Not far off Hoxton Square in east London, in the basement of a modest gallery called The Hundred Year Gallery, something special took place. Last weekend saw the introduction of the Cheap Cuts Documentary Film Festival. A new festival dedicated to showcasing the best short-form documentary films from across the world. Curated from 1,400 entries were 21 fascinating shorts, ranging in style, scale, budget and, of course, subject shown across two days.
Cheap Cuts is a resolutely independent film festival. Organised by Vera Hems Anderson and Natalia Garay Cerón they funded it thanks to donations from the public and actually made entry for the screenings free. Their commitment to showing great film work is unquestionable, and they make clear they believe in “content over from”, saying they are “interested in the stories filmmakers have to tell and not the equipment or budget used to do so”.
A clear focus on substance is only half of what makes Cheap Cuts such a strong new festival; the other half comes from their dedication to a certain type of film. As Vera explains, “We decided to set up Cheap Cuts back in August after going to a few film festivals and thinking there was a huge gap for short documentaries within the festival scene. We decided early on that we would concentrate solely on short documentaries and didn’t stray from this.”
Amongst the patrons and judges there was a diverse range of documentary filmmakers. Luis Lopez Carrasco (co-founder of Los Hijos) was there to weigh in on jury duty alongside Yasmin El Derby (film curator and director of the Middle East & North Africa Film Festival) and Rainbow Collective filmmakers/activists Richard York and Hannan Majid. Meanwhile, fellow judge Iris Zaki, a filmmaker and lecturer at Royal Holloway, was there to give a masterclass about her experience with documentary filmmaking.
I arrived for the opening screening on a sunny Saturday morning, unsure of what to expect from an independent, debut film festival; “What was I in for?” I thought to myself. As soon as Filip Jacobson’s documentary ‘Home’ began though, I swiftly slipped under its comfortable spell. This half-hour film from Poland follows the ins and out of a old-aged home for the homeless, who battle with past demons, mental health problems and addiction. And Jacobson’s fly-on-the-wall approach was surprisingly uplifting given the grim circumstances. With little in the way of a dramatic arc, Jacobson followed the founder of the home and Mother Superior Gražyna and her sister Wioletta around on their unorthodox daily routine of personalised care – doling out cigarettes as the only currency that really matters to the haggard but happy guests.
For each screening that took place over the weekend a theme was constructed, giving a solid structure to the festival. The Q&A sessions that took place on both days were a terrific idea and helped to bring the eager audience even further into the fold. This wasn’t a festival for elitists – or even particularly cine-literate documentary fans for that matter. Cheap Cuts was about opening up a dialogue and inviting the audience to view, learn, and discuss the process of independent documentary filmmaking.
A personal favourite from the Saturday screenings was Vashti Harrison’s haunting portrait Field Notes. Through grain drenched black and white visuals and a spine tingling narration, we were let into a world unlike our own. A world of Caribbean folk tales and hysteria as told to the filmmaker by her family members. Segmented by stark, mad scribblings in a journal, our guide informs us about the traditions that inhabit the island; don’t walk through your front door forwards, a voice over informed us, you must enter backwards unless you want a Jumbee to follow you in. Never point at a cemetery otherwise a Jumbee will follow you home. Field Notes was subtle in its execution but gripping in its otherworldly subject.
‘Home’ and ‘Field Notes’ from the first day of the festival brilliantly display the incredible diversity in the programme – from films about old age and mundane daily routine in Poland, to supernatural spirits and folklore in the Caribbean. They stand as a testament to the hard-work of the organisers to create a truly exciting programme, and it seemed to pay off.
“The event went really well, much better than expected.” Vera told us, “We were thrilled with the amount of visitors and how many people attended each screening. As our first event ever, let alone film festival, I don’t think we could have asked for a better turn out, a better crowd or better atmosphere. We loved it!”
New festivals can be uncertain affairs, for both audience and organisers, but Cheap Cuts deserve all the praise they get, having pulled off a truly unique, interesting and accessible new film festival. The question now is, what next for Cheap Cuts?
“The next official Cheap Cuts Festival will take place next spring in 2017, funding depending.” Which is great news for festival fans, but they’re also hoping for a more regular presence, “Our idea behind the monthly screenings is to work with like minded people within London – and further afield – to promote short docs. These screenings will be perfect for short docs that are now a little older and perhaps out of the festival circuit or for filmmakers eager to get their films screened to an audience.
“We definitely want to hold another festival and would like it to grow to add another day next year and add more classes and workshops, as they were very popular. We will begin working on this in the coming weeks and look at opening submissions later in the year.”
With so many short films being produced now, and so many outlets online for them, it can hard to find the true quality out there, with some great short documentaries inevitably failing to get attention amongst the growing crowd of competing films. Cheap Cuts helps to resolve that. So if you’re a filmmaker or avid documentary enthusiast then festivals such as this are perhaps the best way of getting to see those great short films. Filmmakers need more opportunities for their work to be seen while audiences need more help to find the best filmmakers. Cheap Cuts help fulfil these needs, which should give all film fans a reason to support them.
You can find a full film programme and list of winners on the Cheap Cuts site. The winner of the best international film category will be reviewed on Gorilla soon.