Narrative Shorts: Common Tropes and Traps
by Stephanie Tell, New Orleans Film Festival Programmer
To those uninitiated with the process of film programming, it can be difficult to translate the experience of critically watching hundreds upon hundreds of films in a relatively short time period. This isn’t to say it’s a slog, by any means! But the mathematical likelihood that any one individual film might be overlooked is, unfortunately, a high prospect. To this end, I’d like to offer some examples of common tropes that we as Narrative Shorts programmers see often.
I want to be careful not to be dogmatic here: these aren’t things you should absolutely avoid, but rather tropes that, when misused, have the potential to mar a film’s reception, either by rendering it forgettable or unappealing. For this reason, perhaps contrarily, I’m going to include some examples of Narrative Short films we’ve programmed recently that have, in fact, featured these tropes and done them well. I hope this way I can provide a little context as to why, in my opinion, these shorts were not only successful in avoiding some common traps, but also how they stood out from the large batch of films screened those years.
Gimmicks and Twists
Given the somewhat constrictive parameters of the Narrative Short medium, it’s unsurprising that a common filmmaking approach is the ‘What If’ premise (sometimes referred to as the high-concept narrative). For example, What If society was different in this one small way? What If a regular person stumbled across this extraordinary thing or situation? What If this marginalized person was allowed to be their true, authentic self? Etc., etc. This can be a great methodology! The problem occurs when a ‘What If’ feels superficial, either in premise or approach.
In terms of approach, does a film feel like it’s been made to service a shocking conclusion or twist in the film’s final moments? This will likely feel unsatisfying and even cheap to a viewer. (Some classic examples: What If they had imagined the whole thing? What If they were dead the whole time?) Of course, shock value can be utilized highly effectively, but it can also be an easily laid trap if the surprise feels predictable, nonsensical, or clichéd.
There’s also potential for the ‘What If’ premise to just feel gimmicky and somewhat pointless. Something akin to, What If dogs were the ones in charge? (I’m sure you can think of a better hypothetical). Moreover, consider the real value of bringing your What If premise to the screen: i.e. What If the Confederacy had won the war? (more on this later!)
Conversely, a film we programmed at #NOFF2020 that employs a seemingly gimmicky premise to great effect: Virago is a short written and directed by Kerli Kirch Schneider set in a cursed Estonian village after World War II. The seemingly absurd ‘What If’ premise is outlined by a wise narrator in the film’s opening sequence: What If no man could live past his fortieth birthday?
Why this short works, in my view, is that the story quickly moves beyond its initial What If premise into something more substantial. Once the unique structure of this world is established, Schneider swiftly employs a successful mixture of folklore, comedic horror, and a touch of pathos to explore broader issues of masculinity, domesticity, and fate. The gimmicky premise here transcends into something thoroughly entertaining and thoughtful.
This is of course but one specific example. But keep in mind that when we as film programmers say we want to be surprised, we don’t necessarily mean this in terms of plot. A film can surprise us with its candor, its fascinating subject matter, its profound sense of character or place … the list is endless.
Finicky Genre Pieces
This section pertains more to our festival rather than to filmmakers generally, but genre filmmakers might still want to consider these issues when developing their ideas. While genre-specific festivals abound (for instance, New Orleans’ own horror festival, The Overlook Film Festival), New Orleans Film Festival has historically programmed several films that could be termed genre films — horrors, comedies, thrillers, etc. — or that feature strong genre elements. So, what makes certain genre films appeal to us and others not?
Some advice I’d offer is to think about what ‘genre’ itself is being used in service of your short. Are you demonstrating creative special effects on a low budget? Paying homage to iconic filmmakers or genres? Showing off savvy writing with various twists and turns? These are admirable feats! But films that emphasize this kind of craftiness are perhaps better suited to genre-specific festivals. Rarely at NOFF do we program a short based on technical strength alone.
An example of a genre film we programmed at #NOFF2019 that lingers in my mind: Zachary Russell’s 7A. Though arguably an amalgamation of genres, the short heavily features science-fiction elements. Simple in technical scope, the plot can be summed up as follows: a woman prepares to make a video recording, a repair-man visit, an alarm goes off, a strange gas is emitted, and a battle of wills ensues.
Neither the rules of this world nor the mysterious beats of the story are ever really explained. Yet somehow the film conjures a keen sense of the uncanny, of a world so near our own, but somehow alarmingly different. Here, genre elements are secondary to this sensation of a frightening, somewhat imminent future being evoked. The film doesn’t preach about its (potential) themes of climate crisis or authoritarianism; we simply get glimpses that something in this world is not quite right.
In brief, I’ll say that when programmers are watching your film, we’ll always be wondering what, at the heart of the film, the filmmaker is capturing, and whether it’s done successfully. This is not to say that you must be ‘saying’ something Big and Political — on the contrary (see below)! But we are always looking for films that approach their concept creatively and evoke their viewpoint gracefully. The genre utilized in service of this? That’s entirely in your court.
For my last trope — and certainly the thorniest — is a broad subsection of films I describe as Big Movies about Current Events or Important Ideas. To be clear, at NOFF we love politically minded films, and we’re especially interested in films that confront social and political injustices and give a voice to the disenfranchised and overlooked. In saying this, this approach comes with myriad traps of its own.
For instance, there are films that are seemingly political in nature but ultimately feel didactic or shallow (the term “Oscar-bait” comes to mind here), or that sacrifice story, character, or a sense of locale with the aim of making an important ideological statement. There are also films about ‘hot-button’ issues that date quickly, where perhaps the filmmaker hasn’t taken the time to let an idea germinate and develop complexity. Imagine how many films we screen about, say, the COVID-19 pandemic, school shootings, or any number of similarly tough issues. While these shouldn’t be totally avoided, by any means, always ask yourself what it is that makes your point-of-view fresh.
Delving into more complicated issues surrounding representation such as access and cultural ownership, a common pitfall of filmmakers is that of extractive storytelling (a concept we go into in more detail on our film submission page). Programmers and general audiences can often tell if something feels ‘off’ about a film. On one hand, does the film’s depiction of a topic feel authentic and multi-faceted? Or, conversely, does it feel like it simply replicates archetypes from other films? Are characters overly simplistic depictions of Good/Evil or Innocent/Guilty? Does the film stereotype place, person, or community, particularly ones that the filmmakers are not themselves from?
In terms of this last category, consider some examples of tropes that pervade cinema (and our submission pool) broadly: Does the film focus primarily on Black trauma, or depict scenes of prolonged sexual violence? Is said violence used as a shocking conclusion or twist within a film, or, perhaps, in service of a separate character’s growth? Are characters from traditionally impoverished areas — the South, Appalachia, etc. — drawn as crude stereotypes?
It’s completely unsurprising that filmmakers lean towards the political in their art, and the desire to shed light upon injustices is an admirable impulse that we want to see flourish. But questions to ask yourself along the way might be: Am I the right person, or is this the right team, to bring this story authentically to the screen? (David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ scrapped project Confederate comes to mind). Is this topic so ‘current’ that it will be swimming in a sea of similar films or lack intricacy? And, do I have a point-of-view that is both substantial and distinctive?
An example of a short that incorporates “Big” issues in a truly impactful way is A.V. Rockwell’s Feathers, which screened at #NOFF2019 and can be watched online here. Against a lush and isolated backdrop, Rockwell creates a vivid and multi-faceted portrait of Black boyhood. While her protagonist grapples with severe emotional trauma, Rockwell bestows him the diegetic and cinematic space to try to heal and regain a sense of childhood. In doing this, she masterfully weaves issues surrounding psychological and generational trauma stemming from institutional racism with an incisive historical viewpoint that centers the mental health and humanity of Black youth.
In parting, I have to stress that each programmer and festival has their own idiosyncratic opinions, tastes, and attitudes. Programmers at one festival will inevitably love a film that another completely dismisses, while programmers within festivals will disagree — vehemently! — all the time. It’s impossible to be completely prescriptive about what to avoid, or how to avoid certain pitfalls. And please keep in mind that no matter your approach or subject, we’ll watch your film with an open mind. If your film successfully combines freshness, vision, and a sense of authenticity, it will no doubt have the power to stand out and make an impact — even to the weariest of film programmers.
For more information on combating extractive storytelling, and for extra guidance on New Orleans Film Festival’s particular programming values, please check out our Programming Practices document on our submissions page.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephanie Tell is a Programmer in the Narrative Shorts category of the 2021 New Orleans Film Festival, where she has worked in various capacities since 2018. Currently she is writing a PhD through the Screen Studies program at the University of Melbourne, Australia, focusing on cultures of masquerade on film. Her research interests broadly span liminal studies, affective histories, and ritual aspects of the screen experience. Previously, she was a senior curator for the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, and a freelance arts writer and critic. In another life, Stephanie lived on a warm, dry rock as a contented land iguana.