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Saluting Their Shorts

Film festival allows local directors a chance to shine in limited time.

The premise begs for an explanation from Mr. Movie Voice, in his omnipotent and booming tone: "In a world where coffee has been classified as a narcotic…where women overdose in their offices on café mocha…two hardened detectives must chase down the caffeinated crime boss…before it’s too late."

An edge-of-your-seat thriller? An indictment of American consumer culture?

"It’s kind of an absurd comedy," said "Venti Vice" director Gabe Uhr, who also co-wrote the film. "When you only have a weekend to make a movie, you can’t make it too serious."

Like several other entries in the upcoming DC Shorts Film Festival, "Vice" was created in the pressure-cooker environment of the 48-Hour Film Project, which toured through the D.C. area earlier this year. Uhr, who lives in Arlington and works as a video producer for the United Way of America in Alexandria, took part in that project — which challenged film makers to write, produce and film a short movie over the course of a single weekend. He wrote "Venti Vice" with his friend Tom King and directed the 7-minute short. Although his team ran out of time to fully complete their film, they submitted the finished product anyway; "Vice" took home two awards, including an audience award in its competition group.

On Saturday, Sept. 16, Uhr’s film will be presented at 4 p.m. at Landmark’s E Street Cinema (555 11th Street NW), as part of a screening for the 2006 DC Shorts Festival, billed as the region’s only film festival dedicated to showcasing and discussing short films from around the world. Tickets are available for each screening of the festival, which runs from Sept. 14-21 at the Landmark, and there is an "all-access pass" available for $100.

Kim Roberts, a representative for the festival, said one-third of all the films in this year's competition are by local film makers.

Full details and show times can be found by visiting www.dcshorts.com.

UHR, 29, BEGAN VIDEO work as a hobby about five years ago, cutting his teeth on public access shoots for Arlington Independent Media and for a sketch comedy program that aired in D.C. and Northern Virginia called The Higgins Show. Soon, he found himself doing commissioned work for Current TV, a cable news network that features viewer-created content. "A lot of my peers at Current are all film school; I was more of a do-it-yourself," said Uhr, who graduated from Robinson Secondary in Fairfax in 1995.

"Venti Vice" is a departure from his usual documentary work, but Uhr said there are similarities.

"Storytelling is the root of it. It was interesting that I did documentary stuff [previously], because I never really studied it. I studied English, and was always more of a storyteller. When I do the documentary stuff, I have the story in my mind; it's what you get on tape, and if it’s usable, that really determines what the story is. In retrospect, [you think] this is the story I should have been going after," he said.

"Venti Vice" is an example of the sort of fictional work Uhr intends to continue to explore as a film maker. More to the point, he’d like to focus on creating scripted television programs and episodic comedies.

For now, he’s pleased with how "Vice" turned out — for the most part. "There’s always stuff, in the days after, they I was anxious about. But I think that’s with any kind of work of art."

LIKE UHR, EMILY SKELTON gained valuable experience with Arlington Independent Media’s public access program, worked with a sketch comedy troupe and submitted a film for the 48-Hour Project.

Unlike Uhr, Skelton approached the creation of "Peddlers in Peril" with less film direction experience and more from a writer's perspective.

"It’s more of an experiment, a challenge for myself. It’s one thing to work at a corporate production company. It’s much more structured; it’s very different. I wanted to see if I could write something that would translate and be funny," said Skelton, 24, who is an associate producer with Video Solutions.

The College of William & Mary graduate, who lives in Arlington, wrote, directed and produced a 6-minute short that chronicles the battle between an underground bike courier service and Empire Courier, a big corporate giant that wants to monopolize the market.

"It ends with a twist that makes you ponder if competition is worth the fight," she said. "Always have to have a moral…"

Part of The 48-Hour Project was being handed a genre to work in; Skelton’s group received action/adventure. "I really didn’t have the James Bond guy, and didn’t have explosions in the budget," she said. "So we chose bicycles."

Skelton, who finished her film in 50 hours rather than mandatory 48, took part in the project to test her comedic writing skills. She writes, directs and acts for a sketch group called The Couch Potatoes, who are based in the DC area and were featured players at the Comedy Spot.

"Peddlers in Peril" — which is scheduled to screen on Friday, Sept. 15 at the 4 p.m. session at Landmark’s E Street Cinema — was almost all scripted; the bits that weren’t had Skelton blurt out an outline and have her actors fill in the blanks.

The short was filmed in and around Skelton’s apartment building, which provided nearly every locale she would need: a business office, a restaurant/bar, an outside area and her own apartment.

She said filming the short built her confidence for future endeavors, as Skelton had to manage crew members with more experience than she had — like the veteran director of photography on the shoot. "It was a very intimidating situation," she said. "I knew what he was doing, but did I know what I was doing?"

So is the finished product funny?

"I think so. Although a lot of things are a lot funnier when you haven’t slept for 48 hours," she said.

Without James Bond or large explosions, is there enough action?

"There was a bike fight."

And what, exactly, is a bike fight?

"Well, you’ll have to see the film."

ROB RAFFETY WAS ANOTHER film maker who learned the ropes with Arlington Independent Media and public access programming.

His 9-minute short "Hill Rats" was filmed as a prospective sitcom for a national contest. After it didn’t make the cut, Raffety said his friend Jeff Noble — a former co-worker at a George Mason University-Arlington campus think tank and an actor in the film — urged him to tweak it for the DC Shorts Festival.

The title "Hill Rats" may recall director Kevin Smith’s comedy "Mallrats," but Raffety said the comparison is coincidental. "The whole idea of a ‘rat’ is people who spend an excessive amount of time in an environment," said Raffety , 30, who lives in Arlington.

In this case, the "rats" are staffers in their late 20s/early 30s on Capitol Hill. Rob, played by Raffety, is a straight-laced hard worker on a Republican’s staff; Don is a free-wheeling staffer for a Democrat. "The idea is that they grew up together, but had different beliefs — they’re like the Odd Couple. A classic sitcom paradigm," Raffety said.

The director himself worked for a moderate Republican congresswoman on the Hill, but said the material in the film is bipartisan. "I’m not attempting to achieve any sort of political agenda. I take shots at both sides. It’s more about the funny little situations people can get in when they’re working in politics. It’s a lighthearted movie; not something to skewer liberal or conservative," he said.

Like, for example, when the staffers are charged with creating a fundraiser that will make things interesting for some high-rolling donors. They come up with a Dukes of Hazzard-themed event, complete with skeet shooting.

"Hill Rats" is scheduled to screen on Friday, Sept. 15, at 4 p.m. at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.

Raffety, an adjunct professor at George Mason, is enrolled in a screenwriting class and hopes to continue to flesh out "Hill Rats" as a sitcom or a feature film. Although he doesn’t have the film-making experience of some of the other directors featured at the DC Shorts Festival, he doesn’t feel that will hinder his progress.

"This technology has gotten to the point where it’s in the hands of amateurs," he said, "which can be good or bad depending on how you look at it."