We reflect upon the recent Short Sighted Cinema’s Shortest Nights festival…
If you’re free all day on a Sunday and you don’t suffer from a bad back, then there’s hardly any better way you could spend the day than attending one of Short Sighted Cinema’s The Shortest Nights programmes; if you’re not free all day or you do suffer from a bad back then you’re still strongly, strongly urged to attend just one segment of it, which will take about an hour of your time. The way the day is arranged, there are six sub-programmes, each one loosely themed, which together take up pretty much an entire day, including breaks in between for food, drinks, toilet breaks and cigarettes. So, if you don’t fancy the modest 30-odd quid that a day pass costs or you have other reasons not to attend the whole thing then it’s easier to pick out the one thematic sub-programme which most appeals to you. The six categories were: Without Borders (a mostly international programme dealing with cultural identity); Truth & Bollocks (a mostly comedic programme whose films all broadly tackled the subject of truth); This Is Urban (a mostly realist programme on urban life); No Fairytales Here (a mostly bleak programme of coming-of-age stories); Still Human (a mostly sci-fi programme); and Dark & Twisted (a mostly horror programme).
Arriving in the slightly difficult-to-find Yard Theatre, a modest and shabbily charming venue tucked away in a converted industrial backlot in Hackney Wick, I had just enough time to grab a Red Stripe at the acceptably-priced bar before settling in for the first programme of films, Without Borders, which opened with “Najmia”, a brave and difficult-to-watch film depicting the reality of life as a pregnant Yemeni child bride, carried by two strong performances and a sympathetic directorial eye that never becomes overbearing. Next up was “Incognito”, a dark yet oddly breezy number in which two mysterious men meet in a café in Buenos Aires in the 1960s. “Incognito” plays their identities as a twist which I won’t spoil here and yet it was, at least to me, too obvious what was going on for that structure to serve the material. “Marianne” sees an ailing white British woman taken by her Nigerian boyfriend to a tiny Pentecostal church and, shot on digital video, offers little even for those who can get past the grainy visuals and sound, besides two cromulent performances. “Little Elephant”, a short animation with voiceover, talks about maternity, paternity, and lesbianism, but ends up feeling more like a HSBC advert than anything else. “Maya”, the longest and best film of the first sub-programme, picks things up significantly, as a boy, his friend, and his sister find themselves homeless on the streets and countryside of Kathmandu. The picture is sweet, beautiful, funny in the right places, at times cruel, and possessed of a sense of truth about life as well as offering some cinematography which is too appealing to turn down. “Shoshannah’s Skateboard”, the lightest of the set, closes out the programme with a tale of a young Orthodox Jew in America who decides to become a YouTube skateboarding sensation.
“Shoshannah’s Skateboard” aside, Without Borders was bleakly optimistic at the best of times; Truth & Bollocks is well-selected as the next sub-programme in order to leaven things before audiences are plunged into the grime of This Is Urban and No Fairytales Here. Its first film is “The Pool Cleaner”, a neat little comedy of mutual attraction between an awkward pool cleaner and the even more awkward holidayer on whom he has his eye. Both parties are spoken to by their libidos, materialised as people, annoying, nagging, little people. The film raised big laughs even with the handicap of dodgy sound mixing rendering perhaps 50% of the dialogue unclear. “Rest Stop”s laughs are slightly more predictable, coming at the expense of a Canadian backpacker in Europe, of the vacuous type that only exists in fiction in order to be mocked; still, its performances were strong, its laughs solid, and its ending cleverly played. “Just Desserts” is sharper with its observational humour, capturing the type of awful middle-aged people who crack filthy jokes and cackle in restaurants very well without going too hard into stereotype territory. With some capable performances by some frequently typecast television stars, it has no problem making the best of its prickly script. “While You Were Away” is odder, with Richard Herring as a mopey husband informing his overbearing wife (Rachel Stubbings) that, in her absence, he has cut off his penis. “Who’s in CHARGE?” is barely noticeable due to its thrirty-second length, but it plays like an enjoyable TV advertisement. Next is “Mr Madila or The Colour of Nothing”, in animated documentary style. Playing some clever-clever games with reality and representation, it succeeds within its own runtime, but leaves little lasting impression. Finally, the longest short, “The Immaculate Misconception”, begins. Due to its longer runtime, it is the only short of this sub-programme which feels like a film rather than a sketch, telling a fully-realised story about a Belfast teenager who experiences a virgin pregnancy, and the official reaction of the Vatican. It doesn’t particularly go for the obvious laughs, preferring to tell a carefully-realised and human story which (I imagine) holds up to repeat viewings.
This Is Urban opens with its most “urban” story, a tale of two brothers, Huey & Louis, running an Afrocentric shop in Brixton. When Huey, the more radge of the pair, hangs a sign that reads “Black’s Only”, including greengrocer’s apostrophe, it drives a wedge between Huey and his more liberal brother Louis. The film does a splendid job of exploring themes of racial identity, the limits of multiculturalism, and the rôle of family in just ten minutes while never becoming overbearing and always retaining its good humour. “War” goes further into humourous territory, with visual puns, a twist that subverts audience expectations, and a cameo by entrepreneur and singer Levi Roots. “Seven Days a Week”, a documentary, follows the dreary routine of the owner of a newspaper stand, and in just ten minutes manages to capture the tedium of 36 years of unvarying drudgery. “Tomoko”, based on a bizarre true story, sees a homeless woman live secretly in the apartment of a Tokyo businessman, their daily routines often intersecting but never crossing. It also stands out as the only short of the sub-programme not to be set in London, an oddity that only calls to attention how impressively consistent most of the rest of the programming is. We’re back in London for “Platform 1” which, like “Seven Days a Week”, documents routine without saying much about it other than that it is dull, to perform, to talk about, and to watch. Next is “Dog Days”, a nicely-played yet slightly clichéd story in which two Londoners from different backgrounds make an unexpected connection. The sub-programme closes with “Shopping”, in which an unfortunate young nervous man in a Soho sex shop can’t simply purchase his filth without enduring a long and tedious lecture from the owner on life, the universe and everything.
No Fairytales Here continues the urban theme, but moves its stories out from London to the rest of the United Kingdom, its focus inward to children having a rough time learning that life is rough, and its tone several notches down the darkness scale. “A Girl and her Gun” skips the urban realism, taking its cues instead from Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, and Shane Meadows’ Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, as a young girl obsessively watches the Lee Van Cleef vehicle God’s Gun, finds her father’s revolver after his death, and takes it upon herself to carry out an inevitable yet nonetheless shocking form of retributive justice on her tormentors at school. “Killing Thyme” is only slightly lighter, as a young boy hangs around the allotment of a grumpy bastard of an old man played by Brian Cox, and wrestles with the moral issues surrounding euthanasia as the old man repeatedly insists he has nothing to look forward to but death. “The Truants”, easily the darkest short of the entire programme, including all of Dark & Twisted, sees two boys skip school in order to torment a mentally retarded man instead. Doghouse is more light-hearted and could even have ended up in the Truth & Bollocks subcategory instead, an animation in which a bickering couple, seen from their young son’s perspective, literally switch places with their dogs; the father is “in the doghouse” indeed. Offside is notable mostly for an outstanding performance by the young actress at its core, a pubescent girl no longer allowed to play football with the lads. Despite its too-abrupt ending, it offers a mostly satisfying account of dissatisfaction and gender rôles in the grim North.
Still Human is a slightly more uncertain bit of programming than the others presented here. Every short is science-fiction, if the term is stretched to the broadest possible interpretation, and even then “Circles” doesn’t fit. Both it and its superior successor, Dark & Twisted, feel like the FrightFest short film programmes; indeed, “dark_net” was shown at 2015’s festival. Still Human kicks off with a weird little piece of satire, “The Problemless Anonymous”, set in a dystopia in which perfection is illegal; it seems to be kicking against the “Love your imperfections” platitudes of advertising, and its tone, theme, and climactic act of shocking violence all seem to be lifted from last year’s The Lobster. “Circles” borrows instead from the works of Edgar Wright, but with a significantly darker slant that could have come from Ben Wheatley or somewhere. “Night Land” sees a couple driving through a mysterious darkened portion of the English countryside. It’s one of the few shorts that goes for straightforward horror, something difficult to achieve in a short film, but is mostly successful with some memorably created shadow monsters. “Interlude” is as brief as its title suggests, but impressive, having been created for a 48-hour film challenge. “HOLD (me)” is a postapocalyptic piece with an unexpected ending, while “Second Skin” the longest short of the sub-programme, follows a girl perceived to be so ugly that she spends her entire life in a cardboard box, until she meets a sympathetic young man in the course of her travels.
Dark & Twisted kicked off with “Under the Bed”, a not-particularly-effective short based on a very effective, though timeworn, ghost tale. “Mosquito” is a bit of an oddity, a body-swap comedy that could easily have fit in Truth & Bollocks, especially as it reprises stars Richard Herring and Rachel Stubbings from “While You Were Away”. “ManOMan”, one of two shorts I happened to have seen previously (in this case, as part of another SSC programme), is even better at second look than I first realised. “dark_net”, a dark comedy in which Johnny Vegas hires a hitman, holds up well. “Bad Acid”, receiving its UK premiere, was the centrepiece of the Dark & Twisted sub-programme, a promising film in which a failing stage hypnotist messes around with an old-school genie (ie. a djinn, basically a demon). “Kissy Lips Man” is a short, very effective dose of surreal horror. “The Drunk”, effectively a silent comedy, gets a lot of mileage out of a great physical performance from its star and writer Seann Walsh, though it doesn’t even slightly fit the Dark & Twisted theme. Lastly, “The Prey” was a slightly predictable but nevertheless well-executed tale of vampirism.
I was informed by one of the curators – I couldn’t be bothered counting myself – that thirty-nine shorts in total were shown. It’s a daunting amount, and spending an entire day watching films may sound unappealing to some, but there is something very special about that festival atmosphere that cannot be replicated, and for those who choose to attend, it is guaranteed that the films, as well as the event itself, will stay with them – well worth the price of admission, which is all reinvested into short film in any case. The next Shortest Nights event comes strongly recommended.
Did you attend The Shortest Nights? Let us know in the comment box below if you did and whether you’ll be looking forward to the next one!