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‘Harvard Shorts’ Challenges Amateur Directors

By John P. Aloian, Contributing Writer

With the university’s resources, or even just a laptop, nearly every Harvard scholar can step into the role of filmmaker and create something that is coherent, intelligent, and—depending on your definition—even artistic. Some professors, noticing this, ask students to craft video presentations in lieu of standard written assignments. Just like a good paper, however, a quality academic film requires thought, time, and passion—criteria that might have intimidated all but a select few from participating in the second annual Harvard Shorts Film Festival.

In keeping with the event’s academic theme, Harvard community members could submit films under two independently judged categories: “scholarly shorts” or “scholarly serials.” Shorts gave participants two to three minutes to communicate a concise point, while the multi-part serials presented a more in-depth look into a given topic.

Of the submitted 16 shorts and five serials, the festival screened the top three entries from each category in Tsai Auditorium on Tuesday, March 8, and awarded cash prizes to the first- and second-place winners. Although the festival’s organizers had trouble filling the theater of the Center for Government and International Studies theater with more than 50 people, they luckily found a community of online voters to judge each entry’s originality, argument, clarity, and production quality.

Even among the top voted entries, however, the winning short, East Asian Studies graduate student Weiyu Tan’s “Into the Dark: Blindness in Edo Japan,” and the winning serial, Professor Shigehisa Kuriyama’s “Riddles,” clearly excelled in the voting criteria. While the winning submissions were reminiscent of a History Channel documentary, their runner-ups felt more like YouTube videos, combining online images with their directors’ personal music preferences. While the third-place short discussed Egyptian homosexuality with a swinging jazz score, Tan narrated the history of Japanese blind minstrels with a series of beautiful woodblock prints and a sad but sweet medley of traditional instruments.

Nearly every submission, however, had its fair share of strengths and weaknesses, with all of them managing to communicate at least some point within a very limited time frame. Although the two runner-up shorts, both of which discussed topics from ancient Egypt, slurred some finer details with rapid narration, they managed to convey that Ramesses II was really not so “Great,” and that royal manicurists were really not so homosexual. And despite East Asian Studies graduate student Jennifer N. van der Grinten’s use of external clips and the esotericism of Steven Anderson’s second-place serial, their directors presented a multifaceted look at modern understandings of autism and empathy, respectively.

Although the serials offered more well-rounded presentations of their topics, the festival’s minimum time requirement may have exhausted the amateur film capabilities of its scholars. Even Shigehisa’s winning serial, despite its creative use of graphics and images, began to sound monotonous and overpowered by background music halfway through the film. However, online voters seemed to have appreciated Shigehisa’s highly original approach to the nature of riddles, both in myth and everyday life. Similarly, Tan’s winning short, exploring the unusual but practical life styles of blind Japanese musicians, may have struck a chord with voters with its ability to place Japanese history within the broad but powerful question, “what would you do if you were blind?”

The festival’s mission, according to its website, is “to illustrate how creative artistic expression can be made integral to scholarly communication.” Already in its second year, the festival’s website and film archive now boasts roughly 30 original submitted short films that either reexamine familiar topics or teach something entirely new. Just from viewing the top voted entries, though, it seems hard to say if the level of participation is meeting the expectations of Kuriyama, the festival’s creator and this year’s serial winner.

Toward the end of the event, Kuriyama himself admitted that the festival’s organizers have had trouble spreading the word about the two-year-old film-screening event. The top submissions in the serial’s category, each directed by either the festival’s creator or fellow scholars in East Asian studies, especially highlighted the need for wider participation. While the festival’s winning directors receive cash prizes, a few more years may be needed for the festival to garner the participation and prestige that it deserves.

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