Festival Report: Aesthetica Short Film Festival 2020

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Filmmaker and writer Lauren Vevers reports from ASFF's tenth edition, which this year took place in a new virtual space

13 November 2020

Aesthetica Film Festival, usually based in York, looks very different this year. ASFF 2020 marks 10 years of showcasing cinema with an entirely virtual offering featuring on-demand films, guest programmes and industry events.

It’s been a strange year for filmmakers. Pre-COVID, I completed my debut short as a writer-director, which was funded by BFI NETWORK and Film Hub North. It’s now on its own festival journey but, in light of the pandemic, many festivals have been cancelled or, as is the case with Aesthetica, forced to find a way to exist online.

Aesthetica runs from 3 November to 30 November. Navigating their virtual platform is easy and, although the in-person atmosphere is absent, there’s an appeal to watching films at your own pace and from the comfort of your own home (pyjamas optional). As a virtual festival goer, you’re able to attend as many events as you like  even if the sheer scale of choice can be overwhelming! Ahead of the launch, it was helpful to list the events that would be useful to myself as a filmmaker plus any short and feature films that I wanted to check out.

The first event I attended was a panel discussion about bringing ideas to life, as part of the festival’s Filmmaker Insights strand. It’s good to hear from other artists about embracing imperfection and cultivating a willingness to learn on set. A couple of the filmmakers, Dominique van Olm and Ryushi Lindsay, described their experience of working across disciplines between documentary and fiction, and the debate provided a useful window into each individual’s creative process.

In Inspirational Cinema: A Commissioner’s Guide, Dionne Farell from BBC Film put a spotlight on stories that haven’t been seen on-screen before. I was glad – especially this year – to see diversity and representation addressed throughout the festival. In Sarah Gavron’s spotlighted conversation, which belonged to ASFF’s Masterclass programme, Gavron talked about her directing career and Rocks, her latest film, which received widespread critical acclaim. Rocks is a naturalistic portrait of teenagers growing up in east London, and Gavron and associate director Anu Henriques, describe how the girls involved took ownership of their characters and how the ethos on set came from a place of collaboration where 75% of the crew were womxn. It’s inspiring listening to Henriques articulate the need for positive change, for paths into the industry that allow womxn and people of colour to occupy more senior roles.

Another personal highlight was tuning into Andrea Arnold’s masterclass. Film by film, starting with Wasp, Arnold explained how inspiration strikes. Often a script is teased out from a solitary image she’s created in her mind. For her, writing longer can be challenging, whereas a short film is “like a poem”. She talked for an hour, which flew by, touching on the hurdles she faced starting out as a filmmaker from a working-class background.

What is a film festival without a look to the future? VR for Change: Beyond Entertainment was an informative panel discussion with experts in their field exploring the potential for VR and 360 technology in healthcare, wellbeing and education. They covered a lot of ground, including uses that were beyond my imagination: for example, training clinicians to remotely perform complex tasks. One of the panelists, Sarah Ticho, mentioned Perspective: The Party, as an example of affecting immersive cinema.

And finally – the films! Aesthetica contains 6 strands, and with so much to see I’m still making my way through them (another advantage of the festival running online and for longer). So far, I’d recommend 2 stand-out shorts which happen to be about motherhood. Morning Song by Bijan Sheibani is a sensitive look at postpartum psychosis told through uncompromising, stark imagery. Scrum by Kate Graham is about a single mother who struggles to come to terms with her daughter’s love of rugby. Beautifully shot, and set in the North of England, this one is close to my heart!

For early career filmmakers like myself, Aesthetica is an enriching insight into the possibilities of making socially and politically engaged work that provokes and surprises. As much as I’d like to be sat in a cosy pub in York surrounded by fellow film fans, the move online has increased accessibility for attendees and transgressed international boundaries to bring filmmakers from all over the world together. After a bleak year, it demonstrates the power of adapting to our circumstances and provides a glimmer of hope in the darkness.