Bradford prides itself on its programming of shorts. I’m not really a shorts fan and I do tend to neglect them, though I appreciate the importance of short filmmaking in the ecology of film production generally. BIFF 2014 featured short films in a variety of programming slots. The ‘Shine Short Film Competition’ comprised six films shown as a programme twice and individual entries shown before the main feature elsewhere in the programme. I saw only two of the six, one of which, Cadet (Belgium 2013) won the prize (report to follow). I didn’t see any of the Sydney Underground Shorts which screened before the late night horror films in the ‘Bradford After Dark’ programme. (I couldn’t watch the late-night films as there is no all-night public transport to get me the nine miles home.) I only saw one of the Charles Urban early scientific films – these too had a separate programme.
I did see most of the ‘Cinetrain: Russian Winter’ films that were dotted across the main programme. This funded production programme invited international filmmakers to make films about communities in Northern Russia during the ferocious Russian winter. It’s an interesting project with information available on its website. Bradford showed all seven films which attempted to explore “the most common stereotypes about Russia”. These include excessive drinking, open-air bathing in the depths of winter, traditional Russian crafts etc. I was most intrigued by the village dwellers in one community who complained about the disintegration of local community/collectivist spirit. They viewed the new capitalist Russia with mistrust and felt that today people steal from each other to get by when they used to help each other. That’s a side of the new Russia that doesn’t get as much media attention as it should.
Other than these separate programmes, each of the ‘official features’ was also accompanied by an appropriate short film. I confess that under pressure with several screenings on the same day I sometimes missed the short on purpose to give myself a few extra minutes of breathing space. I’ll just pick out one other short (some are mentioned alongside the feature screenings). The one that impressed me most (i.e. appealed to my interests) was Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) directed by Arnar Gudmundsson. This tells a complete and satisfying story about two brothers – a genuine ‘Nordic noir’ – on their farm (see the still above) in 15 minutes of skilled narrative filmmaking. I wasn’t surprised to learn about its success at festivals worldwide.
This was an entry in the Louis Le Prince International Short Film Competition at the Leeds International Film Festival. The film, which runs for 20 minutes, is based on actual events in 2012. I missed the beginning of this film – an occupational hazard at festivals.
Apparently the main protagonist Tomás, attending a party with his girl friend Lenka, fell down a stairwell. He sustained serious injuries and ended up in hospital where he had to have a kidney removed. Partly to protect Lenka he claimed the injuries resulted from an attack by Romany youths. I joined the film at the point at which he has given a statement to the police to this effect.
The rest of the film tracks the increasing pressures on Tomás and Lenka as his ‘attack’ becomes a major issue. This is fuelled by a television interview at the hospital re-iterating his accusation. This feeds into what appears to be media frenzy and an atmosphere of racist prejudice against Romany.
The film has very good production values and performances. I was particularly struck by the excellent use of modern computer graphics. There is one impressive sequence which mattes the hospital ward, the television, and Facebook and Twitter entries. And the editing is also extremely effective. There are several brief flashbacks, including one in a deserted city street. This then becomes the site of a fleeting glimpse of a large and heated demonstration.
Given the liberal critique that obviously informs this film you can probably guess that Tomás comes clean on the events of the earlier night. The film leaves it to the audience to fill in the resolution of the narrative ending at this point. We then get the credits, in bright red. Appropriate.
I’ve watched quite a few of the shorts at BIFF this year, but most of them haven’t really caught my imagination. This one did. It has a genuine story – an incident with an outcome and recognisable characters. Esther Weary doesn’t enjoy her birthday, which falls on a schoolday that is also Halloween. She imagines herself being persecuted — and then she is. Her nose is too big according to a dreadful little princess. To her consternation her first period arrives on the same day . When she gets home her family are waiting for her. There’s King Henry the pug and her grandfather (played by the great Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent), who is kind and thoughtful but seemingly isn’t prepared for menstruation. All will be well because Esther isn’t ugly and her family love her. That’s it really, except that the story is told again through an animated pop-up picture book which forms the basis of the credits. It’s 14 mins long and director Stephen Dunn tells the story with real imagination and most of all through images. That’s what I want from a short – a whole story, told with imagination in as short a time as possible. I don’t mind a little sentimentalism thrown in as well if it’s tempered by the dark stuff. Most of the other shorts I’ve seen in BIFF are either avant-garde formal experiments (fine in their own right but not always a good complement to a feature) or they are good ideas without a story or a story without good ideas.
Here’s the lovely trailer:
Bradford International Film Festival has, for as long as I can remember, regularly included a short before each festival screening of a feature (unless the length of the feature makes this impractical). This is in addition to specific programmes of shorts, e.g. the Shine Short Film Competition. This inclusion of short films in the main festival is to be applauded but in the UK shorts have not been part of mainstream film culture for a very long time. There are certain cinemas that regularly show shorts as part of specific projects (e.g. the Virgin-sponsored shorts at Cornerhouse in Manchester) but as far as I’m aware, that is not the practice at most specialised cinemas. The upshot is that in the UK shorts remain primarily a festival experience or, since many domestic shorts receive some form of public funding they are shown at funders’ (or education institutions’) promotional events.
Shorts aren’t usually reviewed outside their own institutional context (i.e. by competition judges) and I confess that I’m not sure what criteria to use to discuss them. In the main shorts are produced by younger filmmakers as a form of ‘calling card’ and therefore perhaps we should be looking for evidence of good creative ideas, narrative control, good techniques etc. In some ways though this seems an almost impossible ask of young filmmakers. What makes a ‘good’ short? It might be a good idea that achieves its goal within its allotted time or it might be something very slight that is produced in a striking and original way.
There were nearly 40 shorts in the Bradford programme plus 18 short animations in the Chuck Jones Tribute. I saw just over a quarter of the shorts and two of the Chuck Jones animations. Two general observations: first it was clear that shorts were carefully chosen to complement the feature, either via subject matter or tone. Second, the overall quality of the shorts seemed higher than I remember from previous years. Certainly I never got that sense of squirming in my seat hoping that the short would end soon. I was intrigued by the way that ‘typical’ national filmmaking styles were so noticeable – the social realist aspects of several UK shorts, a beautiful traditional Japanese animation etc. Again there were noticeable differences in production values. The Spanish Morir cada dia (Dying Every Day) and the French Le passage were striking in this respect, the former a drama moment set at mealtime, the latter a fantasy narrative sequence – both of which could have been extracts from a feature production. By contrast, Those Who Can (UK) is clearly low budget but packs a powerful punch with its narrative derived, I think, from a real news report. I enjoyed each of these three shorts very much. It’s worth making the point here that festivals are now faced with a variety of digital formats on which submissions have been made – as well as the different formats on which they have been shot. (It isn’t always the case that the film on the highest quality original format arrives in the cinema on the best projection format.)
Formats were also an issue for the Chuck Jones Centenary Tribute (Part 1). I was pleased to see this strand in the festival. The cartoons (as they would have been called on their original release) were scattered through the festival as well as being collected together in four separate ‘Family Funday’ programmes over the two weekends of the festival. The festival brochure includes an essay by Paul Wells on Chuck Jones (1912-2002) which provides useful background detail. Jones worked for Warner Bros, home of ‘Looney Tunes’ between 1933 and 1962 and then for MGM from 1963-71, by which time the studios were in the process of ceasing production of cartoons as such.
I remember the 1950s experience of watching Bugs Bunny, Wile-E-Coyote and Roadrunner, how the first Hollywood cartoon characters transferred to mainstream children’s TV in the 1960s and then again how they provided the basis for new cable channels like Cartoon Network in the 1990s. The Bugs Bunny classic What’s Opera Doc? dates from 1957 but I suspect that I know it best from TV. It’s claimed as ‘the greatest cartoon short’ ever made. I can see why it is so highly thought of, but personally I prefer the earlier cartoons of Tex Avery – for both their drawing style and their subversive nature. This was one of just four of the cartoons screened from 35mm. The image looked fine on the big Pictureville screen, if a little scratchy. The Bear That Wasn’t is a 1967 production, the last cartoon short from MGM. Based on a story by Frank Tashlin this is a witty satire on contemporary US society and quite sad. I enjoyed it a lot (and the drawing style suited the material as well as evoking the period). However, like most of the cartoon shorts this had to be screened from Blu-Ray. I’ve seen Blu-Ray on a smaller screen looking fantastic, but on the big Pictureville screen it didn’t seem quite up to the job. It’s a shame that the studios aren’t releasing their cartoon archives as DCP prints – or perhaps they are but the distribution fees are extortionate? I know how difficult the studios can be about prints and indeed still images in giving permissions and charging high fees. I wish I’d had the time to watch more of the cartoons but if you feel that you have been missing out, Part 2 of the Chuck Jones tribute is promised for the Bradford Animation Festival later this year.