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Short but Sweet: The UK Film Festival

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In a small, hallway-sized room, a group of blossoming filmmakers and lifetime film lovers await the UK Film Festival awards. Posters of Age of UltronGuardians of the Galaxy, and Paddington are at an odd contrast to the little-seen films being quietly discussed in groups of two and three. Upcoming projects, aspect ratios and directorial hurdles are on equal terms with hot new restaurants and wine preferences here in this gathering of creatives. The venue (The Framestore Preview Theatre in downtown London) is small, but well attended, and the screening room quickly becomes standing-room-only. The atmosphere here is a friendly one, and although I was an outsider to the group (and a relative newcomer to the country itself), I felt a welcome addition to this celebration of cinema.

The award ceremony, helmed by Murray Woodfield, recapped the previous three days of screenings and offered some welcomed surprises. Proceedings began with a screening of Mike, a short film directed by Petros Silvestros, and the winner of the UK Film Festival’s 2012 “3 Minute Script” competition (clarified by Woodfield as being more so a three-page script). Going on to win the Crystal Bear at Berlinale’s Generation 14plus, Mike is more than a beautiful 8-minute film and provided an incredible opportunity for a young screenwriter (Aj Riley) to fulfill his vision. After the quick catch-up from last year’s festival, we parlay into the world of music video. Taichi Kimura humbly accepts the award for his Japan-inspired video GRADES – King. An anime-driven fantasy made real by a supernaturally-cute little girl and an upbeat track from GRADES, King is an infectious video that has gone viral in my subconscious.

In stark contrast to Kimura’s colorful popiness, the winner for Best Short Documentary was as sobering an experience as any of us had all evening. Morgan Knibbe’s Shipwreck is a torturous journey into the very core of grief, told by a swaying camera, a whispering narrator, and a swarm of wailing mourners. Reminiscent of 2012’s Leviathan, Knibbe’s storytelling feels dizzying and ephemeral — hard cuts are replaced by meandering whip pans, and his graceful hand-held swaying lifts an ethereal curtain allowing us to view the proceedings from the perspective of the souls that fill the truckload of coffins. Keeping a quiet distance, the unobtrusive camera allows the family to grieve in their own often-spectacular way, and in so doing, Knibbe shines a light on the Western notions of refined sadness. The strength of emotion displayed by these bemoaned Eritreans is uncomfortable to watch and could almost be construed as comical if they were not so horrifyingly real. In a society full of silent tears and stiff upper lips, sadness on this grand a scale is both unnerving and primally freeing.

Still in shock from Shipwreck, Rick Rodgers was nearly speechless while accepting his award for his feature, Amok, and was as eager as the rest of the crowd to find and congratulate the (as it happens, absent) Knibbe. Continuing a trend of jarring transitions, we moved on to the Best Animation category, which was taken by Cynthia Hogan’s Humble Pie. An apparently late entry into the fest, her sprightly short was a joyful reprieve from the shocking quiet that lingered in the room. At only three minutes, Hogan’s Pixar-esque animation lightened the mood and managed to make the somber crowd laugh. The story of an enterprising fly’s determination to stop eating trash and live the good life, Humble Pie delivers more heart in three minutes than most animated features convey in 90.

The mood shifted once again when the winner for Best Student Short, Phil Sheerin’s North, started rolling. Shot on 16mm film and with a budget on only £4000, North is a commendable achievement even without its “student” moniker. Dealing with the painful subject of a mother’s terminal illness, Sheerin’s film squeezes the endlessly complex topic into a series of intimate moments emanating with passion. An eye for shot composition and cinematography alongside a standout performance from Barry Keoghan dominate the film. Phil Sheerin is someone to look out for in the future.

The Best International Short category was taken by Milad Alami and Aygul Bakanova’s Void — a pensive voyage into the unknown masquerading as a ferry ride from Copenhagen to Bornholm. Packed with a strange sense of uneasy suspense, Void manipulates its characters and audience in a constant bait-and-switch of motivation. Dar Salim and Lars Mikkelsen are positively electric as the co leads, and their apprehensive chemistry ground the screenplay in reality. The black isolation of the night ferry, surrounded by miles of emptiness, becomes an idyllic setting for the duo’s chance encounter, further thickening the mysterious air that guides their one-night companionship. With a title that adeptly describes both the location and the final reveal, Void is a fantastic little picture that packs a far greater punch than the sub-20 minute run time suggests.

The last award, for Best British Short Film, was given to a feature that had its North American debut last year at The Toronto International Film Festival. Boogaloo and Graham is set in war-torn 1970’s Ireland, yet none of the external bloodshed ever makes it into the film. Instead, Michael Lennox’s production centers on a kind-hearted father’s gift to his sons — twin chickens from which the short finds a name. Encircled by such ugliness and terror, Malachy (Aaron Lynch) and Jamsey (Riley Hamilton) remain pure through a singular devotion to their pets. Uplifting and funny, Boogaloo and Graham tells a story from the silent side of “The Troubles” and would make a perfect, albeit uneven, companion piece to 2014’s ’71.

The final surprise screening was a perfect bookend for the night. The winner of the 2013 Three Minute Script competition (and also a Crystal Bear), A Confession by Petros Silvestros and Andrea Allen is every bit as powerful as the previous winner and marks an uptick in Silvestros’s skills as a director. Clocking in at just under 10 minutes, the film cannot afford to waste time drawing its audience in. A simple set up, shot with a great complexity of angles, arouses attention without undue grandiosity or the possibility of disorientation. The script is brief but strong, and co-stars Thomas Finnegan and Del Henney are at once who they were written to be. The built in nervousness of Finnegan’s Michael unburdens the filmmakers insofar as the artificial creation of tension, and all remains quietly insecure.

A small, young showcase, The UK Film Festival tips its cap to a vastly under appreciated cinematic art form. With its diverse range of attendees and entries, as well as the festival’s strong showing at the 64th and 65th Berlinale, The UK Film Festival seems to have a very strong future in the heart of London.

Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.

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