A video of a man in a latex balaclava jump cuts to pumping bass and roaring synths. Armed with a pair of plastic bags, he bobs up and down a council estate with the befuddled urgency of a startled pigeon. Beneath the man on the screen, his live doppelganger shuffles across a bouncy castle in similarly drunk determination. He pauses to stare at me as I stiffly type notes into my phone, his mouth aghast, a gaping hole. His fellow freaks, dressed like giant sex toys, encircle me, stroking my face with rubber gloves. Suddenly, I feel like I’m the freak. What am I looking for?
This performance by Natalie Sharp and her band The Lone Taxidermist, opened one of the eight locations of this year’s London Short Film Festival, an annual two-week programme of more than 100 screenings and events, spanning archival television broadcasts to independent shorts, old and new, from 54 countries. Perhaps by chance, Sharp’s brazen intervention speaks to two historical moments featured in this year’s line-up. The bouncy-castle enclosure in which she and her bandmates accost the audience – an arts space known as the AirDraft designed by Benedetta Rogers and Thomas Randall-Page last year – recalls a 1967 expanded cinema performance referenced in Brecht Debackere’s 2016 documentary, Exprmntl. Titled MovieMovie and produced by Jeffrey Shaw, this work invited viewers to enter an inflated cone of performances and projections and become part of the spectacle. Meanwhile, Sharp’s splicing together of random visuals and funky rhythms traces back to Scratch, a radical, DIY video art movement that emerged in Britain in the early 1980s, that was commemorated by the festival this year in an evening of projections and live events.
Philip Ilson – the Short Film Festival co-founder and artistic director – reflects that, this year, the programme has unintentionally turned out to be more historically-focused than it’s ever been in its 16-year run, with over half of its special events featuring shorts from the 1950s to the ’90s. I’m tempted to ask him why these historical parallels are suddenly being brought into focus, but to place a meaning on it all would be out of step with the wayward spirit of the festival’s ad hoc programming.
A wavering camera captures a man plunging ‘tit over arse’ down a hill, rolling his body and splaying his arms with the boundless whimsy of a child. ‘Such savageness…such uncaring behaviour’, drawls the wistful voiceover. A film by the British artist Andrew Kötting, Klipperty Klöpp (1984) takes a father’s memory of his son on a detour into comic absurdity. Shot in black-and-white, double Super 8 film, with one actor and a duration of 12 minutes, the work counterbalances its technical restrictions with an improvisational and serendipitous approach to form and narrative. With its washed-out tones and mottled textures, Klipperty Klöpp conjures a feeling of reverie tinged with longing, resonating with the voiceover. ‘I remember him saying follow me to the end of the earth.’ As it passes the six-minute mark, Kötting’s already loose narrative starts to disintegrate completely. The voiceover breaks into song; the actor gallops in circles; and Kötting encourages you to follow. ‘Let’s tango baby. Let’s tango.’
Thai filmmaker Pathompon Mont Tesprateep’s Confusion is Next (2018) also crackles into obscurity. A fugitive from a collapsed country seeks solace by recording the sounds of trees. Close-ups of hands searching branches are rhythmically cut to the sounds of sticks thrumming and leaves rustling. Edited on repeat, the sequence rattles you like a festering thought. Edward Jeffreys more brazenly tampers with the controls of his narrative in Dead Dog (2008). A small-scale drama of a man searching for his dog swerves into a murderous fantasy. After a tense conversation with his condescending neighbour, the protagonist enters the void, shooting his rifle in a frenzy of grief. Cutting to a wide shot, his girlfriend enters the frame, shimmying to the jubilant melodies of an instrumental Britpop tune, while her partner finishes off his victim in the background. The sheer disjointedness of the scene breaks with the cohesion of the plotline. Watching two characters give themselves over to sensory oblivion encourages you to loosen the grip of reason and let the music to take hold.
Collapsing into the side-lines of everyday reality, these shorts invoke the feeling of not fully belonging to a dominant culture. Opening up gaps in conventional narratives, they articulate more nuanced emotional experiences than those you’d normally encounter in mainstream feature films. ‘The Contouring of Deafhoods’, a programme of shorts investigating the experience of deafness is full of these bewitching breaks. A man guffaws that ‘words take up a lot of room’, as he exchanges looks with a girl amidst an onslaught of meaningless monologue (Louise Stern’s Boat, 2018). A young boy nods his head in glee at the arrival of rain to a camel, imitating its chewing motions in a gesture of compassion (Spanish filmmaker Juan Antonio Moreno’s, Words of Caramel, 2016), and a Māori adolescent finally wins a loving look from his damaged father after silently performing a haka (Jared Flitcroft and Jack O’Donnell, Tama, 2018). Amidst the rubbings-out of dialogue, these shorts portray empathetic subjects experiencing moments of epiphany.
Where some of the films probe the margins of mainstream narratives, others are more reactive in their approach. The Indian photographer Sohrab Hura’s Lost Head and The Bird (2018) stridently taps into the dark undercurrents of a contemporary folktale. A voiceover describes the hardships of a woman who has, quite literally, lost her head to a carnivorous lover. While the voiceover parodies the far-fetched symbolism – ‘She missed the ordinary things … wearing makeup, combing her hair … you know … the usual’ – stark snapshots of people flash up on the screen as harbingers of real-life subjectivities. Through this jarring confrontation between word and image, Hura disrupts the legibility of the story and shows up the violence of picture-making.
Not all of the films manage to be as subversive. In British filmmaker Benjamin Lister’s Curse of the Internet Man (2018), an online narcissist glibly narrates his obsession with social media and fame. Summing up his all-too-familiar symptoms of addiction and psychosis into neatly rhyming couplets, he features in a sequence of fake candid settings, slickly edited with special effects, filters and motion blur. While there is some irony in the smoothness of the delivery, it doesn’t go far enough to have a discomfiting impact. The narrative doesn’t bite. Instead, it pacifies.
The Albanian artist Adrian Paci’s Interregnum (2017), on the other hand, conjures the illusion of control with shrewd self-awareness. Various archival clips of the public funerals of communist leaders are edited into a seamless sequence. Captured in crowds and harmonized with other archival fragments, the emotional gestures of individuals are subsumed into a visual pattern. Watching Interregnum, you almost feel like you’re the invisible patriarch. Directing the bodies, homogenizing their grief, subjecting them to your command. Leonhard Müllner and Robin Klengel take a more flippant approach to cinema’s artifice of authority in Operation Jane Walk (2018). A city tour through the architecture of a dystopian shooter game, it presents travellers roving a demolished Manhattan teeming with violence with the carefree attitude of peaceful tourists.
Also probing the escapist appeal of aesthetic experience is Charlie Lyne’s Personal Truth (2018), a documentary-essay that follows the journey of Madison Welch, who fired a rifle into a Washington D.C. pizzeria after reading false online claims about it being a paedophile ring. Lyne investigates Welch with the obsessive precision of a conspiracy theorist, using maps and diagrams, headshots and screenshots to uncover his story. As he mirrors Welch’s style of thinking and retraces his patterns of belief, Lyne reflects, ‘Maybe I’m using basically the same logic.’ There’s something arch about Lyne’s identification with Welch, as if he’s engaging in some kind of meta-hobby. This jars with me momentarily, but, as all shorts are, soon it’s all over.
The 16th London Short Film Festival ran from 11 until 20 January 2019.
Main image: Leonhard Müllner & Robin Klengel, Operation Jane Walk, 2018, film still. Courtesy: the artists .