Review: Aesthetica Short Film Festival round-up

Still from Hors Piste, 2018. Directed by Léo Brunel, Loris Cavalier, Camille Jalabert, Oscar Malet, France. Animation Finalist in ASFF 2019

For a film fan, spending five days at the Aesthetica Short Film Festival is much like being an eight-year-old left alone at a pick’n’mix counter.

You hurriedly try and cram in as much as possible, making a beeline for your favourites. From time to time you feel a bit full and need a sit down; and occasionally, you get dealt an an orange creme in amongst all the Purple Ones.


Then sadly, inevitably, the whole wonderful dream comes to an end and you lie prostrate on the floor, burping and calling for your mum.

OK, maybe not the last bit… Anyhow, as I digest my ASFF 2019 experience, here’s my personal selection of Miniature Heroes from the second half of the fest.

Comedy

Childhood reminiscences were the theme of two stand-outs in this category. Love the Sinner was a lively, endearing tale of an 11-year-old girl using the death of Princess Diana as an excuse to get out of Sunday School, while the Caitlin Moran-esque Holy Cannelloni saw its forthright young heroine finding out about the facts of life on her Holy Communion Day, generating plenty of laughs out of food-based innuendo and the antics of her chaotic Italian family.

Elsewhere, Short Calf Muscle and Asparagus Tips found inventive ways to skewer social discrimination – the former depicting a rather tall young man who realises that everyone else thinks he’s a gnome, and the latter centred round a dinner party where one guest – a woman with asparagus stalks for fingers – quickly discovers her hosts have an ulterior motive for inviting her.

Drama

The idea of two strangers having a life-altering meeting on a train is a pretty well-worn one, but Klem was a thoughtful, affecting take on it.

Its two main characters – a disillusioned surgeon and a kind-hearted Palestinian refugee – were potential clichés made three-dimensional human beings by an intelligent script and well-judged performances; the rapport between the two was believable and engaging.

I also enjoyed London-set drama Wooly Hair – a touching tale about a young black woman’s insecurity about her image – while To Heaven, to Gather was a tenderly observed, documentary-style study of a three-year old Taiwanese orphan and her pet goat.

Documentary

This continues to be one of ASFF’s most powerful and wide-ranging strands, and I’m delighted to see that one of the Opening Night selections, Kofi and Lartey, picked up the Best of Fest award at the festival’s close on Sunday night – a very deserving winner.

Whether giving a voice to those often denied it (as in Azadi’s moving portrait of Pakistani refugees, and the Greek fishing community who helped them) or shining a light on unsung heroes (the truly amazing 93,000 volunteers transporting vital NHS supplies in all weathers in Blood Bikers), documentary is a genre well suited to finding the human face behind the headlines.

I was also taken with two studies of very different communities – Lido followed a year in the life of a London outdoor swimming pool, memorably beginning with some of the more hardcore members going for a mid-winter dip, and Histories of Wolves saw villagers in the north Portuguese mountains talking about their four-legged neighbours, folk tales blended with real experiences to spooky, atmospheric effect.

My absolute highlight, though, was a feature film – Jeremy Deller’s incredible Everybody in the Place, a look back at the UK rave and acid house scene in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Framed as a lecture Deller gave to a group of A Level Politics students and utilising fascinating archive footage, it was fizzing with ideas and positivity, drawing links between partying and politics, raving and religion – the camera picking up some lovely reactions from the students as they watched their parents’ generation go joyously mad in a field.

Thriller

Thriller is a tricky genre, in which filmmakers walk a tightrope between eliciting screams of fear and shrieks of derision – the risk of overcooking your concept or fluffing the ending being ever-present.

The most effective examples I saw this year were all female-led – the monstrous yet oddly sympathetic elderly protagonist of Madame made it a deserved award winner in this category, while Piggy and Lili made you fear for their vulnerable heroines, ramping up the tension before flipping the male gaze on its head.

Helsinki Mansplaining Massacre, on the other hand, just tore the head straight off – this pitch-perfect horror-comedy came on like a feminist League of Gentlemen, boasting a sharply satirical script, spot-on performances and the kind of intricate set design that Wes Anderson would be proud of.

Animation

Stop-motion offerings continued to delight here – Deady Freddy’s ingenious concept had an old man die and then re-live his life backwards through the perspective of every insect he ever killed, while Archie was a beautiful, moving story about the title character’s emotional journey to his recently deceased auntie’s beach house.

CGI tale Mice: a Small Story offered a pint-size take on a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy adventure, lovingly spoofing the genre’s conventions and raising plenty of laughs along the way – as did the hopelessly inept rescue team of Hors Piste.

Meanwhile, Roughhouse was Shane Meadows by way of Raymond Briggs – its evocative hand-drawn animation telling the tale of three Birmingham friends in the early ‘80s, tackling the subjects of male friendship and mental health with humour and sensitivity.

Artists’ Film, VR and an audience with the Pope (sort of)

Artists’ Film challenged, enthralled and baffled in equal measure – much like walking round an art gallery, there were some that really struck me, and others which left me scratching my head.

I particularly enjoyed Weight of Spring’s reflective portraits of little moments between a series of couples, and am pleased to see that A Protest, a Celebration, a Mixed Message was the winner in this category – it’s an engaging, poetic consideration of being mixed race, and the spectacle and politics of protest.

Meanwhile, renowned cinematographer Dick Pope was a fascinating interviewee in his Masterclass on Friday afternoon – it’s always a joy to listen to someone so passionate about their work, and he had plenty of interesting insights and anecdotes to share from his collaborations with Mike Leigh and his work on Edward Norton’s upcoming film noir Motherless Brooklyn, on which he said New York street photography was a key influence.

And finally, tech-wary though I am, I promised myself I would give some of ASFF’s Virtual Reality offerings a go this year, so I headed over to the Immersive Experiences at the De Grey Rooms.

It’s certainly something to put the headset on and find yourself sat on a Viking boat, feeling as though you could reach out and touch the water – and a bit unsettling when people start lobbing burning spears at you from the land! It’s left me intrigued to try out the 360° Cinema screenings next year, to see how that approach would work in the service of a film.

That’s it, I’m in the Matrix – only Keanu can save me now…

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