Philip Ilson

Short Film Programmer

Voted for

Night Mail1936Harry Watt, Basil Charles Wright
Meshes of the Afternoon1943Maya Deren, Alexander Hackenschmied
Look at Britain - 2 We Are the Lambeth Boys1959Karel Reisz
Tunde's Film1973Tunde Ikoli, Maggie Pinhorn
Hedgehog in the Fog1975Yuri Norstein
After Cease To Exist1977COUM Transmissions
Klipperty Klopp1984Andrew Kötting
The Smiths - The Queen Is Dead1986Derek Jarman, John Maybury, Richard Heslop, Christopher Hughes, Sally Yeadon
Dad's Dead2002Chris Shepherd
Wasp2003Andrea Arnold


Night Mail

1936 United Kingdom

The GPO (General Post Office) Film Unit promoted the work that the GPO did. Night Mail documents the work of the postal overnight train running between London and Scotland, bringing together the music of Benjamin Britten and the poetry of WH Auden. The filmmaking itself is a technical feat filming energetic physical work on a fast-moving train.

Night Mail depicts a hard-working industrial Britain between the wars, specifically showing the working classes, whether those on the railway, or those that work the land or in the industrial North, portraying them as heroes that are the backbone of the country. There’s a romanticism at play here, the camaraderie between workers, even in passing moments such as we see in a brief interaction with the girls that work in the station café. The film seems to come from a place of Socialism, but it seems that romanticism was even false at the time, as Britain was emerging from a depression, and there had been strikes in the postal service. Regardless, it’s an undeniable joyous watch, and even tense in the scenes where the postal sacks are transferred on and off the train itself while it moves at fast speed.

Meshes of the Afternoon

1943 USA

Ukrainian born Deren and Czech born Hammid met in Los Angeles after both had fled war in Europe and were married in 1942. Meshes in the Afternoon was their first collaborative film, which they both feature in and it was shot in their Hollywood home. Although the film is rooted in French surrealism, it plays with a unique dream within a dream narrative which has made it highly influential in the history of cinema. The obvious trajectory leads to a personal favourite David Lynch, specifically with Lost Highway (1997) being a re-reading of the dreamscape becoming real, while the Hollywood setting of Mulholland Drive (2001) sits alongside the symbol of a key unlocking dreams in both films.

Deren was also a choreographer and a dancer, and her specific interest in Haitian culture and Vodou mythology alongside her interest in movement is evident in Meshes in the Afternoon. There has been controversy over who did what on the film, though Hammid, as an already established documentary filmmaker, is believed to have been the main cameraperson. Interestingly, the film was originally silent, with the Japanese score we now know added on in 1959 by Deren’s third husband, Teiji Ito.

Look at Britain - 2 We Are the Lambeth Boys

1959 United Kingdom

Free Cinema was launched at the British film Institute in 1956 with a manifesto to make personal work without obvious box office appeal. The documentaries produced through Free Cinema are in the canon of documentary filmmaking, specifically, O Dreamland (Lindsay Anderson, 1953), and the directors making the work had long and varied careers firstly as part of the British New Wave of the 1950s and 60s and some going to Hollywood.

A personal favourite, …Lambeth Boys was one of the last Free Cinema films to be produced and focuses on the Alford House Youth Club in South London. Interviews with the young people are observational, in a loose conversational style. It’s a timely post-war snapshot. They talk of going out, of getting factory jobs, of relationships, all with an outlook rooted in working class tradition. We also see them out in the West End or at the chip shop. It’s an undeniably sympathetic portrait, but in hindsight, one thinks of how dramatically things changed for the teenager in just a few short years as the 60s dawned, specifically around dress code and presentation, the supposed breakdown of morals, and a world on the brink of youth revolution.

Tunde's Film

1973 United Kingdom

Maggie Pinhorn worked in the mainstream movie industry, including on early James Bond films, as an art director in the late 60s. It was on an independent Soho production that she met a youth worker who wanted her to help some East End young people he was working with to make a film. She was becoming disillusioned with the industry and with a belief that art can bring about activism and change, this was an opportunity.

The film had already received some funding through a trust, and it was important that those acting in it should be given credits as writers, plus one of those involved, Tunde Ikoli, was given a co-director credit (and named in the film’s title). The young people were mostly of Black ethnicity living in Tower Hamlets, and this was a unique opportunity to give them a voice. Not a documentary, though shot observationally, the story concerns bored youth planning to rob a bank. The voices we hear are authentic when they discuss racism, class and police brutality, and not voices heard on TV or in commercial cinema. Tunde himself went on to work in theatre, directing at the Royal Court.

Hedgehog in the Fog


Russian-born animator Norstein is widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest animators and his magical work is a major influence on Studio Ghibli. Although having worked on many films before and after, Hedgehog in the Fog is one of the few that he personally directed.

Soviet-era children’s animation was very concerned with the magical and the fantastical, leading to pleasure, and not to segue into anything political. Our hedgehog friend here, on the way home with jam, loses his way in thick fog after spying a white horse through the mist, which he tries to give chase to. But other animals surround him, before he is saved by a friendly fish. The film finishes with Hedgehog and his friend Bear-Cub having tea and watching the stars. The childlike naivete of the narrative and of the drawn animal characters is stunning, and for me, goes way beyond anything produced out of modern animation houses, which seem too knowing with their nods and winks. There’s nothing like that here.

After Cease To Exist


1977 is still seen as a year zero specifically for music, and that punk outpouring bled into film, such as the success of the midnight movie crowd with the likes of Eraserhead and Pink Flamingos, and new directions in British filmmaking via films like Radio On and Scum.

COUM Transmissions had emerged from the street performance movement of the 60s, led by the confrontational Genesis P. Orridge. In moving into gallery spaces, and with the addition of Cosey Fanni-Tutti, pushing boundaries was the name of the game, with nudity, violence and bodily fluids. This in turn, with the addition of musician Chris Carter, led to the forming of Throbbing Gristle to sonically attack audiences with noise and electronics.

This film, to accompany music of the same name, is by far the most confrontational and boundary-pushing on this list, and its graphic depiction of castration borders on a childish desire to simply shock. But it was a time when shaking things up was essential to move forward creatively across the arts. It’s also a film which is so sordidly and disgustingly realistic in its purposely lo-fi aesthetics, drawing on disturbing tabloid stories of snuff films at the time.

Klipperty Klopp


Filmmaker and artistic provocateur Kötting has been constantly making work for nearly 40 years, with cinema-released features, exhibitions, many short films and most recently in VR. Klipperty Klop, made as a fine art student at Ravensbourne College, seems very much to define his long career, the way we can see Lynch fully formed in Eraserhead.

Kötting’s work has always had a strong connection to the land, and we see folk traditions both joyous and sinister depicted throughout his career. He describes this film as “a post punk piece of pagan sensibility, complete with bestiality, buggery and boundless energy”, and I have little to add. We see Kötting himself carry out a frenetic performance in both a rural field and in an abandoned container on the dockside where Canary Wharf now stands. The dilapidated Super 8 film stock that it’s shot on creates a feeling of old found footage, and the brilliant narration sounds like olde English mixed with a south London cockney twang. It feels an important a film for the development of folk horror as those earlier horror classics, and we can see an echo of it in Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England.

The Smiths - The Queen Is Dead

1986 United Kingdom

Jarman’s importance in the canon of British filmmaking and the artworld is set. Despite a massive body of work before his untimely death in 1994, the 80s saw him working in the world of commercial music video. So it seems sacrilegious to select one of these works here, though his collaborations with Marianne Faithful on Broken English, and creating visual projections for The Pet Shop Boys, are known within his portfolio as important works. He had also flirted with punk in Jubilee.

The Smiths had risen to become the most important band of the early 80s with fierce personal lyrics by the decidedly difficult and latterly problematic Morrissey, which really spoke to a disenfranchised youth. Signed to independent Rough Trade, they also refused to tow the music biz line to release music videos. With a buzz surrounding the release of their third album, The Queen is Dead, Jarman was commissioned to create a film to accompany three tracks; this was released theatrically into cinemas.

Jarman’s visual (opening on Queen Victoria’s monument to Prince Albert) perfectly marries a crumbling post-empire, portrayed in verse, to a celebration of queerness and camp. The power of this song and film is timeless.

Dad's Dead

2002 United Kingdom

Liverpool-born animator Shepherd graduated from Farnham in the mid-90s, before setting up Slinky Pictures to produce commercials and make other short films. His 2003 short Dad’s Dead was a Channel 4 and Animate! commission and went on to win numerous festival awards internationally over the next couple of years.

The film doesn’t explicitly point to Shepherd’s personal youthful memory of 70s and 80s working-class Liverpool, but given the first-person narration by Ian Hart, it feels like this is a story remembered via a friend of a friend or a mate down the pub. Or maybe it’s an amalgamation of stories and memories. Regardless, the film is a punch in the face, shockingly violent depicting a wayward youth with no future, vandalising in more and more disturbing ways as the narrative progresses until arson leads to a final denouement.


2003 United Kingdom

Dartford-born filmmaker Arnold was into a second career as a filmmaker following a stint as a successful TV presenter before studying film at AFI Los Angeles. Her second short film, Dog (2001), defined her career as writing about what she knew, and like her second feature, Fish Tank (2009), and Wasp itself, filming was done around the edgelands, council estates and industrial wastelands of the Thames Estuary just east of London.

Wasp, at 24 minutes, feels like Arnold is moving into feature film territory, as the scene is set depicting single mother (Natalie Press) and her gang of four noisy vibrant young kids come to physical blows with a neighbour. But it’s when she meets an old flame (Danny Dyer) on the street and arranges a date to the local pub that those kids become an obstacle. The urgency of the handheld camera throughout is down to the brilliant cinematography of Robbie Ryan, who went on to work on Arnold’s features. The film went on to win an Oscar and put Arnold on the map as one of the 21st century's most important filmmakers.

Further remarks

Ten years ago, I was asked to contribute to the Sight and Sound poll for the first time. My 10 choices were a strong solid overview of films that affected me when I was first discovering cinema. It was a personal list that I still stand by today as a definitive take on my film education as a young person and this list remains in the public domain for anyone interested. 10 years on, that list wouldn’t change. Of course, many great works of cinema have been made in the interim period, so to create a Top 10 from the last decade would be an exciting challenge. Of course, I’ve also seen many older films for the first time. There can be multiple lists! But given my curation work is in short film programming, I’ve decided to go this specific route.

I first curated short film in 1994 with my co-founding of the Halloween Society short film night, which segued into what became the London Short Film Festival in 2004 followed by my subsequent role as a short film programmer at the BFI London Film Festival. I cannot calculate how many short films I’ve seen over nearly 30 years and it’s been exciting to discover talent across the decades who very well may end up in the final Sight and Sound 2022 list with their subsequent feature films. I could make a list of such names, and some of those films I have selected will be made by those whom I discovered via my day job. The constantly exciting thing about watching short film is seeing new voices with a new outlook, a new take on the world, or a window onto other viewpoints, plus work from marginalised voices and communities. This is what makes short film curation work consistently urgent.

The majority of the work I’ve selected are films I’ve seen since working in curation. As well as discovering current new voices, I’ve been privileged to delve back into film history when curating retrospectives and special programmes. Having never studied film, a lot of this exploring has been personal, going down rabbit holes of what interests me. Prior to 1994, I had very little access to short film beyond music video and TV cartoons as a child, and my own forays into filmmaking with my school friend Tim Harding, making low-budget shorts and music videos for friend’s bands, existed in a vacuum, though looking back at that work there’s a naivete and playfulness on show.

Some of those older works I’ve listed do exist within a canon, and in seeing them for the first time, it’s understandable why they are so well-known. But choosing just ten films has been a balance between those I have seen via targeted research and discoveries when curating new work, but all works selected should push the boundaries of what cinema is. Sadly, limited to just ten films, the most recent one here is from the inaugural year of the London Short Film Festival, now 20 years ago. I could make a list of a hundred amazing short filmmakers from the last 20 years, many of whom have continued to make strong feature film work, but in collating this list, it’s those earlier groundbreaking works that feel important to highlight. Like my 2012 list of features, the work is predominantly English-speaking from the UK and the US, though women directors are more present here. Selected films come from fiction to documentary to animation to more hybrid experimental work. A secondary list from the last 20 years would be far more diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity as well as including more international work, given I’ve been curating from international submissions across this period. But alas, that limited access to earlier work that has really opened my eyes to the possibilities of cinema has been weighed in favour of the English language, but I feel I still have much to learn. Perhaps in 10 years’ time (if invited back) such a list of short films may differ greatly.