The British assortment in this year’s Brief Encounters – the live-action section of Bristol’s Encounters festival of short film and animation – frequently evoked the current transient state of shorts filmmaking in the UK. Programmes titled ‘New Look’ or ‘Self Help’ served to remind attendees that the shorts business, a cottage industry at the best of times, is in flux.
The festival has its own changes forthcoming, with artistic director Mark Cosgrove relinquishing his programming duties after 12 years compiling Brief Encounters’ competitive strands. As a parting shot he gave a talk under the banner ‘The Programmer’s Fear of Missing the Masterpiece’, which provided a witty and frank expose of the concerns, challenges and pleasures of shorts programming.
Describing the curatorial compass that helped him sift through 400 annual shortlisted submissions, Cosgrove proposed the elements of theatre and dramatic tension as his true North, subtlety due South, soul to the West and fear and paranoia on the East. His schema shaped the remainder of my festival, so by way of homage, here goes an interpretive reading through that curatorial prism.
Starting at Cosgrove’s North, we find the crackle of live interaction: the tension inherent in dramatic situations, the friction between different films and the theatre of audience engagement. All three were provided by ‘Cineast’, a digital-shorts showcase for the UK’s East and Southeast Asian talent produced by London-based B3 Media in partnership with BBC Writersroom. The full slate of films proved deft and intelligent, but it was Selina Lim’s Painkiller, directed by Mustapha Ksebati, that took its outsider perspective the furthest. The story of a depressed Chinese migrant (Benedict Wong) who scuppers a convenience-store robbery when he refuses to heed the armed gunman, Painkiller owes a debt to 1990s-era Tarantino and Kevin Smith; but the film transcends its influences with a dramatic rigour that makes the tragic-comic violence unexpectedly meaningful.
Confrontation as a dramatic device was present in many of the festival titles, the most provocative British offering being Nick Scott’s Big Society. It’s a mock documentary about a retired soldier who interprets David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ motif as a call to vigilante action. The attacks on unsuspecting litterbugs by the film’s crazed ex-army officer are so convincingly filmed that it’s hard to discern what’s mock and what’s doc. The fact that some people might want to cheer at the vigilante action that made this the most unsettling British short in the five days.
Big Society was given honourable mention from the British prize-giving jury, but their main prize went to Simon Ellis’s Jam Today. A look at a life-changing moment for pre-teen Robert, who’s awakening to sex, the film is careful and nuanced – the epitome of our compass’s subtle South. Ellis never pulls his punches (witness his convincing depiction of cowardice in the 2006 short Soft), but makes room for sensitive study between the dramatic shocks. At one point Robert hides from his parents to gawp at sexy pictures of magazine models. His actions are appropriately asexual, however, reacting to the pictures by indulging in an innocent ritual of preening, posing and weight-lifting.
The winner of the South West Showcase, I’ll Tell You, was graced with an equal degree of subtlety. Already a hit at the London Film Festival, Rachel Tillotson’s mesmerising short is a masterful piece of elliptical storytelling. At heart an ode to teenage love, it belies the negative connotations of the term by revealing a profound understanding of how far young love can reach.
Regarding the West side of his compass, Cosgrove insisted that all films need some grit, funk and soul. Numerous films from the programme spring to mind, including Alex Goddard’s Yellow Wall, a three-minute riff on the practicalities of reincarnation, filmed in a handheld, mucking-about-with-mates style that evoked early Shane Meadows. (Despite the seeming chaos, the film is steeped in cinematic references.) I’m looking forward to investigating Goddard’s other work.
Grittier, and better financed, was Matthew Holness’s A Gun for George. This tale of a forgotten paperback writer, Terry Finch, wrecking revenge on the small-town libraries that won’t stock his novels is a frame-perfect homage to the hard-bitten 70s British cop show. The only disappointment is that it doesn’t escalate to a bloody climax, choosing instead a contemplative denouement akin – one suspects – to Finch’s fictional novels.
Soul could also be found in the vague theme of Christianity that ran through several films including Tony Grisoni’s ambitious The Pizza Miracle, Rob Sorrenti’s dour Hollow and Ruth Reid’s Glaswegian documentary Night Shift. All three films explored faith and salvation, but it was Tom Marshall’s Happy Clapper, a drama about a gangster’s son (Skin’s Joe Dempsie) who spikes the tea of a visiting Christian evangelist (Felicity Mintagu), that really nailed the theme, with its scenes of drug-fuelled elation and comedown conflict.
A more corporeal elation was to be found in Kate Shenton’s documentary On Tender Hooks. A day in the life of freak-show magician Damien Lloyd-Davies, as he takes up the challenge of being suspended in the air on piercing meat hooks, the film is a perceptive look at fear and the way people overcome it. Lloyd-Davies attempted to convince the audience to try the experience themselves, offering a chirpy description of the skin-stretching suspension as being “like flying.”
On Tender Hooks, together with other compelling films I’ve written about elsewhere – including Daniel Mulloy’s Baby, Douglas Hart’s Long Distance Information and John MacLean’s Pitch Black Heist – make up the Eastern component of the curatorial compass: the fear and paranoia that keep audiences gripped to their seats. It took Afarin Eghbal’s award-wining student film Abuelas to capture this element with greatest authenticity, its animated depiction of real-life abuses in 1970s Argentina documenting paranoia most disturbingly.
Animation and international shorts
My own flying visit to Encounters took in a day of animation and a day of international live-action. Sandwiched in between was a wild night’s son-et-lumière performance of a medley of scenes from the early silent trick films of expat Spaniard Segundo de Chomón, edited and given a brisk, squelchy and spaced-out accompaniment by Scissor Sisters keyboardist John ‘JJ’ Garden and sometime Goldfrapp drummer Tony Orrell (aka ‘the Birdman of Alkijazz’, and bedecked in mask and cape for the occasion).
A fever dream of fancies and visions, the montage came over like a magical mixture of George Méliès and Lewis Carroll with its loopy procession of fairy queens and satyrs, butterfly and belly dancers, frog-men, Punches, skeletons, devils, transforming babies, sky-walkers, underworld magicians and clowns on the moon.
I wasn’t previously familiar with Chomón’s work (though this fine introduction will lead you to a recent DVD from the FilmoTeca de Catalunya), but to judge from this evidence he bears comparison not only with Méliès, the obvious influence; I also saw pre-echoes of the signatures of numerous avant-gardists and early animators, from the stop-motion insects of Ladislas Starewicz, cut-out figures of Lotte Reineger and animated abstracts of Oskar Fischinger to Hans Richter-esque flying umbrellas and even lurid gender-bending drag acts straight out of one of Chris Cunningham’s Aphex Twin videos.
Abuelas (above) was one of the standouts of Wednesday’s animation, too – as a part-animated Argentine story made by an Iranian-born Brit at the National Film & Television School, it could have qualified to play in any part of the Encounters programme. A mixed-media layering of styles, memories, generations and eras, it joins a late wave of films that revisit the disappearances of Latin America’s late 70s and early 80s under military dictatorships (the title refers to the campaign for the restitution of kidnapped grandchildren by the Grandmothers de Plaza de Mayo, deftly picking through the echo chamber of a woman’s empty heart / head / home as she reflects on the past.
Some of the best animation I caught (for instance in the guest programme ‘Shelley’s Eye Candy’, curated by DreamWorks’ Shelley Page) had already been around the block a year or more – witness Osman Cerfon’s Chroniques de la Poisse (Sticky Ends) (full video), Atsushi Wada’s The Mechanism of Spring (Haru no Shikumi) (trailer), Mikey Please’s multi-garlanded The Eagleman Stag (trailer), which played in two programmes, or indeed Norwegian master Pjotr Sapegin’s The Last Norwegian Troll. The Animated Encounters Grand Prix went to Dan Ojari’s Slow Derek (trailer), recently premiered in the London Film Festival, and the Best of British animation award to Studio AKA’s Grant Orchard for the schizo-visioned A Morning Stroll (trailer), “loosely inspired by” an anecdote from Paul Auster’s True Tales of American Life.
Ojari was also represented by Obscura (trailer), a vaguely Quays-esque puppet curiosity whose caged, camera-headed, bric-a-brac protagonist also seemed reminiscent of Buster Keaton’s protagonist in Samuel Beckett’s Film in his isolate suspension between states of observing and being observed.
A more outré crowd-pleaser, and also worth mention, was Israeli student Tomer Eshed’s Flamingo Pride (full video), a broad computer-animated satire of Spring Break mating rites involving a diffident pink flamingo, a stork and two rutting tigers.
I saw Daniel Seideneder and Daniel Pfeiffer’s small-town roundelay Hurdy Gurdy (full video) in the live-action programme, but this trompe l’oeuil mix of time-lapse live action long shots and model-toy animation could easily have landed in the Animated Encounters side of the programme. It’s very more-ish, like a wind-up toy.
Hurdy Gurdy would also make a happy pairing with another parochial portrait with a twist, Daniel Zimmermann’s Stick Climbing, in which a single point-of-view tracking-shot meander through a Swiss Alpine village suddenly segues into a vertiginous, animatedly surrealist ascent up the side of a mountain.
Northern European chill seemed to set the tone and standard amongst 2011’s international live-action shorts. The Encounters Grand Prix went to Below Zero (Unter Null), an elliptical, wintry study of a melancholic road-marker that, with its bear-like lead and longing looks across wide, snow-dampened rural landscapes, does a decent job observing the effect of its protagonist’s depression on his family. It’s directed by the currently prolific German director Ulricke Vahl, whose previous film Gömböc just recently unspooled in the London Film Festival.
I missed Elina Talvensaari’s How to Pick Berries (trailer), from northern Finland, which won the festival’s nomination for next year’s European Film Awards, but was duly wracked by Borkur Sigthorsson’s Come to Harm (trailer), a cracking short thriller about paternal guilt and crackup in well-to-do Reykjavik.
Denmark also provided a couple of disparate films. Tobias Gundorff Boesen’s Ghost (full video) is an ostentatiously art-directed series of dream tableaux (empty car parks, meat-chopping, leaves falling upwards) whose general drift towards pop-promo, or recent Lars von Trier film, cliché is occasionally relieved by images of genuine virtuosity, most notably a synchronised troupe of white wolves running down city streets at night. Malou Reymann’s 13 details a naturalistic three-way encounter between a newly-turned teenager and the live-in boyfriend of her estranged father when she goes to visit the latter on her birthday; the notes of surly teen bewilderment and distant-father/child emotional fencing are familiar stuff in short-film dramas, but here they’re delivered with incision and conviction.
The Spaniards meanwhile headed directly south. Manuela Moreno’s Camas (Beds) (trailer) plays out a series of calamitous post-coital conversations with a lot of comedy, if less subtlety, while Carlos Montero Castiñeira’s Easy Money (Dinero Facil) is a wickedly funny and unforgettable three-hander in a hotel room between a young rent boy called Jaime, the man he mistakes for his client who wants him to kill his wife, and the actual hired hit man, also called Jaime, who turns up five minutes later.
The most notable Anglophone films also dwelt on the terrain of woeful pickups and broken homes. Amongst the former, Henry Mason’s All that Way for Love (UK; trailer) is a well-acted, serviceably unsettling Tale of the Unexpected in Sheltering Sky country, with a young Irish tourist hitch-hiking with an enigmatic exiled older couple on the road to his aid-worker girlfriend. Cathal Burke’s Screenshot (Ireland) is a competently inventive if rather tabloid-nasty cautionary tale of a model’s seduction and violated trust that’s played out entirely through animated Facebook page updates. And from Australia, Jennifer Leacey’s Connection depicts an online first date that goes blackly tits-up.
Another Oz drama, David Easteal’s The Father, captures some of the taste of Justin Kurzel’s recent feature Snow Town with its depiction of an unravelled male family in a dead-end township and generally despondent sense of masculinity. And by way of a female middle-class equivalent, Alexander Gaeta’s student graduation film Shoot the Moon (trailer) portrayed financially and imaginatively bankrupt, increasingly homeless middle America by way of a non-working mother hooked on the get-rich-quick fantasies of a TV game show. Both were framed and acted with some potency, the former expressing an untrammelled agitation, the latter a starry-eyed, imperturbable sedation.
The oddest and most original vision though came in Maryna Vroda’s French-Ukrainian Cross-Country, which won Cannes’ Short Film Palme d’Or this year. Following a schoolboy on a decidedly undirected marathon run through a Ukrainian forest to a beach, it takes in a relay-like series of elliptical encounters with different social types, from the class peers and teacher he breaks away from, a pack of posturing teenagers, two cigarette-cadging young mothers and a pair of violent assailants to the loitering families sunning themselves on the beach.
The extended final scene sees the boy himself handed the baton of viewer as he gazes at another man on the water, indefatigably running, falling and running again hamster-like inside a giant inflatable ball. But the entire movie has already assumed the state of pure id-channelling metaphor, at once poetically enigmatic and lucidly existential. As the phrase goes, Vroda is one to watch.