I cried the first time I attended the Clermont Ferrand International Short Film Festival. There is nothing more moving – for someone whose job it is to develop audiences for arthouse cinema – than the sight of 1500 people queuing in the snow for an hour on a weekday afternoon to see a programme of foreign short films.

Clermont Ferrand is a strange place, a small city mostly known as the headquarters of Michelin tyres, surrounded by volcanoes smack in the centre of France. Yet for ten days each winter it becomes the centre of the short film universe, thanks to a hard-working group of film-buffs, a generously supportive government, and an audience literally starved of shorts.

The attendance this year reached 135,000. This figure is amazing not just because it makes Clermont the most highly attended short film festival in the world, but because it is roughly equal to the city’s population: a faithful audience which has grown up with the festival over the past quarter-century, a city full of ordinary folk who have become short film experts. This makes for exciting screenings where the enthusiastic audience is prompt to leap to its feet to applaud a good film… or to ruthlessly boo under-whelming film-makers off the stage.

Such a wide audience is very rare in the world of short film festivals, and just as precious as it transcends the usual public of film-makers and industry reps (whose opinion is always tainted by professional interest or jealousy). Film-makers show their film to a real audience which approaches each new story with unbiased curiosity. Conversely, the critical mass of films on offer means that one can get a clear snapshot not just of the state of short film-making in a given year, but of each country’s individual production.

Most of the world’s short film output passes through Clermont each February. This year’s crop was of very high standards. While some Anglo-Saxons still complain about the French tendency to include longer, more serious shorts in the competition, most agree that the 2003 line-up was as entertaining as it was thought-provoking. Opened by Culture Minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the Festival was a true celebration of World cinema, with spotlights this year including Algeria, Germany, Australian Aboriginal cinema and a showcase from the Quebec Cinematheque. Three competitions – international, national and digital – distilled the cream of the crop.

About 70 films from approximately 50 countries made up the international competition. Spread over fourteen 95-minute programmes, they took us on a round-the-world tour of new cinema in 22 hours: an entire journey in the comfort of a cinema seat. Amongst these, Brazilian, Mexican and Scandinavian film-makers seemed to shine the brightest. A few British films stood out in the market screenings – Shooting People-founder Cath Le Couteur’s teenage snapshot Spin was a personal favourite – but the UK was severely under-represented in the competition, with Caradog Wolfe James’s Welsh entry Plastic Wolves and Ian Clark’s Def left to carry the flag. Dave McKean’s experimental N[eon] saved the day by walking away with the Grand Prix in the digital competition. This striking black and white film mixes media in arresting ways to underscore the loneliness of its solace-seeking protagonist as he walks the desolate streets of Venice.

With more political films than usual, the corridors of the Maison De La Culture were often buzzing with heated debate. The political incorrectness of Dundee-based Gili Dolev’s brilliant Promise Land – an irreverent animation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – shocked and amused the audience in equal measures, and was a controversial Best Animation Film Award winner. Equally political was the Grand Prix winner, Hans Petter Moland’s Labour Party-inspired United We Stand from Norway. Even the comical Audience Award winner from Denmark, Martin Strange-Hansen’s The Charming Man, dealt with the topical issue of immigration.

If there are enough bums to fill 4,500 seat in 10 venues screening after screening, there weren’t nearly enough buyers to fill the converted gymnasium which hosts the short film market. The UK was out in force again this year, under the umbrella of the British Council. The Short Film Bureau, Sgrîn, Scottish Screen, Short Circuit and other sales agents were on hand with showreels of their 2003 line-up, hoping to secure TV, DVD, internet and theatrical distribution. Consensus amongst exhibitors this year confirmed my general impressions: it’s a slow year for short film acquisitions. Or perhaps the buyers were simply hiding in the video library where 3500 new titles are available for private perusal.

Despite a quiet market, morale amongst industry delegates was high. The wines brought over from all around the world, the parties hosted by distributors out-to-impress and the occasional snowball fight helped bring people together. Sole disappointment was a lacklustre British Council party held – of all places – in Clermont’s American Pool Club, which sent out mixed signals to a rather less uptight international community.

Quality shorts from all around the world remain the cement for the determined and enthusiastic group of film-makers and film lovers who meet up each February in the cold climes of Clermont to celebrate the diversity and innovation of independent short films in what has become Europe’s very own ‘snowdance’.