Short filmmakers straddle an awkward line. They exist in a world loosing its exclusivity, using a medium that lacks a traditional model of commercial viability. The world of the short film was once filled with film or animation graduates, or at least those with access to expensive equipment or arts funding, but now the majority of the public can make a short film and easily find a viral platform to broadcast it on. Whilst this leads to an increase in output, it does not denote quality. There is also the issue of money. Differentiating yourself from someone with a camera phone and an ill advised dream requires good production values and there are not many studios or production companies willing to fund the short film, unless of course it can be stuck before a Pixar film or Spike Jonze can use it to to sell vodka.
On an artistic level they have can have great cultural worth and can be a gateway drug into the future work of an individual e.g Christopher Nolan or Andrea Arnold, but audiences are unlikely to go the cinema to see a short, or series of short films. Kevin Macdonald harnessed the model successfully with 2011’s ‘Life in a day,’ a series of short films made by ordinary people documenting what it was like to be alive on 24th July 2010, but aside from Macdonald not many modern filmmakers have managed to use the medium in such an ingenious way. Many would argue that short film festivals are now the only way to differentiate the wheat from the chaff, as well as getting work seen by the right people with the right deep pockets. They can directly feed back into the market, lead to funding for future endeavours and are therefore essential in keeping the industry alive.
Short Film Festivals present the chance to see a variety of worlds in quick succession, to marvel at the fertile imagination of the next generation of filmmakers and to be moved by characters from every possible background, country, and occasionally, planet. All this while safe in the knowledge that if there is something truly terrible on screen, it will probably only last about 5 minutes. Michael Bay never promises that.
With this in mind, I was thrilled to cover The Encounters Short Film Festival on its return to Bristol for its 19th consecutive year. The festival operates its own feverish microcosm, generating a daily newspaper and filling Bristol’s Harbourside with a sea of lanyard-wearing producers, filmmakers, and enthusiasts all hunting for the next big thing among 200-plus short films. However, they may not find it in the South West (more on that later).
I dipped my toes into a variety of screenings, events and talks over the six-day festival. I visited a pop-up cinema disguised as a Swiss chalet, marvelled at a 3D film on the joys of masturbating in space and got an education on how porn stars prepare for double anal.
But it wasn’t all sex, of course. There was a strong focus on animation in this year’s programme with guest of honour Richard William’s magnum opus, ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” opening the festival. The film was hugely notable for showing a different side to animation and how it can be used to tell a much darker and more surreal story then audiences had come to expect from the genre in 1988. The film revitalised the way people viewed animation and what it could achieve – something the Encounters programmers clearly wanted to remind us of.
The ‘Late Lounge’ was the perfect mix of intrigue and shock, promoting this idea of animation as a conduit for adult storytelling, with an evening of twisted and extreme shorts. I watched animated cherubs steal the breasts of townswomen, Polish social workers deal with racism as a metaphor for mythical ‘Whale Women’ and four bankers make jokes about giving one of the group’s daughters a blow job. The last clip, about the bankers, turned shocked laughter into disbelief when it emerged it was actually based on a real-life conversation overheard by the artist.
The addition of a music video showcase at Encounters was also a clear highlight and felt, if anything, much overdue. Decent music videos are difficult to stumble upon nowadays with the reduction of dedicated music channels, and unless you actively seek out the accompanying music due to a passion for the band, you were unlikely to have seen many of the pieces of innovative work on display. The work was often so innovative that the music would play second fiddle to the premise of the video – although there were familiar names on show such as Bloc Party and Grimes, the best work was often animated or by unknown filmmakers.
Favourite: Fight for Everyone by The Leisure Society – a depiction of God losing his shit:
Favourite: Fade Away by Vitalic – Nolan-esque in its simple but effective premise.
Then there was the home grown talent showcase, which was alluded to earlier. ‘The Best of the South West,’ contained a few diamonds in the rough but was unable to hold up amongst it’s superior European counterparts, giving the impression that the origin of some of the films gained them entry, rather than their raw talent. The animated pieces in particular varied wildly in quality but did feature the technically excellent piece Winter Trees by Karni and Saul Freed:
This was juxtaposed with less polished pieces such as Island by Harry Slinger-Thompson. Although this short was a graduation film, and showed potential, it was not polished or well-structured enough to be shown at a film festival designed to show the very best.
Thank God then for ‘The Best Medicine,’ a moving documentary directed by Gary Thomas and Martin Morrison about one man’s use of laughter therapy as a way of coping with a debilitating disease. It was the diamond in the rough, and one the best things I saw all week. Jonathan Fifeld suffers from acromegaly, a disease which affects the pituitary gland and leaves the sufferer with muscles that won’t stop growing. Although it leaves him in pain, unable to sleep and with uncontrollable fits of rage he manages to find comfort through The Bristol Laughter Society. The doc compacted more emotional highs and lows into ten minutes then Richard Curtis has done in his entire body of work and was masterclass in storytelling. Expect great things from this directing duo.
The big let-down of Encounters was the often shambolic panel discussions, in particular ‘So You Think That’s Funny,’ a deconstruction on what makes British comedy successful. It showed a separation between what was interesting to the audience, who may enjoy film but don’t operate within the hallowed walls of the industry, and the insiders, who were there to network and gain favour.
In theory the panel, which included Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show writer,) Isy Suttie (comedian/actor) and Jim Field Smith, (Director of the Wrong Mans) showed their favourite comedy shorts before hotly debating them using their unique, precise and varied insight. In reality it turned into an ill-prepared ramble in which no spark of interesting debate arose, and other than Field Smith, the panel offered little personal comprehension into their own processes.
The audience would have come as fans and would have appreciated more than just an interesting conversation you could just as easily overhear in a bar. Plus the outspoken audience member who insisted Armstrong’s choice of Je’Taime John Wayne by Toby Macdonald was “misogynistic” before later announcing that “Obama is a eunuch,” certainly needed less airtime.
Overall, the festival offered a variety of fascinating events and a great variety of short films producing feelings of elation, despair and empathy. Even the disappointing films were testimony to the huge benchmark others had left them to meet. I came away with a newfound appreciation for animation, which, I had often suspected, was more than just Disney and Pixar but it’s good to be schooled.