Review: Aesthetica Short Film Festival 2019 – Opening Night and Thursday

Roadkill, directed by Leszek Mozga - an Animation highlight at ASFF 2019

Going to the cinema is ‘one of the last remaining collective experiences’, as festival director Cherie Federico told us in her introductory speech at City Screen on Wednesday evening.

My time at the Aesthetica Short Film Festival so far has certainly been a reminder of the joy of that communal viewing experience – there’s something about watching a film in a packed theatre that amplifies the response you have to it, and in an age when technology seems to encourage us to do all our viewing from the comfort of our sofa, it’s reassuring that we still choose to congregate in darkened rooms and watch these stories together.

As ever, the selection for the opening night of the festival – now in its ninth year – was a tantalising taster of the huge variety of genres, styles and voices on offer.

With Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion making headlines across the globe this year, it’s not surprising that three of the six films touched on environmental issues. Opener Borderlands (Documentary Screening 1) was a visual poem depicting the impact of climate change on two Arctic mining towns, its striking imagery combined with a voiceover rendering Mother Nature as an estranged parent trying desperately to make us listen.

The focus switched from global to domestic crisis in Everything You Didn’t Say (Drama 8), which depicted the strained relationship between a couple (played by Olga Kurylenko and Christian Cooke) suffering from a five year itch (well, five years and 14 days to be precise).

This consistently witty film was based around the pair’s intersecting interior monologues as they pretended to enjoy a meal together, and their observations are sure to strike a chord with anyone who’s had doubts about a long-term relationship (“Am I boring or do you make me boring?”).

Music video Wannabe (Music 1 – and no, not that Wannabe) provided a playful interlude, using simple but effective ideas to represent the song’s theme of constantly comparing yourself to others.

Next up was Kofi and Lartey (Documentary 4), a portrait of two young boys in Agbogbloshie, Ghana, an area famed for its vast dumping ground of electronic waste, amongst which the local children root for scraps in exchange for money, regularly working 12 hour days.

If that sounds bleak, director Sasha Rainbow’s inspiring film was actually all about challenging that perception, depicting the efforts of Abdallah, a young man determined to give hope and self-belief to the children of the area.

In giving the boys video cameras to record their lives and the life of their neighbourhood, he hoped to ignite their interest in storytelling and consequently in education, with the ultimate aim of empowering them to seek a life beyond Agbogbloshie.

It’s an absorbing, fascinating film and the highlight of the night for me – a reminder of the transformative power of creativity and good works, and the importance of letting people tell their own stories.

The Beauty (Artists’ Film 4) dealt with the impact of plastic pollution on the world’s oceans, its inventive animation (plants on the sea bed morphing into clusters of single-use cutlery) proving the unique power of images to get a message across.

Things came to a close with Falle Nioke: New Foundation (Music 1), which follows the eponymous musician, originally from Guinea but now resident in Margate.

Touching on themes of home, community and building a new life, it was an uplifting close to the evening, and made even more so as Falle Nioke turned out to be in the audience, and treated us to a mesmerising performance of some of his soulful, plaintive songs.

Bring on the dancing badgers: Thursday at ASFF

Duly inspired by the opening night, I headed out into town on Thursday to see what else ASFF had to offer.

My first port of call was the Drama 7 screening at Everyman, which explored families and the ways their bonds can be both empowering and constricting.

Things kicked off in fine style with Nora, which followed a childless Norwegian couple who arrive in Mumbai to arrange a surrogacy.

I had an interesting chat with the film’s director Meena Rathor at the opening night, where she explained that she’d wanted to portray Mumbai in a way that challenges the clichéd representation of India on screen, and she certainly succeeds – the city comes across as a bustling, modern metropolis that could easily pass for New York in some shots.

The couple’s differing reactions to the city soon reveal the faultlines in their relationship – while Nora is energised by their new surroundings and wants to explore, partner Petter is focussed on the surrogacy and wants to stay in the hotel.

Petter’s controlling, emotionally repressed nature was a characteristic that found itself echoed in the male protagonists of several other shorts in this screening, from the overbearing dad in beautifully-shot Australian tale Rabbits, to the desperate farmer waging a doomed battle against Foot and Mouth in Dirt Ash Meat, which had an almost post-apocalyptic feel, and the tense, creeping dread of a horror movie.

All this made Irish period drama Pat a welcome oasis of uncomplicated love and tenderness. Set in rural Ireland in 1978, it follows an elderly lady who keeps in contact with her son in New York via his weekly calls to the local village phone box.

Its soundtrack comes courtesy of the American soul hits he mails her from across the pond – a canny choice which gives a freshness to the potentially folksy setting, while the likeable, well-drawn characters make this a charming, warm-hearted and affecting story.

Over to the Yorkshire Museum next for a Masterclass with editor Tracy Granger, who’s worked on the likes of Oscar-winning Hilary Swank drama Boys Don’t Cry and this year’s acclaimed British family portrait Ray & Liz.

It was an enlightening, informative look at the role of the editor in shaping the final film – a creative partnership with the director that more often than not goes unsung, but is vital in determining how the story comes across. One of her greatest accolades, she said, came when an actor saw the final cut and told her, “I never knew I was thinking that.”

Tracy also gave many interesting insights into her experiences as a woman in the male-dominated film industry, from the differences in working with female directors to the coping strategies she had to develop in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when bullying and sexual harassment on a film set were all too common.

I rounded off my afternoon with a trip to 1331 for the Animation 4 screening, which left me, as ever, marvelling at the versatility of the medium and the abundance of creativity on display.

The Curious Child was a clever parable about living a meaningful life, while the inspired German cartoon L’Aria Del Moscerino saw a swatted fruit fly go out singing.

For me, though, it was the two stop-motion offerings that stole the show – Roadkill was a funny and slightly macabre tale which played on the hypocrisy of our attitude to animals as both pets and food, while the wonderful Quarantine followed the exploits of a group of Morris-dancing badgers.

The animation was beautiful, the intricately-designed puppets instantly loveable, the enchanting story tinged with just the right amount of darkness. It was an absolute delight from start to finish – they should pipe it in to every home from now until next Spring.

ASFF continues until Sunday 10th – the full programme and tickets are available on ASFF’s website.

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