Nathaniel Hornblower resurrected, an African space race and the televisual 80s at Europe’s freshest fests
While our Pamela Pianezza's been hitting Cannes (watch this space), I've been all about short films (and strudel) this May, scoping out fresh talent, audacious experimentation and good times at two of Europe's leading shorts fests – Germany's legendary International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, and Austria's newer Vienna Independent Shorts. Here's a few choice highlights.
A MILLION MILES AWAY, 2014
An insecure substitute teacher on the verge of unravelling attempts to lead a choir of Ohioan teenage girls in rehearsing a Judas Priest metal song acapella in Jennifer Reeder's film, which screened at both festivals and won her a Best Female Director nod in Vienna. It riffs on pop culture amid an atmosphere that's both comic and surrealistically mythical, capturing the power of the secret language of adolescence, and undercutting conventional portrayals of teens. The US director's got a Kickstarter campaign going to fund her next film Blood Below the Skin, in which she's set to continue her passion for telling, as she puts it, "stories about unruly women and the Midwest".
TO FLY OR NOT TO FLY (2013)
Winning the International Fiction & Documentary competition in Vienna was Polish director Aniela Gabryel's surprising short that captured subtle moments of absurdist humour and odd beauty in the activities of a group of bird-watchers as they observe and catalogue tits and pale owls with rotating heads. We observe these fixated humans in their strange little conversations as much as we do the feathered wildlife – their fascination for sitting in raging storms, smoking and peering into binoculars.
Shot in black and white with an air of otherworldly dreaming, this short by Ghanaian director Frances Bodomo won a special mention in Vienna. Inspired by a science teacher's efforts in 60s Zambia to launch a rocket into space before America or Russia could, it shows teenage astronaut-in-training Matha in exercises to simulate zero gravity. The lack of advanced technology speaks volumes about the uneven framework of global power and ambitions, but also the boundlessness of imagination and myth-making.
THE DARK, KRYSTLE (2013)
Michael Robinson revels in the excess of melodrama with this hilarious piece of pop-culture appropriation, which screened in Oberhausen. The US filmmaker and video artist has edited together the repetitive trademark gestures of Krystle (Linda Evans) and her scheming nemesis Alexis (Joan Collins) from '80s prime-time soap Dynasty – crying, boozing, dramatically swinging around to stare at someone off-camera. Soon, a cabin is ablaze and tragedy looms, as it always does in the rhythm of endless scandal.
X-X-XX--X--GEWOBENES PAPIER (2013)
This German winner of Vienna's Animation Avantgarde section, by Michel Kloefkorn, also screened at Oberhausen. It shreds, and re-assembles through weaving, magazine images of women, bringing together the digital and analogue along with representations of beauty as structural manipulation.
PERSON TO PERSON (2014)
What do you do when you wake up after a party to find a woman passed out on the living-room floor, who on waking is reluctant to split? Indebted to the low-fi, chatty sensibility of indies such as Clerks, US director Dustin Guy Defa's wryly amusing Berlinale award-winner screened at Vienna's opening. It follows a bemused Brooklyn apartment-dweller (Bene Coopersmith) on errands to the store and back, giving a running commentary to his neighbours on the stoop as he goes, through a day in which he tries to convince a hungover stranger (Deragh Campbell) to leave.
KNOW YOUR ENEMY (BRISTOL)
Curated by Bristol's Encounters festival, this programme is part of a triangular collaboration between them, Vienna Independent Shorts and 2ANNAS festival in Riga. Screening at all three festivals, each film aims at searching for the radical in cinema at a time when politics are becoming radicalized, but film is becoming safer and more market-friendly. Among the programme of political resistance shorts was Jean-Gabriel Periot's hauntingly shocking Even If She Had Been A Criminal…(2006).Meticulously constructed from archival footage, it depicts scenes of the 1944 liberation of Paris, and the public humiliation of women accused of having slept with Germans during the WWII occupation. Also startling was Maryam Ebrahimi's The Death Row (2013), which captures the alarmingly spectral performance protest of 15 women in a public space in Kabul, dressed in traditional mourning costume and fighting for women's education rights in Afghanistan.
CYCLOPES TV (RIGA)
Also part of the triangular collaboration and showing at Vienna was this programme curated by the 2ANNAS short festival in Riga. Cyclopes TV, begun in 1989, constituted the first time experimental content was screened on television as a separate programme in Latvia. Eye-opening that this kind of show even existed, and amusing for its highly spaced-out delivery, it's a fascinating snapshot of Soviet-era artists who, while "stewing in their own juices" as one individual puts it, tried to create a fertile space for exchanging ideas – all while making use of newly available VHS cameras and video mixers. The show's presenter refers to a featured film having broken beyond borders to screen in Oberhausen – a reminder of that fest's important political rep in the past as the only place to view many shorts produced in the Eastern Bloc.
HOMAGE TO HOMEBOY (2013)
This tribute programme to the late Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys screened at cosy dive bar and cinema Schikaneder in Vienna. Yauch directed many of the band's music vids under the pseudonym Nathaniel Hornblower, a lederhosen-wearing Swiss filmmaker who we see cross-country ski-ing around New York and getting utterly ratfaced in A Day In the Life of Nathaniel Hornblower. As well as this comical short, influential music vids from Yauch and collaborating pal Spike Jonze were shown. As curator Laura Walde aptly put it, the programme celebrates Yauch "as an indie artist,who was neither bothered by style nor technique and certainly didn’t worry about good taste. All that counted for him were lunatic ideas, a fearless love for experimenting and the courage to produce creative trash, true to the motto 'Fight For Your Right – to party'."
FILM WITHOUT FILM (2014)
The most out-there of the programmes to be found at Oberhausen was from Finnish curator Mika Taanila - a series of filmless films designed to break down the bounds of the screen, and make audiences think about what cinema spaces do and what they are for. These ranged from Tony Hill's Point Source, a shadow play performance with a lamp using both screen and cinema space, to lettrist Roland Sabatier's "cinematographic seance" Entrac'te, in which the sum of noises and thoughts of the spectators are said to constitute the soundtrack. Whether radical or simply an unspoken pact to indulge the perverse, these extremist journeys were packed out - the festival's hot ticket. Besides, what's not to like about a programme in which you're instructed to throw paper darts at the screen?