shnit Happens

Sean Drummond from the shnit International Shortfilmfestival drops knowledge

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Nick Gordon

The 13th edition of the shnit International Shortfilmfestival runs from 7-18 October. That’s 8 cities showing the finest short films in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Bern, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Cape Town, Moscow and San Jose. Sean Drummond is the former Cape Town festival manager, now international coordinator and one of the foolishly ambitious individuals responsible for ensuring that the 12-day festival runs smoothly. That’s 200 short films across five continents and US$100,000 in cash prizes to give away. shnit happens, because of Sean. Learn from him.

I sent a two-line email to shnit saying, “Hey, you guys should come to Cape Town, there’s cool things happening here, we’ll host it for you.” Two lines. Didn’t think much of it until I got a phone call a couple of months later from shnit saying that they wanted to come to Cape Town. We pulled it together in two or three weeks. We were filmmakers. None of us had any idea what we were doing because none of us had ever done anything like this before. Events... Screenings... That was six years ago. We’re not bad at it now... 

The films didn’t arrive that first year. To launch with a bang we’d invited a bunch of people and the Labia came on board as a partner right away and we had the space, the people, bar, bands… everything. Just no films. They’d sent them on a hard drive from Switzerland, two or three weeks before, but the courier’s system had gone down and nobody knew where the package was. This was before the Internet was good enough to send files digitally. I’d told a guy at the courier office at the airport that as soon as it arrived he should call me and I’d fetch immediately. So the day of the festival arrives and we still don’t have the films. Anyway, that afternoon I got a phone call from my guy saying that he has the package. I’m in the car on my way there when I get a call from another woman from the courier company saying that she has my package. I say yes, I know, I’m on my way to fetch it. She says she’s in Johannesburg and it's stuck in customs. We’ll get it the next day. We get into an argument. I turn around and start heading back home when I get a call from the dude who’d called me earlier, who says that my box is on his desk and I need to get there because he’s ready to go home. Long story short, I got the thing and got to the festival with ten minutes to go. And it was a huge success 

Every year there’s something that happens. Like it will rain on opening night. There are bars, sponsor partners, drinks are free, food is free, everything is flowing, everything, everything, and then rain. Ten minutes before people are supposed to arrive it stops. I’m telling you. Every. Year.

I broke through the stress barrier once. I was so stressed prepping for the festival that I’d wake up every morning at 04:00am in a flat panic and pull my laptop out and start working until I couldn’t stay awake anymore. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone do that. From that panic I broke through a barrier and had this crazy dopamine response where I’ve never been so calm. Nothing could phase me during the actual festival. There was this buzz in one of our venues because the wiring hadn’t been done right, you know when something hasn’t been earthed right, and there’s that noise? People were freaking out, and I was monk-like calm. ‘Everything will be fine...’ Again, ten minutes before the film starts someone puts a light off somewhere in the building and sure enough, everything is fine. The shnit effect. 

Still, it’s just really satisfying. We’re all in this together. We all want the industry to grow and get stronger. We all want to see films like Necktie Youth come out.

I think it’s a coincidence that Necktie Youth and Love The One You Love are coming out at the same time. It’s cool because they’re such different films but are almost spiritually connected in how they were made. Super budget, super indie, super personal films. Jenna and Sibs are both young, innovative film voices, and we’ve been proud to screen them in the past. 

Sibs was probably the first filmmaker we had come down from Joburg, He attended the festival a few years ago with his film Death of Tropics. When we asked him to be on the jury panel this year he said that the festival was one of his formative experiences as a filmmaker, and showed him that he was on the right path. That was affirming for the festival.

You get short films that are very flashy.  They’re captivating and beautiful, but they can still be quite empty. All glitz and sheen and no substance, you know? With Shnit the programme tends to go deeper. More human. More raw. Tapping into something that’s richer.

There’s quite a political programme this year. I suppose that’s because global lineups reflect something of a mind state and it’s interesting to note that aspects of the international programme this year is quite political.

The Parcel is in the international competition. All films go into one selection pot and they choose from thousands of entries. Then if a film is from a country that has a festival it also goes into their pot. So The Parcel is in the national competition. There are 13 films in the national competition. And 24 out of competition. As well as real top quality films from any given year, we try and programme new voices and stuff that wouldn’t get shown anywhere else. We try and vary our programme up a lot. It’s a real celebration of local shorts across the board.  

There’s something for everybody. A lot of these films tend to offer something raw and real, but then there’s funny stuff, too. And a lot of it is risqué, pushing boundaries. We’ve got a late-night nudie programme, Peeping shnit, that’s always popular. We do animation blocks. Documentary blocks. Run Jose, Dave Meinert’s short experimental doc about Jose Joao, the bouncer from The Power and the Glory, that’s in the International Documentary block. There’s an experimental film block. We’ve got a fun block about bad luck, so we also curate programmes according to themes. You’ll come and watch two hours of films, and you’ll see six to eight films that are totally different. And if you hate two of them you’ll love four. 

People want to hear our stories. There’s a self-limiting mindset here where you have people thinking that we’re in a bubble making films for people in a bubble and "It’s so hard to make films here and there’s never enough money" and I don’t think that’s true. I think people are looking for interesting stories and interesting new ideas especially from somewhere like South Africa where it’s fresh.

You could say that festivals like shnit keep The Labia alive, injecting the life blood into the place. But on the other hand The Labia keeps festivals alive by offering a space for them. They’ve been great to us. And there’s nowhere like this. You can feel the history and the soul of the place. Especially since almost every other art house cinema in Cape Town has shut down. 

The resources for local filmmakers we have here are more than what some other countries have to offer. There are amazing tax incentives and rebates. Government institutions that put money into film. A pretty strong grant system. But there’s also a commercially minded production model that encourages people to make films that people will want to watch. You could argue that we have the best of both worlds - producers are encouraged to be business savvy and develop viable projects, with a development and soft-funding support base behind them.

Shorts can be hugely important to getting exposure and becoming a feature film. A lot of interest in a feature can come out of a short proof of concept or pilot short film. They’re great tools for attracting finance, or international sales companies will use them as tools to attract interest.

Have a great script, have a proof of video, shoot a short pilot. Be it a scene, be it a concept reel, be it a short version, do that and investors, distributors, whoever might end up being interested in your film can look at it and go “that’s what we’re getting.” 

It’s not only that. I don’t think shorts are just a vehicle to get your feature made. Shorts are a viable – maybe not a money-spinning – industry, but a viable form by themselves. Especially as an art medium. People exclusively make shorts and make great shorts and make a name and reputation out of doing that. And that’s cool.

Cellphones, YouTube, internet – it’s all democratising film. People have such short attention spans and so it’s easier to zap a ten-minute short film in your workday, rather than having to commit two hours of your life to something that may or may not be that satisfying anyway.

You just need to look at a lot of mainstream blockbuster films to see that we’re conditioned to immediate gratification these days. The new Jurassic World film? I hated it. Jurassic Park was the reason why I make films today. It was all about the slow burn, a simmering tension and the moment when you see the dinosaurs you were like, 'ah, this is mind-blowing.'  Jurassic World just throws dinosaurs at you. Hundreds of CGI dinosaurs from start to finish.

That said, I watched Fast and Furious 7 and loved it. They drive a Corvette from one skyscraper into another skyscraper! You got to watch it. So ridiculous. 

Be sure to check the full line up at shnit.org and book your tickets.