Indy Shorts puts spotlight on short films

Being short has its advantages.

In the world of short films, directors have no choice but to be succinct and straight to the point. Their action launches right at the beginning, and doesn’t stop until the closing credits run.

These films have a condensed time frame to convey joy, heartbreak, struggle and triumph. Every scene counts.

“They have to tell a story, they have to create a place that has a certain look and feel to it, and they have to accomplish that story in a short period of time. So they’re focused on accomplishing that,” said Craig Prater, president of Heartland Film. “You don’t see that focus when dealing with feature films.”

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The unique art of short filmmaking will capture the attention of central Indiana this weekend, with the second inception of the Indy Shorts International Film Fest. Dedicated entirely to features and documentaries with short running times, the event was created by Indianapolis-based arts organization Heartland Film and is the largest short film-focused festival in the Midwest.

The emphasis on short films, particularly those made by Indiana creators, gives viewers access to a wonderful array of experiences all in one central festival. That’s important for those filmmakers whose work will be showcased.

“What is so magnetic to me is being able to tell stories. That sounds so simple. “But you can show something to a viewer, and they can feel a certain way about it, that’s really important,” said Jenna Ruiz, an Avon resident who directed the film “Singh,” featured in the fest.

Heartland Film has been staging the Heartland International Film Festival since 1992. The event brings hundreds of unique features, documentaries, live action and animated work together, all under the mission of inspiring people through film.

In years past, both full-length and short films have been showcased. But as the festival has matured, a majority of the festival submissions have been in the short-film category — 40 minutes or less.

With that growth, and the robust creativity behind these films, it became necessary to separate the shorts out, Prater said.

“In short films, to get the attention that they deserve, they have to be in stand-alone events because many times they’re treated as second-class citizens when they’re placed in a feature festival,” he said. “A lot of film festivals wouldn’t admit it, but short films are often used as filler, to take up some time, and they’re not given the attention they should.”

The festival was created last year, and attracted interest from both filmmakers and audiences across the region. The festival’s mascot, a diminutive gnome named Iggy, was omnipresent around central Indiana.

Not only did the Indianapolis film community come to the various screenings and activities included in the festival, but Heartland Film noticed a number of people who were interested in the arts as a whole attended, Prater said.

The event returns with 152 films being shown over the next four days. Once again, the diverse nature of the films has surprised organizers.

“Filmmakers of short films are a little more creative, a little more risk-takers. They’re always younger. It is a different art film from feature-film making,” Prater said. “They’re not afraid of what a studio or distributor is going to think. They just want to show their heart.”

The program for this year’s festival includes films from top international filmmakers, high school creators, award-winning films from the Joyce Forum at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival, and shorts from Bangkok, Thailand’s 9Film Fest.

The Indiana Spotlight program showcases Hoosier filmmakers as well as films that were created here in the state.

“While we’re an international film festival, we don’t lose sight of our Indiana filmmakers,” Prater said. “We’re true to our filmmakers here in Indiana, and letting them express what their plans are for the future.”

For filmmakers such as Ruiz, that support is vital. She has been involved in the local acting and film world for more than 10 years. She has seen the drain of filmmaking talent from her home state to other places in the country, as creators feel like they can’t stay in Indiana and find success.

“What Heartland and Indy Shorts is doing is one of the best things that Indiana has had in a long time. A lot of people here have some great ideas. They have a great idea, and then they take it to Atlanta, or they take it to New York. They feel like they have something great, but it’s too good for Indiana,” she said. “Things like this are really helping people realize they don’t have to go somewhere better to be successful.”

Her own experience is a perfect example of that. “Singh” tells the story of Gurinder Singh Khalsa, a Fishers resident and Indian-American Sikh activist. As a Sikh, he wears a turban, which is one of the five sacred articles of faith of the religion.

The film recounts an experience he had in 2007, when he was told at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport in New York that he had to remove his turban. When he did not, he was forcibly removed from the airport.

The experience led Singh Khalsa to work with U.S. leaders to get the policy changed that would force Sikhs to remove their turbans when flying.

Ruiz encountered his story while serving on a political action committee for Singh Khalsa. As his media producer, she filmed and posted his political actions on a day-to-day basis.

As he told Ruiz about his experience at the airport, something clicked.

“When he told me this story, about a year after I started working for him, I immediately thought, ‘Why didn’t he tell me this yet, and why haven’t we made a movie about it yet?’” she said. “This was a story that had to be told, that people needed to hear.”

Ruiz decided that the best approach was to recreate the events of 2007, with Singh Khalsa portraying himself. She put together a cast, and requested to film in the Indianapolis International Airport.

But realistically showing his experience, rather than doing a documentary, it provided a more impactful narrative.

“I didn’t want people to just hear the story, I wanted them to feel it. I wanted them to live the story alongside him,” Ruiz said. “For people who don’t wear a turban or don’t have a beard, they wouldn’t be able to experience that outside of a film.”

Other programs of the festival include a special screening of movies from the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge will focus on how the world defines and views disability, and how talented people are changing that definition.

Heartland Film also took the 5050×2020 pledge, a commitment made by the film industry to ensure gender parity in filmmaking. While entities have pledged to have a 50 percent split by 2020, the organizers of Indy Shorts will have met that for this year’s festival.

“We’re way above the norm already, and it’s completely by accident. We’re picking out the films that are holding their own in festivals such as Cannes, Tribeca, Sundance. That says a lot about our film department for recognizing talent for what it should be.”

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Indy Shorts International Film Festival

What: A showcase of more than 150 top short films from all over the world, organized by Heartland Film.

Where: Newfields, 4000 Michigan Ave., Indianapolis

When: Today through Sunday

Special events

  • Indy Shorts Kickoff and After Party, 9:30 p.m. today, the Toby at Newfields; a special party kicks off the grand opening of Indy Shorts International Film Festival at this red-carpet style event.
  • Summer Nights at Newfields, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Newfields; an outdoor screening of a selection of Oscar-nominated short films and free pizza from HotBox Pizza.
  • Awards Show & Screening, 7 p.m. Saturday, Newfields; a celebration of Indy Shorts’ filmmakers, honoring their outstanding work and moving stories.
  • Secret Lives of Muslims: Journeys from Hate to Love, 3:30 p.m. Sunday, JCC of Indianapolis, 6701 Hoover Road; a screening and discussion about the Emmy-winning short film series "Secret Lives of Muslims."
  • Shorts & Vibes, 6 p.m. Sunday, the Jazz Kitchen, 5377 N. College Ave., Indianapolis; enjoy some short films and dance the evening away.

Tickets: Individual events are $12; VIP passes to all screenings and events are $95.

Full schedule and tickets: