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Always Plenty of Brass to Go Around

The Times BFI 52nd London Film Festival

Film culture is strong in Bristol. The largest city in the south west of England is home to Aardman Animation and several other long-established production houses, and was traditionally an engine of BBC production; John Boorman once headed the Corporation's mighty Documentary Unit from here. But these are uncertain times. The BBC is retreating to cheaper points of the compass, Aardman are cutting staff numbers, and on the fringes of the Encounters Short Film Festival, Chris Hopewell of Bristol music video producers Collision Films was downbeat about his trade as a traditional starting point for aspiring film makers: "Don't bother," he said. "Music video as a tool for film making has fallen by the wayside under the onslaught of YouTube." The Google Goliath was to be the subject of much debate as the festival progressed.

But Encounters, which took place between Nov. 18 and 23, still felt vibrant, and this year the largest international shorts fest in Britain celebrated its 14th birthday. Staged at the city's Watershed center with some events at the neighboring Arnolfini gallery, it was a brisk six-day canter through short films of all genres, and it attracted an enthusiastic audience.

The Times BFI 52nd London Film Festival

The live action program certainly felt robust. The "International Jury Award" went to "Dennis," Mads Matthiesen's sweet fable about a gentle Danish bodybuilder, roughly the size of the Hulk and with a voice like two continents rubbing together, attempting to cut his mother's apron strings and go on a date. He ends up back with mom anyway, sleeping in her bed for comfort in a room he can barely fit into. Actor Kim Kold combines a body worthy of ILM with delivery so droll that there might be three Steven Wrights in there struggling to get out.

While "Dennis" was charming, the dominant world view was bleaker. Portugal's Pedro Caldas put his cards on the table by calling his unremittingly depressing tale of people-trafficking "Europe 2007." Played out mostly in silence, and for several harrowing minutes in total blackness, it draws its power from pure anger at the fate of lost girls descending into something very like a hell of abuse and humiliation. A brave movie, but it hammers its point too heavily.

Courtesy photo

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Paul Campion's "Eel Girl" is a five-minute monster-mash in which lab-coated scientists guard their weird, alluring captive, before one of them gives in to temptation. Mr. Campion is an experienced Kiwi special-effects technician and understands exactly how to achieve the wide-screen clarity and color grading of high-concept features, if that's what a short-filmmaker desires. The involvement of Weta and Mr Campion's experience on "Lord of the Rings" suggests that knowing the right people might also help.

But short films can cast more lyrical spells. "September" by Bristol's own Esther May Campbell rightly won an audience award for its view of a young man's life going nowhere in a weirdly liminal zone next to a motorway. When an exotic girl of indeterminate Eastern European origins shows up, it turns out there might be more to reality then he thought. Unobtrusively mixing the mundane world of traffic and dust with the very cinematic notion of East European females with strange gifts - the girl's mother doesn't mention wolfsbane, but you wouldn't have been entirely surprised if she had - Ms. Campbell hints that the newcomers have sprung straight from nature itself. A subtle and self-aware film, its glimpse of the girl inexplicably levitating in the sun-dappled countryside was the most evocative sight of the festival.

Animation is always a strength at Encounters, which absorbed Bristol's dedicated animation festival some years ago. "Waltz with Bashir" opened the fest, but animated documentary could be found elsewhere in the program too. "Sanctuary" by Lovejit K. Dhaliwal is a howl of anguish on behalf of a woman entangled in Britain's immigration red tape having suffered torture and rape in Africa, sentiments not diluted in the least by being depicted in a shimmering animated wash. "If having a child through rape is not considered torture, then what would you consider torture to be?" she asks, an unanswerable point. Lindsay Knight's less impressionistic "Not for Good" animates a young girl's descent into a cycle of hostels and council housing, and was also effective. Her life ruled by forces beyond her control, the hand of some animated god pulls the helpless girl from place to place. At least this time there is something close to a happy ending.

Courtesy photo

Happiness may be unavoidable for any audience sat in front of Run Wrake's "The Control Master." Built entirely from visuals created by CSA Images which are themselves a gentle mockery of 1950s stock art, the film falls somewhere between pop-art superhero pastiche and a graphic designer's show reel. Either way, it's the very definition of colorful exuberance, as mad scientist Dr. Moire goes on a rampage through Halftone City. Motoring along at high velocity and driven by great music from Daniel Morgan, the film is already a hit on the festival circuit. Such is the nature of short film distribution that this does not prevent you from seeing it right now, online here.

Distribution and a variety of related funding issues were the subjects of two panels organized by Shooting People. For directors in search of a last infusion of cash to realize their project, there are some well-oiled mechanisms now in place to connect them with corporate funds, and you would need a hard heart to blame film makers for dwelling too long on any compromises involved. Usually all that's needed in return is to find a decent narrative reason for a character to drive a particular car or use a specific phone.

The makers of "KateModern," the Bebo-hosted version of "Lonelygirl15," were enthusiastic about this process. "This funding is a positive, natural marry-up," argued Gavin Rowe of production house Big Balls Films. "It avoids artificially obscuring brands, reflects real life, and makes characters more realistic. My view is that this really pushes the creativity of the filmmakers." The distinction between creativity pushed and creativity constrained was a tricky one to get a grip on. Cynicism nagged at the back of your correspondent's mind at the news that the "KateModern" writers arranged for one of their characters to work in marketing in order to make the mention of brands crop up as smoothly as possible, and constructed a plot device specifically to put another into a Cadbury's Creme Egg suit. "KateModern," for all its popularity, zeitgeist-surfing and exploitation of mobile communications, was at heart just a new mutation of a familiar breed of soap opera, in which gorgeous youths shout at each other in Jacuzzis.

By contrast, another panelist was film maker Daniel Cormack of Actaeon Films, who described how he made his short film "Amelia and Michael" without such organized funding. In essence he just smiled sweetly, asked for favors as he went along, and got them. Mr. Cormack admitted he hit the buffers of this approach when he found himself pondering the use of real diamonds rather than fakes, but otherwise seemed to have realized his film quite successfully without hooking up with established brands at all. This made him a genial odd-man-out on the panel. "I don't think I actually signed any paperwork for anything we used," he mused mischievously. The other panelists' faces were a picture.

Digital distribution of short films was the subject of another panel, at which the prevailing mood was something like enthusiastic caution. Few would argue that digital platforms create at least the illusion of a level playing field for short films and an easy route for creators to reach their public, but inevitably the process can get messy. "Speaking as distributors, we might argue that the wide availability of shorts online is actually a bad thing as it makes the films less commercial, and inhibits broadcasters from getting involved," said Chris Tidman of Shorts International, which is in the process of setting up a new channel on Sky TV dedicated to shorts. Mr. Tidman believed that the channel and its high profile will be a blessing, although Sky mandates that 85 percent of its contents must never have previously been seen online, and no one seemed clear what the consequences of that rule might be.

"YouTube is a great window for shorts, but as a business it has only figured out how to monetize about 4 percent of them," noted Digby Lewis, whose Daily Motion site is the official aggregator of shorts for iTunes. "Most of the films are so bargain-bucket that YouTube can't even cover the streaming costs." Some of the obstacles were often of the filmmaker's own creation, with incomplete clearances for soundtrack music being such a regular bone of contention that Daily Motion has soundtrack-swapping functions in place and ready to go.

The ever-present issue at both panels was how to ensure that the digital platform avoids influencing the content or the filmmaker's individuality, along with whether the online hosting sites concerned should be funding content. Mr. Tidman agreed that the market was a long way from being mature enough to allow production funding, or to provide filmmakers with even the illusion of a secure financial footing. The most optimistic view seemed to be that you might make your money back, if you had not spent too much in the first place. Mr. Lewis was asked if content providers should feel an obligation to pump money back into production. His answer: "Not while none of them are breaking even. The best solution, unwelcome or not, is more advertising please." And so the circle was complete.

The two best films at the festival were both decidedly cinematic, and each featured an actress at the absolute peak of her powers. Admittedly, Brian Crano's sublime "Rubberheart" is tailored to a film-savvy viewer. The lovelorn pair played by Rebecca Hall and Josh Cooke meet-cute in a discussion about Tinto Brass, and end up renting "Salon Kitty" as a date movie - that's a decent laugh right there. But Ms. Hall is glorious, a terrifically modulated performance that transmits the most difficult thing any actor can ever grapple with: authentic indecision. Based on her own short story, it's a deft and subtle performance in a humane film.

The Times BFI 52nd London Film Festival

"Love You More" is loaded with even more cinematic pedigree, so much so that it almost feels like cheating. Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, written by Patrick Marber, shot by Seamus McGarvey, overseen by Anthony Minghella and featuring rapidly rising star Andrea Riseborough, it was no surprise that every aspect of the production was polished to a smooth sheen. Set in 1978, its wistful story of two classmates follows Ms. Riseborough's spiky punkette and Harry Treadaway's timid schoolboy through a relatively explicit deflowering, their passions stirred by the release of a new 45 by The Buzzcocks. Ms. Riseborough's big-eyed dirty-blonde, the absolute epitome of caustic adolescent unattainability, reduces Mr. Treadaway to jelly with every flash of thigh. He never stood a chance. With formidable screen presence that's barely contained by the walls of a 15-minute short, the actually 27-year-old Ms. Riseborough luxuriates in a role guaranteed to perturb any male now aged, say, 44.


Nice summary Tim, good word, thank you - Esther May Campbell

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