A cheer for shorts at the Clermont - Ferrand International Short Film Festival 2011
Friday 25 February 2011, by
– You going to CC1?
– No but I might do L4 or I12...
– Alright, I’ll see you after XL1
Numbers and letters were exchanged all over Clermont-Ferrand last week by the thousands of attendants of the International Short Film Festival like players in a large scale Battleships. This is meant to be the world’s largest short film festival and the numbers and letters refer to the various films in an elaborate categorisation that reflects the size of it. Another illustration of that was the baffling mish mash of coloured charts, rankings, reviews, mugshots and biographies that was the catalogue. In all fairness, it did make comprehensive a very large selection of films lumped into about a dozen categories, spread amongst 7 screens. Hence the colour coding and the cryptic numbering.
In terms of numbers, the festival was impressive: hundreds of thousands of visitors, thousands of professionals, a dozen juries plucked from the pool of industry professionals, funding bodies, tv channels and the general public and more awards than I care to list here. (Full list of awards, statistics, snapshot synopses and winners at http://www.clermont-filmfest.com/index.php?m=128.)
The short films were all less than an hour long and sorted into categories that sometimes overlapped (French selection, International competition) and some more specific, thematic ones (Tales, Labs, Decibels...). These were framed and seasoned with discussions, debates, Q and As with the crew and the film market where distributors and producers shopped around for films and mingled with representatives of various film schools, production companies and institutes from around the world.
Overall, the massive turnout and snaking queues attested to the popularity of the festival and short films in general. Aside from industry professionals and the press, noticeable by their proudly flaunted red goodie bags, a quick look at the audience and a chat in the queue suggested it was a mixed bunch. Pensioners and students alike would be queuing for the same screenings. This is truly a festival born and bred in Clermont-Ferrand and I have yet to hear a word against it (and its accompanying invasion of media types) by the locals. The packed screenings suggested most of the viewers were Clermont residents. Many were regulars, having attended in past years. Most were generally curious about the films. At the risk of stating the obvious, it is worth remembering that practically none of the films had had any press coverage or trailers in cinemas. Aside from a select few that had already toured around various festivals (Monsieur le curé, The six dollar fifty man...) all the public had to go on were 2 or 3 line synopses in the indispensable brochure. And a photo. It was heartening to see audiences attend in droves on the simple basis of "that looks like fun". They gave the films a chance. It certainly helped that ticket prices were low and multi-passes were available at decent rates. From its use of local cinemas, publicity (the city was plastered head to toe in the conspicuous red posters), selection and prices, organisers aimed for a general appeal and, as a result, the festival seemed to eschew the elitism of the large scale events.
Onto the films.
Some countries made their presence felt in the International competition, with 2, 3 or more films selected. The Korean film industry can seemingly do no wrong judging by the drip drip of high quality films into screens and festivals. K-horror has established itself, with such films as Tale of Two Sisters, but we were treated to both comedy and drama quality offerings. The first one came in the form of Unfunny Game. The game of the title is presumably the one the gratingly self-assured protagonist plays every time he confronts a local shopkeeper to within an inch of being kicked in the face, whether to voice his unjustified dissatisfaction with the service or to save a few pennies. Very different in style was Promise of a Spring Day, an understated and moving account of a grandmother excitedly planning a reunion with ex-classmates. But as she attends to the incessant needs of her mother, siblings, children and grandchildren, the reunion is relentlessly put off.
No less than two Palestinian filmmakers featured in the International Competition: Hazim Bitar, with the grim but touching Batn el Hoot, in which a young man trapped in a tunnel 30 meters below Gaza reflects on his life, and Ihad Jadallah with Baya’a el Ward, the allegorical story of an unassuming flower seller.
Although Britain had very minimal representation at the film market mainly due to the recent axing of the film council, its presence shone on screen via I’ll tell you (simple and sweet tale of enamoured teenagers), Bad night for the blues (taking out great Aunty for a stroll), On the water’s edge (creepy and confusing animation with a giant octopus), Waiting for Gorgo (a very original account of the hidden depths of the Ministry of Defence)
We were treated to eclectic choice offerings from the US - Class trip (more enamoured teenagers, this time in the Bronx), Higglety, Pigglety Pop (portrait of a dog), Something left, something taken (offbeat darkish animation) and Raju (credit crunch romance).
Latin America also featured heavily across the selections (El Paraiso de Lili, La Mina de oro, Los Minutos, las horas...).
The French benefited from their own awards distribution via the National Selection of which glorious winners include the potentially enigmatic but resolutely soporific Diane Wellington, the glossy, twice successful Pandore and the deserving Florent Cheippe - star of Hurlement d’un poisson, a solitary, heart-warming cheer for all cold-callers everywhere, unchampioned drones whose ranks are set to swell in the current economic climate - and Anne et les Tremblements, a funny crowd-pleasing mockumentary about a woman living above a metro line.
Some screenings are quite inevitably hit and miss but on the whole, the festival is so accomodating, the gems are scattered quite liberally across the various screenings. For the most part, it seemed that comedy was a favourite with such a format. Short, fast-paced, often action-packed stories with little dialogue and a punch line pretty much guaranteed some level of success, best illustrated by the deserving winner of the Funny award, Sucker by Dutch director Jeroen Annokkée, in which a scantily-dressed woman knocks on her bemused male neighbour’s door asking for sugar. This ignites a hilarious chain of events. Just as funny, although stylistically very different, was Luis Briceno’s Tomatl: Chronique de la fin du monde, a laugh out loud, part animated film tracing the history of the common tomato. I won’t go into detail as it is best discovered fresh (and unspoilt, like the fruit, haha). Moving on. The animated films provided their fair share of laughs; special mention goes to Isabelle au bois dormant, a very minimalist animated film parodying the tale of Sleeping Beauty and whose sheer brilliance is a testimony to the enduring relevance and quality of old style, CGI-less animation.
For darker, more biting or absurd humour, praise must go to a bunch of films: La fille de l’Homme from the National selection, a film that relies on such a simple idea it can’t be called a plot and yet displays such originality and rhythm that it elicited many laughs and gasps from the audience in the few minutes it ran. La Madre in the Tales section can be classified as horror but its quick rhythm and its unbelievable chain of events in a similar vein to Sucker drew more laughs than shock from the audience. Finally, brilliant Swedish entry Hostmannen provoked really unexpected laughs but its brand of humour is probably an acquired taste for some.
Jokes, comedy and punchlines are often action-heavy and tend to rely on fairly basic plots, for which the short is a medium of choice. However, simple plots can also incite dramatic tension, three-dimensional characters and drawn out scenes that still work very well in such a format. The afore-mentioned Promise of a Spring Day is one example. Similarly, the French produced La Grande Muraille de Qin explores identity crisis and nostalgia in a family of first and second generation Chinese immigrants in France with great subtlety. I can also cite the Czech entry Pruvodkyne, a slow and intense tale of infidelity, with few words and lengthy shots of a scenery that is as intrinsic to the story as the characters.
Although the horror fare was very light to my taste, there were a few chilly treats, like the surprisingly eerie French production Chair Disparue, the story of an elderly woman who witnesses the episodic disappearance of her husband. The creeping darkness and blurred shapes were reminiscent of Guillem Morales’s Julia’s Eyes. Some experimental films displayed similar creepy vibes (Chernokids, Chaperon Rouge) as directors make the most of the possibilities offered by mixed media and animation to produce chilling effects.
One undeniable plus about a short film is that if it is cringingly terrible chances are it’ll be over before you bother to pack up and leave. None of the films I saw would answer to that description. Overall, they were either formidable on all fronts or tended to have redeeming features; an erratic plot could be complimented by beautiful cinematography etc. A few films I felt weren’t particularly successful in their treatments as shorts. The set-up was often promising but too elaborate, the ending seemed hastened so as to fit in under an hour and tended to fall flat (Manu, Jericho).
By way of a lengthy conclusion I’ll end on the possibilities of the short. It seems that, very much like public service broadcasting, if there is an offer people will come. There are endless (and cheapish) possibilities for shorts screenings to cater for all tastes, however mainstream or niche: theme nights, animations, tributes to countries or directors, double, triple, quadruple bills... There are enough cinephiles, lurking loners and cashstrapped culture enthusiasts to start filling the seats and ignite interest. For a time, shorts were screened just prior to features and have sadly been replaced by more lucrative adverts. Even trailers are fewer and far between. It would be interesting to see how many people have stopped turning up early to a screening in the full knowledge that these initial 15 minutes would now mostly be filled with advertising. Since then, shorts have increasingly fallen under the banner of artsy fodder only cultural snobs would pretend to enjoy. Yet, the format is just that, and the types of content that fill it are incredibly varied and, for the large part, cater for laziness, short attention spam and curiosity, which can do the rest in attracting bigger crowds.
The films mentioned here are currently touring festivals with a shorts selection so try to find the nearest one to you. Should you wish to contact the film directors, drop us a line and we’ll do our best to forward questions and requests.