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By Davide Tofani

Cinematographic length - a Definition of the Short Film

Length of film, or parts of a film, expressed in metres. Professional 35mm film passes through the projector at a rate of 24 frames per second, thus a minute of film corresponds to 27.36 metres, an hour to 1641.6 metres. On this basis films are divided into full length (70 minutes and above), medium length (50 - 70 minutes), and short films (15 - 20 minutes)

Short Films

According to many experts there is no fundamental difference between full-length and short films, as can be seen from the many directors who move easily from one medium to another without great stylistic changes. The important point is to communicate a particular vision of the world. The short film does not have to be an anonymous document, but the synthesis of an intellectual process communicating a personal message.

Henri Agel expressed this on several occasions:

"without doubt a craftsman, a simple observer, with a certain level of intellectual and poetic involvement, is capable of producing an honest documentary film. But the most beautiful documentaries are made by researchers, polemicists, scientists, philosophers, poets, who bring a subjective richness to their film-making which takes over the screen. These people transform their films into treatises, satires, elegies, passionate and grim meditations."

The distinction between full-length and short films is entirely arbitrary: in France in 1940 a law defined for the first time the kinds of programming possible in public cinemas. Later, in 1964, another law passed in France declared that films longer than 60 minutes should be considered full-length, a rigid definition which required critics to create a new term for intermediate length films. One of the first "medium-length" films was "Dawn of the 6th of June" by Grémillon, which was subsequently distributed in both short and long versions. An effective comparison can be made here with the differences between a short story, a novella and a novel.

A Brief History of the Short Film

France has produced a large number of good quality short films, from the time of Luis Lumière to those of Jean Vigo, Alain Resnais and Méliés, Jean Lods, Charles Rouquier, Jean Epstain, Jean  Painlevé (who made many scientific films), Jeanm Rouch (who made anthropological and ethnographical films), Paul Grimault (animation), and the above mentioned Jean Grémillon (who made documentaries about art), as well as many others. It should not be forgotten that the short film has always been a format suited to stylistic experimentation and as a first step for many directors. During the fifties and sixties the young directors of the "Nouvelle Vague" took their first steps in the medium of short film: François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Jacques Rozier, Jacques Demy, Agnès Varda,and Chris Marker.

In Britain during the thirties the documentary film came to the fore, with what became known as the GPO school, under the guidance of John Grierson and Alberto Cavalcanti. Their aim was to unite lyricism with direct observation of social phenomena, such as the life of mineworkers and the night journey of the post trains. The Canadian National Film Board continued this tradition of short documentary films into the forties. The contributions of Orson Welles and of Wim Wenders (who made most of his short films during the eighties), should also be remembered.

In Italy we should remember Luciano Emmer and Antonioni during the fifties and, much later, Monicelli. In Belgium there was Henri Storck and Paul Haesaerts; in Holland the militant Joris Ivens; in Denmark an outstanding contribution to short films by a master of cinema, Carl Theodor Dreyer, with his film "They Missed the Boat". In Sweden there was Arne Sucksdorff with his brief documentaries on cities; in the Soviet Union short films on ethnology and zoology, and finally, in the US, Scorsese and the greatest documentary film maker of all time: Robert Flaherty.

To conclude this brief round-up of the history of short films it should be remembered that these films have rarely interested the main distributors or the public at large and have failed to attract investors. However, since the seventies, the short film has experienced a rebirth and has entered a mass market thanks mostly to music videos and to TV advertising, which have become increasingly complex and film-like. Whether this constitutes a second youth for the short film or a parallel but distinct genre is open to debate, although the proliferation of festivals and specialist film schools in this sector would seem to confirm the second hypothesis.

Political Short Films of the Seventies and Eighties

A characteristic of these decades was a profound reflection on the political role of cinema, in which many directors were involved. A "militant" cinema was born, intervening directly in politics with the intent of providing counter information, and assuming the character of an agit-prop. Short films assumed a fundamental role in this sense. Some of the best examples include films about the Black Panthers, university occupations, the fall of the Communist states of Eastern Europe and films on the Balkan wars of the nineties. These were all documentary films destined for the "alternative circuit" - distributed by cultural and political organizations such as trades unions.


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