Glimpses of the Global Zeitgeist: The 15th London Short Film Festival
Shorts get such short shrift in cinemas that it’s always an encouraging sign to see a festival dedicated entirely to the form. Long gone are the days when movie theaters would frequently play a short before the main feature, thus giving young filmmakers a chance to younger to prove their mettle in short-form before bigger projects, with many filmmakers returning to short and mid-length films throughout their careers, for reasons such as budgeting but also a greater degree of freedom.
This year’s London Short Film Festival, now in its 15th year, proves that the form itself is alive and well. In the festival international slate, the shorts range from formally ambitious experiments in storytelling to the more straightforward narrative films, whose main slant is towards vividly observed social angst.
In the latter grouping, in the section devoted to films that blend fact and fiction, entitled Based on True Events, The Disinherited (2017), by Spanish filmmaker Laura Ferrés, is an intimate, stylized portrait of the filmmaker’s father, whose middle-age is marked by economic decline. Unnamed and seen almost entirely alone in the first part, with the exception of a sleuth of obnoxious clients, the father works for a cab service (which we can imagine to be Über or one of its competitors). Yet the film, which premiered in Cannes, in the Semaine de la Critique, isn’t just another morose reflection on Spain’s economic problems. Ferrés, who in an interview in Cannes remarked that her father’s passion for music and dancing made him a kind of “millennial,” captures the emotional cartography of his peregrinations. In a way, the millennial thread and the work angle make The Disinherited a perfect companion to Two Young Men At a Window, 2017, a short by Loukianos Moshonas that won this year’s Pardi di Domani Locarno competition. The eponymous “disinherited” could easily be Ferrás herself, with her father as the last of the clan.
In The Disinherited, the father runs into a young man, now with a family of his own, whom he used to drive on a school bus, just as his own father had driven the generation before him, thus conveying a sense of how communal binds are built, sustained, and ruptured (the father no longer buses students, but is seen with some old repaired buses in a hangar). Sometime later a conversation over dinner, with television news spewing economic data on big banks, touches in a darkly humorous way on the father’s health (“You ought to see someone,” Ferrés’s grandmother says. “Who?” asks the father, “a woman, or a psychiatrist?”). Ferrés has an eye for simple, effective frames—grandmother and father face us as in a family portrait. Bits of industrial landscape and glimpses of transportation (a new metro line structure, a passing plane) fill in to anchor this emotional story in the everyday and the material.
The same could be said about Alán González, whose short, The Anthill (2017), captures the young Cubans’ desperation through a tight lens of one woman’s struggle to retain a modicum of dignity and composure, while slowly succumbing to the aggression of her surroundings. Living in tight quarters with another querulous couple, the woman’s stoicism is undercut by the grind of survival, marked by food shortcuts and constant money troubles. González excels in drawing forth the cadences of speech—a neighbor’s salacious hollering heard through thin walls, shoppers’ haggling and bickering in endless lines for food, the pressure that builds up under the cracked veneer of civility. González’s urban Cuba is a hell measured out in small doses, which in the long run results in debilitating passivity.
A more fantastical realm is created in Léo Favier’s After the Volcano (2017), a story of a mysterious fire in a small village, followed by an exodus of a tightknit community into a forest, where they learn to hunt beast and to fend for themselves till they deem it safe to return, and to continue living with the uncertainty and the mysteries of nature. Fávier mixes wide-ranging amateur videos, made between the 1930s and in 1995 and stored in the regional Loire center (CICLIC) with fable-like narration. In one instance, a crude animal mask serves to represent an animal, in a kind of impressionistic shorthand; in another, an animal speaks with a villager who’s returning home. The communion of beasts and men makes this post-utopian story, which to some extent channels the more communal, beatnik spirit of the 1960s or the hippie culture of the 1970s, crackle with ironic humor.
Meanwhile two other shorts, both presented in the Foreign Bodies slate, use film’s editing and montage properties as part of the story being told. In Summer (2016), Italian-born filmmaker Ronny Trocker (formerly of Berlinale Talents) freezes time frames to show a young black man shipwrecked on a Mediterranean beach, as around him vacationers, aid workers and guards appear as wax figures. Trocker plays on the inversion of foreground / background, of visibility and invisibility, to shift perception, thanks to which the newcomer views the Europeans as rigid and immobilized, much as he himself may have appeared to them.
A similar play on invisibility is employed by Dutch video artist and experimental filmmaker Douwe Dijkstra, in whose smart, playful short, Green Screen Gringo (2017), set in Brazil, a green screen placed behind a person is used to highlight the presence of those being ignored, be it a homeless person, a shoe-shine, or a member of an indigenous tribe. The green screen also serves as a metaphor for multiple cultural and social displacements, between Brazil’s Amazon and its sprawling urban centers, between the recently gained mobility of its working class with strengthened purchasing power (now again eroded in the midst of economic turmoil) and the deteriorating conditions of its indigenous populations, whose lands are threatened by the encroachment of big agricultural players, such as beef and soy producers. Dijkstra takes this scenario even further—using the screen to switch the background and foreground combinations, often to surrealist effect, such as when a man on a treadmill suddenly has the forest projected on the screen behind him, or when a lifeguard is transplanted from a beach and inserted into a museum gallery setting, etc. The myriad transpositions highlight the filmmaker’s own presence as a kind of “green” observer, or a blank screen, as he tries to make sense of a foreign culture.
Both Trocker and Dijkstra also reflect on photography, or, more broadly, image making. In Estate, the presence of cameras, be it professional or amateur, is prominent, and at the end, the black survivor freezes as a camera click is heard, his pose frozen as if in an antiquated historical diorama that congeals his story into an easily extricated, digestible context, a frozen scenario he is (here, literally) trying to escape. Green Screen Gringo, on the other hand, alludes to photography’s ability to re-contextualize, but also to its abstraction. In addition, certain frames, such as the ones taken of youth on Brazil’s beaches, recall the cool, objective portraits of another artist by the same last name, the Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra.