P.O.V. No.18 - Storytelling

Poetry on screen or visualised jokes?
An approach to the genres of short fiction films

Saara Cantell

One of the main problems in today's short films is, as I see it, the incapacity to see short film storytelling as an art form in its own right. All too often short films are considered only as the obligatory phase before the real goal; directing short films is just something one has to do in order to learn to make the "real" feature films. As very few established film directors continue to direct short films, most of the short fictions are made by film students. The uneven quality of these films can be only partly explained by the inexperience of the filmmakers. Much is also due to the ways in which short film storytelling is generally taught in film schools and universities. A quick glance through scriptwriting books on short films gives quite a clear picture as to what it is all about:

[T]here are some things you can't hope to achieve in short form that you might well hope to achieve in feature-length form. You can't hope to properly develop a multitude of major characters in a short script, for example, or to construct four separate and complete plot lines." (Ric Beairsto: The Tyranny of Story, 1998)

Feature scripts are so complicated that most scriptwriters should model their first scripts on effective short scripts and short films. As it is better to write short stories before writing a novel, so it is better to write short scripts before tackling a feature-length script." (William H. Phillips: Writing Short Scripts, 1991)

Today in Hollywood it is far easier to get an agent, producer or production executive to view a short film than it is to read a feature length screenplay. () The short film, whether made on a university campus or independently financed, continues to be a well-travelled road into the film business." (Linda J. Cowgill: Writing Short Films, 1994)

Mainstream feature films are based on an Aristotelian-Hollywoodian dramaturgy, where plot points and character development are crucial. Trying to apply this to films shorter than fifteen minutes leads unavoidably to a situation where short film storytelling is seen only through what it cannot be. In a film lasting only a few minutes, there is no time to build up a three-scene structure with plot point one and two, nor is there time to introduce the characters by telling about their social and psychological backgrounds.

Still, as all of us who have seen splendid short films know, the masterpieces of short cinema manage to touch our soul and mind without even having tried to follow these "rules". The best shorts are everything else than scaled down feature films. They have a language of their own. To try to see (or make) short films using the tools created for feature films seems as meaningless as to read and interpret poetry with the same criteria as novels. Or to look at a painting as though it were a sculpture.

How should short films then be approached? If they have an entirely unique way of telling their stories, how should this form be understood?

In my attempt to understand how and why some of the shortest films have succeeded in making a much deeper effect on me than many of the feature films I have seen, I have started to develop some classifications for the different "genres" of short films.

My point is, however, not to squeeze short films into tight categories, but rather to seek for new ways to approach the different structures and means of storytelling that can be found in short fiction films.

I have labelled the categories as follows:

1. Short film as poem
2. The metaphoric short film
3. Short film as joke
4. Short film as commercial
5. The Zen of short filmmaking

I will describe each of these briefly. But to begin with, it may be necessary to underline that the chosen terms are meant to deal with the dramaturgy and structure of a short film. So a "short film as poem" does not actually have to be poetic. Similarly, "short film as joke" does not necessarily mean that the film is funny.


The connection between short films and poetry is well known; the short fiction is quite often referred to as "the poetry of cinema" (whereas feature films would be novels and films running 30 to 60 minutes would be novellefilms, corresponding to short novels).

As early as the 1920's, Sergei Eisenstein was fascinated by the cinematic aspect of Japanese poems, haiku and tanka. He quoted the following haiku by Buson:

An evening breeze blows.
The water ripples
Against the blue heron's legs.

and commented: "From our point of view, these are montage phrases."

On reading Japanese poems, one can indeed easily get the feeling that the lines of the poem could be used for storyboarding a scene - or as a manuscript for a whole short film.

One can have a similar kind of experience with more recent poetry as well. Jacques Prévert's poem Le Message can also be read as a film. The poem begins as follows:

La porte que quelqu'un a ouverte
La porte que quelqu'un a refermée
La chaise où quelqu'un s'est assis
Le chat que quelqu'un a caressé

and continues in this way, finally concluding with the lines

La rivière où quelqu'un se jette
L'hôpital où quelqu'un est mort. [1]

Interestingly enough, post-modern research on poetry widely uses the terminology of cinema. In both the interpretations and close readings of poems, one often finds such expressions as "sudden cuts" and "close-ups".

So if poetry can be read as films, would the opposite not work as well? In my opinion, for some short films at least, this possibility offers a very functional way of understanding their structure.

The similarities between poems and short films are numerous. Lifting one intense moment into the light, using seemingly meaningless common pictures to tell about deeper themes, and eventually revealing a new, unexpected aspect to give a new level of meaning to everything that was shown before. These are all typical properties of storytelling for both poetry and short films. In this, sense the short masterpiece Wind (1996) by Marcell Iványi can be seen as a poem.


The use of metaphor is an organic part of all cinematic language. But in my opinion, apart from feature films, only short films have the power and possibility to be metaphoric, not only in specific scenes and details, but as a film as a whole. The early classic by Roman Polanski, Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958), is probably the best-known of such metaphoric films. In Finnish short film we have an even more striking example, A Journey (Matka) by Pirjo Hokkanen (1983). Following the film's main character's efforts as he drags a heavy piece of luggage across the snowy landscape, we understand immediately and intuitively something valuable about life and about ourselves. The power of this film also lies in its undeniable cinematic quality: it succeeds in telling its story by purely audio-visual means, with no dialogue. Any attempt to translate the metaphoric message of A Journey ("Life is a heavy suitcase" or "A man is just a scream lodged in a piece of luggage") would remain desperately banal.


Short film as joke (or anecdote) is perhaps the most common type of short fiction film. The films I have placed under this classification share a structure based on a sudden, surprising twist at the end. At their worst, these films remain just one-dimensional tricks, one-gag pieces which will remain empty after we have seen them once. But at their best, they can be truly startling and innovative. There are plenty of good examples to name: Surprise! by Veit Helmer (1995), En kväll på stan by Per Carleson (1999) or the just one minute long Natural glasses by Jens Lien (2001).


The fourth category of short film genres is the one I labelled commercials. To this rapidly growing group I have included the short films that consciously use the style and visual language of TV commercials (or even propaganda films). Today, when enormous resources and the biggest budgets for short films is in the advertising sector, the role of independent artistic short films and their capacity to give critical comments is more and more crucial. One of my favourites among this kind of short film is the two-minute long Out of Place (2001) by Ellen Lundby; a skilful and hilarious masterpiece based on an apparently very simple perception.

When putting short films into different categories one quickly realises how much these categories overlap. Most of the best short films easily fill the criteria of at least two different genres. (Both Wind and A Journey as well as Out of Place could be, due to the surprising twist they all have at the end, also placed among short films as joke.)

My purpose is, though, by no means to create a classification system for all short films, but rather to try to find some new, useful tools for outlining the storytelling in short cinema. I am convinced that considering a short film as a poem or as a joke or as a commercial may provide a fruitful basis for new associations both for spectators and for writers and directors. And it is certainly more practical than to persist in trying to interpret short films with the traditional Aristotelian-Hollywoodian theories, invented only with feature films in mind.


I have chosen to call the last of the categories typical for short fiction films the Zen of short filmmaking. In a way, this is the largest of all the genres; all (good) short cinema could be taken as a Zen art form. I am fully aware that in these days when all kind of Oriental philosophies are being marketed as trendy solutions for the problems of our too busy and commercialised life ("Zen and the art of buying a lipstick"), talking about Zen and the art of short filmmaking can sound quite trivial. Still, the power of being in the present, the capacity to tell things mainly through what is left unshown, the tendency to avoid explanations, and sometimes even the use of absurd humour - these are just some of the properties shared by short films and the Zen Buddhist way of viewing the world.

The concept of emptiness, borrowed by Zen Buddhism from Taoism, might open a window also for comprehending short film:

It is not the clay the potter throws,
which gives the pot its usefulness,
but the space within the shape [2]

In Zen paintings, the most central element is the handling of space. There is often very little painted surface, and the "theme" of the painting can be hard to find. In the same sense one could consider the film Wind, where during much of the time the screen is filled with almost empty landscape and sky, to be a Zen short film. Wind also tells its story not by directly showing and explaining but by only slowly revealing and hinting, giving the spectator the valuable possibility of filling the "empty" space with one's own emotions and associations.

Another more recent and in my opinion a thoroughly Zen short film is All In All (Alt i alt, 2003) by Norwegian film director Torbjørn Skårild. This visually excellent, meditative concentration on four minutes is pure presence and power of being in the now. In addition to this, the surrealistic and funny way with which the film plays with the laws of gravity and causality, is very close to Zen humour, in the true spirit of the classical kung-ans, paradoxical short Zen stories.

No dialogue - or very economical use of dialogue - is one of the common practices of short films, often for purely practical reasons stemming from the length of the films. But even there one may see a connection with Oriental aesthetics. There is a Japanese saying "Eyes clearer than mouth" which indicates how easily words can be used for defeating and twisting the truth whereas only silence reveals the true essence of things. The same idea is expressed this way by the old Zen Master Wu-men: "If someone hangs onto the words and tries to understand through explanations, he is like a fool who thinks he can hit the moon with a stick or scratch an itching foot through his shoe."

The difference between an Oriental and a Western way of understanding art has been described by saying that Western tradition favours explanations, regularity, diversity and monumentalism, just as the four central concepts of Oriental aesthetics are suggestiveness, irregularity, simplicity and vanishing. When discussing cinema, I have sometimes been tempted to use the preceding sentence by just replacing the word "Western" with the words "feature film" and the word "Oriental" with words "short films."

I would like to conclude by quoting Rikyû, an old Tea Master from the 16th Century:

To those who only long for flowers, in vain would I show the fully blossoming spring which is awaiting inside the toiling buds on the snow-covered hills.

Perhaps this is after all what short film is all about: the art form for those who see the beauty of buds, not only of the flowers.

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1 Paroles © Éditions Gallimard, 1949. The entire poem can be found on the web at: http://www.terrazared.com.ar/web_es/pires/html/1/prevert2.html

2 This entire poem from the Tao Te Ching, in Stan Rosenthal's translation, can be found at: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/gthursby/taoism/ttcstan3.htm

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