Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Tropfest New York 2012


We had never heard of Tropfest. It seems it is the world’s largest festival for short films. When I say short, I mean short. The maximum running time is seven minutes, credits included. It began small in Sydney in 1993 and gradually expanded, sort of like Sundance. Now it’s a pretty big deal, having had festivals in Abu Dhabi, London, Berlin, Toronto, Bangkok, and New York. Wow!

This is for real beginners. Many submissions are first films by these aspiring directors. It’s a chance to be seen, to possibly get noticed and move on to bigger things. At this festival, for instance, there were a fair number of important people from both sides of the camera as judges, and Hugh Jackman was the host.

Aside from the length, the film has to have been made in the previous year. The way they enforce that is to announce a Tropfest Signature Item (TSI) early in the year. This year it was a bagel. Your film has to have a bagel in it somewhere. This is to ensure that no one digs an old effort out of the trunk. It doesn’t have to be about bagels, we just have to see one. They can be shot on anything, from the finest pro equipment to a cell phone. From 200 entries, the field was winnowed to 8, and unlike other award ceremonies, they were all shown in their entirety, with the directors present. And the winners were:

FIRST PLACE: “Emptys” A first-time effort by a mortgage broker from Portland, Oregon. He interviews three men and one woman who wander the streets looking for redeemable bottles and cans. All four have a pretty bright outlook on life, considering their circumstances. It’s very professionally done, with what is obviously a good camera. I can see this director might have a future in documentaries.

SECOND PLACE: “The Break-up Tour.” This one was hilarious. It was shot in one day with six actors on the streets of New York. The idea is this guy is hustling tours, telling tourists that for $40 he will show them around the Village, taking them to the high points. It soon turns out that this is a man with a broken heart, and he’s re-visiting all the places that were important to him in his relationship to his lost love. He gets sadder and sadder … and I won’t reveal the payoff, but it is absolutely terrific. All the actors are good, and the writer could definitely go places.

THIRD PLACE: “Elvis: The Lonely Hunter of Circle Beach.” My personal favorite, though it was a close thing with the one just above. Elvis is a little mutt dog, roaming around the beach where bagels are lurking in the sand. Bagels turn out to be actually living things, like clams or other crustaceans. They usually don’t move around much, but when they have to they can roll pretty fast. Elvis finds them and eats them. It’s all done like a nature documentary, showing how the bagels live, even shows how they spawn. Their offspring? Cheerios! I loved that. The director claims his total budget was $1.59, for two bagels. I think he used a few more than that, but it’s possible he’s telling the truth. This is another guy who find a career in the movies.

“I’m Happy.” Probably my least favorite. A man is running, falls over from a heart attack, and a narrator delivers some Zen platitudes about life and living it to the fullest. Meh.

“Elevator” A mini-drama about an office cleaner who brings her toddler to work, leaves him on the 6th floor in his stroller, goes downstairs to toss out some trash and then can’t get back to the floor because the elevator malfunctions. The director says it was a recreation of a personal experience.

“Killer Bagels From Outer Space” The shortest of the short. Basically a one-joke animation, no doubt created on her iMac.

“Thanks, Dad” The most emotionally involving entry. A man confronts his piece-of-shit father about the time he emptied a gun into the kitchen walls while his wife was cowering on the floor. The man tells his father that he learned to be a man by watching what his father did, and then doing everything exactly the opposite. I was surprised this didn’t get into the top three.

“Mingo” The director might have a career in music videos, because that’s what this is. It is wonderfully shot and edited, following a girl around the more colorful and kinetic locations of San Francisco with a very active camera. It was great to look at, just a riot of color and motion.

I’ll be keeping an eye out for Tropfest in the future. In the meantime, there are tons of them available on YouTube, and some of them are even better than these.