Washington filmmaker Jon Gann was frustrated. He had toured the world showing his short films, but each festival seemed the same. They weren’t about the films or the filmmakers. “[They were] about money and parties and economic development,” said Gann. “I know all those things are really important, but I really wanted something that was just about filmmakers.”

Gann found such a festival in Oregon, and when he returned to D.C., he brought the formula with him, creating the D.C. Shorts Film Festival.

His first festival had three screenings with 78 films, and when Gann reminisces, one detail stands out: Filmmakers had to watch the films in a separate lounge. “The venue space wasn’t big enough so they could actually sit in the theater with the audience,” he said.

Space is hardly an issue six years later. Now in its seventh year, the D.C. Shorts Film Festival spans two venues — Landmark’s E Street Cinema and the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater — and is a global exhibition of the best films you can see in 20 minutes or less.

This year’s fest, featuring nine showcases of 97 shorts narrowed down from a whopping 803 film and 115 script submissions, offers more than just film screenings. Open to the public are festival parties, seminars for filmmakers and a special screening and Q&A with director Roger Ross Williams of “Music by Prudence,” a film that won an Oscar this year for Best Documentary Short.

Showcases aren’t organized by genre or theme — and that’s intentional. “I program like a tapas platter,” Gann explained, “Lots of little bites of different flavors and textures.

“In a showcase, audiences will see dramas, comedies, foreign and local films, animated pieces and documentaries. They are put in an order which allows the audience to journey through the ups and downs of life,” he said.

The fest includes lots of educational treats, too. Saturday’s free family showcase offers an online guide with discussion topics for parents and kids developed in part by educators. Other educational events include free seminars for filmmakers of all skill levels, with topics like “Making the Extremely Low Budget Feature,” “Guerrilla Marketing and Self Distribution of Your Film” and “Editing and Equipment Extravaganza.”

“The core of [DC Shorts], it really hasn’t changed,” said Gann, “It was developed as a festival for filmmakers, to be a place where they could go and meet one another and hopefully collaborate on future endeavors. Yeah, we might be showing more films in fancier theaters and in HD and all that other stuff, but for the most part, our core values have stayed the same.”

Thinking about next year already? Anyone can submit films to the fest, and all entrants receive feedback on their submissions. Each film received goes through a preliminary round of judging by teams of local filmmakers, industry professionals and film enthusiasts. The top 200 are then judged in a second round by teams of previous judges, D.C. Film Alliance Board members, local business people and sponsors. Those chosen make it to the final festival line-up.

For festival-goers, there’s also a chance to get involved behind the scenes — as a judge. “We believe that if [people] are willing to pay $12 to sit through your film, then their opinions are valid,” said Gann. Interested parties can write to info@dcshorts.com about 2011 judging.

When looking toward D.C. Shorts’ future, Gann said he wants to expand and even go global. Next year, he and his team are working with embassies to have more international film screenings at the embassies themselves. “That’s uniquely Washington,” remarked Gann with pride, “You can’t do that anywhere else.”

D.C. Shorts Festival Director Jon Gann shares the films he’s most looking forward to:

» Drama: “Rita” (Showcase 6) is an extraordinary film from Italy. It’s about a blind girl who hears a horrible act. Like her, the audience does not see what is happening, but must listen for clues — and ultimately, her fate.

» Comedy: “Shovel Ready” (Showcase 1) is a brilliant local film whose director understands that a one-joke film should be simple and surprising. It was the winner of the 48 Hour Film Project this past year — and I love it.

» Documentary: “Nico’s Challenge” (Showcase 9) is a big film in a small package about a 13-year-old boy with a missing leg who scaled Mt. Kilimanjaro. It is inspiring to everyone who watches it — and I am happy to make it an integral part of our free family screenings on September 12.

» Animated: I have always been a huge fan of Bill Plympton. His latest film, “The Cow Who Wanted to be a Hamburger,” is pure Bill — funny, touching — and slightly sick.

» D.C. Shorts Film Festival, Landmark’s E Street Cinema, 55 11th St. NW; and U.S. Navy Memorial Theater, Burke Theatre, 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; Thu., Sept. 9 thru Sept. 16, $12, see Dcshorts.com for times and tickets; 202-393-4266.

Written by Express contributor Alyssa Bailey
Photo courtesy D.C. Shorts Film Festival