Above: an image from Auf Der Strecke (On The Line), director Reto Caffi, and undoubtedly the best film I saw at this year’s Encounters short film festival. A testament to the magic that can happen when excellent performances are shot impeccably in the service of an engaging story, and nothing else gets in the bloody way. Looking at the programme afterwards I was astonished to read that its runtime clocked in at 30 minutes. It felt like half as long.
Anyway, the significant other and I spent two full days at Encounters, and saw 81 films (one of them twice, as a result of a free screening leaping upon us unexpectedly after lunch.) Alongside Auf Der Strecke, I’d say the standout films were Pop Art by Amanda Boyle and Love You More by Sam Taylor Wood. There was, of course, some appalling shite as well, but that goes with the territory.
So what, if anything, have 81 short films taught me? As a film maker you can’t help but watch some things with an eye on your own work… although the best stuff had me wide-eyed and slack-jawed, ignoring my preoccupations completely (I remember Richard Dreyfuss describing how, when he watched Jaws for the first time, he completely forgot he was one of the actors on screen.) Here’s a quick list of some STUFF I noticed, and the odd resolution arising.
1. I am going to avoid making any short films with kids in them. Or at least, if I must, kids are not going to be my protagonists.
I guess there are many practical reasons why children serve well as the focus of shorts. Their ‘innocence’ leads them to situations adults would steer well clear of; their need to learn makes heavy bursts of exposition much more believable; their immaturity makes wild emotional twists in a story possible. But after watching over 20 films featuring cherubic child actors this weekend, I began to tire of these shortcuts in a big way.
True, Pop Art, one of my top 3 films, was the tale of a boy and his highly unusual schoolmate – but in that script there was an almost adult edge to their relationship, it was the story of a boy who had grown old and was trying to snatch back part of his very recently departed youth.
Interestingly, you could count on the fingers of one hand the number of live-action films which had senior citizens in key roles… and on a single finger the number that had someone over 60 as their protagonist.
2. You haven’t really got the time to be nice. You know that fantastic shot you happened to get with the sunrise over the field, golden and hazy, mussing up the lens, and everyone on the crew said “oh, you must use that”? Well, unless it means something to the film, for god’s sake, don’t.
I mean, this isn’t to say that the journey is too rushed to look at the scenery; but you have to ask yourself whether the scenery genuinely matters, and how long for. A beautiful, stately documentary film called Chunking Dream wrapped me up in an almost meditative swoop through the many characters and cramped lifestyles of an immense Hong Kong housing complex, and its penultimate shot was a Pakistani cafe-owner looking over the street below and comparing human diversity to the manifold varieties of flowers. In my humble (and highly subjective) opinion the film should have ended there. But instead its final shot was an overlong, static panorama of a surprisingly brief firework display over the city: uninspiring, a bit clunky, adding nothing to what had gone before; and making me suspect that it had been included largely because the film makers were proud of having judged their light readings nicely, so as to ensure that the fireworks unexpectedly illuminated a straggle of cheering revelers in the foreground.
3. Sad endings: 80% more popular than happy endings. Short films are like Hamlet. Everybody dies.
… Maimed, injured, denied, found out, buried alive, cut up real bad, whatever. A cynic might suggest that this is because upbeat endings are much more difficult to pull off – and on the whole I agree, not least because I know I’m guilty of this imbalance myself. Looking at the synopses and scripts for all my current narrative projects, I’ve got four “unremittingly bleaks” winning hands down over 3 “happy ever afters” (plus one “YOU decide”, but we don’t count that, the fence-sitting, flip-flopping cop-out scum.) There’s an almost tangible relief when you decide that yes, really, it suits the story better if everyone karks it horribly, raging at the world as they bubble under.
Having said that, there wasn’t much of that other short film staple on show: the story which “just ended,” randomly, mid shot, mid emotion, mid event, as if the projectionist had accidentally sat on the stop button.
4. Dying is easy. Comedy is difficult. Not a lot of live-action laughs in the festival. Most of the out-and-out funny was to be had in the animated projects; not only that, but almost anything with living, breathing humans in it that labeled itself ‘comedy’ tended towards the darker end of the spectrum. Even the two films I saw about stand-up comics involved their protagonists dying horrendously on stage. Maybe it’s because laying on the jokes within a short format risks creating a sketch-show vibe (certainly the case with, say, What’s virgin mean? which didn’t stop it winning an audience award.) Or maybe it’s because generally, in festival competition, juries don’t hand out gongs to gagfests… so demand creates supply, and the supplier tends to have a verrrrrrrrrry straight face.