I missed this festival on my doorstep last year when its first outing coincided with other work but I managed a brief visit this time. RATMAFF is the ‘River Aire Ten Minute Amateur Film Festival’, the brainchild of Marcus Gregg, a lecturer at Leeds City College and his students at the college campus actually in Keighley (15 miles from Leeds). For those of you not in West Yorkshire, Keighley’s film-related fame derives from The Railway Children (1970), Yanks (1979) and numerous train-related costume dramas ever since. The festival venue is next door to Keighley Station, terminus of the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway seen in many films and TV productions. Keighley’s most famous film figure is Simon Beaufoy writer of The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire. The prizegiving at the festival is in the evening at Keighley’s 1913 Picturehouse.
RATMAFF is an interesting model for anyone thinking about creating a festival. The students seek sponsorship from local firms and they act as unpaid volunteers in staffing the festival operation. The screenings take place in the (high-tec) campus building opened in 2010. Entry to the festival is free and screenings are also free with donations to charitable causes welcomed (Cancer Research UK this year). This year the organisers received 300 entries from all over the world from which they selected the best 70 short films. These were then organised into 10 programmes which ran as ‘looped’ presentations of mp4 files playing from computers all day in separate screening spaces – a viewing experience referred to in the programme as ‘screen surfing’. There were 2 Documentary programmes plus Animation, Art, Comedy, Music, Science Fiction and Drama (3 programmes).
I visited two of the drama programmes watching 13 short films in all. The first point to make is that although the films were made by ‘amateurs’ the 13 films I saw certainly weren’t ‘amateurish’ in presentation – or in script, camerawork, direction, performance etc. Current digital technology allows anyone to think about making a film. Some training, lots of creativity and hard work can then help to deliver a perfectly watchable film. I chose ‘drama’ because I prefer realist dramas to other forms of filmmaking but I might easily have gone into other screenings. My first observation is that there were three films from Spain and one from Mexico in my selection and that the remainder included films from India, Estonia, Germany and the US. The remaining four were from the UK and only one was ‘local’ to West Yorkshire. Without the internet it would have been impossible to programme such a mix of films from disparate places. It was noticeable in my sample that the Hispanic and Indian entries tended to be more ‘political’ in theme than the UK/US entries
The one thing I’m not clear about is whether the awards in the evening are all based on the votes of ordinary viewers. The award for drama went to The Exchange, a genre piece with a twist ending in which a ‘fixer’ provides an unexpected (and not necessarily welcome) solution to a man’s problems. This was an interesting and very well-made example of African-American cinema made in Los Angeles. My personal favourite was Die Reise (The Journey) a delightful film from Angela Schuster in which a small girl makes an imaginary journey on a summer’s day. The film has no dialogue but from what we see it appears to be either set in East Germany in the 1970s or to be an attempt to deal with memories of the period. A bigger budget could improve the sound mixing and possibly the costumes (the child’s shoes?) but really that’s just nit-picking. It’s great as it is (see below).
Special mention also to Fuero by Juama Juarez, an interesting Spanish film addressing the possible outcomes of ‘The Law for the Recovery of the Historical Memory’. Watching this made me think about the struggles filmmakers must have to send their films with English subtitles. They might have to rely on friends or Google Translate. The subs on this film weren’t great but the story effectively ‘told’ itself.
Festival director Marcus Gregg wrote in RATMAFF’s brochure that “this is not a festival-goers festival”. It’s a good point. This is a festival for anyone to come in off the street and ‘screen surf’. To try to increase awareness the preceding Saturday saw RATMAFF operating a ‘pop-up’ cinema in Keighley’s Airedale Shopping Centre (one of the festival sponsors). Most of the festival visitors I’m guessing went first to the Comedy, Music and Science Fiction screenings – the latter showing in the college’s ‘Star Room’. The People’s Choice Award at the festival went to Eatbrains by Danny Hardaker from the Science Fiction programme. Next year I’ll try to get to see more of this innovative festival.
As an addendum to my earlier post about the centenary of Keighley’s Picture House Cinema, the cinema operator Charles Morris decided to hold a centenary celebration (some two months late) on July 10 in conjunction with the town’s Film Club which began to screen films at other venues earlier this year.
Wednesday’s film programme put together by the Film Club comprised a free afternoon programme, part of which was then repeated in the evening alongside a screening of The Artist (France/US 2011) for which tickets were sold. The afternoon programme was introduced by Charles Morris, fresh from lunch with invited guests. He quickly handed over to the Film Club’s Secretary Bob Thorp who explained that the Film Club would in future be showing films once per month in the cinema. We then watched a short film by one of the film club members on the history of early cinema and also a documentary on the Picture House itself made last year (see it here). The main part of the programme which I want to comment on here was the selection of Maya Deren’s At Land (US 1944) and Episode 1 of the Fantômas serial directed by Louis Feuillade and starring Renée Navarre as Fantômas and which was released in five episodes each of 54 minutes in 1913.
At Land was shown first with a musical accompaniment – a piano in front of the small stage, played very well (but the pianist’s name wasn’t given). However, I’m not sure whether Maya Deren ever intended that her silent films should have accompaniment. Some of Deren’s films had music soundtracks created by her collaborators, but not this one to my knowledge. Music does change the experience of watching a silent film. Commercial film screenings of films without soundtracks up to the early 1930s usually had some form of accompaniment but later avant-garde films (often shown in non-theatrical spaces) might be shown silent. Anyone who has watched a film in a cinema without any sound at all knows what a strange experience it is, so perhaps accompaniment here was a wise decision. As an aside, the three major texts on Deren and the 1940s American avant-garde that I consulted all failed to discuss soundtracks (or at least to include a reference in an index).
Maya Deren had arrived in the US from Ukraine as a small child in 1922 and by the mid 1940s she was becoming a leading figure in the ‘New American Cinema’ as the group of avant-garde filmmakers working out of New York became labelled. Her collaborators included the composer John Cage and her husband Alexander Hammid and others who appear in At Land. Hammid co-directed and photographed Meshes in the Afternoon (1943), Deren’s first film (but not Hammid’s first). At Land was photographed mainly by Hella Heyman. This creative collaboration is just one of the reasons why Maya Deren has been so celebrated within feminist film studies. She effectively controls her own liberated image on screen – ironically, she photographs so well that her image equals if not surpasses those of the artificial Hollywood goddesses of the period. Her background was in anthropology and poetry. She wasn’t a trained dancer but she was interested in dance cultures which featured directly in her later films and her work generally acquired the tag of ‘trance films’. The films are indeed ‘dreamlike’, not just in the strange juxtaposition of sequences but also in their rhythms which through careful camerawork and editing create almost seamless transitions and a sense of swooning. At Land begins with Deren washed up on a beach, but as she pulls herself up on a tree stump she climbs directly onto a long dining table where she is seemingly oblivious to the diners. Later she enters a building with an array of doors to open. There is clearly a relationship with surrealism, but most critics of avant-garde film see Deren as an original rather than simply a follower of Buñuel and Dali.
Maya Deren’s work is now easily accessible on DVD and much of it is also on YouTube. If you haven’t seen it before, it is well worth seeking out. I always assumed that Kate Bush must have been a fan.
The selection of Fantômas was announced as simply an example of a film released in 1913. Bob Thorp said he didn’t yet know whether Fantômas ever played in the Picture House at the time. Nevertheless it was an interesting choice and given its great influence on subsequent filmmakers such as Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock it reminded us of some of the thrills and spills that cinemagoers of the next forty or fifty years would have enjoyed. I haven’t seen the serial before but from the little I’ve read the first episode was perhaps not the best to show since it is mostly setting-up the battle between Inspector Juve and the mysterious criminal Fantômas. The vision behind the adaptation of a successful novel is such that at first it is easy to forget that the film is 100 years old. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that most scenes are still conventional tableaux with a more or less static camera. The main movement comes in the sequence detailing a remarkable prison escape. At the end of the episode is a piece of Méliès camera trickery, matching some of the promotional footage for the series which emphasises Fantômas as a master of disguise, constantly changing his appearance – and demonstrating what we would now term ‘morphing’ on screen.
The Film Club programme was enjoyable and it showed imagination and enthusiasm from what is essentially a volunteer group. There were a few problems in the projection of the films but the projectionist assured us afterwards that these had been sorted in time for the evening screening. The next step is to attract audiences to the monthly screenings being organised by the Film Club in this grand old venue and we wish them well.