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TFF 2015: Short Film Program Review – The Little Engines That Did


Film festivals are for everyone. Whether it’s the Tribeca Film Festival, BFI London Film Festival or even Raindance, festivals are exciting events for the community and are designed to bring you and other lovers of cinema together to experience extraordinary stories that ordinarily may never be seen in the mainstream.

In particular, the sometimes-overlooked Short Film program is one experience audiences should make sure to acquaint themselves with and not miss out on. Not only is it an opportunity for you to be one of the first people to discover incredible work from perhaps a top filmmaker of the future but it is also an opportunity to be regaled, beguiled and mesmerised by fulfilling stories told to you in less than a third of feature time. They’re short and sweet – little engines that could – and more often than not, thought provoking in a totally unpredictable way.

The shorts that stood out the most were the ones that took a risk: unique and fascinating form and style choices that totally engaged ones senses, emotions and/or thoughts. Director Aslak Danbolt’s opening sequence for Last Base was one that blew my mind and had my attention right from the opening selfie shot of a base jumper preparing to fly. Shot using a GoPro, the sequence creates an intimacy with the viewer that makes you feel as if you are right there alongside the jumper; standing on the precipice of life and death and praying to god you’ll live to see another day. Once over the precipice, Danbolt has your heart and adrenalin pumping over the beautiful and majestic landscape of Mt Katthammaren in Norway before one quickly realises that a disaster is eminent.

Last Base’s dramatic opening sets the tone for the rest of the film as the deceased’s best friends Joachim (Petter Width Kristiansen) and Øyvind (Kenneth Åkerland Berg) set out for one final jump with his ashes before retiring. Amid an approaching bad storm that could derail their last base jump, the tempo following their friend’s death and their mountain ascent is somewhat slow compared to its opening but feels appropriate given the dangerous nature of the sport and the tension jumpers and their loved ones must feel anticipating a base jump. Danbolt’s use of Stian Thilert’s incredible shots of Mt Katthammaren’s changing landscape from lush greens at its base to barren rock and ice at its peak to tell the story as it shifts from excited anticipation to apprehensive fear is another skilful choice that heightens rather than lessens the experience.

Similarly, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s exposition and style choices for his short film Stop made me sit up and take notice. Shot in a hand-held, home movie style with creative framing angles and incredibly soft lighting, Stop begins in medias res to immediately engage the viewer to the action onscreen as two friends Xavier (Keishawn Butler) and Josh (Joshua Rivera) prepare to leave baseball practice for home. As they part ways at the convenience store, cinematographer Federico Martin Cesca shows some adroit camera work by following Xavier the moment Josh abruptly exits the frame. The movement is fresh and incredibly exciting to watch if you can catch it.

As the journey almost reaches its end, Xavier is stopped and searched by two Police officers who wish to confirm Xavier’s story that he is on his way home from practice. To engage the audience more deeply and to imply drugs could be the cause of the search, Green shakes up the spatial and temporal relations by shortening the shot duration whilst increasing the number of cuts, angles and perspectives in rapid succession. With his livelihood put to the test, the tempo returns to longer takes and fewer cuts as Xavier finally returns home to a life changing decision.

Another short whereby the protagonist risks not only her own livelihood but also that of her young son is Hamy Ramezan and Rungano Nyoni’s Listen. Winner of the Best Narrative Short at this year’s Festival, Listen is an emotional and compelling story about personal strength when faced with cultural isolation, ignorance, and miscommunication.

Inspired by real events, Listen tells the story of an Islamic woman (Zeinab Rahal) in a burqa who brings her young son (Yusuf Kamal El-Ali) with her to the police station to file a complaint about her abusive husband. Told in three perspectives: from the mother abused by her husband and who cannot return home, from the reluctant translator assigned to assist the complainant, and from the Copenhagen police officer who takes down her statement, the scenes are pared down to three medium close up shots to allow the powerful narrative to drive the story.

As each perspective unravels and tensions mount as the police officers’ begin to understand what is actually happening, the mother’s son unwittingly makes a decision that leads the film to a shocking finale.

UK based director Thomas Ikimi’s Nostradamus also uses the power of sharp sensory details like dialogue and sound against simplified visuals to enhance the emotional impact of his grippingly dramatic tale; a tale that – in my opinion – leaves Andrew Niccol’s comparable drone warfare feature Good Kill in the dust. Reminiscent of and inspired by Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train with its fixed points of view shots and open and closed spaces to raise tension and suspense, Ikimi’s Kickstarter-funded short sets itself in a remote diner somewhere in the Mojave Desert.

Shot in true anamorphic widescreen to give it a classic, epic feel to the film, Nostradamus looks at drone technology from the perspective of the kind of person required to be charged with making the decisions on when to ‘push the button’. Newly recruited to a prototype military drone program, Captain Harry Tyler (Austin Nichols) arrives at the diner to await further instructions from a Colonel Groves (Joe Holt) who he is meant to meet. Soon after arriving, Tyler is joined at his table by an attractive woman by the name of Silas (Amy Sloane) who purports to know quite a deal of information about Tyler, his employment, and the due date of his unborn child and wants to know more about the program known as ‘Nostradamus’.

As the unexpected chain of events unravel, Tyler is forced to make a decision between assassinating his designated contact or face the possibility that the nuclear bomb planted at the diner will be detonated and vaporise much of California. An epic feature jam-packed in to 25-minutes, Nostradamus is a fantastic, old school classic thrill ride that’s full of suspense and intrigue.

Whilst there were other equally notable shorts such as Jonathan Dee’s adaption of Patricia Highsmith’s 1940 short story A Mighty Nice Man about a young girl’s encounter with a paedophile, the Festival’s Best Documentary Short Body Team 12 about the inspiring and fearless Liberian Ebola body team led by Garmai Sumo who collected the dead during the height of the outbreak, and Howard McCain’s visual portrait of youth gone awry in A Boy’s Life, not all of the films were dramatically dire.

Director Boman Modine’s Merry Xmas was a Machiavellian delight that brought a touch of comedic relief to the oft times serious fodder in the Family Dynamics Program. Sick of parental abandonment by their children during the holidays, a mischievous father (played by Dick Van Dyke) calls his busy children to tell them that after 55 years of marriage, he and their mother (played by Valerie Harper) are finally getting a divorce. Naturally horrified by the news, the children drop their busy lives and make plans to return home to stop the divorce and save their parent’s marriage. It’s a sharp short with an entertaining ending that I found endearing. It’s also a subtle reminder of the lengths a person would go to in order to make their loved ones happy.

In the same manner, the Be Yourself shorts All American Family and Live Fast, Draw Yung were charming and engaging films with strong familial and societal messages beneath them.

As a teenager with a public access show during high school, filmmaker Andrew Jenks had always wanted to document the ‘deaf’ world after walking passed the New York School for the Deaf each time he went to the movies. For more than a decade, filmmaker Andrew Jenks searched for the right story that would capture the essence of life inside of a deaf school and one that would resonate with and be identifiable to most people. Coming across an article one day about The California School for the Deaf and their success on the football field as one of the best teams in the state – amongst both hearing and deaf teams – the idea for All American Family was born.

A time chronicled and event centred documentary short with a ‘ feel to it, All American Family tells the story of brothers Zane and Jax Pederson: two fourth generation Pederson family football players who are preparing to lead their star football team to another title. The through line may sound familiar but what is unique about the spine is that most of the Pederson family, 30 of their relatives, their classmates and their community are deaf. Offset by charming digressions including a strong maternal figure who cherishes the ‘special gift’ she has bestowed to her son, an elder brother who feels like the odd man out because he is the only sibling who can ‘hear’, and Zane’s humorous admission that he can hear sounds with a hearing aid but that it’s ‘uncool’ to wear one, it’s charm is in how it addresses society’s misconception of a silent world.

I did wonder whether Jenks ever considered screening the short as a silent film to heighten the experience of the Pederson’s world, but on reflection I quickly realised my own faux pas. There is no such thing as a silent world; deaf families are just as boisterous, complicated and involved as any other – they just have a ‘special gift’ to be envied.

Like All American Family, there was something about Live Fast, Draw Yung that was innately appealing. Once described as ‘the foremost illustrator of rap’ by LA Weekly, Yung Lenox is a seven-year old portraitist who specialises in drawings of iconic hip-hop albums. It’s a fascinating insight to modern day parenting and the nurturing of child talent in an unconventional world with profane langue (although that in itself is a misnomer given that rap is bound in part to conformed conventions).

And despite the after school hobby shared between father and son that turned into a lifestyle and successful business for Lenox and his family, Lenox remains nonchalant. With his cool bright green glasses and childish naiveté, chilling with ‘Uncle Raekwon’, Kool Keith, Cam’ron or Action Bronson is nothing compared to his love for art, Lego and Minecraft.

So next time a festival comes around like next months Sheffield and Edinburgh’s Film Festivals, make sure you don’t overlook the shorts program. You’ll be amazed and astounded by their films and the stories they share.



Apart from being the worst and most unfollowed tweeter on Twitter, Sacha loves all things film and music. With a passion for unearthing the hidden gems on the Festival trail from London and New York to her home in the land Down Under, Sacha’s favourite films include One Flew Over The Cuckoo Nest, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Fight Club, Autism in Love and Theeb. You can also make her feel better by following her @TheSachaHall.

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