After braving the storm and nearly drowning on the way into York, the feeling of being inside a warm room and watching some of the most interesting talent in the film industry to date was nothing short of a great relief.
The day started off quite darkly, as Middleton’s Hotel showed some of the more unique animation entries. The screening included a mix of entries but all were ultimately terrifying, Ngayurnangalku (Cannibal Story) and The Palace the most notably so. Both were compelling but Cannibal Story doesn’t leave much to the animation, and even fans of the post-apocalyptic genre will be disturbed by The Palace’s stark portrayal of loneliness and fear, working in a hint of hope towards the end.
Dipidenza was an interestingly morose tale that depicts the life of Bubu, a large simpleton, and Angela, a woman with an ever-changing roster of artistic ambition. Its style was unique, feeling almost childlike, but working more complexly in its themes and plot. It certainly provided more than one laugh, if not for actual comedic value, then for the pure eccentricity of its production.
Probably the two standouts in this screening though were Red Man and The Missing Scarf. Red Man is a retelling of Macbeth’s final battle and it doesn’t come in much grander fashion than this. Graphic, brutal, and beautiful, the 2D, hand-drawn depiction is gritty and evokes a feeling of an authentic portrayal of Macbeth as a good man driven made by power. The Missing Scarf, probably my favourite of the animation shorts, is immensely witty, simple, and seems aimed at children. However, it actually explores profound fear: of the dark, of the unknown, of nothingness, and promptly remakes it into laughs.
The rest of the day was only more profound after I settled into 1331, where I was treated to some of the most heart-warming and heart-breaking documentaries I’ve witnessed in a while. Dissonance told the tale of a couple who, after cancer stretches their relationship to the very limits, reconnect through their love of music. With diary entries, disparate scenes of separation, and loving smiles exchanged across the warehouse, Theis Mølstrøm Christensen leaves the couple to once again find the tune they once shared.
This heavy entry was in no way indicative of the rest of the screening though. The Art of the Sea, Le Taxidermiste, Somewhere Else, and Origins: Matthew Dear, all had something to bring to the table and it was all quite heavily related to art – the motivations, the origins, the purpose.
The pinnacle of the screening came with the film The Harms of Hate – an investigation into modern bullying and prejudice. Several moments accompanied this film where viewers held their breath in order to hold back emotional reactions. Victims of hate-mongering including a man left in a wheelchair by polio, a woman in a burka and a young homosexual man told their stories. The message was stark and eye-opening, and most of all, human, a great display of modern documentary making.
The last screening in the basement of City Screen made for the most unique titles of the day. If you go out with the intention of seeing a collection of films under the category “Experimental”, you’re probably in for an experience to say the least. Memorybox was one such entry and with its weathered style and sci-fi setting, it immediately placed itself in high regard. The focus on memory as the basis of identity was intriguing, especially coming from an apparent ‘blank’ who, after each day, loses their memory.
My highlight of the day however, was Stay the Same. No dialogue, no movement, just shot after shot of a lady on a beach every day for a year. Sam Firth edited it all together and created something that’s immensely moving and plays with your sense of time and experience. Sometimes she’s smiling, sometimes she’s crying, and you want to know why but you never will. It manages to make you think. The accompanying soundtrack by Fraya Thomson is a near-perfect addition as well, and if this is experimental it certainly did something for me.
So that was my day, I set out to try and see a broad range and the Aesthetica Short Film Festival delivered. After living in York for over two years now and never even realising it was here, the festival is probably one of the best experiences you’re ever going to get out of York.
My day of running between screenings to cover the 2014 Aesthetica Short Film Festival for Nouse offered an unforgettable, almost overwhelming selection of films in different genres and styles; a chocolate-box of treats to make any film lover’s mouth water.
I began the day with a drama screening, featuring three outstanding films that dealt in different ways with their characters’ sometimes nurturing, sometimes threatening relationship with nature. Last Days showed a glamorous young couple returning to an idyllic resort in Guadeloupe, only to discover that “you can’t take a holiday from your thoughts” as their relationship finally collapses under the strain of the man’s mental illness. The story was told almost entirely by the woman’s voiceover narration, a tricky decision that successfully created a moving elegy for lost love. Let Me Down Easy depicted a group of teenagers entering a mysterious initiation ritual in the woods by their settlement. It didn’t always make complete sense, but it was a rich and sometimes shocking exploration of our anxieties around rites of passage, religion and the ambiguous nature of sin, powered by strong performances as the young cast explored their characters’ different reactions to the situation. King for a Day was a return to the bleak social realism that’s always popular at ASFF, but it showed the genre at its most emotionally complex. When Will leaves prison, he tries to convince his younger brother, Daniel, to run away from foster care and live in the woods with him. The unfolding of the nuances of their relationship, as Will tries to do what’s best for Daniel but heart-breakingly fails to understand what this is, was an example of capsule storytelling at its finest.
The true stories featured in the documentary strand were as compelling as the dramas. 5 Is Alive followed the family of 19-year-old Connor Saunders as they talked about his sudden death and the difficult decision to allow his organs to be donated. Directors Barbara Myers and Paul Loman handled the painful subject matter with commendable sensitivity, allowing the Saunders’ dignified sorrow to shine through. Viva told the hilarious story of 82-year-old Viva Hamnell, who brings an irrepressible love of life to everything she does, whether it’s singing in her son’s punk rock band in the 1970s, accidentally being arrested for growing cannabis or making her own Vivienne Westwood suit. The screening then switched from the personal to the global with Gyre: Creating Art from a Plastic Ocean, which is named after the ‘gyres’, or circulating ocean currents, that wash up tonnes of plastic rubbish every day on Alaska’s beautiful coastline. It was a shocking insight into the scale of ocean pollution – “I think we could literally bury ourselves in this stuff,” said a scientist, and after seeing the boat loads of rubbish, the unseen but inevitable product of our consumerist society, you had to agree with him. The film followed a group of artists as they collected the rubbish to make sculptures, and, in doing so, raised thought-provoking questions about how art can illuminate our understanding of science. After seeing the degradation of the natural world, the screening concluded with a celebration of its beauty, as German documentary Still Life wordlessly depicted day fading into night in a forest. Through innovative use of both image and sound, such as a gorgeous opening shot of sunlight filmed underwater and the amplification of an owl’s wings beating, it forced you to look at nature with fresh eyes.
In contrast, the thriller strand I attended was the most varied in quality today. Infringe showed the chilling consequences of a young woman, Naomi’s, attempts to help Laura, a blind girl she meets on the street. There’s a slow-burning sense of menace as Laura struggles to navigate a world she can’t see, and Naomi’s ultimate exploitation of that vulnerability led, without anything explicit, to one of the most shocking outbursts of violence I’ve ever seen in any film, feature or short, and one that will haunt me. However, the more conventional The Birthday Gift was a slickly produced but cliché bunny-boiler story, relying on a villain so obviously sinister that the twist was easy to guess, and Status had an admirably ambitious plot involving a futuristic social network that allows users to hear their friends’ status updates inside their heads, but was overlong, confusing and full of artificial-sounding dialogue.
I ended the day with a special screening of iShorts, Creative England’s new shorts initiative for emerging filmmakers outside London. The filmmakers had taken ample advantage of the funding, making some of the longest and richest films showing at ASFF. Crisps was a Pythonesque comedy set in a bizarro-1950s world in which a nasal, chatty voiceover narrated Al Crisps’ adventures, featuring Zeppelins, an ‘oyster-sexer’ and a haunted well he can’t find. The film’s quirky setting was brought to life by beautifully detailed production design, and it was so wildly imaginative and entertaining that it feels almost churlish to ask where the substance was beneath the style. In contrast, Chance did a better job of combining humour and emotion in the story of Jake, an ill-educated but bright motor-mouth who convinces his friend Rob to escape being “unemployed in a city that stinks of piss” by basing all their decisions on the toss of a coin. The duo’s adventures spun increasingly, and hilariously, out of control, but there was real poignancy in Jake’s ultimate confrontation with his disappointment with his life. A Complicated Way to Live featured a raw, layered performance by Rob Jarvis as a disabled man unable to cope with the world and facing the withdrawal of his benefits by a callous bureaucracy. The film was a painful, powerful depiction of life at the desperate end of society – it’s just a shame the violent ending felt forced for a cheap shock, and failed to honour the commitment to a realistic depiction of its characters’ lives that director Ged Hunter had previously achieved. There was another impoverished Liverpudlian setting in Hits Like a Girl, the story of Kay, a young carer who seeks to forget her troubles in boxing training. Lead actress Catherine Brown strikingly captured her character’s mix of anger and vulnerability, although, again, the film disappointed at the end, with a slightly too neat resolution to her problems.
It’s inevitable, in an event as vibrant and sprawling as York’s ever-growing ASFF is fast becoming, that audience members will prefer some films to others. All the films I saw today showed laudable ambition, even if some didn’t fully realise it. Taken together, they made me laugh, shiver, see the world differently, and even make a mental note to remind my family that I’m an organ donor. Now in its fourth year, ASFF keeps getting bigger and better.