BFI NETWORK at Aesthetica Short Film Festival 2019

Writer Andrew Young reports back from one of the most prolific short form events of the year

22 November 2019

With the dust having now settled on the global film industry’s nominal ‘festival season’ that takes in the likes of Venice and Toronto, it would be a good time to turn our attentions to the local, filmmaker-driven festivals taking place around the UK that often get ignored. A highlight in the British festival calendar, is the York-based Aesthetica Short Film Festival. Now in its ninth year, Aesthetica is run by the arts magazine of the same name and focuses its attentions on the shortest form of cinema. It screens over 400 short films in categories ranging from Drama and Comedy to the boundary-pushing Dance, Advertising and Fashion.

Whilst impressive, the shorts playing at Aesthetica seem to be the secondary attraction. Rather it is the array of networking, masterclasses and drinks receptions that catch the eye, providing the emerging filmmaker with a vital opportunity to educate themselves and discover help, with topics ranging from moving the industry away from London to understanding the impact of new technologies on the cinema. For them Aesthetica has an appealing balance between practical advice panels and less dry-sounding talks with notable figures. This is a festival that aims to advise and inspire in equal measure, this year highlighted by the chance to hop from discovering the delights of stop-motion with Aardman to the networking heaven of an Industry Marketplace hosting organisations from across the industry.

Aesthetica’s masterclasses are to be highly recommended, giving invaluable insights into both the technical detail of filmmaking and the wider issues facing it today, such as a ‘diversity panel’ that spends much of its time questioning the very idea of a diversity panel. With questions allowed at the end, the masterclasses are most useful not in the talks they specifically offer, but the people they offer. The opportunity to ask individual questions at the end of a session results in the panellists’ expert knowledge leading off in all directions, recommending countless projects and companies that can help a filmmaker with their individual problems.  

The industry experts at Aesthetica are a fantastic resource and are present at the festival’s numerous formal and informal networking opportunities. From topic-based organised sessions to having a relaxed drink surrounded by other ‘film people’, they all offer the chance to make the all-important connections that could make your dream project a reality. In addition to the chance to amass a thick pile of notes and contact details, ASFF even hosts individual pitching sessions for creatives. Available through application, these events give filmmakers a one-to-one audience with representatives from the likes of Film4, BBC and Baby Cow in an attempt to secure funding and support for their projects.

It is pleasing to find at Aesthetica that these industry experts are coming from various places across the country, not all making the trek up north from London. With Channel 4 moving to Leeds and internationally renowned festivals such as the Sheffield DocFest taking place outside the capital, the film and television worlds seem to finally be taking a less London-centric approach. For many years the capital has been the place to be for a budding filmmaker, but Aesthetica is taking an active part in anticipating and supporting a more equal future for British cinema. Representatives from the likes of BFI NETWORK and FilmHub North appeared on panel discussions and, at the Industry Marketplace, many of the stands were occupied by regional companies offering support for each stage of the creation process, from film schools and funding to post-production and festivals.

A big focus on northern filmmaking feels appropriate for this York-held event. Having lived in the city for several years, it comes as no surprise to me what a wonderful home it makes for Aesthetica. York is something of a Tardis, with its relatively small area housing plenty of hidden and intimate venues; one highlight is the delightful 20-armchair attic cinema at restaurant-bar 1331. Being so small, York is easy to get around with no one venue more than walking distance from any other, and none without a pub or coffee house en route. Few cinemas are within the historic city walls, but ASFF organisers utilise museums, theatres and universities, helping to add to the festival’s collaborative feel; for five days York is taken over by Aesthetica and welcomes it warmly.

It is clear already that within this historic city something decidedly more modern was going on. With Aesthetica’s work to help the future custodians of the cinema, the technological future of film, too, was an ASFF priority. The festival’s biggest and boldest talking point in 2019 was VR: two letters that could change cinema forever. Dedicating a chunk of the programme to showcasing and interrogating this new form of entertainment, Aesthetica is a festival that takes the technology seriously – and so it should. The many panel discussions in York offer a good start to understanding virtual reality and make it clear why any aspiring filmmaker should have at least a passing understanding of the new form and the impact it will have on creating and releasing their work. The individual exhibits are fascinating, highlighting the artistic merit of the form and, with the technology rapidly improving and access growing, the impending opportunity for independent filmmakers to experiment with VR and move into brave new worlds.

Everything in the programme points to what can best be described as a collaborative edge to Aesthetica. Having attended the London Film Festival just a month prior to ASFF, it is easy to identify the different feel that Aesthetica has as an event. Where a big international feature festival such as LFF is very much something you attend, the much smaller Aesthetica is something you participate in. The audience is largely made up of filmmakers themselves, whilst a speaker in one panel discussion could be sat next to you observing another. It is a mass meeting of talent from across the film industry, with each person bringing their own perspective, skills and knowledge to the table.

Whatever direction modern cinema is heading in, one thing is clear: there is a wealth of creative talent in Britain and beyond that is waiting to be harnessed. Aesthetica Short Film Festival is helping with that, having its sights firmly set on the future of film: how we consume it, how we make it, and who makes it. With its extensive screenings, panels, guests and networking opportunities, it presents these creators with the opportunity to equip themselves with the information and connections they need to be at the forefront of our filmmaking future.