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Review: Aesthetica Short Film Festival – Opening Night and Thursday

Thankfully, at the end of my five-day ASFF odyssey, I now know the answers to all those questions (though what I suspect no film can explain is why I kept confusing the Yorkshire Museum with the Theatre Royal, turning up at the wrong venue on three separate occasions…).

Having clocked up over 70 shorts and attended some fascinating talks, I’ve come away deeply impressed by the huge amount of talent, creativity and imagination on display, and seen some real gems which will stay with me for a long time.

Here’s a round-up of some of my highlights from the Friday to Sunday of the festival.

Comedy

To my regret, I didn’t make it to as many comedy screenings as I’d like, but of those I did, I particularly enjoyed Excuse Me, I’m Looking for the Ping-Pong Room and My Girlfriend.

This amiable Austrian tale about a hapless, absent-minded young man who makes new friends after his girlfriend abandons him on a wellness retreat had a nicely whimsical, low-key sense of humour about it, and boasted an enjoyably dramatic cover of The Turtles’ Happy Together to boot.

Use your loaf: Diane Morgan and Alistair Green in Thawed

Elsewhere Diane Morgan (best known as TV’s premier thing-explainer Philomena Cunk) was on typically deadpan form in Thawed (written by Morgan and co-star Alistair Green) as a woman whose husband is less than pleased to find she’s had him cryogenically reanimated…but could only afford his head.

Other standouts were Sharon Horgan-esque tale of unplanned pregnancy You Should Know Better (whose charismatic lead Bianca Beckles-Rose feels like a star in the making) and Spanish two-hander Joint Custody, which deserves credit for its witty take on what must be one of the oldest punchlines in the book.

Drama

Having read about Charlie, the new short produced by Oscar-winning Nun Monkton-based filmmaker Serena Armitage, I was keen to seek it out at ASFF, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

It’s one of the very best films I saw, powered by an extraordinary central performance. Director Shan Christopher beautifully realises the story’s central concept, and the result moved me to tears.

In the same screening, I was also very impressed by Happiness In Retrospect, an intelligent, well-observed and witty tale of midlife crisis which made me keen to see more from writer/director Eli Hart.

London-set drama Bitter Sea, about an immigrant single mother and her five-year-old daughter, was a soulful slice of social realism which reminded me a little of Lynne Ramsay, while Oksijan, based on the true story of a group of Afghan refugees attempting to get to the UK, was well-crafted, tense and moving.

Thriller

Shaun of the Dead meets Stranger Things in Deep Clean

Chills, jump scares and twisted tales were the order of the day here.


Austrian entry F***ing Drama was a particularly inventive effort, neatly treading a line between comedy, satire and claustrophobic terror in its tale of a couple watching a piece of performance art which takes an unexpected turn.

Sci-fi-inflected domestic drama Shapes of Mine, meanwhile, mined its Black Mirror-esque premise (an app which allows you to change your whole body) to darkly witty effect in its exploration of a loveless relationship.

Smartphone-set German chiller Follower slowly imbued the device’s every innocuous blip and blop with a sense of dread, while British comedy Deep Clean, in which a gang of road workers defend the world from creepy doll-faced alien invaders, felt very much like the pilot for an E4 show.

Its reference points were plain to see, from Shaun of the Dead to Stranger Things, but it had good fun with its premise, helped by a solid cast including ‘90s comedy stalwart Paul Kaye.

Documentary

“Awe-inspiring” documentary Give

The Documentary 2 screening at the Yorkshire Museum on Sunday morning was a definite festival high-point for me, and made me wish I’d managed to see more docs over the weekend.

The Good Education was a particular stand-out from a very high quality selection – a quietly affecting character study which followed Peipei, a lonely, inscrutable Chinese schoolgirl shunned and ridiculed by her peers.

The equally compelling young protagonist of To Be A Torero, meanwhile, is an old-beyond-his-years boy named Borja, looking out for his mum and his younger brother while dreaming of becoming a bullfighter to provide for his family.

100 Women I Know is a powerful, sensitively filmed piece in which four young women describe their experiences of rape, with the aim of helping break the taboo around the subject.


Meanwhile, US film Give becomes awe-inspiring as it gradually reveals the astonishing achievement of its protagonist, the Reverend for a black community in Ingleside, San Francisco.

I also managed to catch a feature-length doc in the cosy confines of 1331 on Friday evening – About A Badly Drawn Boy, a homage to Damon Gough’s magical, Mercury-winning album The Hour of Bewilderbeast.

Featuring interviews with all the key players in the making of the album, it’s a comprehensive overview, most compelling in its reminiscences of the burgeoning scene that formed around Gough and his ally Andy Votel – when, as one of Gough’s musical peers put it, “It all felt like Christmas.”

Animation and Artists’ Film

Animation is another area I wish I’d caught more of, but of those I did see, I loved the atmospheric True North, in which a fisherman faces a malevolent force, while Cat Days was a charming tale of a young boy’s confusion when a doctor informs him that he is, in fact, a cat.

The Artists’ Film screenings included many dazzling examples of the limitless potential of film. A particular crowd-pleaser was Animal Cinema, a compilation of YouTube uploads where the camera was operated by everything from a crab to a grizzly bear.

Part of the fun with Artists’ Film was gradually working out what was going on – Drop Out Bodies was a case in point, being a wordless, slow pan around a group of motionless people which was at first patience-testing, then oddly mesmerising, as they started falling balletically to the floor at random.

Masterclasses

I managed to get to three more talks over the weekend, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Accepting the inaugural Women In Industry award on Friday, writer/director/actor Alice Lowe was an engaging, very funny guest (her darkly comic thriller Prevenge is well worth catching) and encouraged aspiring screenwriters to do what she did – grab a camera and make it yourself.

Meanwhile, the panel of camera operators on Saturday’s Life Behind The Lens talk were a genial trio, and their answers were a great blend of practical advice and anecdotes from their working lives (in particular industry veteran Ray Andrew, the poor soul who had to lug a 60lb camera up and down stairs over three days for a single scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining).

But the highlight of the talks I attended was the one by Jason Wood on film curation.

The Artistic Director of HOME, Manchester’s major independent cinema, Wood has decades of experience in putting together cinema programmes, and his in-depth knowledge and deep love of films were truly inspiring.

He punctuated his talk with clips from five of his favourite independent films, none of which I’d seen and all of which I left eager to seek out (including 1979 road movie Radio On, which you can find out more about in the clip below).

His belief that audiences will come out to see non-mainstream films if they’re intelligently marketed and presented at a reasonable price has been proven right throughout his career – most recently with Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, for which HOME took the biggest box office in the country on its week of release.

On which note – after my ASFF experience this year, I truly believe that their brilliant selections offer something for everyone, but I do wonder if more could be done to broaden the scope of the festival’s marketing.

The branding tends to emphasise the artistic side of the films on offer – but with the comedy and thriller screenings seeming to be some of the most popular ones I attended this weekend, it seems like a greater emphasis on this side of the festival might make it more accessible to a wider audience?

And the winner is…

ASFF winners were announced at the awards ceremony on Sunday afternoon, with documentary Black Sheep taking the top Best of Fest prize.

Black Sheep: winner of the Best of Fest prize

It’s an excellent film and a very deserving winner. If you didn’t get to see it at the festival, you can view it for free on Short of the Week.

All in all, a fantastic, inspiring weekend of film-going. Many thanks to the ASFF organisers and the uniformly friendly and helpful staff for making it such an enjoyable event.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch the Director’s Cut of Lawrence of Arabia to recalibrate my attention span…