Strong EIFF short film programme includes Night Mayor, The Great Race and Pentecost
Edinburgh International Film Festival shorts round-up
This article is from 2011.
Sometimes the short film programme can look like a lesser sibling of the main festival, but this year it was one of the few aspects of EIFF that was in better health than ever. With a fancy new venue in the form of an upgraded George Square Theatre, a new approach to programming and some fantastic films within all the programmes (although to be fair, some rubbish and, even worse, I couldn’t see them all) the Nokia Shorts Weekender could easily have stood on its own as a fully-fledged festival. Though the screenings I attended in the large hall were never as rammed as they could have been, I took this as a reflection of the perhaps overambitious staging and certainly not as a reflection of the quality of the programming. Introducing the Realms of the Unreal shorts programme, James Mullighan explained that shorts are where his heart is and that EIFF had spent ‘a lot of money’ converting the hall. He thanked Nokia for enabling him to give the festival its ‘muscular’ shorts sidebar. Having said that, Lydia Beilby, the EIFF shorts programmer, (a near-constant presence at the screenings) was also there and she explained her new thematic approach to programming. Turning away from constructing programmes based on nationality alone has allowed for more cohesive and interesting line-ups and, credit to Beilby and her team, the standard is admirably high. The only true disappointment has been missing some of the promising strands, including the animated and Scottish-centric programmes (the exception being the charming Zombie Musical), which is unforgivable I know, but there are only so many hours in the day.
The Realms of the Unreal strand opened with one of Winnipeg native Guy Maddin’s most recent shorts, the characteristically evocative Night Mayor. I’m sure the strand dedicated to his work would have been fantastic (his wonderful feature The Saddest Music in the World was also screening in the main festival), but unfortunately it was one I missed. Next, Kote Camacho’s The Great Race was an ingenious recreation of a day at the races in 1914 (spun out from found footage), with a crucial macabre twist. The French short Diane Wellington was effective but outstayed its welcome somewhat once it had told its story. Neil Mansfield’s The Owl in the Snow displayed more style than substance, suffering even more by comparison with the superior shorts surrounding it and was, finally, simply boring. The final couple that night, Tom Chick’s The Fisherman’s Daughter and Heleri Saarik’s A Tale of a Nixie both dealt with maritime fables. Chick’s film, the only UK offering, combined hazy monochrome cinematography with minimal animation to beguiling effect. Saarik’s film was a dark, mermaid-related tale and the world it conjured had a compellingly witchy atmosphere. All of the films screened dodged the fatal flaw of some shorts - the too-obvious desire to be stretched to feature length.
The Mapping the Extraordinary strand, with one key exception, displayed an equal mastery of the form. Bad Night for the Blues was a low-key gem featuring Jean Boht of TV’s Bread as a snobbish, aspirational septuagenarian with a fatal Liverpudlian flaw. Happy Clapper, the aforementioned exception, could have been extracted from an episode of Shameless and, although it had a lot of good qualities, was an unconvincing and unedifying inclusion. Peter McDonald’s Pentecost was a perfectly formed comic short and a serious contender for altogether best – it worked on every level and was beautifully put together. The Canadian Animal Control wrong footed the audience with a serial-killer vibe, but ended up being a sweet tale, all the better for being the least vocal of the whole strand. Chaitanya Tamhane’s Six Strands was nicely rendered but, for me, did a better job of provoking interest in the background of its tale rather than its immediate subject.
Murder Ballads, the final strand I caught and in fact my final films of the festival, was perhaps the weakest in retrospect, although the bar was high and it did contain some great work. Olivier Treiner’s The Piano Tuner was very well put together and featured a small role for Grégory Gadebois (de la Comédie Français, to give him his apparent full title), also starring in the main festival with Angel and Tony. It managed to make more of a virtue of its open ending than Happy Clapper did. The Death of Otilia Ruiz started promisingly but ended, I’m afraid to say, in sub-Lynchian nonsense. (Mysterious blondes miming their way through psychic schisms in seedy bars are apparently not the only ingredients required to make a compelling film). Christoph Rainer’s Foal was an exercise in stylistic juxtapositions that ultimately failed to engage. Meshing highly-stylised operatic sections with candid home video was arresting enough, but the human story at the core wasn’t well served by the combination. Cold Sore, directed by Australian Matt Bird, was a wonderfully structured and paced horror story that did a great job of presenting what should have been a predictable and one-note tale. It framed its one twist perfectly and was nicely shot and performed. Finally, Ashlee Page’s The Kiss neatly depicted the short story it was based on, centring on two naturalistic performances by teenage girls caught in a horrifying situation.
Without having being exposed to the entire shorts programme, it would be foolish to draw a definitive conclusion, but from what I saw, the sub-festival was indeed as muscular as Mullighan suggested and even threatened to eclipse the main festival in terms of cohesiveness and general quality of programming. If the same care and attention is maintained through to next year’s festival, the only remaining piece of the puzzle will be properly filling the (actually pretty huge) hall.