I have just returned from the tenth edition of Curto Circuíto, Santiago de Compostela’s international short film festival. While there, as a jury member overseeing its International Competition, I took part in a discussion panel between fellow critics, filmmakers, festival programmers and members of the public. The discussion covered many things, among them the purposes of film criticism and how critics might function in relation to the festival circuit.
One such function is curatorial: not only are many critics programmers themselves, but even the ones who aren’t will champion the overlooked, will draw attention to and argue the case for those works that, for many reasons, struggle to find wider exposure or theatrical distribution. This is especially the case for short and mid-length films, whose exhibition is limited to the festival circuit. And if festivals are to be the culturally rich events they ought to be, shorts and mid-lengths have a crucial role to play. To begin with, they challenge received notions that length is in some way a criterion of value.
Even so, there continues to be a dearth of serious writing dedicated to short films. As Curto Circuíto director Pela del Álamo noted last week, a short film is before anything else a film, and if we are to measure a film in any just way, we ought to do so by its intensity and authenticity rather than by its length. Here, then, are the ten best short and mid-length films I’ve seen that received their world premieres this year.
Polish animator Tomasz Popakul turns a routine plot, concerning growing pains and adolescent longing, into a murky riff on gender fluidity. A subtly skin-crawling body horror, Ziegenort demonstrates the narratively liberating potential—even nature–of animation, proceeding as it does through imagery and motifs that would be difficult to execute in live action. Popakul’s simple but profitable decision to replace the darker hues of his otherwise monochrome palette with a purple tinge adds to the off-kilter currents.
9. Buffalo Death Mask
Mike Hoolboom’s latest film presents a conversation between the Canadian filmmaker and Toronto-based artist Stephen Andrews, who ruminate on their battles with HIV: amusingly on the various drugs with which each treats his condition, forthrightly on the sexual encounters that may have resulted in initial infection, and poignantly on the double-edged feelings of loss that accompany a lover’s death—regarding the latter, it isn’t just the loss of an other, but also in part the loss of one’s self, through the irrevocable disappearance of that other’s own memories. Textured, touching and tonally defiant, Hoolboom’s film is spirited indeed.
Offering an optical distortion of the world, wide-angle lenses have often been employed by filmmakers to depict fascistic dystopias or other ideological tyrannies. In Oscar-nominee Borja Cobeaga’s latest short, such distortions combine with precise compositions and smooth camera movements to lend an immaculate frame through which to view a nightmarishly absurd scenario concocted in the boardrooms of corporate capitalism. Figuring that nothing boosts community spirits like a funeral, a CEO devises a lottery system by which one of his employees is to be sacrificed, so that the consequent memorial service can improve staff morale. Morbidly funny, Cobeaga’s film is shot and edited with a pristine attention to geometric detail.
7. Stay the Same
UK filmmaker Sam Firth’s diaristic self-portrait is the latest addition both to a general trend of films depicting temporal shifts via still snapshots, and to the director’s own thematic and aesthetic preoccupations. Following I.D. (2009), a depiction of her teenage years through photo-booth images, and The Worm Inside (2010), a documentary on her struggle with Graves’ disease, Stay the Same is a one-shot-per-day, year-in-the-life-of account of Firth standing before a tripod-fixed camera. Elements shift and emotions drift as the director returns our gaze with her own curiosities, concerns and confessions…all without saying a word.
Portuguese director Pedro Lino’s documentary on Chegas de Bois, the ancient ritual of ox fighting, is a muscular and frightening beast that juxtaposes close-ups of bovine bodies with the complementarily harsh and resilient terrains around them. Landscapes abound: imagistic, geographic, sonic. Rodrigo Cardoso’s sound design evokes at once a breathy intimacy and physical horror.
The most well-known entry in this list, Lisboan Miguel Gomes follows his acclaimed feature Tabu (2012) with a quick and welcome dash of wit. The film’s eponymous noun doubles in itself as a misleadingly grand evocation of the abstract, when in fact the four epistolary monologues included here are all very specific—if no less enigmatic. A co-production between Portugal, France, Germany and Italy, Redemption imagines letters written by leading political figures addressed to artistic contemporaries. What might otherwise be fashionable cynicism is, here at least, often humorous, and the textured maximalism of the found footage beguiles.
4. Plug and Play
Swiss-born animator Michael Frei apparently created Plug and Play entirely with an integrated laptop touchpad using his index finger. Herein, fingers feature fittingly, threatening to connect with one another as they attend also to the anthropoid circuits that desperately long to touch. There are playful interplays with no in between. Binaries mount: black on white, white on black, connection and disconnection, on and off, erect and limp. Love as a succession of ones and zeroes.
3. What Fire Has Brought Me
Challenging the false assumption that culture has a capital c, Adrián Villar Rojas’ Argentinian-Brazilian co-production is a forty-three-minute inclusive hymn to all that is manmade. A group of people in an untouched forest labour continuously in a dialectical interplay with their environment—conditioned and conditioning, they fashion toys and ornaments as well as their own homes, all from the trees around them. Villar Rojas’ angles are idiosyncratic, his compositions vivid. Stay for the end credits.
Winner of the Pardino d’Argento at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, Italian-born Christina Picchi’s film is one of the eight shorts funded by the third edition of Cinetrain, a collaborative documentary project that brings together international filmmakers by that most cinematic of means: the locomotive. The 2013 edition of Cinetrain took as its theme “Russian Winter;” Picchi’s response depicts the natural and human landscapes as seen from a journey through northern Russia and Siberia. The director keeps things simple: aware of the haunting nature of such wintry locales, she keeps her camera lingering long enough for them to burn the retina and short enough to make you want to visit such places.
1. The Green Serpent: Of Vodka, Men and Distilled Dreams
Another product of the Cinetrain initiative, Swiss filmmaker Benny Jaberg’s documentary on Russia’s staple spirit encapsulates, with much hilarity, the frightening and blanketing effects that liquor has upon the brain. In an age wherein sobriety might bring its own pains, vodka enables an appealing escape. For the three men interviewed by Jaberg–an actor, a poet and a physician–the forty percent beverage is something of an everyday essential, facilitating artistic and even social endeavours, even if the hangovers give, like Russia’s present government, prolonged states of dread.
For the complete list of year-end lists on Keyframe, go to The Year in Film: 2013.
For the complete index of the films on these lists, go to 2013 Year in Review: Indexed.