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Here we go, then, another year of York's annual cinematic bonanza. As the posters and programmes tell us, "18 Venues. 300 Films. 5 Days." starts here. Day One of the Aesthetica Short Film Festival 2017. It was a day that got the ball rolling on 10 out of the 11 genre categories that this year's festival has been divided into; only Advertising is yet to make its bow. Later in the week the Special Showcases and Guest Programmes will light up the city, but for Day One, it was all about getting to as many short films as possible.
One of the day's first screenings was Drama 2: The Complicated Truth. It was a strong selection, with a variety of tones and subjects all turning on that slippery concept of truth. Best of the bunch was Paul Phillip's The Peculiar Abilities of Mr Mahler, a mystery centred around the disappearance of a young boy in 1980s East Germany. Phillip succeeded most strongly in his deft shifts in genre. What starts as a genuinely unsettling paranormal chiller quickly becomes like a German episode of Sherlock as Mahler's "peculiar abilities" take centre stage. Most impressive of all is a final reveal and powerful political message that will linger longer than most. The heavy drama is found elsewhere to in the at-times crushingly sad Munda, following a lonely Icelandic priest as she is forced into retirement and confronts her long-held love. Both films are a surprising watch, which somewhat overshadows the more predictable and straightforward 14.74 or The Pursuit of Mediocrity and Game. However, the latter in particular is well-acted and full of an energy and conviction that makes it compelling and though-provoking viewing. Finally, Swiss short Mamie, seemingly inspired by Wes Anderson in aesthetic, provides a very dark vein of humour to proceedings in its final truth.
As in life, so in the movies, the drama never stops. Onwards with Drama 3: The Human Condition. It is during this "block" that it becomes so apparent that drama as a genre rides or dies on the acting. Of course, the direction and writing is important too, but by its very nature this category relies on the actors being believable and compelling; they need to engage the audience and transmit the emotional turmoil of the script. The main point of critique, therefore, is whether the film can make its audience care in its brief exploration of human emotion. Some of the pieces in this subsection were more effective than others. Adult created a challenging depiction of grief, and a fairly comedic vintage porn tape - which actually had to be replayed due to technical issues with the projector - but it was Victoria Haralabidou's performance which elevated the uncomfortable contrasts. She made the film work rather than letting the sexual aspect dominate the focus on her bereavement. In utter contrast, Backstory elicited existentialism. Shot from behind the lead actor it presents a literal back-story relying more on the narrator to convey a fairly downbeat view of growing old and the mundane routines of life. It may leave a fairly poor taste, but this is just a testament to the film's ability to tap into an audience's fears.
Walking around the festival, it is not uncommon to hear people enthusing over the selection of animated shorts at the festival. Firstly, it is worth pointing out that animation has a poor reputation in the public eye and sometimes even occasionally in the industry - here's looking at you Academy Awards - conflated with "children's films", people often forget that animation can have very much "adult" themes. This was very much on display in Animation 4: Changing Lives. However, rather than "changing lives" the films seemed to all involve violence, people being drawn to decisions with awful consequences, regardless of their good or poor intentions. The highlights of the screening included Don't Think of a Pink Elephant by Suraya Raja, a puppet-stop motion piece which explored a teenage girl's violent intrusive thoughts and
effectively transferred the anxiety of the main character to the audience. Likewise, Johhno's Dead successfully combined animation with actors to help show the psychological deterioration of its narrator. Not exactly family friendly material. All the films proved the range available to animated films and produced challenging stories and a wide variety in both the use of animation and the style.
Speaking of a wide variety, what would a film festival be without the weird and the wonderful? In Experimental 6: Between Two Places, we got exactly that. Performance artists talking to computers, people falling in slow-motion to the sound of poetry and an intense dissection of sound and music, this screening had a bit of everything, other than much that was greatly accessible. Toby Andris' The Belt was as close as we come to narrative or conventional dialogue, but event that was fragmented and confoundingly ambiguous. The beauty of experimental cinema, however is in the messages tied up in it all, and the fun is in cracking the cinematic codes that hide them. Worthwhile as well, is just revelling in the smallest moments, such as horrific shots of meat and children lost amid the disembodied voices of Jacqueline Lentzou's Hiwa, or the silence of an empty Las Vegas of Aurele Ferrier's Transitions, a film that spends 12 minutes and 48 seconds with its camera slowly moving down various roads, from the barren desert to the consumerist paradise.
Messages can be hidden amongst the experiments, but they're a bit easier to find in documentaries. Heading into late afternoon, Documentary 1: Freedom, Rebellion, and the Troubled Youth found plenty to say, despite the films frequently departing from the style of traditional or mainstream documentaries. Those presented here would be unlikely to be shown on Tuesday afternoon at 3pm. This statement might imply the films were unconventional or less accessible. Some of them did depart drastically from what we might expect from documentaries, for example Urban Cowboys had a highly naturalistic approach, with no presenter or narrator. The story was still very much presented through the director's use of camera, but this use seemed to want to appear as natural and realistic as possible. The edits were not overly stylistic, instead reflecting the down-to-earth situation and story. The borderline abusive treatment of a horse by the lead subject may be hard to stomach, but Pawel Ziemilski at least presented a different take on documentary filmmaking. Others may have been more tempted to have a more structured and obvious narrative, but Ziemilski's subtle touch worked, for the most part. The real standout however was A Million Waves by Daniel Ali and Louis Leeson, also departing from the "informative" route commonly pursued by documentaries. This film conveyed Kadiatu Kamara's love of the ocean and surfing through absolutely gorgeous cinematography. From the first shot of palm trees and Sierra Leone's beaches it's not hard to understand the connection Kamara has with her surroundings. The ambitious use of aerial shots really enhanced the piece and allowed for expansive and dynamic views of the waters and Kamara surfing. It was a delight to watch.
The beauty of experimental cinema, however is in the messages tied up in it all, and the fun is in cracking the cinematic codes that hide them.
"Delight" is not quite the word to describe our final group of films, those of Thriller 1: Love Me Tender. Perhaps all the more chilling for their apparent grouping around "love", this screening provided genuine tension. An odd, lengthy (by ASFF standards) and thrilling example came from Israel in the form of Sharon Chetrit's Soup, about a woman who encounters a foetus in the soup she's making. Other strange and sinister goings-on ensue and it is certainly one of the day's more memorable works. Equally odd and even more disturbing is Diego Freitas' Salt, a shocking true story brought to life with excellent performances. The less said the better, but the fact it's all true is really rather disturbing. Some black humour is brought in with Adam Price's very short Malefaction, an intriguingly slight tale of a Northern Irish hitman. The standout, however, and one of the highlights of the festival so far, is Nour Wazzi's Baby Mine. There is good suspense, of course, but what really makes this work is its subverting of our genre and character expectations. Flipping things around in a did-not-see-that-coming ending, it questions its characters, our justice and its audience, in a finely acted and compelling film.
Day One, then, was something of a success, here's hoping the quality is kept up throughout the festival.