The job of a short film director is a difficult one. It’s already hard enough to tell an engaging story when you have 90 minutes available, so to achieve the same effect in a fraction of the time requires a precise and thoughtful approach to a piece of work. Whilst watching the selection of British short films at the Raindance Film Festival, what struck me was the variety of storytelling; some strove to tell a complete narrative, while others aimed to sustain a distinct tone, relying less extensively on traditional narrative techniques such as a linear story or characters. Some had distinctive and overtly political messages, while others hid their agenda within the experiences of their characters, and let the audience fill in the gaps.
Here is a look at each short film, in the order in which they were screened:
Cla’am (dir. by Nathaniel Martello-White)
In this absurdist black comedy we follow Hog, a local man in Clapham who becomes convinced that the rapidly emerging coffee shops in his neighbourhood are kidnapping locals and grinding them into coffee beans. Hog, played with an intense frenetic energy by Game of Thrones actor Joel Fry, loses touch with the community around him as the places and people he has grown up with are suddenly replaced by trendy cafes and unconvincingly friendly estate agents.
The structure of the short takes shape like a wild adventure, underscored by bouncy and playful electronic music, and is shot with real momentum by cinematographer Liam Iandoli, at times reminding me of the manic ‘Sir Digby Chicken-Caesar’ sketches from That Mitchell and Webb Look.
The film comments on gentrification, the process of renovating a district so that it conforms to middle-class taste, and the story succeeds in capturing Hog’s feelings of detachment. Framed within the context of an unstable man embarking upon the mystery of his changing community, the film effectively portrays the loss of connection felt by the people within these communities and expresses that ultimately it is the Cafe Neros that will win out rather than the local chip shops, an inevitable result of the wave of renovation in London seeking to “fix” these neighbourhoods.
Smear (dir. Kate Herron)
Smear centres around the anxious and slightly fearful Chloe as she goes for her first pap smear. She requests a female doctor but none is available, and there is something slightly off-putting about the doctor’s smile once he realises he will be administering the test. Chloe’s discomfort is portrayed through aggressive green tentacles that spring out of her vagina and attack the doctor and nurses as he stammers “it’s all perfectly normal” while his throat is being constricted.
The first thing to say about this sketch is that it is truly hilarious: the mood in the doctor’s office transitions from slight discomfort to exuberant violence at the drop of a hat, and it keeps escalating as more people come into the room and face the wrath of Chloe’s vagina. I thought the idea was clever and well executed, parodying the discomfort of such an invasive routine test with an injection of absurdity.
Wild Horses (dir. by Rory Alexander Stewart)
Wild Horses was one of the highlights of the screenings I attended. This sombre yet optimistic short portrays a young girl with a Chronic Fatigue disorder striving for her independence and wanting to experience the sense of freedom she portrays in the short stories she writes. The film explores the sense of liberation we feel through self-expression, specifically through the running motif of horses, symbols of freedom and fortitude.
Her willingness to explore the outside world and inhabit the stories she creates causes a fraught relationship with her mother, who struggles with her concern for her daughter’s well-being,which oftentimes forces her to make difficult choices. Emma Curtis and Emma Carter portray these two characters with a convincing affection, and herein really lies the heart of the film, in the relationship between them.
Director Rory Alexander Stewart has a close friend with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and his closeness to the subject matter shows in the way he treats the illness as taking a mental toll as much as it does a physical one. This moving short about the power of self-expression and the desire for independence strikes a bittersweet chord which lingers long after the film has ended.
Diagnosis (dir. by Eva Riley)
In Diagnosis our protagonist Sally finds herself forced to confront emotions regarding her relationship during her secret evening job as a medical roleplay actor. Medical roleplays are part of teaching aspiring doctors how to deal with patients in a variety of situations. As the exercises overlap with the personal difficulties Sally is facing we are constantly left wondering just to what extent her performances are “acting” and to what extent she is using them to release pent up frustrations and insecurities.
It is a psychological film about performance, and the way in which character can be a veil through which to reveal our inner selves to the world. The film teaches us to be more open about expressing ourselves, rather than the unhealthy alternative of playing a role that is expected of us. Through a captivating performance by Charlotte Spencer, subtly funny supporting characters, and more abstract sequences exploring Sally’s psyche, Diagnosis will leave you questioning the roles you pretend to play in your life.
Skipped (dir. Colm Field, Ashley Belgrade)
Sarah and Andre are clearing a house together, throwing things away in a skip as they talk. They are threatened by a bully and protected by a neighbour, but the pressure leads to an argument between the two. This brief and experimental film portrays a sweet youthful romance between its two protagonists.
The narrative is fairly conventional but the style the directors chose here is really interesting: the camera avoids faces, mostly shooting from hip-height, occasionally giving us glimpses of facial expression. In a romance we derive so much of the chemistry and attitude between two people through seeing them connect visually, and the choice to forgo this and present an endearing entanglement without relying on facial cues was an interesting and original approach.
46 (dir. by Joseph A. Adesunloye)
46 is set entirely at a house party hosted by Luke, centring around his unrequited lust towards his friend, Adam. As the party continues Luke’s jealousy and craving get the best of him, and he makes the unthinkable choice of spiking Adam’s drink and locking him in his room. Once the party ends, Luke returns to the room and takes advantage of Adam in an incredibly explicit and vivid scene while Adam lies unconscious on his bed.
If the objective of the film was to make me feel uncomfortable and make me squirm in my seat, it certainly succeeded. However, it does not provide much beyond that. I struggled to see what the overarching point of the film was, its originality seemingly relying on the conceit that the victim and the attacker are both male, and I don’t think the film would be received in the same way if the victim was a woman. Ultimately that may very much be the point director Joseph A. Adesunloye is trying to make, but that sentiment seems altogether lost in the graphic finale which left me only feeling shock and disgust.
Cleared (dir. Charlotte Regal)
Cleared runs only 3 minutes long, presenting three snapshots of a prison inmate’s mother, friends, and girlfriend on the phone with him, facing how life has moved on for them without him. This experimental film seeks to capture the frustrating and slightly eerie sensation of being left behind by the people you care the most about. Visually the film reflects this physical isolation, we only ever see glimpses of his loved ones’ faces as he speaks to them on the phone, and we feel his bitterness from being unable to connect with their lives. Original and honest storytelling, I was very impressed with what director Charlotte Regal was able to achieve in such a short space of time.
Work (dir. by Aneil Karia)
In Work we follow a day in the life of 18-year-old Jess as she struggles to balance her pursuit to be a dancer with her responsibilities to her family. On her way to work after a dance rehearsal, a creepy encounter with a stranger on a bus confronts her with how unjust life can be (especially for a woman), and gives her new determination to move forward with her life.
If there was one word to describe Work, it would be ‘unease’. Jasmin Breinburg’s focused and measured performance as Jess is a beautiful piece of understated acting. Every interaction she has with her overbearing dance teacher or a rude stranger is brimming with internalised anger and discomfort. The film puts us in her shoes and asks us to bear through these interactions with her, excruciating as they may be, until they are released through the cathartic dance finale.
Work’s ‘day in the life’ structure emphasises how these encounters for Jess aren’t special occasions but part of her everyday life, part of the experience of being a young woman living in London today. It is a grim and sombre snapshot, which will challenge the sensibilities of those like myself, but certainly will not surprise the thousands of women who have to deal with these issues regularly.
Image: Rory Alexander Stewart, Wild Horses