13th Nov2014

Aesthetica Short Film Festival 2014 – Sunday Roundup

by Mark Allen

ASFF-2014

Here’s the second and final installment of my Aesthetica Short Film Festival coverage, a little later than expected but no less enthusiastic for it! Let’s dive right into the last day of the fest:

One of the more enlightening screenings from the festival was Sunday’s showing of films from Iraq with an introduction from Human Film’s Isabelle Stead, who gave some interesting context to the shorts her company had helped Iraqi filmmakers produce. The first film shown, Lipstick, was a quietly touching portrait of school life and excruciating adolescence for one boy in an all-male class and their hard-nosed female teacher. Two other shorts that stood out for me, Children of War and Children of God, took different approaches to exploring the effects of the Gulf War on the country’s youth. The former is a mix of live-action and animated footage, the bulk of the story about a young boy’s father standing up to grotesque American soldiers and paying the ultimate price taking place in the child’s pencil drawings of events.

The effect is both disturbing and moving, whereas Children of God takes a somewhat more optimistic – if no less damning – approach to the topic. Another school-set narrative sees an ostracised paraplegic boy selling Spanish football posters to his classmates and rooting for the girls’ underdog team in a friendly match. What’s shocking about God is not that the boy is disabled, but rather how he is treated by his peers – mainly with disregard, but ultimately compassion by his crush. Narrated statistics state that there are now millions of handicapped children in Iraq, which makes our lead one among many and a symbol of the country’s impotence in the face of ‘liberating’ armies. This isn’t a story about a victim, however, but one of a person facing great hardships and adapting to not only survive, but thrive – as much as one can in the ruined landscape of his town, at least.

The Japanese screening offered fewer but no less rich pleasures in its selection of films. Hashi No Mukou, a gorgeous and highly detailed anime about a young photojournalist who returns to her hometown with a battalion of troops during a civil war, is a technically impressive work but lacks narrative clarity, especially in addressing its themes of child abuse. I know, I was surprised by that twist too! Also somewhat directionless was the mercifully brief but still all too long Empty House, a film principally about a man making coffee and watching a woman sing for him. that’s the whole thing. There’s some nice photography but I felt the story was asking the audience too much in terms of bringing their own subtext to the images, which is really just lazy after a certain point.

However the bright light in all of this murk was the joyful Koyuki’s Wandering Football, a light drama concerning the eponymous young girl’s charming efforts to replace her father’s lost prized possession – a football signed by all of his high school mates – by taking a new one to all of them in turn. The beauty of the film is in its simplicity; taking the girl’s relationship with her parents and an old friend as its centrepiece, Wandering Football builds a relatable emotional world and imbues its characters with a Miyazaki-like sincerity and warmth that’s commendable.

Another story about a young Asian girl trying to please people, albeit with an entirely different tone, was the superlative Happy Birthday Cindy Wei (UK), a film I can only really describe as having the sensibilites of a fantastic 1980s coming-of-age movie with a wicked sense of humour. Part of a comedy screening, the film stood out for some striking visual choices (I could be wrong, but it looked like the makers actually shot on film where the majority of shorts were digital) and a script so polished that every line felt crucial to the story and perfectly placed in the actors’ mouths. Which really should be credited to the wonderful cast and direction too, I suppose.

Some of the other comedy offerings were shot & acted well enough, but meandered too long before getting to the punchline (Butcher & Sons, UK) or were simply just far too mean-spirited (and sometimes just plain despicable, as in the case of Command-Option-Dump, UK). Most were commendable efforts, but the litmus test for comedies is naturally much simpler than with other genres – you either get a laugh or you don’t – and unfortunately not many made me chortle.

The drama screening I attended (my final one of the festival, in fact) was probably both the most disappointing and ambitious. I had predicted that these shorts would be the hardest to sit through as they’d be the longest – as I stated in my last installment, overlong short films are not a pleasant experience – and I wasn’t wrong in regard to the bulk of the films that were shown. I was close to nodding off in one, but I won’t embarrass the filmmakers by saying which.

A welcome exception to this rule was Hold (UK), a 6ish-minute affair that sees two lost souls meeting in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and one striking a deal with the other for supplies. Unfortunately, brevity is the film’s only true asset as a bland aesthetic, predictable twist and cliche-ridden script (“Where have you come from?” “I could say the same to you”) keep it from having any resonance whatsoever.

Both The Hunger (Belgium) and Birthday Present (Israel/Austria) fared much better than the rest of the screening, despite both pushing past the general limit of what I would deem a maximum running time by telling stories I could connect to on different levels. Telling a simple story about innocence lost and the cruelty of siblings, The Hunger‘s rich, poetic images give the film a dreamlike quality that compelled me until its quiet (literally; there are maybe five or six lines in its 15 minutes) but dark climax.

Birthday Present is a more complex affair, which is pretty much how you could pitch the fleeting romance between an Israeli man and an Austrian woman in Jerusalem. The camera rarely leaves the two alone as they spend the night together making love, walking the streets and driving to the airport, and their conversations range from discussions about religious attitudes toward women to anxieties about possible pregancies. It all had the feel of a Raymond Carver story – there’s not a huge amount of detail on the surface, but if you dig deep there’s a rich seam of subtext – and that’s no bad thing at all.

The most accessible set of films I attended was, possibly somewhat predictably, a Family Friendly screening which consisted mainly of animated shorts aimed at children. All short and relatively sweet (with the exception of Little Tail (USA), a film about a depressed pencil who wishes he could be a tree once more), the ones that stood out for me were those with the clearest sense of their story. The Gallant Captain (Australia), for example, is a story about a boy who decides to set sail in order to make his dead seafaring father proud  and goes on a swashbuckling adventure (in his mind) with a put-upon cat. The animation was a little creepy, but the comic timing was precise and I was touched nonetheless.

Better animated but slightly less impressive were The Importance of Being Bear (UK) and Sapling (UK), two shorts with nature as a key theme but seriously weak endings. The key messages: from Bear, “It’s okay to piss off grizzlies because they’re actually just as cuddly as the ones on your bed”; and from Sapling, “It doesn’t matter if you f*** everything up because everything will work out okay!” Are these great things to be telling kids, guys?

Last but by no means least is Ain’t No Fish (UK/USA), a glorious Aardmanesque claymation musical number sung by Arctic seals about, well, fish. The playful sea-based lyrics (“Ho-oly mackerel!”) are undercut by images of wrecked oil tankers and a disturbing darkening of our troupe’s fur, ending on rather a bleak note that’s no less entertaining for it.

My pick of the day (and festival)? Ain’t No Fish and Friday’s The Stomach were both top contenders but were both edged out by Happy Birthday Cindy Wei, because how could any film in which a schoolgirl unknowingly stations a phone sex line before heading for a night on the town with her drag-queen cousin not stand head and shoulders above the crowd?

Well, that’s all I have to say for this year’s festival. Here’s looking forward to next year and an even bigger crop of great little films in the wonderful atmosphere created by both Aesthetica and the city of York.

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