by Elliot Davies
Eat My Shorts is a programme of seven short films from across the globe. There were two such programmes at the 2017 Derby Film Festival, of which this was the second. We missed the first, but we wouldn’t have missed this one for the world!
These short films range in length from two minutes to 25 minutes. We’ve got two offerings from the UK, two from Iran, one from Hungary, one from the US, and one from Poland. Let’s dive in, shall we?
Laced (UK; Dir: Gopi Degala) opens proceedings. In just two minutes it tells a story that’s quite sweet, yet so comparatively inconsequential you wonder where the idea came from.
Many short films try to make up for their brief running time through dealing with strong emotions and weighty issues. This one’s about a little girl who can’t tie her shoelaces yet, and her dad who apparently doesn’t know his left from his right. And that’s it!
In any programme of short films the quality’s going to vary. And as we’ll see, some of the films in this programme were a little overcooked, and some veered a little too close to melodrama.
But Laced seems to aim for nothing more than mild amusement, and it succeeds. Other short film directors can take a lesson here: Just because your film’s short it doesn’t mean it has to be important or impactful. It’s fine to tell straightforward everyday stories so long as you tell them well.
Mwah (Iran; Dir: Sara Sohelli) had a lot to like about it, but a lot that was off-putting. It opens (and closes) with nauseating footage of a pulsating fish mouth, and an oppressive soundtrack of burbling water and distant heartbeats plays throughout. All the humans are indistinct and blurry shapes against stark white lights, but it soon becomes clear that we’re in a maternity ward, and the unborn babies are talking to each other.
This is a very good idea, and Mwah is briefly fascinating. However, it’s ultimately let down by some poorly-translated subtitles (not quite the film’s fault, granted), and some jarring prenatal homophobia. Even at 12 minutes it feels like it goes on a little too long. It soon becomes overly saccharine, and there’s a tragic ending that comes so suddenly that it feels forced. If there were ever a story that didn’t need to end with a punch to the gut, it’s this one.
Pollution of the Heart (Poland; Dir: Oliwia Siemienczuk) is a tale of witchcraft and evil twins. It doesn’t do anything particularly new, but what it does it does well enough. There’s some strong performances, some very creepy imagery, and some fantastic animated closing credits. It feels a little mean to say that the best part of a short film is the closing credits. But honestly, they were really something!
Gardening At Night (USA; Dir: Shayna Connelly) is named after the R.E.M. song – each of the four members of the band got a thank you in the closing credits! While awaiting a phone call, a woman starts gardening at night. Meanwhile, echoes of past lives and conversations play through her head, and she’s haunted by the dripping spirit of an old friend who she may or may not have killed.
While it feels like it’s been written through referring to a melodramatic short-film checklist – Memory! Mental illness! Cancer! – the performances are convincing, and repeat viewings would no doubt reveal multiple layers of meaning. There’s a lot to unpack here. More so than any other film in the programme, this one could have benefitted from a longer running time. With a bit more breathing space, the themes and the conflicts could be tackled with the gravity they deserve.
A Share of a Share (Iran; Dir: Kaveh Jahed) was a stressful blink-and-you’ll-miss-it slice of life from a refugee camp. It’s composed of a single shot, filmed from the corner of a cramped tent. There’s a screaming baby, a screaming father, and a succinct yet devastating exploration of the sort of everyday sacrifices that will never make it to the headlines. In a world where too many people think of refugees as less than human, this is sobering, shocking, and necessary. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a slap in the face.
Sing (Hungary; Dir: Kristof Deak) was a total change of pace. A young girl is crushed when her teacher tells her that she’s not good enough to sing in the choir. Instead she’s instructed to mime. It soon becomes apparent that she’s not the only one who’s been so demeaned by her teacher, so a mischievous plan is hatched. When vengeance comes, it’s delightful.
Sing is colourful and uplifting. At 25 minutes it’s the longest film here by some margin. But it’s precisely the right length – perfectly paced to draw you in, with not a single second of screen time wasted.
And finally – not just for this short film programme, but also for our coverage of the 2017 Derby Film Festival – Family Portrait (UK; Dir: Kelly Holmes).
Full disclosure: I know the director of this one. But this is the first time I’ve seen her film, and I am absolutely determined to approach it with a completely open mind, and to assess it on identical terms to every other film in this programme.
Luckily it’s boss, which makes my job here significantly easier.
Family Portrait is a gloomy period drama dealing with the grim Victorian custom of photographing families with the propped-up corpses of their dearly-departed. Not many people are familiar with this horrifying practice. The film could have simply detailed the process and left it at that, and it still could have packed a punch. But there’s so much more going on.
A ponderous clock ticks gravely throughout, creating a stultifying atmosphere from which there’s no respite. Three words whispered in a corpse’s ear tell us all we needed to know about this poor family’s misfortunes. A white dress, and a severe uncle sat in the corner compulsively checking his pocket watch, ominously suggests the unspeakable horrors and tremendous sacrifices to come.
There’s no happy ending. It’s grim, but there’s an undertone of righteous anger. There’s an air of defiance hinting that escape might not be quite so impossible as it seems. A rich history and countless possible futures are suggested through terse exchanges and telling glances. There’s a whole world here, and it feels authentic and lived-in.
And hey, that’s it for our coverage of the 2017 Derby Film Festival! Didn’t we have a good time.
Good work guys. Same again next year?