Filmmaker Douglas Sloan recognized the iconic photograph. Everybody does. You know it, too: the one of the man with his hands bound behind his back, about to be executed, standing in a Vietnam street, bracing himself in the instant before he’s to be shot in the head by a uniformed general.
But you probably don’t know the story behind the riveting photo, its misunderstood legacy, and how it forever altered the lives of the man who took it, Eddie Adams, and the man who pulled the trigger, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan.
That story plays out over 17 breathless minutes in Sloan’s new documentary, “Eddie Adams: Saigon ‘68.”
The movie is among 80-plus playing at AspenFilm’s 22nd annual Aspen Shortsfest, which begins Tuesday, April 9, and runs through next weekend at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen and Crystal Theatre in Carbondale. This year’s international slate of offerings run from two minutes to 40. They include comedy, animation, documentary and drama. Some are made by broke young Ramen-eating film students, others star Oscar-winning Hollywood actors.
Sloan, whose “Elliott Erwitt: I Bark at Dogs” won the festival’s Best Documentary prize last year, returns for his third Shortsfest with the highly anticipated “Eddie Adams.”
“The Aspen Shortsfest is the best of its kind,” he says. “The curating and the jury’s selection of what they put on screen is eye and brain candy. It’s rare at these kind of festivals that the minority of things don’t rate, and the majority of them are great. It’s normally the other way around.”
Sloan has made five short documentaries about photographers over the last six years, as he’s tried to find the right subject for a feature-length film. He believes Eddie Adams is the one, he says.
“Everybody knows that photograph, but nobody knows the photographer,” Sloan explains.
Adams, who died in 2004, refused to talk about the photo that won him the 1969 Pulitzer Prize and that helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War. He wouldn’t even let it hang at the prestigious workshop named in his honor in upstate New York.
As Sloan’s film details, Adams, for one, didn’t think it was a good picture and, additionally, was aghast at the way it was exploited after its publication. While it’s become known for documenting an atrocity in an atrocious war, Adams didn’t see it that way. He knew General Loan, and believed he was doing his duty by killing the man in the photo, who was a wanted assassin.
“Photographs do lie,” Adams concluded in his journal, which is read dramatically in Sloan’s documentary.
Adams was supportive of General Loan in the decades after the war, as he went on to become a celebrity photographer. The film details a visit Adams paid to the disgraced Vietnamese veteran late in life, when he was running a pizza shop in Virginia.
During the course of his research on Adams, Sloan interviewed colleagues who knew Adams in Vietnam and after — some of the preeminent journalists of our time — including Morley Safer, Bob Schieffer and Peter Arnett.
Their filmed recollections and Adams’ cantankerous, self-critical voice is his journal make for a vivid story that will change the way you see that infamous photo, and maybe the way you look at media as a whole. That, Sloan says, is the point.
“We’re becoming an increasingly visual society and being fed all these images unfiltered,” Sloan says. “We’re a visually illiterate society right now. It’s becoming more important, from a societal view, to understand the context of what we’re seeing before we make a judgment call.”
Shortsfest is among a few film festivals where “Eddie Adams” will screen as Sloan seeks funding to make it into a feature that will blend documentary with fictive recreations. The Briscoe Center for American History, at the University of Texas, last month signed on to finance part of an “Eddie Adams” feature.
“As optimistic as one can be in this business, I think we’re going to be successful in getting some funding and making this into a feature length piece,” Sloan says.
“Eddie Adams” screens Friday, April 12 at the Wheeler and Sunday, April 14 at the Crystal in Carbondale.
René Frelle Petersen, of Denmark, had never been to a film festival before his short, “Going Nowhere,” screened at Shortsfest in 2011. The family drama won the BAFTA/Los Angeles Certificate of Excellence that year, giving the promising filmmaker’s career a boost.
Petersen followed that up with last year’s “As You Were,” which won the BAFTA honorable mention prize here.
He returns this year with “Mommy,” a heartwrenching dramatic short about a teenage girl caring for her handicapped brother, but longing for a life as a normal teenager. In a few understated, masterful brushstrokes over 12 minutes, Peterson’s film conjures a complex protagonist, sketches a back story and completes a story arc that hits a spectrum of emotions.
It was inspired by Petersen’s own life. Due to family problems, he became the primary caregiver for his infant sister when he was 15 years old, and drew on the conflicted emotions he felt about it to make “Mommy.”
Telling a full story in a short film, he explains, requires painstaking attention to detail and picking a subject to which audiences can relate.
“The short format forces you to be creative,” Petersen says. “It’s actually really hard to tell a good and emotional story in short time so you have to be very precise and make accurate choices.”
As the film’s young lead, Julie Andersen carries the emotional heft of “Mommy” on her shoulders in an admirable performance. It’s just her third film, and this year she’s moving to the U.S. to study acting at the Lee Strasburg Institute.
Shortsfest has boosted Petersen’s career over the last two years, and helped him win government funding in Denmark to make more films, while also allowing him to see some of the best short films on the big screen.
“I usually never skip a program when attending Shortsfest because I love the selection of films,” he says. “It’s great inspiration.”
It’s also allowed him to meet filmmakers at the top of the industry and art form. Last year, Oscar-winning “Sideways” and “The Descendants” writer-director Alexander Payne sought Petersen out at the Wheeler to compliment “As You Were.”
“Unfortunately,” Petersen recalls, “I was so nervous when meeting him that I have no idea what he actually said to me. I just remember he said ‘I really enjoyed your film…’ and the rest is a blur.”
“Mommy” screens Saturday, April 13 at the Wheeler.
Columbia University film student Shane Atkinson, whose “Penny Dreadful” screens Saturday April 10, is among the freshest faces at Shortsfest.
While for some established filmmakers, shorts are a break from more commercial work, and for others it’s a chance to get traction on funding a feature project, young filmmakers use shorts to showcase their fast-twitch narrative muscles and establish a career.
Atkinson is among a bevy of film students with works in Shortsfest — five of them from Columbia alone.
The film, a darkly comedic twist on country crime noir, follows a hapless kidnapper as he abducts an unpredictably spunky young girl who turns the story on its head. The twisted Tarantino-esque short film is Atkinson’s graduate school thesis.
He pared the story down from a full-length “Penny Dreadful” screenplay. Distilling it into a short, he says, proved more difficult than writing a feature script.
“I did more drafts of the short than the feature and it probably took longer to write,” he explains. “It was hard trying to find something that had a good beginning, middle and end that felt like a complete story.”
It premiered in February at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, where the 9-year-old lead actress, Oona Laurence, won a best actress award.
“It’s exciting,” Atkinson says of his first tour on the festival circuit. “I’ve gotten a lot of rejections, too, obviously, but it’s gotten into a few exciting ones like Aspen.”
In addition to two evening programs of films nightly, Shortsfest features free “Filmmaker Talk Back” conversations at noon, Thursday through Saturday, and a panel on writing television dramas Saturday afternoon. On Sunday, April 13, the Wheeler hosts a family-friendly lineup of shorts and the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale hosts a selection of the best films from the festival. The full schedule is online at www.aspenfilm.org 
Tuesday, April 9, Program One
This short documentary follows a group of kids in a Liberian village as they make what might be the most awesomely improbable independent film ever. The children of the war-torn country haven’t seen any Hollywood films and have literally zero budget. This 10-minute marvel follows the children as they craft sets out of plants and trees, make costumes from dirt, and tell a story of tribal adventure.
Walking the Dogs
Tuesday, April 9, Program One
Sunday, April 14, Carbondale
Oscar-winner Emma Thompson plays Queen Elizabeth in this tense and funny tale. Based on a true story, it follows an agitated man as he breaks into the queen’s bedroom in Buckingham Palace. What plays out is a surprisingly tender 27 minutes of conversation, as the unlikely pair share stories and tea — before her majesty’s security detail gets wind of the intrusion.
The Death of the Bar-T
Wednesday, April 10, Program Three
Filmed on a ranch in Marble, this mostly silent film works its tension into a shocking crescendo. It shows us a rancher preparing to leave his property, walking and working his land without speaking, preparing it for his departure amid the gorgeous light of Western Colorado autumn — aspen trees in full fluorescent yellow peak. Beautiful and sad, this one is a must-see for valley locals.
Friday, April 12, Program Seven
Sunday, April 14, Program Eleven
Let’s assume that 99 percent of videos that parents post online of their cute children are inane and worthless to the rest of us. This film is the other one percent. It’s a black and white animated short, with audio of young Spike coaching his “Dadda” on how to best get a mud crab out of a trap. It is cute, and it is funny, and it’s part of a series by Australian filmmaker Sheldon Lieberman, who transforms his son’s witticisms into animated gold at spikeanddadda.com
Best if Used By
Friday, April 12, Program Eight
Sunday, April 14, Carbondale
With an absurd plot reminiscent of “Weekend at Bernie’s,” this film somehow comes out smart, hilarious, moving and fresh. Maggie’s lover is dead, but she hangs onto the corpse and stores it in the cooler at the grocery store where she works. Give this one a chance, and you may get a few belly laughs and some tears in its 23 minute span.
Irish Folk Furniture
Friday, April 12, Program Eight
Ever wanted to listen to old Irish people talk about furniture for eight minutes? Probably not. But in this fanciful documentary, you’ll do just that and come away surprisingly touched. It blends voice-overs of people talking about their old furniture, its origins and repairs, as animated furniture is transformed and skitters around the land.