Shorts O’Clock – International Short Film Competition

When putting together a film competition, one of the main goals for a programmer is to balance distinct paths and similarities, so that potential parallels don’t end up flattening diversity, but still add up to some coherent choice. What is more, when dealing with a film festival which highlights a main geographical point of view, reaching out for other cultures around the globe by following strict criteria, this aspect becomes of utmost importance. So, it might be that drawing correspondences between films coming from distant places around the world is a somehow artificial process – but in our case this approach could indeed mirror a programmer’s optic. I’ve set out to browse the short film competition of the Film O’Clock pilot edition with just about that idea in mind.

There’s a point to be made in regard to those countries from the selection that in recent years became synonymous with festival success by imposing an aesthetics which soon veered towards a recipe: Romania and Greece. Sure enough, the averted moviegoer will be quick to identify certain tropes that still linger on after they have become known worldwide, following breakthroughs such as the Romanian 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007) and the Greek Dogtooth (Yorgos Lánthimos, 2009). The shorts that mostly manage to evoke the primary spirit of those films are Andrei Răuțu’s Bucharest Seen from Above and Konstantinos Antonopoulos’ Postcards from the End of the World. The first one recounts a very time-condensed family incident, in which a woman in her forties and her son need to drive an aged woman to the asylum. The landscape is vaguely familiar: lots of interiors, realist dialogues, rare cuts. Răuțu’s craft is deft enough so that this small-scale story can achieve a poignant climax followed by a quiet resolution. At that precise moment, the camera starts gaining altitude, allowing for a panorama of the city, as if everything, family tensions, and aesthetic formulas, could finally be left behind while we venture into new territory. The above-mentioned Greek short film, on the other hand, could hardly be mistaken for something other than a ‘weird wave’ competitor. Blending upper-class satire and apocalypse movie motives, the film evolves into a touching, if sometimes too explicit, plea for a more authentic lifestyle, in which bourgeois awkward, stiff manners make a place for true feeling.

The remaining Greek entries on the list explore related territories of social norm and the impossibility of disobedience. The Mouse Story, by Miltiades Christidis, may sound like a joke – a person dressed in a fluffy mouse costume, forced to cope with daily routine –, but ultimately it points out to the harsh realities of the capitalist world, that of ever-raising prices, poorly paid jobs and uncontrollable human hostility. There is a very beautiful moment at the end when, after watching on TV a short fragment from Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, in which James Stewart tells her lover that he would bring her the Moon, the mouse reaches himself for a cartoonish Moon, gets it and eats it – as if a compensatory fantasy were finally possible in this here world. Pathologies of Everyday Life is a straightforward account of an ill-fated plan to kill a teacher, that two young men boiling with rage try to accomplish one night, in a secluded place. Nothing much happens in this film, apart from dialogue: angry, sharp lines growled almost on autopilot carry the film forward, distilling disgust and hatred with the world as it is. But does not violence always lead to violence?

There is a sense of blurred boundaries between fiction and documentary in all three Lithuanian shorts included in the selection. In One Life, dealing with a butterfly’s short journey from a sort of specialized farm to a concert hall where it will make a short emergence from backstage and then die under the ticket payers’ feet, pushes this porosity furthest. While the editing suggests multiple cameras and too smooth a coordination for an observational documentary, it is clear that the main event – the concert – actually took place, and director Marija Stonyte kept much of this raw material in the film. Community Gardens may have a familiar plot – a son comes home from abroad and has to cope with generational gap and world vision discrepancies –, yet its visual treatment is anything but ordinary. The film makes a case for hyperrealism when it plunges the audience in the middle of a fire, and it’s not clear how much of it all was scripted and how much was improvised. But the ambiguity, with the main character reduced to the state of a simple spectator, adds a layer of complexity to this carefully crafted film. There is a sense of documented procedural operations in Dummy, directed by Laurynas Bareisa, as well. We follow a series of investigators and a handcuffed young man as they attempt to reenact a crime that took place in the middle of a forest. The incident is very detailed in retrospect, yet the main focus of the film appears to lie elsewhere – in the only woman of the group, who not only seems to be entrusted with the most important work (taking notes) but also is subject to different misogynist allusions from her superiors. There is much subtlety in this short film; however, the tension is clearly perceptible, and Bareisa is very good at making us feel more empathic towards the criminal than towards those that are in charge of the case.

The Egyptian film Sunday at 5 also ventures on this terrain. The story concerns a woman of thirty who goes to an audition and is soon forced to uncover one of her most intimate memories. The film juggles with real names and opts for a very loose form, allowing the audience to see cameras in the studio and then integrating their footage in the film. Similarly, Ward’s Henna Party has an anthropological interest in it. Somehow recalling Yusri Nasrullah’s Brooks, Meadows, and Lovely Faces, it concerns the joyful preparations for a wedding – dances, songs, henna tattoos – while also inserting a brutal social commentary about race and discrimination in Egyptian society. In the same vein, the South-African film Mthunzi allows for a rather usual incident – a young Black man giving first-aid treatment to an epileptic white woman – to develop with almost tragic consequences. The film’s very austere formal aspect and initially modest stake evolve into a very synthetic, wide-ranging discussion about segregation and its dark, still actual consequences, which should not be limited to South-African society exclusively. The remaining South-African films deal one way or another with the power of alternative realities when it comes to bringing hope and consolation in the lives of those in need. Whether by dreams (What Did You Dream?) or invented letters (The Letter Reader), the children at the heart of these two shorts search for miracles made out of pure routine gestures in the middle of a deeply insecure social and political landscape.

The Promised, by Ahmed El Ghoneimy, investigates the tensions that arise when employees charged with protecting a historical site in the outskirts of Cairo confront the few passers-by who choose to cross precisely through the ruins on their way to their eventual destinations. A half-absurd, half-comedic conversation ensues, in which history, freedom, and politics intervene several times. The director ends the movie with a breathtaking aerial view of the Cairo slums, which lie nearby – as if everything were affected by the same indifference from the authorities.

The only animation of the selection, My Father’s Shoes by Anton and Damian Groves, comes from Romania, although it covers thousands of miles as it follows its main character in a journey around the globe. Beautifully textured and authentically tender, this story manages to convey a sense of the big world while rooting itself in a traditional peasant house somewhere in the countryside, decades ago. Lucia Chicoș’ awarded Contraindications is a very powerful character study. We see the drama of a middle-aged woman as it unfolds between four walls, as soon as she starts being confronted with a life-changing choice: should she divorce her husband, who has been away and is now coming back, as her mother insists, or should she persevere in this state of limbo? Suffocating atmosphere and attention to infinitesimal human states of mind – these are Lucia Chicoș’ main weapons for this film.

With this year’s short film competition, it’s not only a meridian that is being explored – it’s an intersection of cultures, cinematic traditions, ways of storytelling that comes alive on our screens.