SHORT FOCUS - Issue 2

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SHORT FOCUS The world’s premier short film journal.

Issue 2

‘August Sun’ Jan-Mar 2021


www.framelight.org

#ShortFocus @framelightorg


What is it that we love about short film? It’s a question here at SHORT

FOCUS that we continually consider, because the answer never remains

fixed. The definitions, boundaries and concepts of short form cinema are ever-changing, and it is for this reason that our position on the matter is never uniform, but shifting. It is this fluid quality that fascinates us the most; the very reason that we are able to continue searching for great art. The spectral nature of the art form and its rich heritage are, for us, aspects we do not take for granted. We vehemently champion the notion that an expertly constructed narrative piece produced from a generous budget can sit right alongside a raw and abstract work shot on a smartphone camera or gritty 8mm film. What guides us, principally, to curating and critiquing these films, is a search for meaning, truth, and quality. Of course, from one generation to another, these things ultimately change, and one viewer’s perspective will certainly differ from another. But therein lies the gift of film: it captures imaginations both collectively and individually. One thing does remain certain... We believe in the power of short film. Editor: Dean Archibald-Smith Creative Directors: Dean Archibald-Smith, Aya Ishizuka Cover Design: Frederick Fuller Contributors: Sam Briggs, Thom Carter, Vincent Dolan, Sally Roberts.

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The online version of this journal is interactive. To engage with content, click on the title of a film review or the company logo of an advertisement. Where you cannot click on a title, there is no content available. Articles appearing within this publication reflect the opinions and attitudes of their respective authors and not necessarily those of the publishing or editorial team.

Published by FRAME LIGHT Group Ltd. 7 Bell Yard, London, WC2A 2JR Made with paper from sustainable resources. SHORT FOCUS is published quarterly.

© 2021


The Noise of the Light Valentin Petit, France, 2018

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hilst out for a run with her headphones on, a slim, young, good-looking woman gets struck by lightning and, all of a sudden, she is able to hear light as music. Her two slim, young, good-looking bandmates take advantage of this power in their slim, young, good-looking car in order to produce their dream album. An interesting premise, but it is all a bit much. The idea of crossing mediums from light into sound is promising. The extreme synaesthesia experienced by Lou, the unfortunate protagonist, suggests that there are art forms out there that we are yet to experience, and this is exciting.

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Initially, her injury blooms with the promise of untapped inspiration. However, this very quickly turns dark, as her two male bandmates, Marius and Pablo, become increasingly violent and exploitative. They eventually take it too far, culminating in a heavily stylised orgy of urban-outfitted torture. One of the issues with this film is that there isn’t any sufficient justification for the pain to which Lou is subjected. Furthermore, the imbalance of power between Lou (the only woman in the film) and the two men is uncomfortable. While one could argue that the short is holding this gendered exploitation up for critique, the sheer coolness of the scenes of suffering makes it feel as though we are voyeurs to an oh-so-instagrammable masochism, as Marius and Pablo go to greater and greater lengths to pioneer a unique sound.

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The whole film oozes an almost unbearable coolness (who really sleeps next to an old television blaring white noise?), and the set design is unabashedly hip, every bit the manifested product of an art school co-op uninitiated in the realities of rodent infestations and toilet paper famine. Despite this, The Noise of the Light highlights the pleasure of aesthetic beauty and, more than that, it gestures towards the possibility of newness. In a time when Disney remakes and rehashes of almost every franchise starring Harrison Ford are topping the charts, this is just short of a miracle. Sally Roberts

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Reverie

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everie is a delightful, hand-drawn animation that should be regarded as a must-see for anyone who claims to have a keen interest in the medium of animated film. The pencil-drawn style utilised by animator Henry McClellan doesn’t claim mimesis, but instead reminds the viewer that this is a story that someone has imagined, a stylistic choice that benefits the main character’s unstable mental state. In the film’s press release, filmmaker McClellan discusses the function of hand-drawn animation, observing the ‘function of the drawn…as a direct realisation of the mythical’, a view that is clearly observed in this piece.

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Henry McClellan, USA, 2018

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warning rings true, and the viewer learns more about the emotional complexity of the demon they have observed, through its interactions with Meryl. One notable stylistic choice was the decision to draw certain objects as see-through, giving them no illusion of depth or substance, as when Meryl’s car drives through its local surroundings. The style therefore makes some objects appear intangible whilst others are more solid, leaving deliberate contradictions present in Meryl’s world. Reverie exhibits a great deal of variation in its afforded level of detail. In some moments, backgrounds are done away with altogether, whilst in others (such as the opening motorbike sequence), they are afforded greater specifying detail and additional attention to shading. Often in independent animations, the considerable visual talent of the animator finds itself let down by a sound design that fails to live up to the film’s vision. Reverie can have no such criticism fielded at it, as its use of foley sounds and soundtrack are of a truly impressive standard, contributing to the vision of the piece as a whole. One stylistic choice that appears at odds with the rest of the piece is the decision to make Meryl’s movements jerky durind a sequence near the middle of the film where she is preparing a boiled egg. This apparent drop in frame rate doesn’t appear to add any real significance to the events being observed, but instead is more likely to leave viewers wondering if something has gone awry with their broadband connection. Fittingly, given its title, the act of observing Reverie is a dream, one that could and should be enjoyed by any casual film viewer with an interest in a hand-drawn animation style. Hand-drawn water sequences, such as when Meryl cries in the rain, or fills up a glass from the tap, are truly mesmeric in their beauty, and cement animator Henry McClellan as a filmmaker of real nous. The viewer follows the character Meryl as she goes to visit an elderly woman in a care home. Once there, Meryl’s reality begins to blur as events happening in a TV nature documentary begin to disseminate into the real world. Reverie’s logline on its IMDb page comes with a warning to its viewers: ‘Don’t read too closely into the bad omens’, and such caution would do well to reassure its viewers given its, at times, menacing scenery.

Sam Briggs

On first viewing, the events of the film appear sinister, as the neighbouring bird population finds itself under threat from a shape-shifting demon. Eventually, the logline’s

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Decrescendo Olivia Chiesi, USA, 2019

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ecrescendo, written by Elio Mardini and directed by Olivia Chiesi, is an engaging and taut drama of abstract dimensions, which neatly explores an existential crisis that coincides with or, perhaps, even triggers the protagonist’s sudden physical deterioration. The 11-minute short opens with a young man in sunglasses driving a luxury, vintage convertible through the palm tree-lined Hollywood Hills. Benjamin, a man of wealth, lackadaisically listens to classical music on the car stereo, as he meanders along the winding, scenic roads, eventually arriving at a large mansion.

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A beautiful woman comes out to greet him. She scolds him for being late to see their father. The woman, Celestina, is Benjamin’s stepsister, and their father, Charles, has summoned them to the stately home for a family meeting. Immediately, this appears to be a dysfunctional setting, with the family having not been all together in this way for some time, and with Benjamin having no inkling as to why he might have been asked there in the first place.

jacket, is about to make an important announcement. Celestina is to take control of the family estate. At this precise moment, all the sounds around Benjamin become inaudible with a deafening tinnitus drowning out the rest of his father’s speech. Is this a literal loss of hearing, or a moment of deafening realisation, as his expectations and familial responsibility are wrenched away from him? As Benjamin leaves the table frantically, distressed and confused, he tries to self-remedy the symptoms of this strange episode, with his father visibly vexed.

As the children enter, the mother and father are already sat at the table. The stern patriarch, dressed in a dinner

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Here, Benjamin’s initial veneer of laconic arrogance is immediately stripped away, making way for a sense of inadequacy and dejection as he stumbles around the opulent gardens of the mansion, finding his way to a swimming pool where he (symbolically or literally) drowns in his despair.

entire cast here is on top form, even with a script light on dialogue (particularly in the case of the mother, AnneMarie, played brilliantly by Terri Parks). The story is efficient, Chiesi and Mardini understanding the power of restraint and not playing their hand too soon, instead leaving the audience to work out what cards they are holding.

Decrescendo is a fine piece of work, with cinematographer Kenzo Le showing a great visual flair, and lead actor (and co-producer) Drew Schrum eschewing grandeur and over-dramatization in favour of more subtle and understated gestures. In fact, the

Dean Archibald-Smith

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The Sermon Dean Puckett, UK, 2018

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n what is a disorientating, not quite recognisable late twentieth-century England, the parishioners of Dean Puckett’s The Sermon perform punitive medieval rites with their off-white shirts primly buttoned - the women scowl in crown braids and long skirts, and the men sport Alex DeLarge smirks in side-parts and gallused trousers. Chastened survivors of an alluded to ecological catastrophe (“nature had her revenge”), this lawless community built a penitent ark of militant homophobia and Calvinist asceticism, and shan’t abide those who jump ship. Early scenes depicting as much, and evoking the rowdy gallows walks of Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General [UK, 1968], are stagey and blunt, but they get away with being so because the film has more vital interests - namely a rescue-revenge stratagem hatched by the pastor’s daughter Ella (Molly Casey), and midwifed by a demon.

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Opening the film, a crow lands on a barren tree, shown in closeup and then as the subject of Ella’s trance-like, kitchen window glare. Later, a blackcloaked figure - having crept slowly from the background - will wrap an arm, pinion-like, around her chest, as her plot bears fruit. The subtle approach of this half-glimpsed shadow, shown in three or four blink-length cuts, is always surprising, and peculiarly unnerving - it flickers into this pristinely finished film like a coded message scratched on the reel. The interloper constitutes the film’s pagan or anti-Christian agitator, a staple anxiety of British folk horror. Called to mind are the possessed youths of Piers Haggard’s seminal The

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Blood on Satan’s Claw [UK, 1971], who toil to restore flesh to a dark-hooded devil. Here, however, the operative malevolence may reside somewhere in the land, with references to “the black in the ground”, and frequent cutaways to heaths and moors eked red and agent by cinematographer Ian Forbes and colourist Tobias Tomkins. If nothing else, watch The Sermon for its landscape photography, which is as specific and palpable as I’ve seen English pastures look on screen. Otherwise, for eleven minutes and change, this is a technically superlative and piously studied genre contribution. Thom Carter

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Deer Season

Cam McHarg, USA, 2018

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ameron McHarg’s Deer Season is a short film in the tradition of good short stories, telling more in its elisions than its actual words or pictures. Its ellipses speak to lives marked by absences: those of two friends (played by McHarg and co-producer Hus Miller) for whom the passing of twenty years estranged has served to erase more than a shade of familiarity. In its place they have the social crutch of sport (hunting), its provision of common purpose and its permittance of conversational silences.

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The camera dips in and out of their exchanges, lingering in the pauses on railway bridges, freight trains, rock scrambles, yellowing leaves. McHarg captures something inhuman in the otherwise idyllic autumnal environs of these Washington forests: something in the spaces between the men’s utterances, hinting manifold, unspoken anxieties – about family, maleness, class and ownership – and the forest’s vacant refusal to cure them.

but the men’s experiences are contemporary. When McHarg’s character confesses, euphemistically, of fronting happiness to hide a near-terminal depression, the slightest phrase – “all those pictures?” – signals a mode of self-alienation specific to the post-Facebook age. Social media platforms advertise the preservation of social bonds across all time and space, yet within them we are encouraged to broadcast ourselves as idealized fakes, to an audience of friends with whom we may have

In its preoccupations and formal economy, Deer Season feels of a lineage of twentieth-century American stories,

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had no meaningful contact in twenty years. Miller meets McHarg’s confidence with a response that presumes a recovery not disclosed (“I know what it’s like to do the right thing – turn your life around”) yet carries a still decodable warmth. It is a flavour of masculine empathy that both confers and undermines itself in its too-ready attempt to restore dignity to the vulnerable party.

self-conscious in the disclosure to really listen, but it is something – a moment of good intent. What follows, almost immediately, is an incident many times the magnitude, and completely devastating. Unseen to the viewer, it occurs entirely through reaction shots, sound design and a few panicked phrases of dialogue. Its burden settles heavy on McHarg’s expression as the men drive back from the forest, bringing with them something more to hide.

It is hard to tell how it lands with McHarg, perhaps too

Thom Carter

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remier Amour (First Love) is a Swiss production written and directed by Jules Carrin. The film opens with a farmer and his dog strolling out of the woods towards his farmhouse, outside of which is a ‘for sale’ sign that he proceeds to tear down in an evident rage. It is discovered that the land could potentially be bought by the rival Lamiche family, a fact complicated by the secret love affair between the farmer’s daughter and the Lamiche family’s son, a delinquent car mechanic who works with his brother in the familyowned garage. As the young couple become more deeply involved, it seems increasingly certain that the proprietary transaction between families will prove more a probability than possibility, much against the financially distressed farmer’s wishes and power. A story of forbidden love between the son and daughter of two rival families who seek to be free from the bondage of older traditions and local suspicions, the drama is crafted with a Shakespearean touch with clear allusions to the more tragic elements of Romeo and Juliet (although Premier Amour isn’t without laughs either). The subdued tension and complex emotional states of the characters are richly translated through the fantastic use of colour – particularly the muted, pastille blues – and location, much of which takes place outdoors in nature, albeit in an oppressive woodland from which our protagonists hopelessly seek liberation, and demonstrated beautifully at one point in a tracking shot through the trees of the young girl running, instantly calling to mind Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon [Japan, 1950]. Premier Amour is a delicate, tender and ultimately troubling portrait of modernity in conflict with tradition and the complex struggles of young adults in love. Dean Archibald-Smith

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Premier Amour Jules Carrin, Switzerland, 2017

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August Sun

Franco Volpi, Argentina, 2018

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n chapter five of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Joseph K. is passing along a corridor in his office when he happens upon a storage closet emitting disquieting sighs. Within, he discovers three men: his two arresting officers, and a leather-clad third, whipping them. Through an arbitrary location, the scene evokes an enormity of anxieties as to the absurd caprices of the state. Director Franco Volpi has an eye for discordant settings in his film August Sun: the back galleys of kitchens double as corridors - byways through clinical institutions - or places to take a phone call in sterile franchise pubs, while irregular geometries of concrete nestled between riven industrial terraces serve as community football fields.

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The fitful son now lives in Vienna, where his work and partner are waiting for him (the film’s title invokes the bipolarity of his emigration - August is winter in Argentina, summer in Austria), making the infirm madre a competing obligation. They read this situation at poles as well, Javi focused on the macro, the impersonal, seeing the state as the kernel of their woes: a system that fails to care for his mother in his absence; that provides the means but no solution for the dispersion of family and community. Miriam, indifferent, sees it simply, personally - she is separated from her son. One does not have to wait to sense Volpi’s perspective on the global-economic tides that have facilitated their estrangement - a mutual conferral of circumstances invites the viewer to adjudge the more repulsive predicament: “I’m a freelance editor and translator at an online betting and casino site,” says

Like Joseph K., Javi (Miguel Di Lemme) is a mannered man before the law. For three months in Buenos Aires he has attended punctiliously to the myriad bureaucratic gum surrounding the care and medication of his widowed, bipolar mother, Miriam (Silvina Sabater). He is suing her insurance provider, whose arcane eligibility margins seem to supply infinite and pliant recourse to reject her prescriptions. Di Lemme plays Javi broad (brusque and particular, wringing an ever-ready valise for a full repertoire of tactile little fusses), as does Sabater Miriam (confused, doddery, unfocused), so that they’re less specific people (in the manner of, say, the unvarnished performances of a Ken Loach film) than figures in a tale: the poorly old mother, and her dutiful, impatient son.

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Javi, pressed to explain his profession. Uncomputable to Miriam, she responds with what is likely a mere skipping of consciousness, but contextually reads like a reciprocated grievance: “I think I’ve got a pimple in my crotch.” Ultimately, most beguiling about Joseph K.’s discovery of the torture room is not that its location is arbitrary but, rather, disarmingly personal. Opening the closet again, he quickly closes it when he finds the men still there. The scenario approximates the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, where observation induces reality. He reacts as if his witnessing their suffering influences its existence calling it into being each time he opens the door. Toward the end of August Sun, Javi waits beside a door behind which he will discover the outcome of his lawsuit.

It is another gently dislocating setting - this legal ruling to be decreed not in the openness of public court, but lushly-furnished, low-lit chambers, with gothic-inflected wall art. “We’ve either won or lost - we just don’t know the final score yet,” explains lawyer and family friend Ruben (José María Marcos). Both outcomes simmer in superposition (the waiting scenes in the film are numerous and attenuated). There’s perhaps even cause for optimism. After all, Javi - alert, precise, world-weary - seems far nimbler at navigating these systems than any of Kafka’s heroes. But then, his was never really a systemic problem. Thom Carter

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August Sun

Franco Volpi, Argentina, 2018

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ugust Sun stars Miguel Di Lemme as Javier, an Argentine expat living in Vienna, who has inversely become a parent to his ageing and ailing mother, Miriam. Examining the mounting tensions as one person is stretched between their own life and their family, Franco Volpi’s film is a sensitive yet scorching critique of the inhumane bureaucracies that so often govern human lives.

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The story follows Javier in Buenos Aires, as he tries to obtain his mother’s medication from a health insurance company that he is also suing. As any recent Ken Loach fan may expect, the process is excruciating and tragic. What stands out most is the complete lack of human connection from each person they go to for help: the doctor absentmindedly asks his mother how she is while staring at a computer screen; Miriam’s wellbeing is bestowed or denied by a rubber stamp, and Javier reprimands the staff for addressing him so impersonally - “Don’t call me ‘sir’. You’ve seen me coming here for three months. You know exactly who I am.” This bureaucratic coldness is counteracted by the ‘human’ imperfections of the characters. Miriam’s penchant for ice cream sundaes and her insistence on going to the bathroom as Javier argues with the insurers is a reminder of the living, breathing human bodies that the stamps and authorised papers affect. Javier interrupts his lawyer’s thoughtful silence with, “you’ve got a bit of meringue on your jacket.” When the lawyer proceeds to eat it in a slight moment of comic relief, we are reminded that we are never dealing with slick mechanisations of faceless corporations, but always with people. August Sun achieves what many short filmmakers try and fail to do: high emotional impact. More often than not, the plot or the characters lack sufficient development for the story to be truly moving. However, Volpi’s tight script makes this film a success. The dialogues between characters manage to convey feeling without being too hammy. Miriam’s soft request that Javier stay in Buenos Aires feels far more real than a dramatic showdown. Similarly, the final touch in the last scene is a masterclass on portraying a vast range of emotions in a single moment. The strength of the script is augmented by excellent acting. Di Lemme gives a

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fantastic performance, conveying the difficulty of his situation with a sense of constant tension. But it is Silvina Sabater who really shines in her role as the formidable and yet heartbreakingly vulnerable Miriam.

paradoxically, Volpi’s precision and restraint allows the film to cover a huge range of topics such as changing family relationships, guilt and grief. It comes as no surprise that this film was the biggest winner at 2019’s edition of Short Focus Film Festival.

The sensitivity and subtlety of both the acting and the script come together to achieve that hard-hitting emotional heft that eludes so many shorts. Somewhat

Sally Roberts

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INTERVIEW The light shines on Franco Volpi, director of August Sun.

I had no initial desire to make my grad film about such a personal story. I had a number of ideas I was interested in, and they all had their appeal. But I noticed how, regardless of style, genre or aesthetic choices, they all shared a certain DNA. These different ideas contended, in one way or another, with what interests me the most as a filmmaker, and that is something to do with identity – the notion of it, the pursuit of it, and how it’s defined by our surroundings, our circumstances, our upbringing, our place of birth, our gender, and so on...

Dean Archibald-Smith: August Sun feels like a very personal film. Are there autobiographical elements to the story? Franco Volpi: More than a few, actually. I’ve done seven short films and film exercises so far, and there’s an autobiographical element to all of them. August Sun is not only a story with an autobiographical element, it’s my most personal film to date. And, unless I find myself one day doing a feature version of it, there will never be a more personal or autobiographical film than August Sun.

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I think that this whole free will thing, the idea that we are free to do whatever we want, to become whomever we want to become is, for the most part, hogwash. There’s so much of what constitutes our so-called identity that is chosen for us. Many, if not most, aspects of ourselves are outside of our direct control. They are passed down onto us by our country, our neighbourhood, our family, our very DNA. From your body-type, your name, the colour of your skin, and the language you speak, to your social class, your faith, and your political views, there are so many complex forces controlling our lives.

making any other choice. So the one choice I make has to be the right one. What I wanted to do was tell a story that was, by design, very static, very still. Javier, the protagonist of August Sun, is a very dynamic character. But from the moment he meets his mother, Miriam, he inhabits her world, which is a very still place. Time stops when he is with her. In very much the same way, time seems to work differently when you’re spending time with a child. You have to adapt yourself to the child and the child’s needs and wants; to expect the opposite would be ridiculous.

In the end, that free will we love to talk about and hold dear is reduced to a very small percentage of what constitutes our identity. Within our preordained lives, there’s a small margin for choice, and it is within that space that we can make certain choices that can trigger a paradigm shift in our lives, or reinforce it. And that’s what I discovered I’m most fascinated by as a storyteller.

So Javier enters Miriam’s world and it all slows down, almost to a standstill. This drives Javier crazy, but he can’t let it out – certainly not out on his mother, who is bipolar and lives in a fragile ecosystem of medication, daily routines and a feeble truce with life. But Javier is also someone who is, internally, coming to terms with his past, his present and his future. He’s revisiting a painful and difficult chapter in his life. These are old wounds being reopened. But, again, he tries to conceal this, both to everyone around him and to himself.

Once I realised this, it became clearer that August Sun was the most appropriate idea to develop, albeit the most intimidating one as well. Finally settling for this story as my grad film was not an easy task. I came to it in a runaround kind of way, through a process of elimination.

So, what we have here is a rather dour story of a seemingly very static pair of characters unfolding in a series of indoor scenes or vignettes. On top of that, there’s a lot of dialogue. Basically, it’s a sad story of people sitting in rooms and talking. So, I knew full well that, for the story to be interesting, compelling, and even moving, the actors had to be very, very good.

As a story, it was better suited as a feature. That is how I envisioned it, and still do. This is a story about a man making difficult choices over the span of a single day. But it is, in fact, a story about someone coming to a head with events that were set in motion twenty, twenty-five years earlier, before he had any say on the matter. And it all comes down to the last year, the last three months, the last week, down to one single day. August Sun, as a short film, is merely the essential distillation of a much larger story.

One of the most important jobs I had as a director was casting the film with the right people. And that alone was a lot of work. I watched dozens of showreels of actresses and actors that came fully vetted by the team of seasoned local producers I was working with.

DA-S: The performances in the film are incredibly nuanced and restrained - it’s very difficult to extract these kinds of performances, particularly with such emotional material. What was your approach?

I went to see actors in plays. I saw more plays in two months than I had seen in my entire life. I met and spoke with a number of actors for both main parts. And, again, it was a process of elimination. Who brings what to the table? Am I interested in someone that comes very close to what I had in mind? Or do I choose someone that does something entirely different to what I had envisioned but has the ability to surprise me, and the audience too? What about the actors’ chemistry? Do I believe them as mother and son? A lot of questions, searching, probing… that’s what it was. Once I had finally settled on the actors to play Javier and Miriam, it was just a matter of rehearsing as much as we could before shooting was set to start.

FV: There are only so many choices you can make in a film, and this is ten times as true of short films. Because of the reduced runtime and small budgets of short films, you have to be very careful of what you choose to do and, more importantly, what you choose not to do. Just like settling on making August Sun was done through a process of elimination, settling on how to tell the story of August Sun was also done this way. What kind of story is it going to be, a drama or a comedy? Will it be a more realistic film, or will it strive for more of a heightened and fantastic tone? How much camera movement do I want? What should the sound design be like? And for every choice I make, I’m simultaneously not

I also met multiple times with them to discuss the characters. There was a lot I wanted them to know. But, also, and just as importantly, I wanted to listen to them,

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what they had in mind, how they saw their characters and the relationship between them. We prepared as much as we could, leaving nothing to chance. Interestingly, this much preparation actually freed us to welcome certain things that would happen on set. We had a plan that worked and we stuck to it. But we were also able to know when small, little opportunities presented themselves by accident, and we seized on them.

different. It was even harder to cast that part. There is, for good reason, a lot of resistance from certain actors of a certain age to agree to work on a film that: a) is a short film; b) was written and will be directed by a nobody out of film school; c) asks a lot out of the actor in a way that can expose them to a frightening degree. Also, even if the film turns out to be good, it will be seen, with any luck, in a handful of festivals and that’s it. And, to top it off, the film will pay very little money. But I needed a great actor. I couldn’t just say, “well, OK, I’m never going to get the kind of actor I need for this project, so I’m just

As for the nuance and restraint you mention, I had a strong sense that finding the right actors to play Javier and Miriam would mean finding someone who could do as little as possible, to an almost indiscernible degree. Regarding the difficulty in extracting this kind of performance, I think it would be a disservice to the actors to pretend I extracted these performances out of them. You either have the right actors to work with or you don’t. It’s them who are doing the heavy lifting out on the playing field. I’m just the coach watching from the sidelines and giving notes when needed. DA-S: Did you know of their work before, and did you hold formal auditions? FV: I met Miguel Di Lemme right at the beginning of the casting process. He came recommended by the production manager, who had previously worked with him. Miguel made a very good impression on me. But I thought I had to keep looking. In the end, however, after considering many actors, I came full circle back to him. Miguel has a strong background in TV comedies. He’s very funny, effortlessly charming, very inventive, and constantly trying to ingratiate himself in an off-thecuff, spur-of-the-moment kind of way. So it seemed counterintuitive to cast him as Javier. But I was intrigued. I had a feeling that, if he can manage to make people laugh so easily (which is actually very hard) he’d be very interesting to watch when he’s in no mood to make anyone smile, let alone laugh. And his timing is perfect. He’s a pro. He was very keen on branching out and doing work that was tapping into a different vein. For him, playing the part of Javier was an opportunity to do just that. It was akin to asking a boxer who’s known for his right hook to fight using only his left hand. Other than that, it was about dialling things down – sometimes way down. I’d sometimes even tell him, “do nothing”, fully knowing that he would still give me something. He would, at times, instinctively try using something out of his old bag of tricks, unconsciously appealing to our empathy. One of the notes I kept giving him was, “don’t smile.” But he sometimes fought against this. He did manage to sneak in a few passing smiles. And I’m glad he did.

going to look for an amateur or a non-actor.” I mean, you could try, but I wouldn’t do it. The film would be dead on arrival. For the kind of actors I was after, saying yes to a part like Miriam would have to be based solely on the strength of the script and how persuasive I could be as a director. And so there were many prestigious actors that were automatically beyond my reach.

In the case of Silvina Sabater, who played Miriam, it was

I offered the role to two wonderful actors. One turned

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it down immediately. The second one was very keen but she was busy with a play and another shoot. And she wasn’t sure about me, either. After one week, she accepted to do the part. But she quit the project 24 hours later. So I was pretty devastated. The date for starting our shoot was fast approaching and I didn’t have Miriam.

again. I mean, talk about an actress! After the play, I offered her the role. I was sure she’d say no. She killed it on August Sun. I knew she was going to be very good. She gave such a compassionate, generous and convincing performance. Her skill was impeccable. She made it look effortless. She was the Roger Federer to Miguel’s Rafael Nadal.

But I lucked out with Silvina. She comes from the theatre. She’s worked with the best of the best in Argentina and Latin America. But, when most of her peers went on to

DA-S: The film is as much about a family crisis as it is about a bureaucratic one, with Javier at the mercy of both. Were these concerns intrinsically related for you (in the film and in real life), or purely circumstantial? FV: The simple answer would be that it was both things. On the face of it, both in the film as in real life, it was purely circumstantial. But the moment we start going beyond the matter-of-fact, literal stuff right on the surface, we can see how they are intrinsically related in more than one way. The broken, corrupt, incompetent, bureaucratic system reflects the broken, dysfunctional, scattered members of Javier’s family, and vice versa. The legal and bureaucratic challenge that Javier is facing is even more difficult to confront because it relates to a very tender subject for him: his ailing mother. It’s like applying pressure on a nerve ending. So we have a faceless, grey, bureaucratic process going on at a glacial pace on the one hand, while there’s real drama with a human face on the other. It’s difficult to make good long-term decisions when the pain is real and prolonged. You just want to get it over with and move on. But that might not be in everyone’s best interests, unless you’re the insurance company or the faceless corporation. So Javier is trying to play the long game, knowing he has every right to sue and every hope to win, in spite of the pain and grief it’s causing him. DA-S: The systemic failures that Javier experiences, were they something you understood as existing on a wider level in Argentina? FV: I did. They do exist on a wider level. It’s just the way it is there. Not only in Argentina. Not even only in Latin America. I dare say it’s the way it is in most - if not all - third world or underdeveloped countries. I have this theory: the reason why the family unit is regarded as something so sacred in Latin American countries or, say, Mediterranean countries, is because they have to be. People know they can’t rely on their institutions; they are too weak. So they rely on one another. Families are tightly knit as a matter of tradition. But I suspect this tradition is born out of necessity.

pursue careers in film and television, she chose to stay in theatre. Until recently, she wasn’t really interested in filmmaking, didn’t care for the start-and-stop process of it. She is, to this day, doing mostly theatre. She teaches drama and she’s an acting coach to well-regarded and famous Argentine actors. I went to see her do a play that required an impressive range that went from a raw, furious, maternal energy, to being in a fragile and even broken state, and then back

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The flip side to that coin is that the Nordic or central countries in Europe, for example, where the institutions are far stronger, there’s less reliance on family to get by. People there are more self-sufficient, and if they can’t be, there’s no need for the family to intercede and support them. The state will do that – unemployment benefits, welfare, social services, job training programs etc. These are all services readily available for those who need them. In those countries, Javier wouldn’t even need to sue his mother’s medical insurance.

Sunday and that gnawing feeling is at it again, and I just don’t really feel like peering into the void right now. I’d rather binge-watch something on Netflix and eat snacks, inducing myself into a stupor until it’s time to go to work on Monday morning. Regarding the little absurdities that litter August Sun, they are there as a result of examination of life unfolding in Buenos Aires’ waiting rooms, cafes, and restaurants, and while sitting in cars waiting for red lights to turn

Now, there’s a whole topic for another day to be discussed here: Which way is better? The system where the family is everything and the institutions cannot be relied on? Or the system in which the institutions are strong enough to look after our basic needs, but we lack that intangible quality that familial love and support can provide? DA-S: Have you witnessed, for better or worse, any visible changes? FV: Well, I can’t really say with any real sense of authority on the subject. I left my country many years ago. The last time I was living in Buenos Aires, I was so young I didn’t really notice much of anything around me. I was only interested in passing my tests, getting my degree and having fun. So I think it would be disingenuous for me to pretend I have an informed opinion on the matter. There are, however, patterns that seem to repeat themselves, especially in Argentina. While countries like Chile and Uruguay have clearly made a lot of progress over the last forty years, Argentina seems stuck in a loop; it basically resets itself and plays itself out again. So things are bad. After a long time, they get a little better for a short while. And then they worsen and things are bad for a long time again. In the long term, I have the feeling that things are gradually getting worse, more blighted. I’m not an optimist. So I might be biased by my inherent pessimism, and impaired by my lack of indepth knowledge. But that’s my two cents. DA-S: The film deals with the absurd on many different levels, and perhaps provides the overarching feeling in all of this, along with a sense that human intervention bears scant influence over the arbitrariness of nature and fate.

green. This is the way people behave there, mixing the profound and momentous with the banal and ridiculous.

FV: Well, life is absurd. On the face of it, it’s just the most absurd thing. That gnawing feeling of a dark, existential void we get in our stomachs on a cloudy, damp Sunday afternoon? That’s a friendly reminder of how absurd and pointless life can seem to be. All we do is attempt to control it and ourselves. I know full well I’m talking in platitudes right now. Maybe it’s because it’s

There’s this kind of gallows humour that is very much our own thing, in the same way that Iranians or the Poles have their very own brand of gallows humour. In our case, it’s a matter of making light of bad things, wrong things. There’s a tacit agreement of inevitability when it comes to life in Argentina. The fact that life is going to be

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an uphill battle is a given. We might as well make fun of it. But, then again, this is true of any culture. And if it isn’t, well, I don’t much care about a culture that can’t make fun of its own misfortunes.

Luckily for me, I’ve always been good at looking at those tiny little throwaway moments and thinking, “that was funny”. DA-S: Are you working on anything at the moment?

There’s another, more strategic, use of absurdism in August Sun. It serves as an escape valve. It helps to blow off some steam. I tried to enliven the proceedings with as much humour and absurdism as possible without making light of the subject matter. I wanted to mix the

FV: Boy, am I? Well, I have been trying! About a year ago, I noticed it had been two years since I last directed something (which happened to be August Sun). Following the tenet that you’re only a director if you’re directing, I set out to direct something new. I was already feeling that urge, that tickle. The very idea of directing was giving me the feels. It’s such a wonderful feeling! I’ve had ideas on the back-burner for a long while. There are a number of things I’d like to develop and that I’ve written. But they are all rather ambitious and expensive. As a follow-up to August Sun, however, I decided to do something completely different. It was going to be the opposite in as many ways as I could think of. So I came up with this little comedy story, something in the five to seven-minute mark – one location, two characters, very self-contained, in and out. It was going to be a little bonbon of a film, like a palate cleanser, a really nice one, with a sense of mischief and subversive humour, but rather sweet. Anyway, we were all set to shoot it last April, once winter was on its way out and all of the crew’s schedules would open up and coincide. But then the whole Coronavirus shit-show began. So we had to postpone it. Fast-forward to September and we’re getting back on track, ready to shoot it again. We had set a shooting date for late November. Enter the second lockdown. So, again, we had to cancel – same crew, same actors, same location. Cancel everything, again, for the same reason. Very frustrating… I know we will make it. It will happen. It’s a matter of pride now. I’m not letting go of my seven-minute bonbon. But the fact is that now it’s been another whole year and I still haven’t directed anything since August Sun. We’re probably going to try to shoot it again at the end of winter, maybe March or April… just in time for the third lockdown! See? Life’s absurd. And we make fun of it.

drama with bits of comedy.

August Sun is available on FLTV www.framelight.org/fltv

In real life, everything happens at the same time. Oftentimes, drama and comedy manifest themselves in our lives simultaneously. To have Javier go through some life-defining, painful and dramatic situation only to deflate the room with non-sequiturs about pimples in crotches, or a bit of meringue on someone’s jacket being picked at and ingested, I’ve been in such situations.

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Mical

FLTV

Yewweng Ho, UK, 2020

W

Mike through the early key stages of his primary school education, we are witness to his confusion and suffering, playground bullies and inhospitable teachers forcing him to become isolated, introverted, and miserable. Upon receiving a diagnosis of dyslexia, however, Pat embarks on a one-woman mission to provide the educational support her son needs, devising her own ingenious teaching methods, and changing the trajectory of Mike’s and so many other children’s education.

e have all, at some stage in our lives, known the frustration of being undervalued, of feeling the injustice of having our true intelligence underappreciated. Too often, if you are one of the 20% of the UK population who suffers from dyslexia, a difficulty with reading and writing may have been equated to a reduced intellect. In Mical, we follow the story of one mother’s unbounded love for her son, and her extraordinary efforts to help him fulfil his true potential inside an education system that is failing him, and that still continues to fail many to this day.

The design throughout is splendid, immersing us fully in our late-1970s, West England vista. The location scouting necessary to secure the Jones’ property deserves to be heralded, as does the costume and prop departments that have done so much to bring Jones’ domestic environment to life. The era is depicted with

Set in 1970s Bristol, we follow the true story of the Jones family – son, Michael, a dyslexia sufferer, and mother, Pat, a devoted educator who would one day go on to found the Dyslexia Trust, before being honoured with an OBE for services to dyslexia in 2015. As we follow

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total care, lovingly brought to life, providing a window into West Coast England during the decade. Converse sneakers and flares, dining room serving hatches, and Boney M’s ‘Sunny’, each doing their small bit to recreate those bygone years. Sadly, the script – and the dialogue in particular – do not always pull their weight when it comes to delivering a believable piece. Often, the script appears to take small short cuts, violating the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule, robbing the piece of some of its realism. Lines such as, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I different?” seem to speak of a script that is unwilling to fully trust its audience’s ability to grasp crucial emotive plot points. The script also features two different time jumps – a challenging manoeuvre in a short clocking in at less than 20 minutes

– the first of six months, the second of two years. Here, Pat tells her husband that Mike’s outbursts are getting worse, that he’s in his third school this year, and that it has been over six months since his original diagnosis. Whilst this method of catching the audience up may well be the simplest, it isn’t the most creative and, with some simple script doctoring, could have been achieved through a more accomplished method. As a point in the passage of British educational history, Mical offers a story well worth engaging in. The work of its production design departments is second to none, engrossing viewers keen to take this step back through time, and whilst its script and its final delivery may prove a tad too twee for some viewers’ tastes, there is one thing that is certainly not missing: heart. Sam Briggs

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Merry Christmas Yang Kai, China, 2019

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fter leaving school or university, many young people dream of living it up in the big city. Shanghai is approximately four times as big as London, so presumably you could enjoy four times the excitement, exhilaration and extortion that the British capital has to offer.

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However, Merry Christmas, written and directed by Yang Kai and based on a short story by Wu Tong, rips apart any preconception of urban glamour. Centred around the isolating experiences of one man as he navigates both a professional and personal minefield, it reveals the anxiety and isolation that so often pervades city living. The film opens with protagonist Liu Yue perusing exquisite cakes backlit in golden light while Christmas music pipes around him. It’s glossy, seductive and short-lived: cut to a scene where his neighbour shouts at him because his toilet has overflowed through her ceiling. Those who have lived in a so-called metropolis might recognise the duality of a high-end high street and the derelict space you pay a fortune to live in. As the story develops, we learn that Liu Yue has moved here for love – his boyfriend, A Xiang, studies at a prestigious university in the city – and has taken an internship in a miscellaneously corporate company where he struggles to fit in. His glamorous boss takes advantage of his desperation to integrate, seducing him in her somewhat more luxurious flat. This scene is fittingly uncomfortable, as Liu Yue’s passivity and covert reluctance does not give the impression of consensual sex. While this plot is less familiar with a woman in the abusing role, it is certainly no less disturbing. When A Xiang discovers the betrayal, the relationship dramatically ends, a moment made more poignant by the portrayal of small, seemingly insignificant moments of intimacy – watching a film, eating a meal – that make up a relationship. Sometime in the future, we see Liu Yue alone and browsing for a Christmas present for his former lover. It is noticeable that the only interaction he has is with shop assistants. Indeed, throughout the whole short his boyfriend is the only person he talks to outside of a relationship formulated by financial exchange, be

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he remains silent throughout the majority of the story and is defined more by those around him than by his own character. While this could arguably be a flaw in the film – we feel we cannot sympathise with him – it actually works well. From the office wallflower to a quiet commuter, he could be anyone we know. He could be you or me.

that at work or out shopping. The final scene shows his complete isolation as he calls A Xiang from an empty tube carriage surrounded by nothing except metal, glass and plastic. Showcasing the duality and loneliness of city life, Merry Christmas is a sensitive unmasking of urban life that has been mythologised by films and TV shows countless times. By the end of the film, we still feel like we don’t know Liu Yue very well. Isolated even from the audience,

Sally Roberts

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Colors

Kristian Mercado, USA, 2019

FLTV

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F

resh from his success with Pa’lante [USA, 2018], winner of the Best Short prize at Short Focus Film Festival 2018, and the SXSW Jury Award in 2019, Kristian Mercado returns with another music video that deals with a difficult family situation.

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The lyrics and tunes of ‘Colors’ by Black Pumas, a psychedelic soul band based in Austin, interweave with the story of a young family from the Bronx, who, for unknown reasons, are displaced from their family home and must move into their car. Although this sounds like it might be depressing, it isn’t. In fact, the combination of Black Pumas’ contented mellow mood, the bright colours, and the clear affectionate relationships between the characters makes this film surprisingly upbeat. Much like Pa’lante, fantastic performances from the actors are integral to the film’s success. Alongside the fluid movements of Black Pumas’ frontman Eric Burton, Danai Mafararikwa, Christopher “Afrika” Quarles and Chaz give astonishingly sensitive wordless performances as a father, mother, and son, respectively. Small scenes of the family brushing their teeth on bridges, or the slight squeeze of a hand, go far to convey the bonds between them. As the title suggests, this short is immediately noticeable for its colours. Mercado sets the Bronx alight with pops of red boxing gloves, loose-hanging t-shirts, and cars. Sunrise yellow scarves, flowers, and ice creams pop next to faded denim blues. Interestingly, the same combination of red, white and blue ties together again and again, from the tricolour boxing ring that opens the film, to the flying American flag at the end. Through the repeated notes of colour that weave into every scene, Burton seems to be establishing some kind of mobile, collective identity that flickers and changes in every image. The theme of mobility continues throughout. One particularly prevalent image is that of a small houseplant – a stalwart of domesticity – being watered and then transported to the car. However, rather than suggesting a loss of home, its ability to be at once rooted and portable opens up the liberating possibilities of new places, new people, and new identities. Likewise, it is notable that the family move to a car rather than, say, a static shelter. Although they have lost one home, their story is far from over. The music from Black Pumas, the fantastic performances, and some clever directorial decisions made this short a welcome inclusion in the Short Focus Film Festival 2020 line-up. In troubled times, Colors is a wonderful evocation of hope for the future and the present. Sally Roberts

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Disco Dynamite Tom Clover, UK, 2019

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FLTV


R

oller discos: for most, a glitzy, garish, embarrassing and nostalgic joy. Disco Dynamite: a glitzy, garish, embarrassing and nostalgic joy! Tom Clover’s film follows Gary and his determined efforts to get his skates back on in order to impress the new girl at work with whom he is smitten. The results are exuberant and wacky, and sure to leave those watching punching the air with glee.

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One of Disco Dynamite’s enviable strengths is its colourful and comedic cast. Each character in the ensemble has that feeling of having their own life, truly existing in the world of the film, something very difficult to deliver in a short. Whether it be a roller disco emcee, jubilant with pride in his work, or the shocked young women who watch Gary practise his roller-skating moves from the safety of a nearby parked car, the cast is packed full with interesting cameo moments that really fill out the humdrum world that Gary exists in. Disco Dynamite delivers fully on its most important promise – it is a comedy film that is genuinely funny. A large part of this is, again, a result of characterization. The casting seems to always be spot on, particularly with the anxious Gary, our reluctant hero. Fast-pan camera movements in the café where he works really give the viewer a sense

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of Gary’s skittish, ultra-receptive awareness of the events around him as he stands in an unbearably anxious resting state. One memorable instance shows Gary quitting his job in a smoking blaze of glory, only to unceremoniously trip on his skates as he leaves. You can see the slapstick moment coming a mile off, but with its flawless execution you still find yourself grinning inanely. Disco Dynamite is a short that has had the utmost care taken over its presentation. Whether it be the gorgeous visuals from a psychedelic spin washer, or the suitably ‘angsty’ use of Molly Nilsson’s song ‘I Hope You Die’ for Gary and Sally’s first dance, there are more than enough tiny moments to give you something to talk about once the credits have rolled. Its climactic scene is lovely and should leave even the most hopeless of romantics with a message of hope. Sam Briggs

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INTERVIEW On a roll with Tom Clover, director of Disco Dynamite.

that could add another layer to the idea, something which was more “out there”. I also love a challenge, and I had visions of carting my marvellous DP around on rollerskates!

Dean Archibald-Smith: Disco Dynamite ostensibly employs a very singular and specific plot device – why roller-skating? Tom Clover: The idea really seeded from a couple of scenes that came into my head whilst listening to some disco music on the bus. It was ‘Yes Sir, I Can Boogie’ by Baccara, a Spanish vocal duo. As I started to flesh out the idea, I came across some old roller-disco nights that caught my eye. It was unintentional, but it felt like

DA-S: Obvious references are Saturday Night Fever [John Badham, USA, 1977] and Cinderella. Were there any other films or literature that came to mind for inspiration?

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TC: Yes, those were a couple of influences. Some other key ones were Strictly Ballroom [Baz Luhrmann, Australia, 1992] and My Beautiful Laundrette [Stephen Frears, UK, 1985] – two really great films. I had also read something around the time about how the Coen Brothers use minor characters in their films – they either help or obstruct the protagonist – and this introduced a few more characters into the script. I also watched Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky [UK, 2008] when developing Sally. DA-S: Set in an apparently working class milieu, is there an element of social commentary going on in the film and, if so, why was that important?

Tom Clover DA-S: A considerable strength of the film is its very colourful ensemble cast. How did you go about casting for the film?

TC: I never originally intended the film to provide a social commentary but, looking back, I see how it could come across like that. A lot of the locations were picked due to their look and feel, but also just happened to be workingclass. I grew up in a small town, so I guess that just naturally came out when writing the idea. It almost seems a bit weird if you are a bit different there, a bit like Gary.

TC: Persistence and luck! We did casting calls on all of the major casting sites, and then also posted on local acting groups – we got a couple from this. I also pulled in a couple of actors I had already worked with before, and we did street casting to find the roller-skaters. I even got my Mum and Dad in there as the old couple at the end. I told them that they were the young, flash couple so I hope they don’t read this! The scariest one to cast was Gary. The look had to be perfect, but he also had to roller-skate. It was a great moment when Danny [Chase] responded, it felt like it was meant to be. With the budget we had, all I can say is that the wind was going our way.

DA-S: What was the process for securing the various locations for the film? What is difficult?

DA-S: What projects are you currently working on? TC: I haven’t actually done anything narrative since Disco Dynamite. I wanted to make a living from directing as quickly as possible, so I decided to cut my teeth with music promos. Alongside this, I study on the ‘Directing Commercials’ course at the NFTS [National Film & Television School]. I’ve just seen them as ways for me to get budgets to creatively explore my ideas and my voice. That being said, I have had a new short idea come to me and plan to start working on it in the new year. It’s based on an illegal rave I attended in the mines when I was 17 – it will be very different to Disco Dynamite whilst staying true to myself, which I’ve found is the most important thing.

TC: We spent a very long time looking for these locations. I met with someone who owned a roller-disco night in Bristol, and she told me they had just made a brand-spanking new roller-disco rink. I went and had a look and just couldn’t believe our luck. We didn’t have permission to use the laundrette; we rang the phone about a hundred times trying to find someone, but they would never answer. We stumbled upon the diner by chance. We were looking for laundrettes when I was in another town on a job, and we just looked up to our amazement to see it in all of its shining glory.

Disco Dynamite is available on FLTV www.framelight.org/fltv

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S

hot nostalgically on celluloid Super 8, What is the Modern Mantra? shows the writers and directors, Merve Erdem and Kit Martin, traversing idyllic rural spaces, as a narrator dances between French and English in his discussion of what its title does or does not mean. Initially intended as a promotional video for their debut album Mantra Morderne, the film became an effort to employ, in their words, ‘concepts such as silence, discontinuity and repetition to destabilize the narrative coherences and the lucidity of meaning expected from a promotional film’. Heavy!

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What is the Modern Mantra? Merve Erdem & Kit Martin, France/UK, 2019

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If that sounds unclear, that’s because it is. This is a film that doesn’t give answers. Rather, it seems to explore the inability to ever connect with a ‘real’, singular truth and, instead, wallows in the deliciously unexplainable contradictions and simulations that we live in, whilst focusing on sound, image and music. If highlighting the artificiality of our so-called reality is their game, their use of a carefully contrived colour palette works wonderfully. Throughout the film, the broken yolk-yellows of freshly ploughed fields and bright painted bricks are interwoven with intense bursts of blue. Flashes of red stitch the shots together - a crimson phone sneaking out of a pocket, a deep autumn red scarf, and burning red calligraphy reoccur throughout. Not only is this very satisfying to watch in a completed jigsaw kind of way, but it also draws attention to the unreality of the world Erdem and Martin have made for themselves. So far, so very French. The combination of this use of colour, some artfully organised images and the punctuation of the film with written signs is very reminiscent of Éric Rohmer’s work, particularly Le Rayon Vert [France, 1986]. This brings us to the film’s

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biggest contradiction: nothing about it is very modern. The idea of simulation echoes Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, while the dissolution of the past - note the echoes of philosophers’ names washing up against each other in meaningless waves of sound - is quite similar to Frederic Jameson’s ideas of historical alienation. Perhaps this is the film’s point. Perhaps the inability to make anything new is the truly modern state of our society - but this too has already been well explored in postmodernist thought. Finally, this film could be accused of taking itself a bit too seriously. The image of Martin reclining on a bed next to a record player, smoking a cigarette, and reading something no doubt hugely academic, lacks the self-awareness and, perhaps, self-deprecation needed to steer it away from overly confident undergraduate territory. While at times a little too self-conscious of its own genius, What is the Modern Mantra? is a gorgeous pastiche of some of the twentieth century greats. Oozing with beautifully blotchy swathes of colour, it is a fair example of what might be called a ‘philosofilm’. Sally Roberts

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A

nna is a bird that has flown the nest. A Belarusian immigrant finding her way in the bustling metropolis of New York City, her resolve to carve out her position in the art world – or even extend a clinging grasp at the first rung on the ladder of respectable employment – is proving futile. As she rides the morning metro (the façade of its entrance warmly inviting the daily throng of passengers into its murky underbelly, with the word ‘Subway’ speckled in glimmering lights), we learn quickly of the isolation and cold public remonstrations that deface her wide-eyed optimism as she searches for independence and identity in the land of opportunity.

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FLTV

Soyka

Anastasiya Sergienya, USA, 2020

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Struggling over the churns and squeals of a train, Anna loudly and excitedly shares news to her grandmother back home of multiple job opportunities and a tentative engagement with her boyfriend, Kostya. A woman sat across from her, visibly agitated, snarls at her aggressively, “Shut up and go back to Russia!” Ending the phone call, an offended Anna proudly retorts, “I’m from Belarus, actually”. The moment smartly sets the tone for rest of the film that lays bare a very recognisable and modern milieu, fraught with social ignorance, political tensions, economic disparities and exploitative indifference.

whence she might be returning. Another phone call in her room – this time hushed and whispered, in contrast with her earlier conversation – coupled with a late rent notice slipped under her door, signals the first real clue into her actual circumstances, and they appear very far from the glowing prospects conveyed to her grandmother. Her finances are dwindling, there are no job prospects, and there is no boyfriend. As an aspiring artist, the protagonist clearly has an aptitude for creating worlds (on canvas or imaginary), as the empty streets, faceless subways and non-descript neighbourhood offer themselves up as blank slates upon which her imagination can run freely. It is the type of setting where films operating across more fantastical plains might feel at home, its crystalline blue-grey palette and claustrophobic suburbia comparable with

The sequence is very telling, as we see Anna returning home in the early hours, sneaking past the pool in the garden to escape the attention of the property’s superintendent, and urges us to raise questions about

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demonstrating a kindred sentiment of female solidarity as Anna genially coaches new girl Marina), it is at this point we understand this isn’t Anna’s story alone, but the collective experience of countless young women who have endeavoured to escape a life of austerity and suppression, only to find themselves swallowed up by an equally uncaring and brutal professional and social class system upon, supposedly, more welcoming shores. The film’s primary concerns are able to be understood clearly due to a combination of an effervescent lead performance by Lyanka Gryu, Sergienya’s expert direction, and Valentina Caniglia’s gently luminous cinematography. Soyka’s visual language is its greatest strength, the director’s background in photography evident in the composition of its mise en scene. As for the title, that still remains slightly enigmatic, but the translation ‘blue jay’, according to some explanations, is often seen as a trickster figure, whose superficial beauty hides a less than perfect nature. That certainly goes some way to elucidate at least some of Anna’s fabrications. Though one can’t help but hope beyond that, as the camera zooms out in the final scene, Anna will one day spread her wings. Dean Archibald-Smith

David Robert Mitchell’s neo-noir Under the Silver Lake [USA, 2018]. Sergienya’s film, though, rightly avoids any kind of dream-logic or mind-bending obfuscation, sticking resolutely to the cold and harder realism of a young, female immigrant’s limited fortunes at the hands of a self-assured, nepotistic patriarchy. This unfortunate ontological imbalance reveals itself during two key scenes in the film. The first instance presents itself in an art gallery where her work is rejected for being “too depressing”, as she is quickly glossed over in favour of another young male client. The second and more tragic instance occurs in a strip club, where we discover Anna had (until recently) been working to make ends meet (rewind to her morning train journey home). Considerably less glitzy and femme-fisted than Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers [USA, 2019] (though

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Vermine

FLTV

Jeremie Becquer, Denmark, 2018

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V

ermine is a Danish-produced animated short written, directed and co-animated by Jeremie Becquer. The story takes place in a world of anthropomorphic mice and rats on the underground of the Paris MÊtro. Dressed in cloaks, scarves and clutching handbags, the rodents go about their routine in very familiar and somewhat ordinary fashion, but as the scene progresses we discover the much deeper and divisive inner workings of this society. We follow Hubert, a poet whose melancholic and lyrical voice-over describes his surroundings as he collects his thoughts and ideas for poetic material. Hubert is a rat whose species and darker colour are ostensibly offensive to many of the white mice around him. He minds his business but is sensitive to the scornful glances and repulsed gestures he receives. But he goes on, gathering words and images for inspiration, until he is accosted by a group of white mice in police uniforms, who verbally and then physically attack him very publicly on the train platform. Drawn only in black and white, the animation’s visual style helps to strongly consolidate the story’s message about the injustices of racism and the violent exploitation of authority within the judicial system. The narration has an almost elegiac quality that gives the audience a foreboding sense from the outset. Clocking in at only six minutes, Vermine imaginatively delivers a sharp indictment of the social imbalances that, even when hidden beneath the surface, are very much in plain sight for those on the receiving end. Dean Archibald-Smith

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tarring a woman, a rabbit, a wolf dog and a bald eagle (in that order), The Animal That Therefore I Am was one of the more unusual features of last year’s Short Focus Film Festival. “What does the animal see when she looks at me?” is the question that writer and director Bea de Visser asks in her ten-minute short. Deploying innovative camera techniques, a remarkable use of space, and a manipulation of sounds, not only does the film pose this philosophical problem, but also raises questions of identity, interspecies relations, and the limits of representation. We find ourselves inside a well-lit room artfully strewn with feathers, mosses, and furs. The focus begins with an intimate close up of a woman (played by Erin Hill), followed by a rabbit, a wolf dog and, finally, a bald eagle. As each creature is introduced, the relations between them change: the rabbit transforms from pet to prey, the dog from pooch to predator. Identity is fluid. This idea of an unfixed self is emphasised by the extreme closeups of each animal. The shots of the woman’s face, crotch, stomach, armpit deny the viewer a still, complete image but, rather, provide an ever-changing collection of fragments defined by the external viewer rather than an intrinsic identity. This fluidity is taken even further when the narrator breaks the human body down into spittle, slime, nails, claws. The careful sequence of words here successfully plays with the boundaries between what we consider human and what we do not: spittle is found in the mouth, slime drips down the walls of caves; nails are for humans, claws for beasts. The interspecies kinship implied by these associations could be taken even further to a molecular level. If the edges between the woman and the animals are blurred, what, we could ask, defines the woman from the guitar she picks up and holds so close to her body? While the interactions between the four animals (or five, if you count the guitar) could give the impression of some kind of ‘natural’ relationships between them, it is important to remember that this is all highly orchestrated. A rabbit, a wolf dog, and a bald eagle would surely not cohabit so closely out of their own free will, let alone in such an overtly stylised space. Furthermore, this is not a neutral space: the eagle walks with bound feet and the wolf dog is held firmly back by the woman’s hands. The animals enter when they are wanted and they produce a desired effect.

As she gently strums the strings, the sound of the guitar mingles with the scuffle of claws and the snuffling of snouts - all a mesh of vibrations woven together by proximity. Each sound is distinct through its relation to the others: the eagle’s cries seem shrill over the low notes of the guitar, while the dog’s panting provides a gentle backdrop in comparison to the other sounds’ higher volumes. This clever use of sound emphasises the instability of who we are, that runs throughout the whole film.

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The Animal That Therefore I Am Bea de Visser, Netherlands, 2019

De Visser seems to be aware of this artifice, as the narrator admits that “in the gaze of the animal is an existence that refuses to be conceptualized”. She is right to highlight the inability to fully know the experiences of other species, and seems to be gesturing to the risk of personification, of absorbing these creatures into our own narratives. This is a sensitive admission of the limits of film, or even art in general, to represent experiences that we can never have.

The Animal That Therefore I Am refuses to fully answer the questions that it poses. Although she films some of the scenes from the animals’ points of view, we see it, ultimately, through our own eyes, through cameras and cuts and carefully graded colours. “What does the animal see when she looks at me?” We will never know, but this short artfully brings us to the brink of both ourselves and our abilities of representation. “Thinking,” whispers the woman, “perhaps begins here.” Sally Roberts

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Influx

FLTV

Daniel Uribe, USA, 2019

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Our female lead is one of almost countless victims of domestic abuse worldwide, living a secret life, trapped in the seemingly endless cycle of abuse. Supressed by continual physical assault and emotional abuse, the one shining light that keeps her from becoming stranded, is the love she feels for her daughter, whose future remains tied up in her own, as both remain trapped in the prison of an abuser’s home. Underpinning the action is a narrated poem comparing the relentless tide of abuse to an ocean current, almost imperceptibly dragging victims further out to sea. However, the current begins its life again, this time as a wave, an unstoppable force, as our protagonist takes her life back into her own hands, crashing down onto shore as a powerful breaking wave, an influx of new emotions and possibilities storming through her.

n average in the US, nearly twenty people a minute are physically abused by an intimate partner. This equates to more than ten million victims every year. Domestic violence is deeply entrenched in almost every society across the world. Devastatingly, the enforced lockdowns caused by Coronavirus have often necessitated victims to remain under even closer confines with their abuser. As a viral pandemic has run amok within our communities, so too has a societal one. Drawing inspiration from Leslie Morgan Steiner’s TED Talk, ‘Why Domestic Violence Victims Don’t Leave’, Influx, delivers an arresting portrayal of the life of one young female victim, and her quest to attain freedom from the suffocating hold of abuse.

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Whilst its technical nuances should undoubtedly be heralded, Influx finds itself wanting of a truly personal story that is able to deeply involve the audience in the character’s plight. Here, true character insight appears to have become an unfortunate casualty in the pursuit of a shortened runtime. The devil’s advocate may well argue that our lead is simply one of a number of victims, all with similar experiences, following the same hollowed tread, universal in their suffering. However, for contrast with a film that is able to truly indicate the shocking brutality of abuse, and the effect it can have on a victim’s psyche as they disappear over time, viewers may well wish to seek out the spectacular, though harrowing, viewing experience of Tyrannosaur [Paddy Considine, UK, 2011]. Of course, not every acting performance will be able to match up with Olivia Colman’s spectacular prowess, but in search of a true and moving character study, it could do well to look here for inspiration. Much of Leslie Morgan Steiner’s TED Talk examines the awe-inspiring strength that it takes for victims to leave their abusers. Morgan particularly hones in on one simple fact: over 70% of domestic violence murders occur after the victim has ended the relationship, as the abuser now has “nothing left to lose”. Here, however, the incredible strength that it takes to leave an abuser is forgotten. Her decision to finally leave is almost presented as a formality, a complex societal issue diluted down to actions and decisions that are presented as run-of-the-mill. Whilst this short’s focus on an important issue is total, its focus on the hero at the heart of the struggle is not. As a character-led story, the film does not always do its serious subject matter justice, ultimately leaving the character development at the story’s centre unattended. However, Influx is incredibly well made, and will serve to further strengthen the reputation of director Daniel Uribe’s technical mastery.

Influx is insurmountably slick, its editing second to none, its composition of visual images neatly achieved. The pacing of its action is polished, carrying the viewer along as though atop the crest of its poem’s breaking wave. Chief amongst its design choices, is the precise and confined use of CG. As our lead continues on her emotional path, a swirling vortex forms inside her abusive partner’s whisky glass. Instantly, a link is established with alcoholism as an untreated root cause in the cycle of abuse. The swirling brown liquid is a wonderfully executed use of budget, allowing for a deeper symbolism to be explored without threatening to confuse the piece’s realistic tone. In terms of how much a piece of short cinema is able to communicate, and what sorts of complex themes and emotions it can attempt to tackle, Influx is a shining light to the rest of the competition.

Sam Briggs

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I Am Joseph

Tomisin Adepeju, UK, 2019

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naturally or from candles, perfectly symbolising Joseph’s inner turmoil as he feels that his life is so devoid of light. These moments contain almost no dialogue, but Akinsulire’s performance tells us everything we need to know.

Am Joseph follows the eponymous carpenter whose fiancée, Mary, has revealed that she is pregnant and that the child has been conceived immaculately. The film establishes early on that it is the story of Christ, updated to a more modern context and told through the eyes of Joseph as he deals with this strange and unbelievable revelation.

Supporting actors Asmara Gabrielle and D. K. Ugonna, who play Mary and the stranger, David, respectively, bring equally compelling performances. Gabrielle does something interesting with Mary that is not often seen, revealing a quiet power through her visible frustration with Joseph, who refuses to believe her. Ugonna is a much-needed voice of reason for Joseph, softly spoken and understanding, as he ultimately helps him come to terms with the reality of the situation.

Director Tomisin Adepeju’s approach to tell the wellknown story from Joseph’s perspective is intriguing and Michael Akinsulire (who plays Joseph) is the highlight of this film, giving a conflicted and angry performance. The most compelling scenes are in the opening act where Joseph is by himself, reflecting on this revelation and figuring out how to respond to the situation. Did his fiancée have an affair? Can it be that his child is a genuine miracle? Is his child the son of God? The scene in which he is working and starts to destroy his creations perfectly demonstrates the confusion and turmoil that he is going through.

I Am Joseph is a well-crafted film that explores internal conflicts and the emotional struggles that a person can go through in the most extreme and unbelievable of circumstances. Adepeju brings a new perspective and freshness to a well-worn story and, combined with the powerful performances from its cast, I Am Joseph is a truly unique film.

Adepeju highlights these raw moments with perfect cinematography (provided here by Miles Ridgway). There’s very little light, and what light there is comes

Vincent Dolan

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