A child with a sweet tooth is tormented by a sinister cookie jar. The story of Rasputin’s murder is retold with a comedic twist. A man deals with his ex-girlfriend’s terminal illness by buying a coffin for his living room. These films —“Kookie,” “The Death of Rasputin” and ”Any Day Now” – are just some of the official selections to be screened at this year’s Lancaster International Short Film Festival.
Now in its ninth year, the festival will bring 47 short films—defined by the festival as 40 minutes or less—from the United States and abroad to the Elks Lodge Oct. 20 through 22. I spoke to Michael Hoober, founder of LISFF, and Jocelyn Park, in her third year of assisting in organizing and publicizing the festival (both personally, and as founder of Lancaster Transplant, which as an entity functions as executive sponsor) over drinks at the Elks Lodge about the festival. LISFF’s executive team also includes Mike Lombardo, of local horror-comedy troupe Reel Splatter Productions, and Emily Truman, who coordinates sponsorships.
Along with the story of how LISFF became what it is today, we also covered what it takes to organize a film festival, making Lancaster a destination for a significant arts event and building community around a seemingly solitary activity.
In 2008, while working on his second master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania, Hoober applied for a scholarship that asked applicants to pitch community-building activities; his idea, A Very Short Film Festival, called for films with a run time of five minutes or less. Though he did not win the scholarship, he decided to make the festival happen regardless, and the Lancaster International Short Film Festival was conceived. The festival grew from 30 submissions in its first year to 60 in its third; 2016 saw 168 films entered for consideration. The first film submitted from outside the United States came in 2011.
In the intervening years, the branding of the festival has also evolved. Hoober explained he received feedback that its original name, the Rumschpringe International Film Festival, confused locals who assumed it had an Amish or Mennonite focus. The name changed to the Lancaster International Short Film Festival in 2015.
For the most part, film submissions come from several online platforms that connect filmmakers and festivals. From the pool of submissions, a selection committee consisting of interested film enthusiasts, past winners, Pennsylvania College of Art & Design faculty (Hoober is a counselor at the school), actors and random community representatives decides on the films to be screened.
The committee focuses on the strength of a film’s editing and story, not necessarily the production value. The two films the committee considers best in each of the festival’s five categories—drama, comedy, animation, documentary and horror—are thrown back for further discussion before the winner in each category is decided, as well as a grand prize for the overall best film of the year; Hoober follows post-festival buzz to determine the winner of the Best Actor award, making it a people’s choice award of sorts.
Winning filmmakers receive a unique, handmade award that changes each year (RudeWood Design built this year’s awards); the grand prizewinner receives $1,000. The Festival relies on several local partners for logistical and production support, including Triode Media Group, Aurora Films, WITF and Reel Splatter.
The three-day event (not including a sneak preview on Oct. 15 showcasing Hoober’s favorite selections), in addition to screening the selected films, also includes opportunities to meet with filmmakers in attendance, such as a Saturday brunch and bowling event at the Elks Lodge for VIP ticket holders. Friday’s horror selection screening will be capped off by a zombie walk and an interactive midnight screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which promises to be rowdy (per Hoober, “We hope for mayhem.”). The event culminates on Saturday night with the announcement and screening of the award winners.
This is the second year that the main events of the Festival will be held at the Elks Lodge, a venue about which Hoober and Park were very enthusiastic. With a bar on site, “it’s effectively a brew and view,” says Hoober. Park informed me that she’s heard rumor that the lodge is haunted; whether or not this is true, the building’s grand décor and mazelike layout give it an intriguing presence all its own. With the array of films offered, all viewers are bound to find a piece that appeals: “You’re going to like something. That’s a guarantee,” says Park. Adds Hoober, “I’ve always liked short films. If you don’t like [a film], it’s over in five minutes.”
Hoober and Park both expressed hope that the Festival would continue to grow in such a way as to make it a destination for film enthusiasts from all over, as well as to generate more excitement within Lancaster about the festival, including increased official support from the city. Not that the Festival would lose its local, small-scale DIY spirit; LISFF is emphatically an independent film festival—“There’s no red carpet,” says Park. Though he is reluctant to release the details just yet, Hoober is working to build partnerships to allow LISFF to have a presence in the area throughout the year, and further embed itself in the cultural consciousness.
When I asked Hoober and Park why hold an event like this in Lancaster, Park immediately shot back, “Why not Lancaster? When I heard about the project, my response was, ‘Why the hell not?’” Hoober agrees with this sentiment, and also sees it as a way to contribute to his hometown. “My family’s been here since 1742. My brothers and sisters live all over the country. I feel like I’m supposed to be here for some reason. This is where I live. I want to give back something.”
When asked about their favorite parts of putting on the festival, both touched on ways that it allows Lancaster to connect to the larger world of filmmakers. Hoober recalled receiving a video that a winning filmmaker in Japan made of himself getting his award in the mail, which provoked a complicated and exciting feeling of local pride and wider connection that is part of having an international film festival in this small city. “I got to tell this kid that Lancaster has honored him and his work. He’s thinking about [Lancaster] for the first time.”
Both deeply enjoy showing filmmakers who are able to attend the festival from out of town. For as solitary-seeming an activity as watching a movie may seem to be, Hoober sees it as an experience that can be incredibly communal. “If you stick around afterward, there’s a lot of talking to do with the filmmakers, and with other people who watched, if you’re intrigued,” he says.