09th Nov2014

Aesthetica Short Film Festival 2014 – Friday Roundup

by Mark Allen

ASFF-2014

The last time I attended Aesthetica, I was a volunteer and didn’t get to see all that many films. The only complete screening I managed to view was at the venue I was manning; unfortunately, that screening was full of pretentious and acutely inaccessible experimental films, so I didn’t have all that great a time with them. Thankfully I managed to catch a handful of others and enjoyed the atmosphere of having a pop-up film festival in (my then adopted city) York so much that it washed the wankery right out of my mouth. Wait, that doesn’t sound–

Anyway, I’m back – and purely as an audience member this time. My first day at ASFF was a great taster of many different kinds of films, though of course with an event of this size (showing over 300 films over three and a half days) I was always going to feel like I hadn’t done enough. That said I’m back again on Sunday, so I’ll just have to keep an ear out for the must-see screenings to catch.

Before then, here’s a smattering of films I did see that I thought noteworthy:

My first screening of the day was a series of ostensibly dark and gripping shorts at the more conventional venue of York’s City Screen Picturehouse, and it was encouraging to see one of the biggest screens in the place pretty much packed with bright-eyed young filmgoers. Aesthetica’s efforts to entice students from the city’s two universities appear to have paid off in full, though I learned to be grateful for the less crowded (and slightly more mature) audiences later in the day.

The screening started with an ominous British affair called Woodwoo (UK), about a pair of tree surgeons drinking tea and…well, doing what tree surgeons do best. The film is thin on plot but big on shots of the more meditative of the two as he lops limbs off a huge oak and looks pretty miserable about it. Woodwoo takes its time to reach its fairly predictable climax, which is still effective in paying off tension but maybe not quite to the degree its makers might have hoped. For a flick about cutting things down to size, this had a lot of unnecessary fat.

From the promising to the sublime; next came The Stomach (UK), a wickedly twisted genre mashup and current frontrunner for my favourite film of the festival. I won’t spoil it too much, but the premise involves an unfortunate man whose stomach can act as a painful medium to people’s deceased loved ones and his profit-minded brother who run into a little trouble with a couple of nasty gangsters. There’s a fair dollop of Cronenbergian body horror to the piece and it’s no sleight on The Stomach to say that its ending borrows heavily from Videodrome, though with a delicious twist.

It can be easy to stay in your comfort zone at events like this, sticking only to genres and screenings you know what to expect from, but where’s the fun in always knowing what’s coming? It was with this in mind that I attended the Lebanon screening, having only ever seen one feature by a Lebanese filmmaker (to my knowledge) and having only the faintest understanding of the recent conflicts that clearly inspired much of the work on show. At least half of the shorts directly mentioned or were about the country’s war, like documentary When The War Sank In and drama Troubled Waters, both of which contain harrowing stories about life during the civil war but curiously don’t show any of the conflict (even in a recreated form) onscreen. Still too raw, perhaps. The more playful films of the lot still have intimate conflicts at their core, though: in Abu Rami, we see the sniping and criticism of a middle-aged couple whose relationship quickly deteriorates further when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere; and The Man With The Red And Yellow Guns’ centrepiece is a gun-heavy standoff between two gangs that is actually part of a film-within-a-play-within-a-film. Both films distance themselves from genuine violence, but their climaxes were both reached when truths were set free. I’m not saying this is the norm for all Lebanese films, but it was fascinating to see these two very different shorts put together in the same screening.

I only got the chance to see one comedy film, and at first 5 Ways 2 Die (Cyprus)seemed more suited to one of the more serious categories, with a sad sack everyman experimenting with ways in which to end his life. There were some chuckles as his ineptitude prevented him from reaching his goal again and again, but the film was more of a long con than a laugh riot. The twist in the closing moments (involving his duplicitous wife) seemed at first novel, but upon reflection was conventional to the point of cliché.

An honourable mention should go to Keeping Up With The Joneses (UK), a meditative and blackly comic hostage scenario featuring Adeel Akhtar and Maxine Peake in which most of the characters are complex, fully dimensional human beings, which is no mean feat for film of 28 minutes. The only problem I had, coincidentally, was that it was 28 minutes long, which rather stretches the definition of a “short” film.

The main problem I (and many others) have found with short films is that they’re just too long for their own good, especially in the context of a festival where they’ll be screened with five or six other works of similar length. It’s fine to show a fifteen-minute film first, but when all the rest are equally languorous time can start to drag, especially if there’s a bouncy two-minute anomaly shoved in the middle. I’ve always found that the best short film is one that expresses a single idea succinctly, doesn’t hang around and simply “gets out”, as Billy Wilder would say about third acts. That’s not to say longer films can’t work – just that most of them would work way better cut in half.

Which brings me neatly to the animated section of Friday’s shorts, most of which fell into the camps of ‘way too long’ or ‘just right’. Among the former were Lady and the Tooth (UK), Nest of Stone (UK) and Malheur (France), all of which had striking visual sensibilities (hand-scratched crayons, stop-motion photography and LEGO animation respectively) but also meandered in their storytelling and lost my interest by their ends. The latter camp included Goodnight Sun (Canada), a charmingly bleak twist on a popular bedtime story that plenty of belly laughs in its slim runtime, and Tiger Is Gun (UK), a visually stunning mix of CG and hand-drawn animation which tells a stirring myth about an abused tiger who transcends his original form to take revenge on the world. Others in the screening varied in length and quality, such as the magnificently rendered but narratively incoherent CG short Leviathan Ages (UK) and My Milk Cup Cow (Japan), a slow-moving but beautifully impressionistic hand-drawn retelling of a girl’s memories of growing up with her father. The latter certainly proved there are exceptions to my ‘the shorter the better’ rule, as My Milk Cup Cow strolls upwards of ten minutes, but the atmosphere it creates and the movingly simple story it tells is more than worth the time spent in its world.

That’s all for my first day at ASFF! I’ll have more to share with you after Sunday’s screenings and the close of the festival.

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