Lawrence Toppman

Charlotte’s most unusual film festival: What happens when a filmmaker gets only 100 words to tell a story? These.

Caroline Knight’s “Still Sophie” depicts the life of a woman with aphasia after a stroke.
Caroline Knight’s “Still Sophie” depicts the life of a woman with aphasia after a stroke. Courtesy of Caroline Knight

Perhaps you still don’t know about Charlotte’s most unusual film festival, though it filled McGlohon Theater last year and has begun to attract international attention.

The movies shown there, all of them shorts of varying length, get their world premieres in the Queen City. You can see documentaries, narratives, even animation. And founder Scott Galloway has created a mentor-student program that now turns out free films for nonprofit organizations to use in places as far away as San Francisco and Nashville.

Professional and amateur filmmakers follow only one directive: Audible English-language dialogue in their entries must consist of –

Uh-oh. I’m out of words.

Or would be, if this were the soundtrack to a picture in the 100 Words Film Festival, which returns to Spirit Square Nov. 4-5. Contestants must use no more than 100 words and – this is the tricky part – no less.

“It’s been interesting to see how we’ve had to work around that limit,” says Caroline Knight, a senior at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “It really put us in a position to get creative and figure out little loopholes, learning to show instead of tell. This forces you to cut it down to essential elements.”

Her film, a seven-minute documentary titled “Still Sophie,” depicts a musical-comedy performer left with aphasia after a stroke. She struggles to speak, and Knight reveals her to be a person whose brain functions normally but doesn’t always send the right words to her lips – except when she sings, in a poignant “Maybe This Time” from “Cabaret.”

Knight created her film for the Student/Charity section of the event, where students make movies – not just simple public service announcements – for nonprofits. She did “Sophie” for a Tennessee group, Seriously Awesome Stroke Survivors, and hopes the National Aphasia Association picks it up. This was no vanity project: She’s taking a full schedule at UT but drove from Knoxville to Nashville every weekend in August and September to work with her mentor. She majors in cinema studies and now wants to make film a career.

That would suit Galloway, who has his own Charlotte-based company in Susie Films.

“Young filmmakers today see they can have jobs in the industry,” he says. “You may not be the next Tarantino, but you can shoot commercials, corporate videos... If you can suit a picture to a word and tell your story with a beginning, middle and end, this festival gives you a calling card to show people. And movies that play here get a credit at IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base), which helps.”

Galloway imposed the word limit, which is ticked off by a counter in the lower left corner of the frame, the way an Elizabethan poet might’ve placed a line limit and rhyme scheme on a sonnet. The results are sometimes a mini-masterwork and sometimes a mess: Two directors submitted movies where 100 words stretched over 80 minutes. (“Lots of shots of people walking through a post-apocalyptic landscape. Lots of shots. We didn’t pick those.”)

The results can be timeless or as timely as last month’s riots after the Keith Lamont Scott shooting: Documentary-maker Kelvin Edwards filmed on the fly, compressing street footage into a five-minute collage of protests, and got “State of Emergency” into the festival.

Filmmakers play with limits in crafty ways. Title cards help, as long as the judges don’t think they’re used too heavily. Songs and dialogue can drift away as a point is made; only audible sections get tallied. Beverly Penninger and Alyson Young documented their trip to Cuba, where musicians played in untranslated Spanish, without driving that counter down too fast.

At stake are $3,000 in prizes for the pros and $1,000 for the students. The jury chose 20 professional films and 16 by students to compete.

Because Galloway wants to encourage newbies, he links people in the Student/Charity group with mentors. Eric Davis, an executive producer at Susie Films, works with folks from Davidson, Johnson C. Smith and Queens.

“They tell us, ‘I want a 5-minute video,’ ” he says. “I tell them, ‘No, you want a video that’s as long as it needs to be and stops just before it stops being interesting.’ We can help cut giant stories down to the message you want to convey.”

He’ll link them to professional cinematographers or composers, who “don’t change their ideas and treat you as an equal collaborator. An editor will help you pace it the way you want to pace it; you edit it at school, bring it to a pro, and he helps you cut it down further.”

Davis gives every new filmmaker five tips:

1) There has to be a story, and every story needs a beginning, middle and end.

2) Let pictures tell that story. Don’t overwrite dialogue or underwrite descriptions of images in your script.

3) Whatever camera you have is useless unless you hold it steady with a tripod, record clean audio with an off-camera microphone and light scenes with intent.

4) The most effective 100-word films present a story twist in the last 20 words. (Knight adds one in “Still Sophie” in the final image.)

5) This is a team game. Meeting deadlines with collaborators and accepting feedback are essential skills – “for filmmaking and good living,” says Davis.

As Galloway notes, “You will always have limits of some kind in this business, whoever you are. And you will have to know how the dance goes between pictures and words, whatever you do.”

He also likes to remind audiences that none of the movies lasts longer than 11 minutes. If one makes you squirm, “wait a few minutes, and we’ll give you something else. That’s one good thing about holding them to 100 words!”

Toppman: 704-358-5232