Aesthetica Short Film Festival: 2018 Round-up

We look back at the eighth edition of Aesthetica Short Film Festival in York. We found several sparkling masterclass sessions with filmmakers like Mark Cousins and Alice Lowe, but the great short films proved more elusive

Article by Jamie Dunn | 23 Nov 2018
  • Cat Days

Aesthetica is huge. Back in York for its eighth installment, the short film festival spreads itself out across the city, making great use of an eclectic array of venues – cinemas, museums, lecture halls and bars, as well as festival hub York Theatre – for an ambitious, overflowing and rather unwieldy line-up of masterclasses, events and screenings.

The Skinny’s first port of call on our inaugural visit to Aesthetica is to sit in on Jason Wood’s masterclass Film Curation: Cinema for the Public. We found Wood, the Artistic Director of Film at Manchester’s multi-arts venue HOME, on blistering form in a talk that told some harsh truths about film curation in the UK while offering some inspiring advice on how to secure its future. Wood’s chief grumble about the state of film curation today is that “most of the independent cinemas in this country have a film programme that’s pretty much interchangeable from the multiplex.” It was a remark that struck a nerve, not least because several members of the audience were programmers guilty of the kind of unambitious programming Wood was lamenting.

The lecture was peppered with clips from films by filmmakers whom Wood has championed over the years, directors like Chris Petit (Radio On), Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), Claire Denis (Beau Travail) and Andrew Kötting (Gallivant). Wood’s point was clear: look outside the pantheon. “Yes there’s Ozu, Tarkovsky, all the great filmmakers, but there are others too,” he said. “They are the ones we need to discover, those are the ones we need to put at the forefront of audiences’ minds.”

One person who’s done that throughout his career is Mark Cousins. The Belfast-born, Edinburgh-based filmmaker and writer was in the audience for Wood’s lecture and delivered his own masterclass a few hours later. Wood was back too as host, taking Cousins on a quixotic journey through his life and career, touching on such eclectic subjects as country icon Tammy Wynette, colour field artist Morris Louis, Cousins’ uncanny resemblance to genius cinematographer Christopher Doyle, his love of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta and seeing Manhattan from the air while listening to Tina Turner sing A Love Like Yours. And from these subjects the conversation would bounce off to discuss Cousins’ films like I Am Belfast, Stockholm My Love and his latest, The Eyes of Orson Welles, which was also screening at Aesthetica.

Wood’s zig-zagging questions took the conversation in fascinating directions. For the filmmakers in the room, perhaps the most interesting avenue was Cousins’ rousing discussion on the importance of confidence for all of us as citizens, but also in our creative endeavours. It’s an attitude he cultivated as a young lad in working-class Belfast. “How dare I make something and put it up on this wonderful, ambiguous, androgynous rectangle here,” said Cousins pointing to the screen in the York St John University lecture theatre. “But anyone can, not only the people in Hollywood and Bollywood and Nollywood, the centres of the film industry, but people in York and Sheffield and Bolton and Bradford and Hull and Belfast and Kirkcaldy; we all own that rectangle as well.”

Similarly inspiring was Aesthetica’s In Conversation event with actor and filmmaker Alice Lowe. The Q&A could have been smoother; interviewer Dan Weldon asked some terribly patronising questions and had a habit of cutting Lowe off just as she was getting to the jucy parts of her answers. But when Lowe was allowed to hit her stride her chat was electric and hilarious.

Her sharpest commentary was saved for discussing the prejudices and casual misogyny of the film industry. She called out the producers and financiers who refused to believe in her vision. “I didn’t get anything made for a long time,” Lowe says, “ and I felt that people were pigeonholing me as an actress that wanted to do a vanity project. They didn’t want to see that I’ve got a director’s eye, I can see visually, I understand sound and music and editing, and I think that is something that I still have to drill into people’s heads, even now, in financing meetings.”

She recalled how throughout her career she’s witnessed first hand her male co-stars and collaborators be handed advantages that haven’t been made available to her: “What I find a lot is that I’ve been involved in something that’s been successful, and then I’ve watched all the men that I’ve worked on that project with just immediately be propelled to being very successful, and I’ve been left behind and not known why.” As an example, Lowe cites the response to Sightseers, the gory black comedy she co-wrote with Steve Oram, that was directed by Ben Wheatley. “Ben got a lot out of that, while I was out of work for two years, to be honest. I was like, ‘Hi, I co-wrote that, by the way’. So if you have male collaborators people will quite happily give a lot of the kudos to them.”

With Prevenge, her delicious black comedy about a mother-to-be murdering people at the request of her fetus, Lowe wasn’t about to make the same mistake. “I’d got to the point where I felt, if I collaborate with any men on this, everyone will think it’s them who’s done this and I was just a passenger, so I’m going to do it all myself.” So despite being seven-and-a-half months pregnant, Lowe was determined to both star in and direct the film. “No one would be able to say someone else did this,” she says. “So it’s taken writing, directing and starring in a film while I’m pregnant for things to finally happen for me.”

Lowe, Cousins and Wood were joined by other stellar guests speakers at Aesthetica like dark comedy genius Chris Shepherd, who gave a lecture on finding your voice as a filmmaker, while beloved British animation house Aardman (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run) discussed their distinct stop-motion style and instantly recognisable characters. While the masterclasses on offer were eye-catching, choosing what to see from the main competition proved tricky. At our count, there was an overwhelming 57 programmes on Aesthetica’s main short film slate, split into 11 genres: Advertising, Animation, Artists’ Film, Comedy, Dance, Documentary, Drama, Experimental, Fashion, Music Video and Thriller. With only three days at the festival, we barely managed to scratch the surface.

There’s certainly a feeling that the programmers have opted for quantity over quality, particularly in the whopping 14 Drama programmes. Of the three Drama line-ups we made it to, there were few films of note. Production values were high, the filmmaking was competent and some even featured bona fide movie stars, but there was little invention on display and a bit too much American indie quirkiness for our liking.

To quote Cousins, the best films we saw at Aesthetica dared to put something original and personal up on this wonderful, ambiguous, androgynous rectangle we call the cinema screen. A work from the Drama section that did exactly that was evocative Croatian film Cherries, from Dubravka Turic. One of the longest short films at Aesthetica at 29 minutes, it’s told from the limited point-of-view of Jakov (Roko Glavina), a football-mad ten-year-old whose idyllic summer is interrupted when his older brother is shipped off to live with relatives in the city. Turic deftly keeps the audience two steps ahead of her film’s protagonist, letting us in on what’s causing the tensions within his brood while keeping Jakov in the dark, which makes it all the more moving as we watch him come to terms with the turmoil going on within his family.

Happier short film hunting was to be had in the Comedy, Thriller and Documentary selections. We enjoyed the quietly absurd Mexican comedy Mamartuile, in which the demob-happy President of Mexico has his final days in office interrupted when a co-op of North African countries join under a banner that looks uncannily similar to his own proud nation's flag. A canny bit of programming saw Mamartuile screen with another ace political satire, Heads or Tails. This Quebecois gem was concerned with the smaller-scale, but no-less grubby level of politics when an election doesn’t go as planned for the petty incumbent mayor of a rural town.

From the Thriller section we were knocked out by the simplicity of Fran Casanova’s Something in the Dark, in which a six-year-old girl (and we, the audience) gets scared silly by what she imagines to be going bump in the dark of her apartment one night after her parents have gone out for the evening. Using the hoariest tricks in the horror filmmaker’s toolkit – slow zooms, quick cuts and empathetic close-ups of the terrified protagonist – Casanova shows a real flair for the genre, and we’d love to see what feature-length horror films he’s capable of in the future.

A worthy winner of Aesthetica’s Best of the Fest prize, as well as winner of Best Documentary, was Ed Perkins’ dazzling, deeply cinematic doc Black Sheep. It tells the story of how Cornelius Walker, a black teen with a good head on his shoulders, and his family ended up moving out of their home in Peckham after the murder of ten-year-old schoolboy Damilola Taylor in 2000. Walker’s mother feared for her son’s life in the scary big city, but life in the small Essex town they moved to proved no less troubling when the teen found himself forced to befriend a group of racists to survive in his all-white neighbourhood. Cutting between Walker retelling his experience to camera, and dreamy reenactments starring non-professional actors filmed in the same Essex neighbourhood were the events took place, the film has a startling directness and eerie power.

You wouldn’t have to twist our arm too much for us to choose our own Best of the Fest: the finest film we saw at Aesthetica was easily Jon Frickey’s Cat Days, a wonderfully Kafkaesque animation following a young Japanese boy who’s diagnosed as having cat flu by his pediatrician. Of course, humans don’t get cat flu, so the boy must be a cat, explains the doctor. From this goofily absurd premise Frickey spins a casually intelligent comedy about identity, where the complexity of the ideas are nicely contrasted by the simplicity of the animation and the deadpan voice cast. Aesthetica may not have the most consistent of programmes, but it was worth digging to find Cat Days and other gems.

Aesthetica Short Film Festival took place 7-11 Nov in York