The Shanghai International Short Film Contest was back again this year with nearly twenty films hitting the screen at the big event earlier this month. Now that the house lights have come back up we take some time reflect on what we saw, hear from some of the filmmakers involved, and chat with SISFC director Richard Trombly about the success of this year’s competition.
“It’s really been about inspiring people to get involved in the arts and the community,” says Trombly of the contest’s mission. “Networking is also a big part of our goal.”
With so many other festivals out there—in both China and elsewhere—Trombly further emphasizes that the decision to go with a contest format is part of what helps the SISFC stand out from other similar independent film events.
“The difference is for festivals people can take years and invest many thousands of dollars to compete in international festivals around the globe.” By contrast, Trombly explains that, “All the films in this contest are made specifically for the contest and on a limited time of less than a month.”
Nearly a hundred people have gone on from making their first serious short film with the contest to working in the industry.
Not only has the contest continued to attract a growing number of participants in recent years, it’s also started to develop a proven track record for serving as a launch pad for locally-based filmmakers to kick-start their professional careers.
“There have been about a hundred-and-fifty short films made over the years,” states Trombly, adding that, “Nearly a hundred people have gone on from making their first serious short film with the contest to working in the industry.”
In addition to boosting the sheer number of projects being shot on the China indie scene, the contest has also continued to double-down on the quality of films being produced and this year’s crop of shorts is no exception.
“We’ve had some truly amazing contest entries in the past, but the community has grown and the quality of the entries this year truly set the bar at a higher level.”
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of this year’s winners.
Jerry (Best Sound/Music, Meiwenti Indie Spirit Award)
SISFC award-winner Jerry tells the grim tale of a guy whose dating and social life is complicated just a little bit by a chorus of voices in his head which drive him to commit murder.
In discussing the source of inspiration for the film, writer-director Ray Kenderdine hints that some of the best ideas often comes from random—if not dark—places.
“The idea for this particular story came from a conversation with my roommate about what makes a film scary,” says Kenderdine. “For me it’s always the psychological, unseen—yet ever present—angle.”
At the center of the film’s insanity is actor Troy Sandford (in the role of the title character) and Kenderdine has nothing but praise for the level of professionalism he brought to the picture.
“Troy is one of the most serious actors I’ve ever seen in that he really sits and listens to the story of the character, asks questions and tries to build so much more of a psychological profile and past than what you ever get to see on screen.”
Without those voices, Jerry is just kind of a weird guy, instead of the crazy or haunted killer that he is.
Of course, filling out the supporting cast are the chorus of voices inside Jerry’s head and the film would be nothing without them.
“They’re the glue that holds the whole thing together,” states Kenderdine. “Without those voices, Jerry is just kind of a weird guy, instead of the crazy or haunted killer that he is.”
En route to scooping up the SISFC award for Best Sound/Music, Kenderdine worked closely with Brazilian composer Rafael Sautchuk to come up with the overall effect he was looking for.
“We went over the sound design I had in mind and he very quickly came back with what you hear in the film. He’s pretty gifted at pulling sound meanings out of my emotional descriptions.”
The film also took home the Meiwenti Indie Spirit Award (given to the film that most embodies the independent spirit of community filmmaking) and Kenderdine emphasizes the importance of networking in making it all happen.
“It was a matter of putting myself in a position to meet the right people. It really began with my DP Chris McMillon, whom I met working on a sitcom for a producer we both know. From there all the other members [of the production team] fell into place.”
How to get in touch: Follow Ray Kenderdine’s Randomly Kreated on Vimeo or contact him via WeChat (randomlykreated).
The Voiceman (Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography)
The Voiceman tells the story of a disgruntled voice-over artist who demands the delivery of one-hundred million dollars in exchange for the whereabouts of a deadly explosive planted in the downtown of a major urban center.
The film captured the SISFC awards for both cinematography and screenwriting and as writer-director Andrej Iliev explains, the two aspects went pretty much hand-in-hand on the project.
“Our DOP Lutz Papenfuß came to me with an idea of a film about a voice-over artist and I wrote the first draft in the next few days because I thought it was a cool original idea. Over the next couple of weeks, I did small rewrites.”
Along the way, the story underwent a number of changes, including adding a whole new ending.
“Originally, the Voiceman was supposed to be set-up by a terrorist group using his voice for their illegal activities, as sort of a punishment for his incredible arrogance,” Iliev explains. “But, the feedback was that that set-up was too complicated to work in a short film.”
Would you use your powers for good or evil?
In the end, what they came up with was a story about the consequences of underestimating people.
“It can be about the little guy. Or, what you can do with the little you have available,” says Iliev. “Would you use your powers for good or evil? It’s also a bit of a twist on the super hero genre, where the superhero—the Voiceman—is using his voiceover ‘powers’ for evil.”
Despite his own intentions as a filmmaker, the director admits he’s open to different interpretations of the work from those who see it.
“Some feel it’s kind of a man-versus-technology cautionary tale, where our words are being used in ways we don’t expect. Only now it just happens faster and we don’t notice it as much.”
As for the look of the film, Iliev worked closely with Papenfuß to ensure they got the feel they were after.
“We knew we wanted something dark and mysterious that would fit the theme of the film,” he states. “We had some images already in mind but also played around a bit during the shoot.”
And, although the film was shot entirely in Shanghai, one very important member of the cast literally had to phone in his part.
“Rueben Marley provided the voice for the Voiceman. He was already with the project from the beginning,” recalls Iliev. “I was on the phone with him almost every day working on his lines because he’s based in Hangzhou, so we did the whole voiceover bit over the phone.”
Ultimately, Iliev emphasizes, it took a whole team of people to see the project through to its conclusion and a big part of the film’s success came from ensuring he surrounded himself with the right people.
“Working with the team was great. A lot of these guys graduated from Shanghai VFS and their level of professionalism is noticeable. Everyone was extremely talented and passionate and we had a great time shooting.”
Where to watch it: Youku
How to get in touch: Check out more of Andrej Iliev’s work on his website here.
The Barman and the Songstress (Best Experimental/MV, Best Production Design, Best Costuming)
Combining elements of a short film and a music video, The Barman and the Songstress tells the story of a guy and a girl who dream about leaving behind the nickels and dimes of life in the bar for the limelight of the big stage.
As director Jud Willmont explains, when it came to developing ideas for the project, the team took a rather different—albeit somewhat practical—approach.
“Rather than develop a script and then go out and find locations, we first looked at locations and then thought about different ideas we could come up with for the different genres we might end up selecting.”
And, with talent in the form of Spencer Ball and Goddess Elle Siren already on board, the project looked headed for a musical destiny very early on.
“We had also already cast two musically talented actors so we were thinking of going for a music theme somehow,” says Willmont. “At first, we were just looking for a venue that had a bar and a stage but when we saw the surreal VIP rooms, we locked the location before we even had a script.”
I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I just hope the song isn’t terrible.’
Of course, the decision to go with a music video meant not only making a film but also coming up with a workable track to build it around. As Willmont states, this brought a whole new level of complexity—and worries—to the project.
“We had only two or three days to write and record the finished song so we could shoot and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I just hope the song isn’t terrible’.”
What they emerged from the studio with was a new song called ‘Hear My Voice’ and it turned out to be one of the great moments for those working on the film.
“Once we wrote the lyrics and laid down a piano track and started putting everything to a beat, all of a sudden this song that we literally wrote over night started to sound pretty catchy. So that moment when it felt like we were going to have a hit song was fantastic.”
Even then, perhaps the biggest high for the cast and crew was the screening at the SISFC event itself.
“During the premiere when the story goes from a noir-esque lounge scene into the rap video the crowd just exploded,” recalls Willmont. “I really think we delivered something unexpected and the audience response was just fantastic. That for me was the best moment.”
A big part of the connection the work has already established with audiences also comes from a very human place.
“It’s about the struggle that people have in wanting to follow their dreams and the risk you have to take in order to do so. In the fantasy, the barman chooses his dream, but when we cut back to reality we’re still left with the question—will he or won’t he? So, we leave it open.”
Ultimately, Willmont says he hopes that the video and the song will have a lasting effect on those who see and hear it.
“It’s also about how we feel as artists trying to make film or music or anything that might be considered outside the ‘safe’ choices of life. We want the audience to feel that as well.”
Where to watch it: Vimeo
Stay tuned tomorrow for the sequel to our look at the best of the 2016 Shanghai International Short Film Contest when we check out the winners of the awards for Best Choreography, Best Actor & Actress, Best Film, and more.
In the meantime, find out more about the Shanghai International Short Film Contest on their website here.