Aesthetica Short Film Festival 2014 In Review

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Aesthetica Short Film Festival is now in its fourth year. In a city with an artistic temperament which hitherto lacked a renowned venue or event, the festival has been a vital addition to York’s cultural life: showcasing a breadth of York’s cultural spaces, with a focus on UK film but drawing filmmakers and film followers from throughout the world, the festival is a resounding success. For the 2014 edition, 300 films were on show across fifteen venues and four days. New groupings showed collections of shorts from the worlds of fashion and advertising; there were special screenings of Lebanese, French, Japanese, Iraqi, and German film; and industry people afforded ‘masterclasses’, workshops, talks, and networking sessions, alongside opening and after parties – the latter following ASFF’s ceremony for awards. I attended seven screenings over the course of the weekend, and offer below my thoughts on each of the forty-two films I saw.

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Experimental 3 (Location: Middleton’s Hotel)

‘Léthé’ – by Harald Hutter, co-produced by the Scotland Screen Academy, and filmed in France and Scotland – is almost parodically French. Nicely shot and rich in colour as it traverses country roads, fields, and bridges, a man follows – always present but keeping his distance – a troubled young woman wearing red. Upon first sight, we may wonder whether she has been assaulted, or is in some other way physically distressed: lost, or witness to some horrible incident. Yet her struggle is mental rather than physical. Through vague and repetitive utterances, she hints to her follower that she has something to show him and that they might know or may once have known one another. Towards the close of the film, she turns to the camera and informs the audience: ‘Thoughts are the dreams of the unconscious’. The film meanders, and never becomes more than a poor impression of Alain Resnais.

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‘Seeing Black Cows’, by the Finnish director Nuutti Koskinen, was one of the most visually and aurally engaging films on display at ASFF. An animation which digitises the cutout technique, and draws something from the aesthetic of Yuri Norstein, the film throbs and hums between the blacks and greens of misty forests and falling trees and the synthetic reds and golds of highways and road tunnels. ‘Hot Chicken’, by Iain Bonner, is splutteringly funny. A man – with a small mouth and deep eyes but a glassy gaze – sustains himself on warm rotisserie chicken, which he takes home and juicily dismembers by hand. Repeated visits to his front door by a fitness instructor-cum-spiritual healer win this passive adult’s attention, and he embarks on group exercise before becoming the meat in a male-male-female sandwich.

‘Maria’, by the Polish-born, American-based director Katarzyna Plazinska, was a tightly composed work of experimental drama. We are offered a sensitively austere portrait of a woman in isolation, whose careful inner life abuts against the blank contexts of a frozen landscape, a shopping mall’s food court and bathroom, and a hockey arena, at which she remains resolutely behind the glass. The film is a series of precise frames. Its climax shows simply the nape of this woman’s neck, and the thin chain necklace she is wearing, which draws – by surreptitious movements – ever more tightly against her skin.

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‘The Rinsing’ is a short of just three minutes, which shows a middle-aged woman in a workhouse or factory environment pulled and pushed in the competitive effort to become and remain an object of desire for the opposite sex. ‘Dans Le Bruit’, a Chilean film by Gabriel Olavarría, continued the theme of female dislocation which was a constant throughout Experimental 3. Peering between the cracking walls of her room, a woman witnesses a younger counterpart – who seems to function in some sense as the woman’s double – experience the stresses and sufferings of domestic abuse at the hands of a male. The younger woman, and then in turn the woman herself, both end up wearing eye-patches. However, as the woman clambers across the industrial terrain of her hometown and tears apart the crumbling walls of her room, the narrative of the film suggests – without condoning the behaviour of its men – that such domestic violence can also be a product of male suffering, and thereby renders the issue in societal and interpersonal perspectives.

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Drama 14 (Location: Middleton’s Hotel)

‘The Weather Report’ proved a peculiar short. A dramatisation of the factual role played by the lighthouse keeper at Blacksod Bay in County Mayo, Ireland, during World War II – the lighthouse keeper, Ted Sweeney, provided important weather forecasts to the Allies prior to the invasion of Normandy – the film develops only to retract its story of romantic intrigue. The phone calls which Mr. Sweeney continues to receive from a female operator, asking for his reports on the weather, raise in his wife the suspicion that he is carrying out an affair. Ted encourages this suspicion by virtue of his evasive manner. But then as the film ends we are told how Sweeney’s weather reports were in fact crucial towards the Allied war effort – and the notion of any intrigue is dropped.

‘In the Still of the Night’, by the Austrian filmmaker Erich Steiner and Sorger Film, is a period piece, beautifully portrayed and acted, which blisteringly evokes the Holocaust. A family – a mother, grandmother, and three children, the eldest of whom is suffering from an unspecified debilitating condition – wait for the return of their father, late home from work. While the youngsters squabble and play, the eldest girl seems anxious. The father arrives home and, giving his three children presents, the family settle into a domestic scene. Yet the pace and the atmosphere of the film has created a sense of foreboding, and in the night soldiers ransack the family home and leave the bodies of their victims.

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In the German film ‘Still Got Lives’, a teenage boy named Marco plays an online RPG with a girl named Lisa. Fond partners fighting monsters over the internet, beyond their flirting Marco suggests that they meet in real life. Lisa, however, rejects his offer. When Marco continues to press the issue, Lisa declares she is quitting the world of the game, and leaves Marco with only her log-in details so that he can continue the life of her character. Yet when Marco uses this log-in to access a billing address, he makes his way to Lisa’s family home – only to find that Lisa is terminally ill, and confined to a hospital bed. Marco and Lisa become intimate in the little time Lisa has left. If the film sounds superficially cloying or somewhat trite in its depiction of online romance and circumscribed young love, it surpasses any such concerns in the closeness of its details and in the strength of the two leads’ performances.

‘Demob’ is a bleak but limited portrayal of a soldier just home from Afghanistan. Suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, the former soldier sits in his girlfriend’s apartment in the nude, adorned only by his old combat helmet, which he wears on his head. Whatever black comedy one may struggle to find in this is curtailed when the soldier bludgeons his girlfriend to death.

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In contrast, Alessio Rupalti’s ‘Looking for Something Else’ is a gentle unfolding of a couple coming to terms with a past loss. The film – set in a luxurious Italian apartment, with its two lead characters impeccably dressed – languishes in uninspired rhetoric which is florid and excessively sentimental, but it somehow holds together, owing to the unity of its aesthetic sensibility. It has a glossy sheen, and plays close to an elaborate television commercial. ‘Zephra’ is a long short – thirty minutes in length – by the director Bob Gallagher, set in a post-apocalyptic Ireland. A man called John barely survives in a desolate landscape despite a weight of expertise in hunting, foraging, and medicine; and when a contaminated water supply forces him to take shelter with an expecting couple, he takes the opportunity to rebuild a family for himself – at the couple’s expense. With a compelling landscape, thoroughly plotted, and convincingly acted and directed, ‘Zephra’ was an accomplished work in every respect.

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Documentary 1 (Location: Treasurer’s House)

Owing to the diversity of its selection, Documentary 1 promised much; yet the group of films rarely excelled and occasionally stuttered. ‘Herd in Iceland’ is still an eminently worthwhile documentary, affording a sustained view of life with horses in rural Iceland, through their breeding and herding, and as a new generation of owners questions whether to remain in the countryside or move to the city. Likewise ‘Zima’ is an engaging look at life in Russia’s coldest regions.

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‘Next Stop: Reset’ manages little as a retrospective covering three countries in five minutes; and while Treasurer’s House is a supremely attractive location, the acoustics rendered the apparently uninteresting stories told by the three hard-to-understand elderly ladies of ‘The Wolf, The Ship, and The Little Green Bag’ especially difficult to discern. ‘Here We’m Be Together’ is a slightly ingratiating look at the dying customs of the Norfolk Broads – until the film’s star amusingly tells the tale of how an aristocrat once generously offered him a meal of warm horse manure. ‘A Film is a Film is a Film’ is enjoyable – and fittingly uses music from William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops – without either the detail or the formal experimentation which would have allowed its meditative subject matter to truly excel.

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Artists’ Film 5 (Location: According To McGee)

‘Glace Crevasse et Dérive’, by Albert Girard and Chantal Caron of Fleuve Espace Danse, was a spectacular piece of choreography – primarily for the boldness of its two dancers, Tomas Casey and Karine Gagne, in daring to perform atop the icebergs and frozen shore edges of the Saint Lawrence River as it runs through Quebec. Gagne was especially remarkable in this regard, supremely poised in a full-length ballgown, off the shoulder and replete with folds. The choreography was delicately balanced through movements of mirroring and counterpoint, and despite intending to serve as a metaphor on ‘the allure of death’, the dance retained a lightness which highlighted individual gestures and asserted the phenomenal power of the landscape.

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‘Every Man and Woman is a Star’ is a pleasant enough piece, featuring the fluid interactions of a woman and two men on a pebbled beach in Essex. The two men switch between the attires of the businessman and the homeless as they indifferently negotiate their relationships. ‘SYSTEM’ retains a strong narrative element, built around the obsessive hygiene concerns of one of two sisters as she navigates the impositions of a shopping centre. The film succeeds as a concise commentary on our routines and on the abstract concerns by which we would safeguard our health and general wellbeing; and on how these define and delimit our interactions with people.

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‘Révalités (Dreamalities)’ occupies a similar realm to ‘Léthé’, as another film set largely in the French countryside and featuring a female protagonist in red who dwells in the folds of memory. But ‘Révalités (Dreamalities)’ offers a much richer experience, its cinematography fluent in colour and light; and its exploration of childhood memory more thoughtful and sustained. ‘Monsters’ is brief at just three minutes, but visually admirable as ornate flowers emerge and encompass gardens and stoneworks. ‘Return’, directed by Gabrielle Le Brayon and inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, is a somewhat static rumination on the concept of the journey.

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Documentary 2 (Location: Middleton’s Hotel)

For ‘Cailleach’, Rosie Reed Hillman followed Morag, aged eighty-six, and living in Scotland’s Western Isles in the same remote household in which she was born. Morag – who expresses the view that you don’t move house for the mere fun of it – has never married, and she looks back on her life and contemplates her impending death, and discusses her current interest: her sheep, who she names by epithets. Hillman succeeds in providing a sense of place while allowing Morag’s distinct character and sense of humour to emerge.

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Despite its brief span, ‘Emilie’ provides an interesting perspective on the art of the tattooist as a unique collaboration between artist and medium. ‘Gli Immacolati’ took an entirely different route to the other documentaries on show. Rather than filming human subjects, Ronny Trocker allows his film’s contentious account – a story of how a girl’s false accusation of rape wrought the devastation of a Romani camp in northern Italy in 2011 – to soundtrack a series of images, as his camera slowly pans across his scaled models of the destruction. The models possess a desolate beauty while they raise questions about truth telling and documentary as genre.

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‘Port Nolloth: Between a Rock and a Hard Place’ felt laboured as it studies the demise of a community on the northwestern coast of South Africa, and the challenges faced by those who linger to dive for its few remaining diamonds. ‘Autism in Love’ is a tender and humorous account of a fifty-year-old teacher with autism and his partner. And ‘An Undertaking’ fittingly completes the cycle of films: like ‘Cailleach’, a close depiction of a narrow and unheralded way of life, extending in a wry and humane humour.

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Thriller 2 (Location: City Screen Basement)

Thriller 2 divided neatly into three exceptional films and three bland mediocrities. ‘Naive’, by the Belgian director Marie Enthoven, is a fantastic conceit, at once dark and darkly comic. A woman named Emma – somewhere about her late twenties or early thirties: a time at which society dictates one should have a few close friends and a relationship, and be preparing to settle down – spends an evening with her best friend, struggling to get a reception on her television. She speaks to her boyfriend over the phone, and ends the call with kisses, but notices that the line does not go dead. Gradually she uncovers a plot against her: her mother seems to be paying her boyfriend, and indeed her best friend, to occupy their roles. This is the twist in the narrative: despite the equivocations and protestations and further deceits which follow, we never recover the sense that everything is alright, and the film proceeds by a continual tilting of the floor.

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‘Infringe’ is darker still, a harrowing invasion of a young blind woman after an incidental meeting in the street. The film is a Swedish short, directed by Martin Åhlin. A young woman strides down the street in the evening, with dark hair and a long hooded jacket, her headphones on in the dark; and when a man walking in the opposite direction bumps into her, she is sent sprawling into a blind blonde stripling, and sends her tumbling to the ground. The dark haired girl helps the blonde find her apartment building, and asserts that she was in fact headed to the same complex to visit a friend. This is disconcerting, because the dark haired girl appeared to be heading past the building when she bumped into the blonde.

The pair share an elevator, and the blonde girl reveals she is German, and has moved to Sweden to live with her Swedish boyfriend. He is out for the evening at an after-work party. Before the two women part, the blind woman asks whether she can touch her new companion’s face, to ‘see’ what she looks like. The dark haired girl assents, and the blonde feels her face, and feels the braid in her hair. The elevator closes and the dark haired girl ostensibly travels on to her intended floor. But when she arrives there – presumably, there is no friend – she hesitates before making her way back to the earlier floor. Disrobing – taking off her jacket, jumper and shoes, but leaving on her gloves – she silently enters the blind girl’s apartment. There she disturbs the innocent through a series of noises, and when the blind girl trips, she strikes her viciously on the head, rendering her unconscious. As the blonde comes to, a knife is held to her face; slicing off her braid, the dark haired girl hands it to the blind girl as a means of revealing herself; before she is back out onto the street, leaving the girl weeping.

Birthdaygift

In contrast to the two previous films, ‘The Birthday Gift’ by Max Myers is in broader strokes and its plot is not as unique: a husband is carrying out an affair, and on the night of his fortieth birthday, the young lady he is cheating with deceives the man’s wife and babysits for the couple’s young son. Realising the situation, the husband feigns sickness and hurries home from the restaurant where he and his wife have been celebrating; their son is shaken, but unharmed, and the babysitter flees into the night, leaving behind a gift which implies that she is carrying the adulterer’s child. So if the concept is not entirely original – drawing on themes popularised in films like Fatal Attraction and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle – still it is fully developed. And ‘The Birthday Gift’ is a polished film, slickly directed, well acted – by a cast including Tobias Menzies, best known for appearances in the TV series’ Rome and Game of Thrones – and sustaining its tension to the last.

‘Dawn’ is a hackneyed, grimy vampire short, involving an adulterous younger man in a relationship with an older woman. ‘Status’ is set in a dystopian future: it is 2018, Australia, and social media is now embedded in our wrists and utterly inescapable. Strangers can verbally comment in real time on all our thoughts and actions; but as the social network falters under the weight of its users, the people riot and seek blood. The film does not work on an artistic level – and in this respect, after also viewing ‘Zephra’ during the festival, it is curious to consider how the post-apocalyptic seems to afford more artistic space than the dystopian. Post-apocalyptic visions demand a process of careful observation and re-creation, where dystopias often merely draw tenuous lines from the present day. ‘The North Side’ shares the supernatural and dystopian aspects of the previous two films, a flat Matrix-inspired chase through deserted streets.

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Comedy 4 (Location: King’s Manor)

‘A Day in the Life of a Bathroom Mirror’ is broad UK comedy at its worst: cloying and repetitive across its eight-minute duration, which issues are only emphasised by the rotundity of Tim McInnerny’s narration. In the film, a bathroom mirror bemoans the tap which drips beneath him and lusts after his attractive female owner, only to steam up before he can catch a glimpse of her in the nude.

‘Scrabble’, a Swiss film in which the words on a Scrabble board wreak havoc between a loveless old couple, is a little better; but it suffers squeezed between two broad works, for ‘The Boy with a Camera for a Face’ is in much the same vein as ‘A Day in the Life of a Bathroom Mirror’. A boy is born with a camera in place of a human head. Despite his camera looking like a model from the 1950s, it evidently remains – throughout the course of this boy’s life – effortlessly up to date with modern technology, for it is capable of recording video and streaming it live on television. As the boy, now an adult, becomes famous nationwide, the film drifts towards a lazy political allegory. Worst of all, it does all of this in rhyming couplets.

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‘The Man Who Knew a Lot’, a French film by Alice Vial, is an engrossing work, alternately sombre and playful. An elderly man named Monsieur Beranger – played by André Penvern – works at a large furniture store, where the staff become part of the displays. Each given a showroom, they live and lounge about and thereby advertise the comforts of their surrounds. Mister Beranger is particularly adroit demonstrating the virtues of his chair and footstool; and when he clinches the sale of a chair to a psychoanalyst, sitting up and declaring ‘I want to have sex with my mother’ at the pertinent moment, he seems in line for a promotion. However, when he visits the site of his promotion – the thirteenth floor of Paradesign – he realises that it is nothing more than a holding place for the elderly. He forms a relationship with a young girl, who offers a form of escape: she insists that there is a beach just outside the store, if only they can find the right door of egress. They try several solutions, and appear to have succeeded; only to find that beyond the sandy dunes of their would-be beach lies a motorway. So they must keep searching. This is a delicate and absorbing film.

‘The Funeral’, by Nick Green, starring Paul Kaye, is a rich Jewish comedy. A man is stuck between his devout mother, who is ill in hospital, and his son, who is coming to the appropriate age and wants a Bar Mitzvah. He himself maintains the vestiges of his Jewish faith, but he is not a believer, and his blonde wife is a gentile. Yet a case of mistaken identity – when the hospital reports his mother dead, and the family carry out a proper Jewish funeral in accordance with her wishes – results in him regaining a crux of faith. In the final scene of the short, he puts on his sunglasses, starts his car’s engine, and declares that his son is going to get his Bar Mitzvah. Closing Comedy 4, ‘Robot Luv’ is a briefly unnecessary depiction of a machine spurning its human creator for computer-based romance.

Assorted Films and Trailers: