Writer Siavash Minoukadeh breaks down this year's second online edition
This September saw Encounters Short Film Festival return with another packed programme of shorts, animation and VR that we’ve come to expect from the festival. For the second year running though, Encounters left its spiritual home at Bristol’s Watershed and went fully online, with the programme of films and industry events made available to watch from anywhere.
While we’re all hoping that next year’s festival can mark Encounters’ triumphant return to the big screen, going online did have its perks. Being able to ‘attend’ a festival just by jumping onto the sofa and watching the programme on your own TV is certainly a lot more relaxed than a packed cinema, especially, as was the case at Encounters, the online screening platform seemed to work pretty smoothly.
Beyond my own preferences for kicking back at home though, going online gave Encounters another, and rather more substantial, benefit by allowing the festival to embrace going global. When everything’s taking place on a screen, it doesn’t matter if you live a five-minute walk away from the festival or a five-hour flight. Nowhere was this clearer than the filmmaker Q&As, which brought the filmmakers in each strand together to discuss their films and the themes which united them, enabling some really rich, unique cross-cultural conversations to take place. Regardless of where filmmakers were based or if they would have been able to travel to Bristol, they were all given an equal platform to take part. Perspectives from across the world were able to interact virtually and it was fascinating to see how films set in traditional Greek, Sudanese and Thai societies (as in the Rituals strand) actually had a lot more in common than you’d think. While the festival has now ended, these Q&As thankfully remain available on Vimeo and are worth a watch in their own right, even if you’ve not seen the films behind them.
The global reach didn’t mean local talent was overlooked though, and this year’s programme followed its predecessors in spotlighting some of the most exciting emerging filmmakers who are working right here in the UK. The UK Student Award strands were proof, as if any more was needed, of just how much we have to look forward to from the next generation of British filmmakers and animators. The quality of the films was matched by the diversity in genre and styles, from Eva Smyk’s heartwarming, hand-drawn Homebird to Christine Saab’s moving yet analytical In The Space You Left.
The support for emerging filmmakers continued outside of the student categories, with a number of BFI NETWORK-funded films being platformed too. Run is a powerful short from first-time director Ruth Greenberg, tackling a sadly far too timely subject matter as it follows a woman on her run. It serves as a masterclass in how to build suspense: there’s barely a line of dialogue throughout the eleve- minute runtime but Niamh Algar’s performance still manages to pack a heavy emotional punch as the film leads to its dark conclusion.
Sophie Mair and Dan Gitsham also brought the suspense with The Thing That Ate The Birds, which blended rural horror with marital tensions, making for wonderfully unsettling watching. As the two plots weave closer and closer together, the dread ramps up, with what we don’t see being as impactful as what we do.
Not everything in the programme was quite as dark and there were numerous bursts of joy to be found in the animation programme. Encounters wouldn’t be Encounters without animation, and there was plenty to check out, featuring almost every technique and style imaginable. A personal highlight was Knot, a charming debut from Marie Lechevallier which built a stop-motion love story through a playful dance between two figures. Its string soundtrack and pops of vibrant colour added a touch of warmth to the programme, making for ideal watching as the weather begins to cool.
Animation played just as large a role in the industry event schedule as it did in the programme, with the festival dedicating a day to supporting emerging animators in conjunction with BFI NETWORK. Alongside speed networking opportunities and an animators’ roundtable, BAFTA-winner Chris Hee also ran a masterclass on how to budget when making an animated short, bringing his extensive experience in producing animation, including Knot.
Away from animation, a lovely aspect of the industry programme was the openness and inclusion of other festivals and exhibitors. A series of roundtables gave attendees an introduction to other UK, North American and European festivals alongside some of the members of the Alliance of British Animation Exhibitors, meaning that filmmakers could not just get a sense of what Encounters is like but what the wider circuit is like, where their work can find its natural home and how to go about submitting it. As with the filmmaker Q&As, these roundtables live on through Vimeo and they make for a valuable introduction to a range of festivals globally.
There was thought given to those who haven’t yet made something to submit to festivals as well, with a number of events dedicated to developing emerging filmmakers’ skills and career opportunities, across both live action and animation. For budding animators, ScreenSkills hosted a discussion with four of the animators included in the programme, who shared their showreels as well as their routes into the industry and how they got to where they are now, while a similar panel was held for the screen industries more generally in conjunction with BFI Film Academy. Despite being online, they were both filled with advice and opportunities that can be taken up on set or in a studio.
Looking back on the whole month of programming, it’s clear that we shouldn’t think of online as being simply lesser than in-person festivals. Yes, going virtual brings drawbacks – the loss of casual networking, to name just one – but it has its own advantages too, from a wider, global audience to watching from the comfort of your own living room and this year’s Encounters has shown their value. Ultimately though, what has made this year, and every year, such a success for Encounters hasn’t been its format but the programme and in that regard, this year was as strong as any other, with an exceptionally diverse and high quality line up. When the programme is as good as this, it almost didn’t matter if we were watching them in-person or at home.