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Short Short Films on a Long Long Road

Short short movies are lowering the threshold of filmmaking, five minutes at a time

When filmmaker Ikram Nurmehmet received an invitation a few months ago from the organizers of the FIRST International Film Festival to shoot a film, he hesitated. What gave rise to the Beijing-based director’s reluctance was the organizers’ two conditions: the film has to be under five minutes and be shot on a mobile phone or other portable device.

These are the requirements for entries in the Short Short Film Competition at FIRST, an event that turns the sparsely populated northwestern city of Xining into a hub for Chinese indie filmmakers and filmgoers every July. The “short short film (超短片),” however, is not something exclusive to FIRST, save for the nomenclature. In fact, this short-form filmmaking is becoming increasingly popular in both China and other parts of the world.

Held quarterly in Chicago since 2019, the Big Teeth Small Shorts Film Festival calls these five-minute pops “small shorts,” while setting aside a special category for what they call “micro shorts,” ones that run under 90 seconds. While last year’s Beijing International Film Festival included the Samsung Short Mobile Film section, entries of which were also required not to exceed five minutes, this year’s edition is set to have a Short Video section for works under 10 minutes in length. Supported by Sony Xperia, Tokyo’s Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia has also held a Smartphone Film Competition for the past two years.

Banner of short short film judges hanging inside a Xining mall

A banner showcasing the judges of FIRST’s Short Short Film Competition, hanging inside a mall in Xining, next to a movie theatre hosting many of the festival’s screenings (FIRST International Film Festival )

“Numerous factors have contributed to the rise of short short films,” says Tong Shan, film researcher and curator at the Beijing International Short Film Festival. “First of all, there’s a commercial reason: festivals need brand sponsorship.” Just like the festivals in Beijing and Tokyo, the Short Short Film Competition at FIRST is also organized in partnership with a smartphone company, namely the domestic brand Vivo. Sponsoring the section since its launch in 2020, the brand even has its own prize, given to the best short work that used a Vivo smartphone to shoot more than 80 percent of its footage.

“Other factors are technological prerequisites: Web 2.0, short video platforms, better quality smartphones, and so on,” explains Tong. “At the same time, the popularity of short short films has to do with our shrinking attention span.” Director Nurmehmet agrees with this point. Despite his initial hesitation, he welcomed the challenge and made “200 Per Puke,” a playful five-minute film about a taxi driver and his drunk fare, which was selected as a finalist in the competition and screened at the festival. “Audiences today have become very impatient because of short videos,” he says with a hint of regret.

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Amarsanaa Battulga is a Shanghai-based film critic, researcher, and associate editor of ChinaNauts, an online magazine on contemporary China. When he is not watching, researching, or writing about films, he enjoys playing board games, practicing classical Mongolian, and thinking about going to the gym. He cannot ride a horse.

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