Go behind the scenes with one of the jurors of this year’s Traverse City Film Festival to see how he balances home, work, and play.
By Aubrey Ann Parker
“I’m hardcore,” said Aaron Olson. “There was a time when the average number of films I’d see was about 25 in five days. Then it got up to 32. This year it’s close to 50.”
Though the 8th annual Traverse City Film Festival only started on Tuesday evening at 6pm, by noon on Thursday, Olson had already seen 18 movies this week, including eight straight in a row … lasting a total of only 75 minutes, or just shy of 10 minutes each.
Olson is one of four of this year’s Shorts judges. Since its inception in 2007 (there were no awards given the first two years of the TCFF), Olson has served on the juror panel, typically for the documentary films. But this year, the festival changed things up a bit by integrating documentary films with fiction films for judging, meaning double the movies. This meant Olson needed to change things up a bit, too.
As a full-time father of a rambunctious toddler and the head of the Audio Visual department at the Traverse City Public Library, adding a week of film after film after film is a delicate balance — or a clever juggling act, as Olson likes to put it — but one that he certainly didn’t want to give up on.
Though he’s seeing close to 50 films this year, a personal record, they are broken down into just seven sessions, which is a lot more manageable. There are two sets of Short Documentaries in this year’s Shorts grouping, which also includes Kids Shorts, Occupy Shorts, Midnight Shorts, and two sets of Fiction Shorts.
Craft. Emotional impact. Technical expertise. Good storytelling. These are what make a good film, Olson said.
Though he couldn’t (and wouldn’t) say which films he’s leaning toward — the official results will be announced during the Filmmakers Party on Saturday — Olson would give his take on each of films in the Shorts Documentaries (2), which he had seen on Wednesday evening.*
He had no clear favorite to pick out, but Olson would go on the record as saying that it was “a pretty knock-out set.”
- Aaron Burr, Part 2 was “funny as hell.” It was the “historically interesting” story of a man who would found the New York Post, then go on to be president, mixing modern landscapes and period-piece landscapes in the background, giving the film a “little urban under-toe.”
- “Baseball in the Time of Cholera really kicked my ass,” Olson said. “It was such an inconceivably terrible account of the trials and tribulations of the post-hurricane era for a young Haitian boy. The storytelling was really good, and the emotional impact was pretty huge.” (For those who are unfamiliar with the cholera outbreak in Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010, the United Nations appointed a Nepalese battalion, which was set up next to a river, to help. But Nepal had experienced their own cholera outbreak just a year before, and it is believed that these UN workers infected the only fresh water in the area, which led to a total of 30,000 people sickened and 7,000 who died.)
- “There was this charming little film called Cat Cam,” Olson said, of a film in which an electronic specialist rigs up tiny cameras to document what his cat’s life is like while he’s away from the house. “It was really well done. It wasn’t technically perfect and it didn’t have an emotional connection, per se, but for some reason, there’s something very magical about a crafty European looking at America through a fresh pair of eyes.”
- Abuelas (Spanish for “Grandmothers”), a 9-minute documentary that tells the heart-wrenching tale of child abductions, really struck a chord with Olson, who himself has a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. “That was a strong little film. Very well done. Very good storytelling and stop-animation graphics.”
- I’m Never Afraid was one of the longer films in the set, lasting 20 minutes total, and juxtaposes the story of an eight-year-old thrill seeker performing death-defying acts while watching death all around him.
- Meanwhile, Little Team, about a group of Spaniard kids playing soccer, was “a good root-for-the-underdog movie that was really cute and done really well,” Olson said.
- Paradise, about Chicago window-washers, was fresh, Olson said, in that it told the unknown story of “what they go through, up in the skies washing our windows.”
“Docs can be draining,” Olson said of his five years experience on the documentary panel, given that the typical subject matter runs deeply into intellectual and emotional territory. “But I, personally, want to be exposed to all of that information, because I feel a lot richer and more aware for it.”
Olson isn’t worried, however that he is missing the feature-length documentaries this year. He knows that he won’t be missing out.
Every year, all of the films shown during the TCFF become available at the library for people who couldn’t get tickets or who had to work or who have toddlers — or whatever the reason may be. And, Olson added, the Traverse Area District Library has all the titles from past film festivals, as well, so you can easily catch up on everything that you’ve missed the past seven years.
“When you type in TCFF to our new Web site, you’re able to see a complete list of all the TCFF titles and put them on hold,” Olson advised.
Last year, Olson also introduced streaming video to the Traverse City online library community. Users can find E-books, audio books, language classes, and even investment tips. Olson said that right now he’s crazy about the educational videos, called Access Video, with more than 12,000 titles.
He’s hoping that the new site, assisted by an increasing interplay with Up North media outlets, is also going to be a place to find information on community-based events that are going on, as well as a way to facilitate more community forums to further discussions — like those started by the TCFF.
Just as Olson is the curator of everything film and music at the library, he sees the TCFF, and Michael Moore, as a curator of information for the community. “Which is such an awareness-tightening experience,” Olson said. “Because it’s pretty easy to get into a normal rhythm with life, where you don’t have to challenge yourself and look outside of your microcosm.
“It’s pretty amazing just to have this thing that catapults us into an international and beyond kind of awareness of our world,” he went on. “And I think our community is way richer for it, and everybody should recognize that and follow up on it.”
One way that Olson suggests doing that is by coming into the library to check out the films you weren’t able to see this week. Because “it’s just not physically possible” to see them all, Olson said. And he knows — he’s basically tried.
In the past, when he was judging the full-length documentaries, it wasn’t outside the norm for Olson to go from 9am to 11 at night. Two hours of films, he said, with a half hour break randomly here or there — more than 50 hours of sitting in a seat, spread out over four or five days.
“Though it’s the highest number I’ve seen at the film festival,” Olson said of the 50 or so films he’ll see by Friday night, “it’s a lot different than having to pack so many full-length doc films into such a short time. I live a very full life. But there are no juggling chainsaws this year, just the occasional broken bottle, which isn’t usually life threatening.”
Aubrey Ann Parker, a Traverse City native, returned to Northern Michigan after obtaining degrees in Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, and Spanish from Kalamazoo College and the University of Michigan. In addition to dabbling in freelance writing and photography, she is the assistant editor for Circle of Blue, a journalism organization reporting the global water crisis.
***NOTE: The author of this article had seen Shorts Documentaries (1), which is why she asked Olson to describe the films she hadn’t seen in Shorts Documentaries (2). This is not to give any assumptions that Olson gave preference to the documentary sets in general, or to Shorts Documentaries (2) in particular, but rather just to give readers insight into what Olson had to say about one particular set of short films he saw.