have something light in there, what is the heavy [short] that's coming before or after it? Was it two light shorts in a row? We always have a really good longer short and that's often going to be the anchor because it's so hard to follow a really powerful 20-25-minute short film with the weight of the world in it. So you put that last, and whatever comes before that can't be the same kind of social issue subject or the same kind of style or the same kind of tone.

So it goes in front of that and you put something there, and then you just keep working around that. There are only so many types of shorts that can open a program. In the Doc Shorts program, Bacon & God's Wrath is a really fun opener, but it also says really smart things about religion, history and faith. And then later on in the program we'll have something like Jaaji Approx., the Native American short, which is pretty accessible too, but it's pretty artsy and you get something out of it but it doesn't tell you what to think. You don't really want to start with that, but it's a great film in the middle of a program.

That program was a little long this year, around 100 minutes, but we got the films we wanted in there, so that worked out. After that, you have documentaries left over. Then it's really about if one of those will play with fiction films. So we played a short called Peace in the Valley, which is also part of Field of Vision. It's really good, but it's very obviously a documentary. So it stands on its own because it's somewhat entertaining with its style and it has some light moments as well as an important social issue point to it. But then we knew that if that would precede a fiction film, you would still know it's a documentary and it was going to play well. Unfortunately there are some of those shorts that we love, but they don't play quite well enough or you can only have so many. We don't want the whole program to be a downer because people will just get bummed out and angry, and by the fifth film that's super serious in a row, it becomes less effective. So you can work that into another program. And if it plays weird with fiction shorts, then unfortunately it won't make it into the festival. 

And then we want to do one documentary short for our regular programs. It doesn't always work out that way, but we're usually pretty successful with it. The shorts before the features are obvious; it's got to be something that doesn't require a Q&A, but it makes a really nice point and does it in five to seven minutes. And we put it in front of a feature that it complements, not repeats. Sometimes it helps us with the tone for the feature, like we did with The Saint of Dry Creek. We put it in front of a fiction feature. It's just an amazing story, but it's four minutes. It's a really nice film and there are people who remember it, but it's not like you have a bunch of burning questions either.

With Jaaji Approx. and A Woman and Her Car, you had two road trips dealing with intergenerational issues. In the first, the filmmaker uses his father's recordings of Native American songs to underscore the impressionistic journey that the son takes to connect with his father, while the second filmmaker retraces his mother's horrific journey to meet the man who abused her as a child, using the footage she took to document the trip. I appreciate these thematically linked films all the more because they flanked Entrapped, a very different, more political doc. Was that your thinking in having those two films thematically related but very different in approach and story?

No, not on purpose other than we knew it was okay to have those two in the same program. We needed an anchor that's at least like 15 minutes that really gives you a huge story, so it was really obvious to have A Women and Her Car. It basically beat out other 30- and 40-minute films that we could have put in the same spot. We thought that was effective, a new way to see a story. So often you see that story told from the voice of God. It was an insane bravery on her part to film the whole thing and really go through that. She was the filmmaker and the subject in a way, which is really fresh. We just liked that there were fresh approaches in both of the films. And the fact they both connected in that way was okay for us, but we didn't really talk about it. I think it was more about when we put the other films around them, things would move up and down. And then what worked great for us was, Jaaji was a nice seven minutes without a talking head. It was really something we were thinking about. And that's like Entrapped. Entrapped is the type of film that you only want to hear about what they're saying and the undercover footage. But it's exactly what you want—talking heads telling you that. So it was a really nice mix and match. 

So that kind of stuff is just by accident because you have great films playing together. It doesn't mean they're the same film. There will be some years where it's unbelievable how similar subjects will be. The year we showed Fishing Without Nets—why is it that there are never any shorts about Somali pirates, and now there's two really good ones in the same year?

More than anything, you see that in documentaries, just because of popular subjects or controversial subjects. And so if somebody wants to do a story we've seen a million times, then we're really looking for a new way to tell it, even if it's just a subtle way.

Prior to these amazing online opportunities like OpDocs and The Guardian, Field of Vision, The Intercept, Time Inc., etc., the primary venues in which to engage shorts had been fests like Sundance, Aspen and others, and broadcast outlets like POV and HBO. Given the thousands of shorts you've seen—especially doc shorts—what have you noticed about the evolution of the short doc form? As these opportunities have arisen, what have you noticed in terms of aesthetics and approach and craft?

I started working for festivals in '93 and then started at Sundance in 2001 for the 2002 festival. I was helping out in programming, but the following year I became a shorts programmer. And we had fewer films but I still saw a lot of very stylish documentaries. That's really been the change over the past 15 years—just the idea that you can tell a really important story and still be very, very cinematic. 

It's a combination of technology where you can do really good, tricky things and not need a budget and really explore, whether it's with After Effects or just holding a shot. I think people really got smarter about how they tell a story. People have gotten a lot braver about being personal, usually in a good way. 

But you can remember all those documentary filmmakers that were doing something unique and personal and stylish through the '70s and '80s, and now it's just become a really interesting world for that. So I think people are getting better; I don't think we're noticing it more. I think it's actually happening more and people are taking chances. People also realize that with a short film, especially a documentary, there's little at stake. You're not spending as much money. The pacing and the art of doing something in 90 minutes is pretty heavy and with the weight of the world and the story, there's a lot of pressure to get it right and to tell it the right way, whereas in 10 minutes you can do some really cool, weird stuff.

One ongoing issue in the doc community is career sustainability. Have these online opportunities provided additional revenue streams? Have they ushered in a concurrent hope for sustainability as a career?

I think there's more optimism, but you're still a freelancer for sure. You still live project to project, so if you can pull off a feature, that's a great thing. I feel like there's an optimism among filmmakers making shorts because you can make a lot of projects in a year. And maybe these websites only give you a few thousand dollars to license it, but in documentary, you don't have to spend too much. And if you're smart you can get a lot out of travel and maybe you own your camera and maybe you get a friend to do the sound and you're good to go.

At the moment it feels still very "freelancy," and I know a lot of documentary filmmakers make commercials and educational stuff, or a branded documentary for a company, for internal use only. And I think that's okay. I think it could get frustrating if you get into the money world of filmmaking. The documentary filmmaker is a lot more levelheaded. 

There's still a balance of doing paid work and your own work. Of course there are a lot of people still teaching. That's still probably the number one filmmaker job. If you could balance that work and film work, that's pretty good.

The two best things I think about websites—the ones you mentioned and whatever other ones are popping up buying shorts—is it's a new outlet that never existed before, which is great. I didn't grow up watching short films on TV or in movie theaters in the '70s.  And now it really exists. 

The second thing that's great is, websites are starting to realize that they better pay for the content. This era of, "Oh, yeah, cool video; let me throw it up for free."—that's done. And it should be done because if you want something good and you want to be the only website with it, you've got to pay. Quality comes with that.

Do you work with those sites that I mentioned? There were some titles among the doc shorts that came from The Intercept, Field of Vision and New York Times Op-Docs.

No, we don't care if something's online when we show it. So there will be some crossover. We showed two shorts that ESPN paid for. They're really well done and really good. We had two shorts in Field of VisionSpeaking Is Difficult and Peace in the Valley—and then Entrapped is from The Intercept. And then The Saint of Dry Creek is StoryCorps

So, we don't care if something's online already. It should be seen on a movie screen. So there's a lot of crossover, just because websites are becoming the new studios. And they're the ones that are starting to fund and/or buy stuff and that's great. We don't work with them other than I have a lot of dialogue with all these websites. They tell me what films are coming up. I have a really good connection with ESPN. They send me their shorts that they've made but haven't aired yet and are still works in progress.

In fact, both of the ESPN shorts that we showed this year [I Am Yup'ik; The Shining Star of Losers Everywhere] were just finished in time, so it was probably the first time they were shown. And then I go the other way: I give all of these websites industry links—if the filmmaker is cool with it, and usually they are—to all the doc shorts that we're showing, so they know what's going on. And then I also give them links to other shorts that we liked but aren't showing, just to recommend good stuff for them to try to help a filmmaker out. And beyond that, they contact the producer and work out a deal. 

Do you work with festivals in a similar way—recommend your own programs as well as docs that didn't make the cut?

Yeah, same thing. I send links to Janet Pierson at SXSW, for example. And then True/False, I send them tons of links of stuff we're showing and other great shorts that we saw that we couldn't program, because it's so great to have a festival that only shows docs. Same thing with Shane Smith [director of programming] with Hot Docs. I'll tell him,  "We can show one or two 30-minute shorts, but here are 10 great 30-minute shorts. I hope you can show them because they're good."


Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine and content editor of