L.A. Film Festival: Socially conscious short docs
Even in a city as entertainment-oriented as Los Angeles, short films can be a tough sell. But one new player in the space — Focus Forward Films — is hoping to win over audiences with a socially conscious approach to short documentaries.
Focus Forward is a series of three-minute documentaries that shed a light on innovative individuals who are shaping the world through acts or inventions. The program boasts a roster of 30 international filmmakers, and since its inception in September, nine of its films have been shown at festivals (five premiered at Sundance and four at Tribeca). Four more will premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, which kicked off Thursday (in all, The Times-sponsored fest is showing 52 short films). GE has put up more than $1 million to underwrite the program, which is administered by Cinelan.
The Focus Forward debuts in L.A. include shorts by two Oscar nominees, Liz Garbus and Eddie Schmidt. Garbus, producer-director of “The Farm: Angola, USA” and “Bobby Fischer Against the World,” has made a short called “Robot,” which looks at the benefits well-developed robots can provide. Schmidt (“Twist of Faith”) has made a short called “Good Bread,” a story about L.A.’s Father Greg Boyle, who teaches job skills to ex-cons through Homeboy Industries.
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The other two Focus Forward films bowing in L.A. are “New Gift,” a story about an activist who works closely with peasant farmers in rural India to get them cultivating organic produce, directed by Supriyo Sen; and “Remote Area Medical,” featuring a group of volunteers in West Virginia who set up a clinic in a football stadium to provide free healthcare to anyone who walks through the door, directed by Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman.
“Within the batch of films premiering at the Los Angeles Film Festival, three of those films are more about social innovations and social innovators — people who are working very hard in order to create change in their own society,” said Damon Smith, Focus Forward’s director of acquisitions. “They are really meant to inspire, educate and show the different ways that individuals or an individual can have a significant impact on how we live, how we think and on how we practice science.”
Cinelan pays a license fee of $20,000 to $30,000 to each filmmaker, which gives Cinelan the right to use the film for the duration of the program.
To ensure the films are seen as widely as possible, Focus Forward has a multi-platform release program. On the day that one of its shorts premieres at a festival, it is also made available on its website as well as on Vimeo, Facebook and via Twitter. Focus Forward will also be rolling its films onto cable and broadcast, via Amazon, Voodoo, Comcast, Time Warner, Video on Demand and even gaming systems such as Sony PlayStation.
“Pretty much any platform you can think of, these films will live in those places. So we are no longer dependent on a festival’s success like a traditional short film might have had to depend on,” Smith said.
So far, Focus Forward directors have tackled topics including bionic eyes, an innovative heart pump and green-powered homes.
Schmidt, who produced the documentaries “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” and “Chain Camera,” said he “really liked the idea of telling a tight story with characters about something uniquely innovative in the culture.”
“It’s easy to do a short documentary in seven or eight minutes, but three minutes is a trick. It’s a great exercise, and it’s a great challenge. It teaches you to be economical,” he added. “Having worked with trailers and sketch comedy, I knew how to communicate in a short bit. But having characters that go the distance is different. And having a mini-arc, more than one character and an idea in three minutes is a nifty throw-down for any filmmaker.”
“Good Bread’s” Schmidt said he had seen many stories on Homeboy Industries, but they were broad. “I wanted to see what it was like for one person, one man or woman, turning their life around in one moment. If I could encapsulate that, then I could communicate what is so special and unique about the whole program.”
L.A. Film Festival screening times for Focus Forward shorts:
“New Gift”: Shorts Program 1. Saturday, June 16, 4:30 p.m.; Sunday, June 17, 9:20 p.m.
“Remote Area Medical”: Screens before feature film “Sun Kissed.” Saturday, June 16, 1:40 p.m.; Monday, June 18, 7:40 p.m.
“Good Bread”: Shorts Program 2. Sunday, June 17, 4:40 p.m.; Wednesday, June 20, 9:50 p.m.
“Robot”: Screens before feature film “Robot & Frank.” Thursday, June 21, 5 p.m.; Saturday, June 23, 7:10 p.m.
-- Jasmine Elist
Photos: Scenes from "New Gift" and "Robot." Credit: Focus Forward