In Their Own Words
I cannot speak to the long tradition of presenting bold shorts at the London Short Film Festival (LSFF), this being only my second time writing about the festival. And yet, if the past two years are any indication, it is definitely an annual event that stands out to my mind as far as short form (important disclaimer: I have not yet been to many key festivals, such as Oberhausen, which are also devoted entirely to shorts and, for much longer than LSFF, have been the guiding light for this underappreciated, essential category).
Shorts are short. Shorts are sweet. And they are often delightfully outrageous. That is perhaps why, whenever at a festival, such as Locarno, Viennale, FICValdivia, or Mostra de Cinema de Tiradentes, where the love of cinema is vat the forefront, I come to the shorts program as if to a private temple.
This year’s edition of LSFF is kicking off with a bang. Among the highlights, A State of Anxiety program, which, as the title promises, tracks the wild, unruly state we find ourselves in. Much of it is in a tragicomic vein and young in spirit. Andrew Stephen Lee’s Manila Is Full of Men Named Boy (2018) is a surprisingly poignant take on immigration, as viewed through the eyes of a young man who seeks to impress his relations by “adopting” a young Filipino boy. The adoption is not quite what you expect, and yet, by the time the ending rolls in, we are absolutely taken with the longing, and also resentment, that an immigrant may feel, when denied close connection to home.
Two of the films in the State of Anxiety line-up are animations, and both are absolute riots: in Betina Bozek’s Oh God (O Jezu, in Polish, 2017), quick drawing lines pulse and merge into each other, in what looks like a mournful combination of Bruno Schulz, George Grosz and Volker Hüller—slightly surrealist, strongly suggestive, and not afraid of ugliness. Just as bold is Nikita Diakur’s Fest (2018), a three-minute popping, computer graphics riot, depicting basically a block-party / rave. Where Lee drives with a carefully crafted satirical narrative, Bozek and Diakur excel in sketching out a quick mood, and keeping us captivated with their robust forms. Something shorts can do so brilliantly, by distilling a story to a punchy visual essence.
Turning to narrative again, Jacqueline Lentzou’s Hector Malot: The Last Day of the Year (2018) meanders between fairytale territory—in the opening, a little girl on stage tells a tale of having fallen to Earth, as a lonely star—to prosaic Gen Z angst (or whatever post-Millennials are called). The film’s protagonist, a young redhead with a white fluffy dog, shares an intimate moment with a boyfriend, walks the pup, dallies inside a church, where she is mistaken for someone else and kissed. She is also at a party on New Year’s Eve, and makes a call to her dad. Nothing apocalyptic happens. 2019 isn’t the year of catastrophes—big or small, we sense that for some, those already happened. In this case, there is the background of Greece, stories of breakups, divorces, mistrust towards men, vague fear or never being able to take closeness for granted, all this rippling through this moody, impressionistic piece, which is also filled with fleeting light.
In another program, Out of History, there are more wonderful antics: In the short, T.R.A.P (2018), by Manque la Banca, three friends—young woman and two men—carouse in the great outdoors, donning medieval costumes. Not entirely sure what they are doing, but they do get up to some playful sexual kinks. Then just as they began, they wrap up, talk about what to eat for dinner, or who will cook. Like Lee and Lentzou, la Banca weaves moments of pleasure and surprise from the most mundane material, and alternates between artifice and a documentary feeling with an assuredness that brings to mind the work of another young Argentine director, Teddy Williams (whom I previously interviewed in Locarno for Film Comment—link).
Out of History is also the program where the documentary impulse finds a potent manifestation: particularly in Alexander Johnston’s stirring Evidence of the Evidence (2018), which re/tells the story of the Attica prison riot, in 1971, in which thirty inmates were killed by the police. The raw archival footage that Johnston shows is absolutely chilling, and the film’s overall arc clearly also meant to remind us that the level of incarceration, particularly young African American men, continues to be criminally high in the United States.
Much lighter in tone, but no less thoughtful, is Marc James Roels and Emma De Swaef’s The Magnificent Cake! (2018), whose background is the Belgian colonization of Africa, told in a few succinct chapters. Roels and De Swaef’s film is among the longest, at over forty minutes, and it’s wonderful that LSFF considers this range, for in many ways, particularly in its vignette-like form, the film does feel like a short. The animation design is deceivingly simple, but the woolly, doll-like forms create a wonderful contrast to the very adult historical material. When watching it, I was reminded of similar “history from below” attempts in recent Eastern European literature, which mold a distinct nonfiction tradition that gives the big picture through snippets of the mundane. In The Magnificent Cake!, we get a glimpse of Belgium’s King Leopold II, but more of his bed-wetting dreams and hiccups, aka senility and old age, than his imperial plans. Which is not to say that the filmmakers make light of their topic. There is violence too, but it shines through the estrangement—the doll figures, the animation, create some distance between us and the tale, just as Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Švankmajer did in their best work.