“I’m late, I’m late, I’m late…”
The Mad Hatter’s famous lament was echoing through my head as I hurried down to City Screen for Aesthetica’s opening night on Wednesday evening, having left home half an hour later than planned.
In the end I made it with a few minutes to spare – only to find those same words repeated back at me on the big screen in the Alice-themed In Wonderland, the second of the evening’s selection of five shorts, all hand-picked and introduced by festival director Cherie Federico.
Chosen in part for their challenging nature, the five films on offer all lived up to that billing in differing ways, and together provided an impressive taster of ASFF’s wide-ranging programme.
The selection began with the sombre, contemplative drama Seven (Drama Screening 11), whose beautifully filmed Arctic landscapes form the backdrop to the story of a reluctant teenage girl who must make a decision about the fate of her father’s killer.
In Wonderland (Drama Screening 2) followed, a bittersweet, time-hopping tale of a couple’s relationship starring Sherlock’s Louise Brealey and Doctor Who’s Arthur Darvill.
Very loosely inspired by Lewis Carroll’s stories, it sees Brealey’s Alice recalling the different stages of their time together, blended in a deliberately disorientating non-linear fashion which was by turns amusing and affecting.
Things took a more harrowing turn with the next two offerings. Canadian drama Fauve (Drama Screening 6) follows two young boys engaged in a constant game of one-upmanship in and around a surface mine in Quebec.
Fuelled by terrific performances from its two child actors which capture the joyously anarchic energy of boys at play, its tone deftly shifts from freewheeling to something much more traumatic, while the cinematography makes good use of the eerie, alien landscape of the mine itself.
The standout of the evening for me though was documentary Black Sheep (Documentary Screening 6), an insightful, compassionate and heartbreaking portrait of a young black man’s formative years on an Essex estate in the early 2000s.
Beginning with a direct-to-camera interview with its protagonist, Cornelius Walker, the film proceeds to intersperse his recollections with dramatic reconstructions of the painful events that saw him desperately befriend the area’s gang of white racist teens, out of both necessity and a need for acceptance.
An unflinching account of the impossible situation Cornelius found himself in, the film clear-sightedly explores issues of race, identity and masculinity.
Things took a more upbeat turn with the final film of the evening The Wayward Wind (Dance Screening 2), a wordless tale of a rambling man set to music, which blended wit with a loose-limbed charm.
Clowns, flying lemurs and tales from Hollyoaks: Thursday at ASFF
My first full day (well, afternoon) at ASFF started with a star sighting and ended with a dead cat.
Picking up my press pass at the Theatre Royal, I clocked none other than Look North legend Harry Gration deep in conversation at a nearby table (fingers crossed that these were preliminary talks for an upcoming musical of his life story. Crazy Rich Gration, anyone?).
I then made my way to the National Centre for Early Music for Documentary Screening 5.
I am such a Britpop casualty that I’ll even watch a film about the extracurricular activities of The Charlatans’ keyboardist, which I admit was what drew me towards this screening.
You Are Here showed Tony Rogers’ other life as a farmer, working on his family’s land in Ireland.
There’s a certain fun to be had in the juxtaposition of his day (or more often night) job, playing to mad-fer-it crowds alongside Tim Burgess and co, with footage of him going about his rain-lashed duties on the farm, carrying out repairs, birthing calves and finding, as he said, “A nice sense of belonging” in the process.
I also enjoyed the melancholy, haunting feel of Finnish doc Abandoned Land, a montage of buildings and places long since left to be colonised by trees, weeds and graffiti – though the subtitled voiceover was a little overly portentous.
The standout of this selection was the final film, Felicia and the Clown, a Polish/UK co-production which takes a look at the titular entertainer – a dyed-in-the-wool eccentric whose appearance resembles Timmy Mallett auditioning for The League of Gentlemen – and his relationship with his daughter and grand-daughter.
A portrait of the clown as both local character and absentee father, in 26 minutes it gives a warm, engaging picture of the family’s life, whilst capturing something of the weird otherness and sense of menace that underlie this supposedly jolly form of children’s entertainment.
En route to my first Masterclass of the festival, I just had time to pop in to 1331 to catch the first two films of the Drama 6 Screening.
First up was likeable tale The Finish Line, which starred The Wire’s Dominic West as Paul, a grumpy House-like paraplegic who forms a friendship with cheerful Gregory, a young man with Down’s Syndrome who’s determined to one day enter the Olympics.
It’s one of three shorts which won the chance to have West star in them as part of Jameson First Shot 2017 – and you can catch the other two, Five Star Fouad and A Funny Thing Happened To Kelly and Ted, in ASFF’s Comedy screenings.
It was followed by Fauve, which I’d seen at City Screen the previous night, but was even more impressive on second viewing.
Over at the Yorkshire Museum, I spent an enjoyable hour listening to Matt Greenhalgh in conversation in one of ASFF’s Masterclasses – this one on the art of screenwriting.
Combining a whistlestop tour through some of the key points of Greenhalgh’s career with clips and analysis of his work, it took in everything from learning on the job as an Assistant Director on Hollyoaks (when, as Greenhalgh cheerfully admitted, he didn’t know one end of the camera from the other), through writing for Paul Abbott’s fondly remembered factory-set series Clocking Off, to his screenplay work for film – most recently in last year’s Annette Bening/Jamie Bell romance Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool (definitely worth a watch on Netflix if you have it).
Genial, funny and refreshingly down to earth, Greenhalgh gave us an engaging blend of behind-the-scenes anecdotes and sound advice for budding writers – “Swerve it” was a typically pragmatic response to one audience member’s question about obtaining multiple sets of story permissions for use in a real-life drama (i.e. find a streamlined way of telling the story that doesn’t involve using all those people’s input).
For my final screening of the day, I made it over to Friargate Theatre for Animation Screening 1, and as always with animation, I was bowled over by the beauty and imagination on display.
With films including a tale of airborne adventure, a couple’s life story told through changing hand-painted animations, and the antics of a mischievous pensioner, this selection kept evoking memories of the celebrated opening montage of Pixar’s Up – which frankly could stand alone as a heart-wrenching short in and of itself.
The former is a beautifully realised stop motion animation about two airfaring lemurs who worldlessly fall in love across the skies, only for their union to come under threat from forces beyond their control.
Stop motion always has an air of magic about it, and in the service of a good story it is a thing of wonder to behold.
The intricate handmade sets were filled with so many eye-catching little details that I kept wanting to pause it to get a closer look.
The Christmas Rabbit, meanwhile, is a seasonal tale about an elderly woman’s constantly thwarted attempts to dispose of her beloved dead cat’s body on Christmas Eve.
Her increasingly desperate antics had us laughing out loud – and put me in mind of Adam West’s exasperated cry in the 1960s Batman film: “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”
It ended the screening and my afternoon on a high note, and I can’t wait to see what the weekend has in store.
ASFF continues until Sunday 11th – the full programme and tickets are available on ASFF’s website.