Social activism and short films have a uniquely symbiotic relationship. After all, if you can’t make your point in eight minutes or less, then you probably should find another medium. Some of the 16 short independent films selected for this year’s Media That Matters Film Festival in New York take even less time to make their points, "asking questions the networks are afraid to ask," says Paul Greenberg of Arts Engine, the festival’s organizer. Through satire, traditional documentary narrative or with hard-hitting investigative techniques, the films probe some of our most challenging social issues by moving viewers to take political action.
Arts Engine has been collaborating with high schools, universities, libraries and community groups in every U.S. state for the past six years to build what Greenberg and his colleagues call a "coalition of the active" that uses video and film to spur social change. On the festival’s companion Web site, where the 16 selected films run throughout the year, film-specific "take action links"- inviting a viewer to write to a congressional representative or join a human rights group- appear beneath the selected clip. This combination of grassroots activism and technology, says Greenberg, creates a "unique, year-long viral media campaign, giving the festival a really healthy life online. We had a total Web audience of about 500,000 viewers this past year and we want to reach all of them, and more, over time."
The festival attracts new and emerging filmmakers alike. This year’s jury prize film, Slip of the Tongue, was directed and edited by a 16-year-old high school student. "We’re a populist film festival," says Greenberg, attracting some 500 annual submissions from across the country and the world. He has noticed one dominant theme among this year’s entrants, regardless of age: some 70 percent cut their short films on Final Cut Pro.
Though Media That Matters doesn’t rely on the celebrity engine the way some bigger film festivals do, Arts Engine won’t deny that a good name always helps to promote a good cause. In addition to a diverse set of activist partners and groups from across the country, other high-profile supporters and judges have included Oscar-nominated filmmakers and actors, including Tim Robbins, editors from The New Yorker, Vogue and McSweeney’s, and HBO and Sundance Channel programmers. Adobe, Netflix and HBO are major corporate sponsors.
The sixth annual Media That Matters Film Festival made its public premiere at the IFC Center in New York on May 31. From there, the 16 selected films are scheduled to go on a 50-city national tour’ and to some international venues’ with specially tailored screenings that highlight issues relevant to a particular local community. Arts Engine will also send the entire set of films on 10,000 DVDs to schools, along with a standards-based teacher’s study guide on how to use independent media in the classroom. If you can’t get to a screening, you can always go online: The festival runs through May 2007 at Arts Engine is accepting submissions on a rolling basis for the seventh annual festival through next February.
PHOTO CAPTION: Actor Tim Robbins (left) poses with two winners from the fifth annual Media That Matters Film Festival, producers Chris “Shakademic” Johnson (center) and Glenn Scott. Their new film, No Child, directed by Gabe Cheifetz, looks at the connection between military recruiting tactics in poor schools and the No Child Left Behind act. It is one of 16 selections at this year’s festival.