Last weekend I attended the Short Film Marathon at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Though the festival has many fine shorts programs throughout its run, the Short Film Marathon is a special group of shorts specially selected for an extended sitting.
Seven hours, 10:00AM to 17:00, of non-stop shorts. Luckily we got a three page program that listed the 30 films with a short description and duration, so you could kind of guess when to go to the bathroom. My friend and I did indeed sacrifice one short for a trip to the restroom and cafe, and, full disclosure, I was late, so I missed the first one.
The projectionist made sure to leave a few more seconds in between each film to allow time for people to make their way out of the theatre, and for the returning watchers, held outside by the attendants, to find their seats again. After the first few hours there was definitely a lot of people getting up and sitting down between each film, and people often had to take a new seat if they returned to find their previous seat occupied. There was more talking through the films than normal, and certainly more snacking.
My main impression is that the time went faster than I had anticipated, until about the last hour when I really had to go to the restroom again but all the shorts looked interesting and I didn’t want to miss any of them. Sadly these films ended up being disappointing, so I totally could have gone. But that’s the gamble. I also noticed that I didn’t mind the longer shorts. Normally if I am watching a 75 minute shorts program I get annoyed by a short that’s 30 min long. It always feels way out of proportion compared to the other shorts, and if it’s not to your taste then you’re stuck watching it for longer, instead of maybe getting to see three other shorts in the same amount of time. But during the marathon the long shorts didn’t seem too long and I was able to enjoy or not enjoy them patiently.
There were a few films that stood out for me and stuck in my head because of their strong characters or story or humor. And then there were a few films that got me thinking about a specific aspect of filmmaking and different ways of addressing it, which I will get to later.
The films that stuck out were:
The Basement by Erik van Lieshout (2014, Netherlands, 17 mins)
I am unfamiliar with this filmmaker/artist, so perhaps those more in touch with the Dutch art scene could guess what they were in for when they saw this film on the list. But I was taken by surprise – an outrageous super fast-cut film (the editor, I noticed, is different from the director and he probably deserves a lot of credit for this film) with a lot of close-ups, about the artist in the basement of a Russian museum. The basement is inhabited by a tribe of cats that the museum apparently keeps around because they kill mice. But the basement is dank and gross with a low ceiling. The artist begins a movement to provide better accommodation for the cats by basically renovating the basement and adding various cat beds, perches and scratchers, repainting everything, etc. The artist is outgoing and crazy, speaking in Dutch and English while the Russian cleaning ladies or museum officials just try to keep up or tell him to go home. The cats are the main stars of course and who doesn’t love a good cat video? It is funny and a wild ride, if perhaps a bit long.
Totems by Sarah Arnold (2014, France, 29 mins)
This was one of the long shorts, and it was a slow burner. A young French woman defends her thesis about the French state’s use of ‘the grave of the unknown soldier’ to promote patriotism. She returns to her grandfather’s vacant house to find it full to hoarder levels of magazines and old military shells. The yard is overgrown and impenetrable. She visits her grandfather in the retirement community where he is acting out, his personality mostly lost to dementia. She is tasked with clearing the garden in order to find where her grandfather buried, illegally, his own father after the end of World War I, not wanting him to end up in a state’s grave. She finds the bones, digs them up, breaks her grandfather out of the home and they rebury the bones in a place where the military police won’t know to look. Both actors are excellent, especially the old man, who is played by Albert Delpy. He only had a few scenes really, and no dialogue, but he managed to put across a really believable rage and wickedness. And I appreciated how the act of clearing the garden seemed like a symbol for a violent, epic struggle with higher forces out of her control – the state, age, etc.
Relief by Calum Walter (2014, USA, 4min)
This film is more along the lines of work I am normally drawn to – experimental, lyrical rather than with a clear narrative, and using some interesting techniques that, though not crystal clear, seem to match the subject matter. In this film we are presented with individual frames from an amateur film, but perhaps the frame has been printed out onto paper in black and white. The image is sometimes of a car crash on the side of a road, or of a tree. But then we see this one black and white frame deteriorate, as if we are watching it being photocopied and re photocopied and the small imperfections and errors that occur during one copy are amplified with each subsequent copy. In short order the original image is unrecognizable and has been reduced to a series of lines or contours, like a topographic map. On the artists’ website he says “The process involves printing (often many generations in) and rephotographing stills from digital video, as well as manipulations with light during the photocopying process. The piece is part of a series of films that explore a hybrid of digital and analog moving images.”
The piece was just the right amount of fascinating and disturbing – you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at, but you’re pretty sure it’s not a good thing.
reCuiem by Valentina Carnelutti (2013, Italy, 20 mins)
This film is twenty minutes long and features two small kids as the main characters who for a lot of the film don’t really do much. It could be insanely boring. However the premise of the film is so compelling that I was glued to every small development on screen. At the start of the film we meet the two kids and their mother who come home to their apartment, have dinner and go to bed. In the morning the mom doesn’t wake up and the older child, the boy, who is about five, makes breakfast for himself and his younger sister (about two). He organizes games with his sister including sprinkling their mom’s body with flowers (in the hopes she’ll wake up? So that she’ll be happy when she wakes up?) and he generally takes care of the house, until their mom’s boyfriend comes over. We watch them continue about their business while the boy begins to acknowledge that his mother is dead. The boyfriend, perhaps in denial himself, delays acting on it until the mother’s mother, the children’s grandmother, stops by for a visit. He gently whispers in her ear what’s happened and the event has finally reached the outside world. It is a simple premise, but very well executed with excellent performances, even from the children.
As mentioned above I also started to see connections between films in one area in particular: ways of delivering information to the audience.
As an animator with a fine art background I think visually, in pictures. A lot of my films don’t have dialogue and writing it doesn’t come naturally to me, though I recognize it as a great skill to have and I am trying to improve. So I am attracted to ways that deliver information to the audience without dialogue.
Those with a film background will be familiar with the variety of methods of exposition. This entry on Elements of Cinema lists them succinctly: dialogue, mise-en-scene (set décor and props), title cards and narration, are the most common.
But I need to always remind myself of these specific options, because with the type of work I do, the possibilities are greater – so much greater, in fact, that it can be overwhelming. It can be hard to pin point any one method of delivering information, when you can use narration, dialogue, props, title cards, but also drawings, speech bubbles, thought bubbles, split screens, non-linear storytelling, morphing, interviews, a specific material the characters are made of that indicates something about their lives, abstract imagery or realistic imagery, etc. Of course these things are sometimes seen in live-action filmmaking, and I generally tend to love those movies.
But that is why I sat up a little in my seat when seeing these films at the short film marathon last weekend. They made me think ‘Ah, that’s clever!’ One film was partly animated, the other was completely live action:
Aissa by Clement Trehin-Lalanne (2014, France, 8 mins)
We are introduced to a black teenage girl who is led down a hallway by an official of some kind. She is seated on a chair while the official reports their arrival to a nurse. She is summoned inside an examination room, and we realize we’re in a hospital. We see a shot of a portable audio recorder on a table, one of those that doctors use to record their observations. From this point on we hear the male doctor’s factual, clinical recorded observations of the female patient.
As we hear this scratchy recording, we see close ups of various parts of the girl’s body as she is being examined. We may see a gloved hand, but we never see the doctor himself, we only hear him (from the future, when he recorded the tape) describe the patient. It becomes clear that he is trying to determine her age for an immigration board of some kind, and at the end he determines that she is probably older than 18, despite her having said she was 17 at the beginning. We see the girl, after the exam, alone in the observation room, put her clothes on and leave.
Can you tell why I liked this film? What a great idea to use a scratchy track from an audio recorder to deliver the information about the examination. This way we never even have to see the doctor, and that also makes him seem more emotionally detached. A really simple solution that probably made the film cheaper to shoot, and was more effective for the story.
As Soon As Weather Will Permit by Su Rynard (2014, Canada, 15 mins)
I think of this film as an animation, but actually it is a mixture of edited home footage and photos, some composited airplane shadows moving across carefully arranged landscapes, some 3D animation of atoms, title cards and narration. The film starts fairly normally with the narrator introducing herself and her family from home movies, until she reaches her uncle. Up until this point the screen is divided in two, with the exact same home movie footage side by side. After introducing her uncle her narration ends and is replaced by snippets from an audio interview with the uncle himself. Now he is mostly telling his own story. At this point the two sides of the screen cease to be solely the same images side by side, but instead become one shot of a landscape, but mirrored down the middle, so it seems like a very long, narrow and eerie scene. The uncle describes his early years in the air force and when he was chosen for a special, secret mission.
As the story continues sometimes one side of the split screen will go black and a hand written title card appears, purportedly a line from one of the uncle’s letters to his niece. When this happens what is written on the screen in not the same information that the uncle is delivering via narration (there is usually a pause in narration at this point). I thought this was especially clever because it is a good solution to the problem of needing to explain something that your interview subject didn’t, or wasn’t willing, to talk about. Also by having the title card take up just one half of the screen, it gives the viewer something to look at on the other side while/after they read the title card. The title card is therefore not so abrupt and overwhelming like it can be when it takes over the whole screen.
The uncle continues to tell his story of getting to the air force base near Japan, and being told that morning what the mission was – dropping a nuclear bomb on one of three cities, depending on the cloud cover. The visuals by this point have become a bit more poetic, with shadows of planes roaming across a (mirrored) landscape, or a 3D animation of atoms boiling and roiling around, or a mirrored shot of waves lapping on a beach, but played backwards and in slow motion, to represent the blast itself.
All in all I found this film quite inspiring, I hope it goes online soon so I can share it in full.
That’s Got His Own, Season 4, Episode 12 of The Wire (2006, dir. Joe Chapelle, written by George Pelecanos)
And finally, just because I have been watching The Wire and was thinking about this topic, I spotted a nice use of mise-en-scene exposition in this episode. This is season 4, episode 12, towards the end of the episode. The house belonging to Randy Wagstaff and his foster mother Miss Anna has just been torched. Sargent Carver is going to the hospital to check on them. Here is the shot list:
Not a single line of dialogue! This stuff may be obvious to screenwriters, but I do really enjoy discovering it, and hopefully remembering it for my own work.