Despite living in York for over a year, I’d never heard of Aesthetica Short Film Festival until I was invited to review some of the films that were on show. Sure, I’d seen the signs around town offering “300 films in 4 days”, but I hadn’t appreciated quite what it would entail and how much there was on offer. Spread across the city, from small spaces above bars that fit thirty people to the eight hundred-seat Theatre Royal, ASFF provides a truly unique film experience that offers something for everyone.
As previous reviewers of the weekend have mentioned, nearly every possible genre of film is covered, and in each block you see around six short films from across the world, which last anywhere between three minutes and thirty minutes.
My day began in King’s Manor. A venue that is normally frequented by archaeology and history students was transformed into two cinemas; OK, I admit they were just lecture rooms with the projectors turned on, but you get the idea. The first block was a series of comedy films, with a contrasting array of comedic styles presented. Gli Zii (The Uncles) told the story of two uncles tasked with raising their niece, but when she grows up they realise that they rely on her, so murder any male suitor that wishes to talk to her. This pitch-black, silent Italian comedy was probably the most stunning filmed of all the films; taking full advantage of the luscious countryside, it looked like a big-budget feature film.
In stark contrast to this was the low-budget British film Bradford Halifax London, which was filmed in a single shot and about a family outing aboard a train, with the parents arguing as their daughter looks wistfully out of the window. The realistic style of film-making suited the material well. It reminded me of the BBC sitcom Outnumbered, and seemed to be the most enjoyed by the audience, who relished the back-and-forth insults that bounced between the two adults.
Another UK film during this block was Forget Me Not; directed by Michael Beddoes, it utilised a rather farcical dramatic conceit – a man, Freddie, is injured in an accident, and Laura, who goes to help him, is his girlfriend of six months, but he cannot remember the previous year- to great comedic effect. Personally, one of the marks of a successful comedy piece is where the dramatic elements spark off the comedy to create a realistically funny film, and Forget Me Not definitely provided that; while Laura is understandably frustrated at Freddie’s lack of memory of her, Freddie questions her on what their relationship was like and is angry with himself for how he had treated her. It offered a thought-provoking moment, where the audience is invited to question how we change during the course of relationships, from the initial romance of a first date to several months later when we begin to take the other person for granted and stop really trying. By removing Freddie’s memory, the writer allowed us to question ourselves, whilst also providing a very amusing film, which spiralled out of control, as all good comedy films should, by ending in another accident.
One of the drama blocks offered a stark contrast to the laughs of the comedy section; In the Still of the Night was a stylishly-captured Austrian film, set during WWII. Three children eagerly wait for their father’s return from work. Several hours later than usual, he returns with gifts for his whole family. Anyone familiar with this historical period, or who has seen such films as Schindler’s List, may guess the outcome for the family as soon as the date-card flashes on the screen, but it still remained a heart-breaking moment when the Nazi army break down the door to the apartment and the camera pans over the family to reveal what the father’s gift really was. All the acting in this piece was superb, but Stella Butz, who played the eldest daughter who has a disability, was particularly noteworthy, given how successfully she portrays the idea that she is aware of what her father is planning and is unable to tell the rest of her family.
Equally as moving was Still Got Lives, which introduced us to a very modern dating scenario of two people who meet whilst playing an online game. After several months, Marco asks to meet Lisa, but she refuses and deletes her online identity. Marco manages to find her address, and tracks her down to the hospital where she is dying from a terminal illness. Despite the youth of the actors, both beautifully portrayed the innocence of the scenario and also the heartbreak that they cannot be together. I won’t spoil the ending in this review, but it is safe to say that there was not a dry eye in the house as Marco walked away for the final time.
The highlight for the day was a very witty comedy short, filmed in Yorkshire, called Tea Time in Haworth. Anne Reid and Paul Copley played a couple waiting for their friends to arrive for tea. Using language that constantly pushed against any politically correct barrier, Reid’s character, Jean, complained about many aspects of modern life, including the discourtesy of one of her friends to be late, due to getting her chemotherapy on the days they choose to meet up. Judging by the guffaws from the audience, the outdated attitudes of the characters did not offend anyone, as it was clearly demonstrating the ignorance of Jean instead of any maliciousness. It concluded with the couple attempting to find and use “the mobile”; an experience that anyone who has ever tried to teach a grandparent how to use technology will recognise as both frustrating and hilarious.
I think what I have learned, and appreciated, more than anything by attending ASFF is the skill of the storytellers who make these short films. In fewer than fourteen minutes, Erich Steiner’s In the Still of the Night managed to break the hearts of thirty-five random strangers in the middle of a York lecture theatre with the story of a family seventy years ago. While in nine minutes, Michael Beddoes’ Forget Me Not made us laugh out loud, at the same time as question how we all behave once we’re in a relationship in comparison to when we first meet someone new. I have never really considered watching many short films before now, and ASFF has shown me a whole world of film-making I have never before experienced. It was an event I would recommend to everyone with a love of stories.
After watching fiction and documentary all day yesterday, today I focused on films where the image is more important than the story. ASFF has such a dizzying variety that my problem wasn’t finding enough of these films, but choosing among the range on offer.
I started the day at an animation screening, which was off to a stunning start with Coda. Using simple hand-drawn animation and a beautiful score, it began shockingly with the protagonist’s death in a drunken car accident, before showing his soul leaving his body, trying to bargain with death to stay on earth, and finally accepting his fate in a joyous spiritual experience of reconnection with the roots of experience – the feel of wind and fire and the sight of loved ones he’d lost. The next film, Le Gouffre, used a more computer generated form of animation less successfully. The protagonists, two travellers painstakingly constructing a rope bridge to cross a canyon, verged on being in the Uncanny Valley, and their macho-man heroics, complete with a female side character who served no purpose other than to gaze at them adoringly, felt over the top. There was a third style of animation on display in the rotoscoped Sticky, which moved from an impressionistic depiction of the catastrophic effects of eighteenth-century Western colonialism on the Australian Lord Howe Island’s ecosystem, to a scientist’s documentary-style retelling of how his team brought the island’s stick insects back from the brink of extinction. This small triumph only served as a troubling reminder of how many species we are in danger of losing forever.
I have to confess that I often find music videos baffling, including some of the selection I watched at ASFF. The Last Skeptik: Pick Your Battles, which showed a man’s journeys through the Peak District with a figure in a bear costume, and the abstract, hyper-bright animation of Punks Jump Up: Fairlight, were both too confusing for me to enjoy. However, I did like Jim James: State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U). It depicts a man with a television instead of a head wandering through a bleached-out cityscape, the only connection others can make with him being to change the channel. The film matched the song perfectly, exploding into a series of jump cuts as the rhythm suddenly became faster, and offered an atmospheric illustration of its theme of the loneliness inherent in modern technology: “We’ve got our wires crossed/ Our tubes are all tied/ And I’m straining to remember/ Just what it means to be alive.” Elsewhere, Vincent Black Lightning used homemade but striking shadow-puppet style animation to illustrate a jangling, modern-day Bonnie and Clyde ballad, and Vivien Glass: Part Machine was a gorgeously produced Frankenstein story with a lesbian subtext.
Similarly, I found that I could enjoy the films in the experimental strand best if I accepted their avoidance of an easily understandable narrative. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Red, a sinisterly beautiful film about a glamorous woman whose panicked escape from a car crash leads her through a door in the middle of nowhere. The woman destroys a spool of film and a scrapbook, perhaps symbolising the futility of expecting that representing experience in media will help us understand it. A Summer Flu used beautifully composed long takes to evoke life in an Indian home, although the voiceover sometimes felt like it was straining for a poetic effect it didn’t achieve. On Loop used imaginative stylisation to humorously evoke those sleepless nights of nagging worries we all know. And Tigeritera explored the wavering distinction between human and animal, with Marguerite Ndiaye playing a gorgeously costumed figure – part human, part tiger, neither man nor woman – struggling to escape from a cage.
I finished the day by going back to drama. One of the ways ASFF has developed this year is by grouping films more obviously by theme, creating some intriguing juxtapositions, and here I watched a trio of films about different kinds of forbidden desires. Hannah offered a tough beginning, telling the story of Mark, a paedophile whose efforts to repress his instincts are thrown into tumult when Hannah, his 13-year-old neighbour, unknowingly seeks him out as a protector from her troubled home life. Asking the audience to sympathise with a paedophile is always morally problematic, and this film is to be commended for handling its subject matter sensitively and insightfully, helped by John Kazek’s tormented lead performance. Although Bianca had an inspired premise – a woman falls in love with the call girl her abusive husband has been seeing – the decision to show soft-focus sex scenes rather than any dialogue between the two women meant their developing relationship didn’t have the impact it should have. Voyeuse referenced Hitchcock’s great commentary on the nature of cinematic voyeurism, Rear Window, showing its lonely protagonist Esther’s growing obsession with spying on her handsome neighbour, Antoine. It was beautifully constructed, with subtle moments, such as Esther responding to hearing a woman laugh in Antoine’s flat by running across the room to her vantage point, working perfectly to tell the story and show the agonising emotions behind it, and ended on a terrific twist.
The day, and the festival, ended with the awards ceremony, where I was delighted to see Coda win both Best Animation and the overall prize, Festival Winner. In this film, director Alan Holly offered a memorably original and moving exploration of the most perplexing question of all – what happens after we die? – making it stand out in a crowded and high-quality field. The other winners were:
Advertising: The Directors’ Project
Artist’s Film: Forgotten Memories from the End of the World
Comedy: Girl Power
Documentary: Herd in Iceland
Drama: Eine Gute Geschichte (A Good Story)
Fashion: River Island x Joseph Turvey (feat. Justanorm)
Music Video: Public Service Broadcasting: Night Mail
Thriller: Keeping Up with the Joneses
York Youth Vote: How to Disappear Completely
People’s Choice: The Wolf, the Ship, and the Little Green Bag
What I’ll take away most from ASFF is the reminder that short films aren’t fragments of features – they’re miniature and challenging works of art in their own right. All their short length means is that it was possible for me to watch nearly fifty films in one weekend. I’m about as tired as you can imagine after that, but thrilled, inspired and very, very happy to have experienced one of York’s most culturally vibrant events.