10 Great Scottish Short Films from GSFF 2020

The 13th Glasgow Short Film Festival may have been downgraded to the “12th and a half edition”, but that didn't dampen the quality of the films. Particularly strong were the Scottish shorts – here are ten of our favourites

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 07 Sep 2020
  • Boys Night

Glasgow Short Film Festival’s “12th and a half edition” began like so many other cultural events over the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown: with a poorly-lit Zoom call. Not the most inspiring of starts, especially as it appeared the festival’s co-director, Sanne Jehoul, was publicly slamming this year’s virtual programme (“it’s just a bit shit, isn’t it”) while the festival’s director, Matt Lloyd, tried to remind her they were still live. Delightfully, this downbeat shambles of an opening proved to be a fakeout. Midway through Jehoul’s breakdown the camera pulled back and swung around in one continuous shot to reveal glorious sunshine, and this dour, lifeless opening burst into a song and dance extravaganza that suggested The Umbrellas of Cherbourg set in a Tradeston car park.

This wasn’t the only time we found our expectations upended at the fully-online GSFF, particularly in the Scottish competition, where the best films were characterised by playfulness in their approach to genre and cinematic conventions.

Take, for example, the stop-motion animation The Fabric of You from Josephine Lohoar Self. Set in a world that looks a lot like New York in the 1950s, except it’s entirely populated by people with the heads of mice, its aesthetic – warm, autumnal, deeply tactile – prepares you for something cosy. What you get, however, is a devastating and surprisingly erotic May to September romance between a shy young tailor and the grey-haired mouse dandy who wanders into his shop one day looking for new threads and sweeps the tailor off his feet – and onto his cutting table for the best puppet sex scene since Anomalisa; maybe even since Team America.

What sells the film, though, is its heady structure and astute editing. The sight of an elegant coat slung over a chair is the melancholic image that begins a series of nested flashbacks, where other objects like a copper kettle or an ivory button seem to evoke painful memories, which are spun together in a non-linear mosaic that heavily evokes the cinema of Nicolas Roeg. Dazzling stuff.

There was another eye-catching gay romance at GSFF that confounded our expectations, in the form of Paul Cochrane’s Once Upon a Time in Easterhouse. In this case, the surprise being just how tender the story was. Despite being set in the macho East End of Glasgow and in the less-than-enlightened world of youth football, there was a refreshing lack of external opposition to the love story that forms between two teen footballers at the heart of the film. Even more pleasantly surprising than the lack of homophobia was the way in which Easterhouse is captured on-screen. Anssi Tiusanen’s sun-kissed cinematography suggests the Mediterranean rather than the M8, while the fine location work shows off east Glasgow at its most bucolic. After five months of lockdown, this sylvan, fairytale version of No Mean City was most welcome.

A darker side of Glasgow was revealed in James Price’s autobiographical Boys Night, the finest film yet from this immensely talented young filmmaker. It’s a tragicomic 'dark night of the soul' movie, following a young lad who’s walking his pished-as-a-fart old man through the centre of town and back to their flat in Springburn, in the north of the city. They’re on foot because the boy’s mother chucked his father out of the car after he elbowed in the windscreen during an argument. It’s not the only time violence threatens to explode in Boys Night, but don’t rush to file this on the ample pile labelled 'Scottish miserablism'. For all its unflinching realism, it’s the film’s overflowing humour and compassion that resonates.

The relationship between father and son is finely sketched, with Price showing a particular gift with actors, teasing out compelling performances from Kyle Gordon as the wise-before-his-years adolescent and Cameron Jack as the paralytic father, who’s a bit like a more affable Jake LaMotta at the end of Raging Bull, a bloated bruiser still dining out on his glory years. Price’s script, meanwhile, nails the rough-hewn poetics of Glasgow patter and its inhabitants’ knack for creative swearing, which manages to be abusive and affectionate in the same breath. Add to that, Boys Night is gorgeous: shot by Steve Cardno, Glasgow by night, its rain-slicked streets lit by lamp posts and chip shop neon, has never looked better.

Price had another excellent film at GSFF, the inventive horror Spiral, playing out of competition in the annual late-night horror programme Scared Shortless. It’s the latest in the line of recent works riffing on the trapped-in-a-24-hour-purgatory concept from Groundhog Day (horror Happy Death Day, action sci-fi Edge of Tomorrow and the upcoming Palm Springs are other notable entries in the cycle).

Price puts his own spin on things by setting this existential nightmare in a Glasgow high-rise, where the main character discovers his repeating loop means he can live without consequence, indulging in excessive partying, unexpected sexual adventures and brutal violence. The film is bracing and darkly hilarious, and as a metaphor for the self-destructive behaviour brought on by the monotony of being young and broke, it’s pin-sharp. What makes it even more impressive is that it was written, shot and edited over two days as part of Glasgow’s annual 48 Hour Film Project.

Groundhog Day scenario also features in Hannah Currie’s moving documentary That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore. The film follows middle-aged couple Lindsay and Paul (the filmmaker’s aunt and uncle) on their remote croft in the Wicklow mountains in Ireland. The setting is idyllic, but it quickly becomes clear that their marriage isn’t, with the tension between them revealed to be the result of a massive brain haemorrhage that Paul suffered from years ago, leaving him with little memory of his earlier life, and specifically his marriage with Lindsay.

What Paul does remember, though, is a handful of jokes that he repeats ad nauseam, oblivious to the fact the recipient has heard them many times before. The jokes themselves are hardly masterpieces in the first place, but they take on a nightmarish quality as Currie edits the setups and punchlines together from various different tellings, making you feel like you’re trapped in a 1970s working man’s club with the same stand-up stuck on repeat.

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore comes from the Scottish Documentary Institute’s perennially brilliant Bridging the Gap series, as does Bircan Birol’s My Name is Anik. The Anik of the title is Birol’s grandmother, an indomitable matriarch who lives in Istanbul but whose heart belongs to the Kurdish village in which she grew up. The problem is she’s starting to lose her mother-tongue, which she hasn’t used since she left home five decades ago and never taught to her children for fear they’d be persecuted for speaking Kurdish, as she was.

Birol features in front of the camera as she encourages Anik to pass the language to her, save it be lost forever, and with it the stories and songs that Anik grew up with. The film’s emphasis on language and culture pays off in a deeply moving climax in which Anik encounters one of the songs from childhood that has started to slip from her mind, but it’s the complex relationship between grandmother and granddaughter, at once tender and prickly, that really makes the film sing.

The most handsome film at GSFF was surely Florrie JamesRed Hawthorn, a 16mm stunner following the moody teen boy of the title as he mooches about his small Highlands fishing village lounging in boats, gatecrashing literary events and wandering the rocky shore with a girl he likes, as chubby seals look on. It’s a film that’s constantly surprising you, with its blasted black and white cinematography sometimes bursting into vibrant colour, or James’s quiet shots of the coastal landscape being pierced by the bracing industrial sounds of Glasgow band The Modern Institute. Curiously the title character is played by dancer Romany Dear, and she nails the defensive posture and lazy walk of an awkward, lovelorn teen boy lost and bored in a sleepy town.

Another gem about smalltown teenage longing was Martin Clark’s Jealous Alan, which comes on like a more upbeat Jules & Jim transplanted to 80s East Kilbride. This love triangle follows goofball Alan, who fancies cool-girl Angela. She’s secretly winching Alan’s best pal, the more soulful, hunky Stuart, who Alan might also fancy. What elevates Jealous Alan is its balmy mood. You can practically smell the scent of Lynx Africa, Glen’s vodka and soggy chips in the air as Jealous Alan’s romantic machinations play out in the late summer twilight of New Town play parks and football fields, with a dreamy indie-pop soundtrack adding to the film’s bittersweet late summer vibe. Look out too for a hilarious turn from Kate Dickie as Angela’s mother, who appears to suffer from some condition that prevents her from telling pale Scottish boys apart.

An altogether more abrasive cinema could be found in Ciaran LyonsThe Motorist, where some unseen traffic transgression is being punished by a mysterious religious cult. The setting is knockout: we’re on a hillside in the Highlands, where the barren vista is punctuated by a car and a body lying next to a lone tree. As the ritual is performed, which involves sealing the driver into the car for some sensory-deprivation torment, the film’s visuals and sound design only get more apocalyptic and gnarly. Craggy-faced actor Douglas Russell is utterly chilling as the cult’s intense leader.

A Highlands cult also features in UFO, Harvey Gardner’s melancholic comedy that brought back the two bickering brothers from his stylish 2019’s short SHED. Here they’re reunited with their father, who went missing 15 years earlier when the boys were just nippers. Turns out he was abducted by aliens and now lives in a field where he’s formed Scotland’s lo-fi answer to Scientology. Lovely performances, a dotty absurdist streak and a delightful mid-film animated digression are some of the reasons to dive into Gardner’s bittersweet world.

If there’s one film at GSFF that we wish we’d been able to watch with an audience, it’s Will Anderson’s Betty, not least because it’s deliriously funny, but also because it manages to turn heartbreaking and back again in the blink of an eye. The deliciously meta premise is that we’re watching the film’s director’s commentary, with Anderson explaining how he created his stripped-back animation about the relationship between two ducks, Bobby and Betty, from colourful, rudimentary shapes that are roughly assembled to create the most abstract of characters. (To get an idea of the style, imagine if Henri Matisse had access to a MacBook Pro instead of crepe paper.)

The film follows Bobby, a loudmouth, high-pitched New Yorker (voiced by Anderson) with a mild tuna obsession. He falls for the taciturn Betty and romance blossoms, only to curdle as quickly as the disappearing block of butter that continuously glitches out of sight every time Bobby takes it from the fridge (“Where’s the butter, Betty?” he shouts).

As Anderson’s cursor dances across the screen, zooming in on details and manipulating his characters with a click of his mouse, another meta-animation featuring a bolshy waterfowl comes to mind: Chuck Jones’ masterful Duck Amuck, in which the animator (revealed to be Bugs Bunny) toys with his creation, Daffy Duck, who becomes increasingly exacerbated. The difference here is that Anderson isn’t the omnipotent creator: it's as if the characters – or more specifically the creative process – are in control of him.

This superficially daft but philosophically sophisticated little animation, it’s revealed, is Anderson’s attempt to make sense of a failed relationship. Yet taking ownership of his bruised emotions through his art, even in animation – the most fastidious form of filmmaking – proves futile. In a year where we’ve all lost control and become isolated to the point where screaming at dairy products seems perfectly healthy behaviour, Anderson’s mix of absurdity and heart-on-sleeve emotion feels very of the moment.

Betty was awarded Best Scottish Short by this year’s GSFF jury while Boys Night was the GSFF’s paying customers’ pick for that same title. Not that you should take too much notice of festival prizes, but it’s just nice to have a couple of voting results we can get fully behind.

Glasgow Short Film Festival took place 17-23 Aug

Jealous Alan and That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore are available to stream on BBC iPlayer; Boys Night is available on Vimeo