Ellie Rogers visits the festival that's championing short form content and the filmmakers behind it
It’s that time of year again. Award nominations are coming in and we all let out a resounding groan on Twitter at the lack of inclusivity and representation displayed. But a beacon of hope for emerging filmmakers appears in January with London Short Film Festival. Now in its 17th year, it’s helped promote and nurture some of today’s most influential UK filmmakers, showcasing the full range of the short form, from experimental to music video and even, this year, ASMR. It holds a special place in my heart as the first festival to select one of my films, and it’s a delight to be back this year with one in competition. So here are some of my personal highlights from LSFF 2020.
First up is UK Competition: A Little Tenderness, which included three of this year’s BAFTA-nominated shorts. Dealing with themes of family relationships, loss of innocence and the impact of violence, this was one of the strongest shorts programmes I've seen in a long time. But the film that really stood out to me was Hydebank directed by Ross McClean, a delicately observed documentary portrait of a prisoner’s rehabilitation, dutifully tending to a flock of sheep who live inside the prison walls. It’s elegantly paced with stunning cinematography, and at no point does it feel invasive or sensationalistic. It deservedly went on to win LSFF’s Best Documentary award on Saturday night.
This Is A Public Service Announcement: The Birds and the Bees brought together a series of educational films from the 1940s to the 80s, exploring topics like sex, menstruation and how to be popular. It’s an incredible snapshot in time of how adults and institutions over the years have tried to prepare and inform young minds about sexuality and relationships. The tone of these films is what makes them hilarious. Some highlights include As Boys Grow (1957), in which a knowledgeable sports coach discusses sex education with his students, while randomly carrying diagrams of women’s reproductive organs under his arm, occasionally commenting on his students’ physiques: “That Mike, he’s sure filling out!” Another corker is Sudden Birth (1966), a police instructional film in which an officer delivers a baby in the back seat of a car. While the scene is staged, the birth itself is very real — and yes, you see everything! However, despite its intention to strive for realism the sound of the mother’s strained pushing has been entirely edited out. Instead they add eerie music and dub in her voice intermittently saying, “Thank you officer.”
But the officer doesn’t even ask for the woman’s name until the end, and even then it’s only for his report! I left the screening wondering how comfortable the poor mother really was.
This brings me neatly onto LSFF’s afternoon dedicated to the topic of on-screen intimacy within their industry programme. Imprints: Documenting Sex and Sexuality focused on three filmmakers’ work and practice. In conversation were Sophie Koko Gate, an animator whose bizarre and sensual short film Slug Life I was lucky enough to see last year; Grant Gulczynski, who discussed his delicate process of finding subjects through dating apps for his documentary Five Mermaids in the Balkans; and Flo Van Deuren who talked about safeguarding child actors when making her film Bamboe, which represents blooming sexuality through dance. I came away with such admiration for these filmmakers. They spoke openly about film as a vessel to examine your own relationship with sex, about exploring your fantasies and learning new truths about yourself through the work you make. It was a joy to hear from a group of emerging filmmakers who want to explore sexuality in a more inclusive, diverse and poetic way, but are also hyper vigilant of the welfare of their actors and collaborators. This programme stood in stark contrast to the predominantly white, heteronormative viewpoints of The Birds and the Bees. At a time when we still feel we have a long way to go, it’s good to be reminded of how far we’ve come.
As with all great festivals, when you get to the closing night and are able to chat to other filmmakers about what they’ve seen during the week, you wish you could go back and see more. But what’s apparent is LSFF’s ability to curate a festival that has something for everyone and truly wants to celebrate the changing landscape of the industry and champion the next generation of filmmakers. Thanks LSFF, here’s to ushering in the new!