Daily Archives: April 29, 2012

BIFF 2012 #14: Shorts

Morir cada dia (Dying Every Day)

Bradford International Film Festival has, for as long as I can remember, regularly included a short before each festival screening of a feature (unless the length of the feature makes this impractical). This is in addition to specific programmes of shorts, e.g. the Shine Short Film Competition. This inclusion of short films in the main festival is to be applauded but in the UK shorts have not been part of mainstream film culture for a very long time. There are certain cinemas that regularly show shorts as part of specific projects (e.g. the Virgin-sponsored shorts at Cornerhouse in Manchester) but as far as I’m aware, that is not the practice at most specialised cinemas. The upshot is that in the UK shorts remain primarily a festival experience or, since many domestic shorts receive some form of public funding they are shown at funders’ (or education institutions’) promotional events.

Shorts aren’t usually reviewed outside their own institutional context (i.e. by competition judges) and I confess that I’m not sure what criteria to use to discuss them. In the main shorts are produced by younger filmmakers as a form of ‘calling card’ and therefore perhaps we should be looking for evidence of good creative ideas, narrative control, good techniques etc. In some ways though this seems an almost impossible ask of young filmmakers. What makes a ‘good’ short? It might be a good idea that achieves its goal within its allotted time or it might be something very slight that is produced in a striking and original way.

There were nearly 40 shorts in the Bradford programme plus 18 short animations in the Chuck Jones Tribute. I saw just over a quarter of the shorts and two of the Chuck Jones animations. Two general observations: first it was clear that shorts were carefully chosen to complement the feature, either via subject matter or tone. Second, the overall quality of the shorts seemed higher than I remember from previous years. Certainly I never got that sense of squirming in my seat hoping that the short would end soon. I was intrigued by the way that ‘typical’ national filmmaking styles were so noticeable – the social realist aspects of several UK shorts, a beautiful traditional Japanese animation etc. Again there were noticeable differences in production values. The Spanish Morir cada dia (Dying Every Day) and the French Le passage were striking in this respect, the former a drama moment set at mealtime, the latter a fantasy narrative sequence – both of which could have been extracts from a feature production. By contrast, Those Who Can (UK) is clearly low budget but packs a powerful punch with its narrative derived, I think, from a real news report. I enjoyed each of these three shorts very much. It’s worth making the point here that festivals are now faced with a variety of digital formats on which submissions have been made – as well as the different formats on which they have been shot. (It isn’t always the case that the film on the highest quality original format arrives in the cinema on the best projection format.)

‘Chuck Jones by Wile-E-Coyote’ © Warner Bros, photo © Karsh

Formats were also an issue for the Chuck Jones Centenary Tribute (Part 1).  I was pleased to see this strand in the festival. The cartoons (as they would have been called on their original release) were scattered through the festival as well as being collected  together in four separate ‘Family Funday’ programmes over the two weekends of the festival. The festival brochure includes an essay by Paul Wells on Chuck Jones (1912-2002) which provides useful background detail. Jones worked for Warner Bros, home of ‘Looney Tunes’ between 1933 and 1962 and then for MGM from 1963-71, by which time the studios were in the process of ceasing production of cartoons as such.

I remember the 1950s experience of watching Bugs Bunny, Wile-E-Coyote and Roadrunner, how the first Hollywood cartoon characters transferred to mainstream children’s TV in the 1960s and then again how they provided the basis for new cable channels like Cartoon Network in the 1990s. The Bugs Bunny classic What’s Opera Doc? dates from 1957 but I suspect that I know it best from TV. It’s claimed as ‘the greatest cartoon short’ ever made. I can see why it is so highly thought of, but personally I prefer the earlier cartoons of Tex Avery – for both their drawing style and their subversive nature. This was one of just four of the cartoons screened from 35mm. The image looked fine on the big Pictureville screen, if a little scratchy. The Bear That Wasn’t is a 1967 production, the last cartoon short from MGM. Based on a story by Frank Tashlin this is a witty satire on contemporary US society and quite sad. I enjoyed it a lot (and the drawing style suited the material as well as evoking the period). However, like most of the cartoon shorts this had to be screened from Blu-Ray. I’ve seen Blu-Ray on a smaller screen looking fantastic, but on the big Pictureville screen it didn’t seem quite up to the job. It’s a shame that the studios aren’t releasing their cartoon archives as DCP prints – or perhaps they are but the distribution fees are extortionate? I know how difficult the studios can be about prints and indeed still images in giving permissions and charging high fees. I wish I’d had the time to watch more of the cartoons but if you feel that you have been missing out, Part 2 of the Chuck Jones tribute is promised for the Bradford Animation Festival later this year.

BIFF 2012 #13: Toomelah (Australia 2011)

As I watched this film I found myself engrossed but also at times bewildered and definitely disturbed. Toomelah was screened as part of a celebration and exchange between Bradford and Sydney as the first two UNESCO ‘Cities of Film’. My reaction was partly formed around the question of what kinds of considerations went into the choice of this film? I found that some of the other audience members I spoke to afterwards felt the same way. It was only afterwards that I noticed in the festival brochure that Toomelah had won a UNESCO prize for ‘An outstanding contribution to the promotion and preservation of cultural diversity through film’ at the Asian Pacific Screen Awards in 2011. That explains the choice of the film for a Bradford screening but there are still plenty of questions to explore. I should point out that if, like me, you prefer not to read the full blurb in the brochure before the film, this is one film where it could be a mistake.

The problem for a UK audience is that the film itself offers no context for what it shows us and therefore runs the risk that we might misread it. At the end of the opening credit sequence we are presented with close-ups of a small figurine of a boxer, a trophy or an award of some kind. The first scene then shows us a small boy waking and asking his grandmother for money which he uses to buy some chips to eat on his way to school. But at school he behaves in such a disruptive manner that the teacher asks him to leave the room. For most of the rest of the film Daniel refuses to go to school and instead tags along with a group of men led by Linden the local drugs dealer. Daniel’s mother appears to have little control over or indeed much interest in her son and his grandmother withdraws to her room when her sister Cindy re-appears after 50 years away. Daniel’s father appears to live literally ‘in the gutter’ and is usually drunk. The father was indeed a boxer and Daniel sees boxing as something he can be good at. The boy’s other relationships involve his girlfriend Tanitia and Tupac the boy he fights with at school. The community is made up of indigenous peoples – the only white Australians we see are a teacher and two police officers.

The setting of this community isn’t given (though since the film is part-funded by New South Wales Screen, we assume it must be in the state somewhere). There are occasional long shots showing the landscape and these images of great natural beauty contrast with the brutality of the language used by everyone in the community. If it was released in the UK, the BBFC would struggle to give the film less than an 18 Certificate. All the dialogue is subtitled, which I found annoying since only the occasional word is a problem, but it’s difficult not to read the subtitles. None of the characters in the narrative appear to be played by ‘actors’. Is this a documentary, a dramatised reconstruction of an event or a completely fictional story? The filming style is both skilful in terms of framing and editing but also very loose, especially in the use of a handheld camera and a pronounced tendency to ignore focus, often seeming to be adjusted during shots, as if the filmmaker had just forgotten. There is a clear narrative that involves Daniel and the return of another ‘bad c**t’ from prison who threatens to take over Linden’s business. The climax of the film is then predictable.

I’m presenting the film in this way just to emphasise how such films can come across. I said I was engrossed and that’s true. The performances are staggeringly good with only a couple of occasions when sly glances towards the camera or slight hesitations in speaking betray the non-professionals. What is also clear is that while the film in one sense reinforces a negative image of indigenous communities, one which is repeated for similar communities in North America and other parts of the world, the script is also carefully constructed so that we are aware of real social issues. The lack of employment, the aimlessness of lives, substance abuse and sexual abuse are major problems associated with the racist policies which took children away from families (the ‘Stolen Generations’) and tried to eradicate the cultural identity of communities with the loss of language and history as well as the condemnation of whole communities to a second class status in Australian society. These references are carefully woven into the fabric of the film rather than presented directly. Personally I wanted to know more, e.g. about the black and white photographs in the schoolroom showing group portraits from earlier decades in the community. Having said that there are some discussions (and school lessons) about the ‘lingo’ of the local peoples and a couple of songs.

It took me a little while to research the film and this is what I found, starting with the official website. ‘Toomelah’ is a real place, a remote community of the Gamilaroi people based around an old mission (set up in the 1930s as part of a forced assimilation project for scattered smaller groups) in the far north of New South Wales nearly on the border with Queensland. It became the centre of a scandal in the late 1980s when a leading judge visited the community and helped to publicise the shocking living conditions and social problems (the most discussed being child abuse). This in turn led to an ‘intervention’ by the federal government and later changes in policy by the New South Wales government. So, I presume that Toomelah is well-known in Australia.

Ivan Sen and Daniel Connors on location in Toomelah

The filmmaker is Ivan Sen, whose mother grew up in Toomelah. He himself was brought up in Inverell, a small town further down the Macintyre River. He trained as a filmmaker and achieved success with his first feature Beneath Clouds in 2002, winning a prize at Berlin. A fiction film drawing on Sen’s own feelings growing up as a mixed race young man, this was followed by several other short dramas and documentaries, an experimental feature Dreamland (2010) and then Toomelah. Sen has maintained his interest in his roots, returning over several years to Toomelah. The filming style of Toomelah is explained by his decision to make the film virtually by himself so that his non-professional cast of locals (many from the same family) would not be intimidated by the presence of a large professional crew. This willingness to lose the slickness of a proficient crew has been rewarded by very ‘natural’ performances – and didn’t prevent the film being selected for the ‘Un Certain Regard’ programme at Cannes in 2011.

According to its Facebook page and several glowing reviews in Australia, the film has been warmly welcomed by audiences, including those who know the community at Toomelah. However, its theatrical release in Australia seems to have been limited. I suspect it will do well on DVD and in non-traditional screening events. My concern is how it will be read elsewhere in festivals and specialised cinemas. One of the questions is about the ‘humour’ in the film which is mentioned by the filmmaker and the promotional material. I think that the film deals in authenticity and often this extends into a general sense of warmth in communal relations which we can all respond to. However, there were moments in which the film’s style reminded me of reality TV and the kinds of potentially exploitative material featured in Big Fat Gypsy Weddings and similar programmes focusing on the ‘exotic’ behaviour of particular subcultures. Are we laughing at or with these communities? Toomelah is of course made from within a community and I’m not suggesting that it is exploitative, only that it could be misread. I’m sure that most audiences want children like Daniel to have a better future than their parents’ generation. The exposure of the problems they face is best organised from within their own culture and therefore it is important that filmmakers like Ivan Sen are funded and able to negotiate decent distribution deals. How we then respond to such films is a question which I think prompts a call for better film education in film cultures generally around the world.

Here’s the official trailer from the production company, Bunya:

And an interview with Ivan Sen: