|Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival
16-21 September | Bristol, UK
Back in the midst of time – well, the early 1990s – when music lovers were still trudging down to local record shops in order to purchase their latest sounds, multimedia artists Lol Sargent and Philip Jeck staged an audacious lament for the final days of vinyl. Saddened by the speed with which CDs had pushed the 12-inch and seven-inch wax discs into record-store bargain bins, they presented Vinyl Requiem, a visual and sonic performance piece incorporating 16mm film, 12 slide-projectors and 180 Dansette turntables. Staged at Islington’s then little-known Union Chapel, they won the 1993 Time Out Performance Award.
Two decades later, Jeck and Sargent presented Vinyl Requiem (Replayed) a new performance where the artists interacted with a video recording of their Islington performance, a duet with their younger selves. With its nostalgia for the analogue past, the new piece was a fitting inclusion in this year’s Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival.
The festival’s new director, Debbie Lander, who produced Vinyl Requiem at the Union Chapel, led a programme focused keenly on the legacy of its twenty editions as well as the best new short films from around the world. Themed ‘looking back to looking forward’, the emphasis on legacy found its greatest manifestation in a perpetual screening loop of twenty much-loved shorts discovered during Encounters’ long history. It included established UK shorts that many would consider part of the British short film canon, including John Smith’s Blight (1997), Carol Morley’s Everyday Something (2001) and Suzie Templeton’s Dog (2001), but it was also a chance to see lesser-known works from across Europe.
Ricardo Iscar and Nacho Martín’s El Cerco (2006) stood out as a fascinating documentary about fishing off the coast of Cadiz. The film’s hazy sepia-toned photography and its hyper-real sound design captures the adrenaline rush of the film’s Spanish fishermen as they surround and net an unbelievable haul of 300 tuna.
It was also pleasing to see Hanoi-Warsaw (2009) included. Katazyna Klimkiewicz’s tale of a young Vietnamese woman’s migration to Poland illustrates, with devastating precision, the dehumanising process of illegal migration. Other treats from the perpetual loop included Gerard Holthuis’ mesmerising HKG (1999) a record of the terrifying proximity between Hong Kong skyscrapers and various Boeings that had to navigate between them before Kai Tak airport closed in 1998. And Damien O’Donnell’s now rarely seen Thirty Five Aside (1996), a short comedy about a bullied schoolboy that illustrated the underrated writer-director’s gift for comedy and social insight.
With such fine pedigree of short filmmaking on show, the perpetual cycle of well-loved shorts threatened to overshadow the more contemporary works. But, in fact, the competition programmes could easily hold their own. Removing the British-only categories this year, the streamlined competition strands – international live action and international animation – allowed the programmers greater breadth to present strong themed selections. Force of Nature, for example, pulled together films exploring man’s tempestuous relationship with nature. It included great films such as Nick Jordan’s The Rising, an atmospheric examination of the triffid-like spread of giant hogweed across the British landscape and Gaëlle Denis’ compelling Crocodile, about a grieving headmaster haunted by the deadly reptile who killed his daughter.
The programme ended with Jessica Sarah Rinland’s remarkable Adeline for Leaves, in which an 11-year-old botanical prodigy attempts to propagate a mythical blue flower. Rinland is building a body of short films that blur reality, often filming fiction as documentary and teasing her audiences. Blending myth and rumour with occasional fact, her experimental documentaries all feel very plausible, yet we’re constantly kept guessing.
Over its twenty years, Encounters has played a significant role in showcasing emerging talent to the film and TV industry, and this year was no different. A standout for me was Oscar Sharp’s The Kármán Line, starring Olivia Colman as a chirpy mum with a teenage daughter, who has to cope with a sudden life altering condition and witness her family come to terms with difficult changes. Director Sharp and screenwriter Dawn King assuredly develop their story from a uniquely original and amusing idea into something acutely sensitive and, at times, genuinely moving.
Other personal favourites included 365 from The Brothers McLeod, which consisted of three hundred and sixty five second-long animations made over the course of a year. The winner of the Brief Grand Prix, A Million Miles Away by American Jennifer Reeder, was also a must-see; its snapshot of a bewildered music teacher’s emotional breakdown was brimming with indie-chic humour and sensitivity. For all this, though, it was the major thematic sidebar on agit-prop and radical short-form cinema that left the most indelible impression.
This was particularly true of a British Council backed programme of 8mm Brazilian shorts made during the late 1970s, the last days of Brazil’s military regime. Brazilian cinema during this era was populated with cheap erotic dramas through which the most internationally celebrated work, from directors such as Ana Carolina and Carlos Reichenbach, managed to smuggle criticism of the establishment into their soft-core films. However, the films on display in this programme – dubbed Cinema do Desbunde (counterculture cinema) – were never likely to reach such acclaim. Visually primitive, with an almost childlike obsession with the body and sensation, the films nevertheless had an admirable purity which, in their carefree openness were tangibly confrontational and politicised.
Gato/Capoeira (1979), an eroticised celebration of a street dancer, buzzed with celebration of sexuality and movement. And the most notorious inclusion, Edgard Navarro’s O Rei do Cagaço (aka The King of Shit) (1977) took the programme’s general emphases on bodily function and freedom of expression to its logical ends. Opening with what could only be termed an ‘extreme close up’ it was one of those odd moments when the grain and dirt of low-lit 8mm was, without doubt, an advantage. Oppositional, draining and uncomfortable, the films were an unquestionably brave inclusion.
And what, in the end, of Vinyl Requiem? Although something of the original performance was lost in the Betamax video playback, the evening was more than compensated with the presence of Jeck and Sargent. But despite Jeck’s formidable wall of popped and looped sound, we were hard-pushed to lament vinyl, a format currently enjoying resurgence. Less a requiem, more a reflective moment to savor what had once been, the event perfectly summarised the joy of the festival in its 20th year.