Putting the Spotlight On Shorts

The Film & TV team pick out six of the very best films from the Aesthetica Short Film Festival 2017, covering refugees, abduction, monks and satanic sex cults in the process

Icebox

Image: Gracie Films & Icebox Productions

Necessary. Important. These words are often bandied around with films that tackle topical and polarising issues but, and I don’t mean this lightly, Icebox is one of those films which truly deserve such titles. Daniel Sawaka’s film follows a young Honduran boy on the run from criminal gangs in his attempt to cross the US border to reach his uncle. He is detained at the border and trapped in freezing chicken wire cages, from which the film gets its name, with other children hoping for a better life. At 11 years old, Anthony Gonzalez’s performance is unflinchingly true and pierces straight through the screen. It is almost painful to watch the brutally normalised and honest depiction of what life is like for many in detention centers. Especially considering the way immigrants are depicted in mainstream media and talked about in the political sphere, this little boy’s story is an essential exercise in empathy. The question of whether a person has the right to self-determination through emigration will always be controversial. Nevertheless, as Oscar gazes out of the bus ready to drive him back across the border and sees happy American children playing, it is hard to think of his longing for a childhood, for happiness, as a crime.

Fucking Bunnies

Image: Komeetta

So good news, the title isn’t literal. Bad news – the actual content of the film is arguably worse. Its about Raimo and his wife, who live in a block of flats in Finland — and who decides to move next door? Just a satanic sex cult. Raimo takes issue with the satanic sex cult, partly for the whole Satanist thing and partly for the late night sex orgies. Unfortunately for him, the head of the satanic sex cult, Maki, only wants to befriend Raimo and integrate himself into the community.

In many ways it’s a typical absurdist comedy, two very different worlds collide and hilarity ensues. But unlike many films of the genre, Fucking Bunnies isn’t a film born out of malice, the director obviously likes his characters and therefore the audience also likes them. You’re laughing with the characters, not at them. The characters are played as more than just caricatures, only a few steps beyond the bounds of reality.

It’s also unrelentingly funny. When many feature films that are described as ‘comedies’ struggle to get more than a few laughs from their audiences, laughing near consistently for 18 minutes is a rare joy. It also goes away to deconstruct the idea that the short film is the sphere of artistic and pretentious films. There are plenty that are just hilarious crowdpleasing short films.

Baby Mine

Image: Finished Films & Flat Cap Films & Panacea Productions

Thriller is a genre in which it can be difficult to avoid cliché. For all the suspense that some films create, they cannot avoid the inevitable sighs when the final twist turns out to be achingly banal. Nour Wazzi’s Baby Mine, however, is able to avoid these pitfalls with original narrative invention.

Wazzi also manages to pack a sufficient amount of thematic depth into the short runtime. The plot’s focus is on the abduction of a young child who is suffering from a mysterious illness. The complication comes from the fact that the kidnapper is the girl’s own father. The motivation behind his actions becomes clearer during the film, and forms the basis for the plot’s final twist.

A third player in this is a nice-seeming neighbour who offers his help to the child’s mother. The real intentions behind his helping hand are of course more sinister than at first glance. In this, Wazzi cleverly uses the thriller set-up to examine vigilante justice and racial prejudice. Most impressive, however, is the move to question us as an audience. The film’s ending critiques the way we view guilt on screen and the automatic sympathies we generate. Compelling and fascinating stuff.

Wave

Image: Assembly

It is little surprise to those who have seen Benjamin Cleary and TJ O’Grady Peyton’s Wave that it ended up winning the grand prize at Aesthetica as well as the Best Drama Award. Cleary is already a well established short film director, having won an Oscar for Best Animated Short two years ago for his film Stutterer. But Wave is simply an utterly charming little short from beginning to end, walking the line between absurdist humour and sentimentalism with precision. The story is centred around Gasper who awakens from a coma to find he can speak a new language that cannot be understood by anyone apart
from him.

It’s a film about isolation and the importance of human connection. This theme in another director’s hands may result in a tragedy but Wave demonstrates an unwavering optimism which is rare in the current climate. The whole film has a sense of magical realism in its style that doesn’t undercut the pathos but only enhances the humour. Clocking in at only 13 minutes it packs more in than many two hour films. Many shorts are made in hope of being adapted into a feature, Wave is perfect as a short film and proves how much can be done with the format.

The Abbey

Image: Westminster Film School

One of the highlights of the 2017 documentary selection was also one of the quietest, most unassuming films of the festival. Sean Parnell’s short follows a group of monks as they go about their business at Belmont Abbey. Fascinating and insightful, the key to The Abbey’s success comes in its attention to detail. To some, the lives of the monks may come as something of a surprise. They watch TV, eat chocolates and joke among themselves. In many respects, they live similar lives to you and me. What Parnell interestingly points out about this religious way of life is that the difference lies in the narrowness of the tasks they undertake. Almost every task of the day is in some way devoted to their faith, from the ornate decoration of the church to daily prayers.

Parnell impresses in his confidence in keeping the pace so slow and the action so minimal. Lingering shots of the monks eating dinner perfectly convey the communal spirit that binds them so strongly. As well as everything being done in the name of God, all that they do is done together. In just 25 minutes, Parnell surefootedly evokes the monastic way of life.

Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant

Image: The National Film and Television School

An experimental approach to portraying the internal frustrations provoked by object-based anxieties on screen, is Suraya Raja’s film, which introduces us to Layla, a teenager
who suffers from impulsive thoughts about harming others with sharp objects. Despite being a topic of unsettling nature, she handles the subject delicately through drawing-based animation. She creates a twee scene of suburban living that has a true sense of homeliness from the family cat and annoying younger brother to the pastel kitchen appliances. Everything is composed to seem normal. Cleverly, Raja interrupts this through exposing the menacing nature of Layla’s anxieties. We are shown close-up flashes of sharp objects that Layla has seen and processed, such as knives in the kitchen, and saws in the shed, and suddenly we get a sense of the constant torment this anxiety has on Layla’s daily existence.

Popular animation has often been used to portray the childish, the safe and the censored. The eerie combination of the warm and familiar visuals and the violent images of harming, an issue increasingly recognised by society, creates a piece of originality and most importantly, emotional understanding. Raja delicately captures mental trauma in a way that allows us as viewers to briefly experience Layla’s anxiety.

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