EIFF 2009: The Short of It

Keir Roper-Caldbeck takes a look at EIFF's short film programme for 2009.

Article by Keir Roper-Caldbeck | 15 Jun 2009

Browsing YouTube the other day, I watched The Big Shave, Martin Scorsese’s extraordinary student film from 1967. The film’s blend of complex cutting, popular song and unsettling gore announced the arrival of a major new cinematic force and reflected in an all too literal way the self-lacerating culture of late 1960s America, torn apart by the Vietnam war. And it did all this in six minutes.

The short film has long been a calling card for new talent, and the excitement of a shorts programme as extensive as that at the Edinburgh International Film Festival is the chance to witness the arrival of a filmmaker who will turn our idea of cinema on its head. Of course, we will have to keep our eyes wide open or we might miss it. Would I have recognised the significance of The Big Shave in 1967? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Improving the odds, a number of films arrive in Edinburgh trailing plaudits. Jade, directed by Daniel Elliott won the Silver Bear for Best Short at the Berlinale last February, whilst Short Term 12, a film about a group of social workers in a residential facility for young people was awarded the 2009 Jury Prize in U.S. Short Filmmaking at Sundance For those with a commitment to discovering British talent in its rawest form there are a number of programmes. The UK Film Council’s New Cinema Fund’s Completion Fund Shorts wins my award for the most wonderfully bureaucratic programme title but is sure to present the work of tenacious filmmakers determined to realise their vision. The more snappily named Cinema Extreme offers films commissioned for their distinctive directorial vision and cinematic flair. Closer to home, the GMAC shorts are a chance to see the work of some of Scotland’s newest filmmakers.

Yet the Shorts strand of the EIFF is not just a cinematic equivalent to Britain’s Got Talent. In a period of retrenchment for Hollywood, a single session can offer a diversity of subject, storytelling and location that you would not encounter in a year of regular cinema going. The three international programmes offer a bewildering array of films, whilst the shorts screened in the Under the Radar section of the festival promise to stretch the definition of “off beat” to breaking point, including as they do Horsefinger 3 Starf*cker which features a girl who wears horse hooves for hands.

Short of time and money, the short filmmaker must be ceaselessly inventive, finding new (and cheap) ways to seize our attention. In The Stars Don't Twinkle in Outer Space director Peter Thwaites uses black & white images and creaky sets to appeal to the innocent days of 1950s sci-fi, but then introduces a twist which undercuts all that went before. It is these formal and narrative pyrotechnics that make short films so rewarding. For more literal pyrotechnics you could do worse than catching Spike Jonze’s Heaven. It may seem perverse to go to the cinema to watch something you can see on YouTube but this video’s glowing cinematography and apocalyptic effects ache to be seen on the big screen. Its inclusion in the Festival also acknowledges the fertile crossover between short films, music videos and the internet. In these cash-starved, attention deficient, multi-platform times the short film, made on a shoestring, adaptable and innovative, and never overstaying its welcome, looks to have a rosy future.

Edinburgh International Film Festival runs from the 17-28 June 2009.