Societal expectations and classification have always found their boundaries and conventions to be broken, manipulated and redefined within filmmaking. The abstract has a home within the creative arts, which is a theme that the Oscillations strand at London Short Film Festival wholly encompasses. Within four selected short films from the United States, Canada and Portugal, the filmmakers explore sociopolitical issues and sexual vibrations, along with the concepts of freedom and commodification. They highlight the juxtapositions their characters find themselves in emotionally and socially, and also the importance of the auteur. Spanning from Wikipedia articles to European pornography, to the black femme presence in Harlem to politicised medicine, Tom Grimshaw has collated an exceptional programme that celebrates the abstract in all its obscurity.
Commencing the series is a playful analogue piece by Nazli Dinçel titled Instructions on How to Make a Film, a short that uses narrative instructions from wikiHow texts on block letters that blend the techniques of farming to that of filmmaking. Stemming from the initial fertilizations of nature and the birth of ideas, step by step the viewer is taken through the process in a documentary format. This informative style feels almost mocking of the educational videos shown to American children in the 1960s that were politically approved messages about what society expects of them. But in contrast, Instructions on How to Make a Film literally depicts a urination on these conventional standards. It is highly experimental and sexualised, hinging on the liberties of the arts and the pleasuring release of creative endeavours. Shot in black and white, with a grained filter and heightened contrast, the instructions are accompanied by metaphorical messages about growth and breaking free of conventional expectations. While humorous in tone, the short’s most intriguing aspect is how it looks at ethnographic ethics through performance, most notably the “correct way” to manage film while a blowjob is commencing in a grassy farm landscape. It’s completely distracting of the narration viewers are supposed to be following, and perfectly depicts the disruption of film around conventional practices and how this contrast actually causes one to question their own behaviour.
The Bite is notably the most cinematic of the films, explicitly focusing on details in each scene — the expressions of the characters and the deliberation of their actions. The film looks at the juxtapositions faced between labourites and nature, the impact of biopolitics and human intervention. Pedro Neves Marques’ short is based in Sao Paulo, Brazil in a research centre of mosquitos, where scientists discuss the impact of the Zika virus and the need for a modified insect to be released that will sterilise the infected population. This then becomes blended with the relationship of a man, woman and transgender woman living out in Brazil during the epidemic under the political conservatism of their current president. The discussions are heavily weighted in the rejection of homosexuality within Brazil, and losing the rights of autonomy. The protagonist’s gender non-conformity feels accepted within their own home, but is obstructed by the contrasting dialogue of how the scientists intend to control species reproduction chemically. It is an exceptionally important narrative on how reactionary politics have an impact on societal progression and liberation, how humanity is evolving beyond traditional binary conventions. The hazy colour pallet of the Brazilian jungles, with the people living under nets in their natural habitat, is aesthetically liberating as the shots pan to the mosquito containment and handling of the infected bugs. This boldly explores the power of visual inferences in a society saturated by text-heavy news feeds — an urgent reminder of the real impact of political oppression over bodily autonomy.
Cinematic juxtapositions are explored further within La Pute Arabe, directed by Drew Lint, which explores traditional and contemporary portrayals of masculinity, sexualisation and the impact of gay pornography in Paris. Writer Ashkan Sepahvand explores his own relations within France and the stereotypes associated with his Persian-American heritage. The capturing of urban sexualisation around Europe is not a new phenomenon, evidenced by citebeur pornography visible in the darkened corners of the subways and grainy images of walls coated in nude skin graffiti. This documented footage invites the viewer into the scene; a judgmental space of the sexual gaze. During the period of late 20th century footage, La Pute Arabe delves into the constructed image of Arabian men as hyper-sexualised individuals possessing traditional masculine characteristics, in a time when more effeminate male aesthetics of Parisian men were emerging. In addition, the short presents the differentiation of class perceptions around sex — natural and beautifying for those in the middle-class, but seen as more brutish and daring for others. Arguably, this demonstrates a reversal in a way, given the negative stemming from boys who feel the need to hide away to be “respected,” and those who find comfort in sexuality. This is not to suggest that there’s an entirely negative vibe from La Pute Arabe in terms of fearful male tropes within the LGBTQ+ scene, as there’s an open liberation that’s depicted and celebrated (which is also prominent within Dincel’s film). Yet what still underpins the short is the presentation of fear and otherness, as Arabian men try to find expression in their sexuality with politicised media still portraying them as terrorists and tagging on connotations of violence and fear.
One of the most prominent explorations in the Oscillations strand is that of personal autonomy within Ja’Tovia Gary’s The Giverny Document [Single Channel], a documentary about the level of safety black women feel while living in Harlem, New York. The younger generation feels more exposed and afraid, whereas the majority of elder women interviewed have stronger, more assertive confidence in their safety. These shots are contrasted with cuts to Nina Simone performing, which is gut-wrenchingly beautiful, achingly honest and exudes her inner assertiveness and thoughtful intentions. Simone’s open self-expression and fluid movement when playing is wholly encompassing and liberating. This exploration of Black Femme performance is a celebration of female empowerment, artistic expression and unique style, which captures not just joy but also sorrow and pain. The celluloid then cuts to a brutal juxtaposition with phone footage of police brutality and car shootings; the lives of innocent black men and women being stolen away with no legal grounds or justification. Crucially, The Giverny Document [Single Channel] is told from the heart of those experiencing racism directly.
LSFF’s Oscillations strand is one of the more immersive parts of the festival, with each film exploring social norms, bodily autonomy and the intersections of life. These masterful compositions explore human characteristics at their most harsh and vulnerable, drawing out laughter, pain, fear and anger. It brings about the discussion of how much we conform to conventions and perform for others; an entire diversion away from our true nature and desires. The Bite and Instructions on How to Make a Film tell explanatory stories about acceptance, while La Pute Arabe and The Giverny Document [Single Channel] inform and educate about sociopolitical boundaries.
Elle Haywood (@ellekhaywood) is a freelance film/culture writer, festival juror and submissions reviewer. She is currently an Associate Editor at Take One and studying a Masters at the National Film & Television School. Her work specialises in international festivals focusing on Scandinavia and Western Europe, sociopolitical events and independent filmmaking.