Each year, Flatpack Film Festival screens a staggering variety of short films. This year’s festival included over 250: the five separate competition programmes with themes as varied and ambitious as dreams and reality, journeys and meta-cinema. Along with these strands were two diverse Pick ‘N’ Mix screenings showcasing the best of the British and international submissions. A further eight shorts programmes covered everything from cats vs dogs to deviant filmmakers.
The best of Channel 4’s late-night shorts shows (Eleventh Hour, Midnight Underground, The Shooting Gallery) screened in contention for Flatpack’s latest prize, the Random Acts Short Film Award, while a series of short films for television (Second City Firsts) produced by the BBC’s regional, Birmingham-based arm, Pebble Mill, screened as part of Flatpack’s extensive archive programme. With such a tantalising array of programmes to choose from, we managed to make it along to three.
Competition Shorts: Reflections
Birmingham’s Electric Cinema is a long-time advocate of the city’s leading film festival. As the UK’s oldest working cinema (established in 1909 and largely rebuilt in the 1930s), it has a devoted following hooked on independent releases, cult titles and niche filmmakers. This eclectic crowd, which included international filmmakers from Europe and the USA, gathered early on Saturday morning for a relaxed screening of Flatpack’s Reflections strand, exploring creativity and its effect on the spectator. With one of the country’s last remaining traditional projectors, The Electric was the perfect place to screen Anouk de Clercq’s 35mm short Black.
The Belgian film examines the meaning of darkness and what it represents to the individual, with thought provoking subtitles read over a black background. Is our relationship with the darkness related to our personal experience? For de Clercq, darkness represents the excitement and power of the cinema. Yet his traditional film medium ensures the black images evolve with each screening, becoming pierced with white light and imperfections, offering each audience a different viewing experience, producing stimulating meta-cinema at its most minimal.
Other highlights included Stems – a melancholy two-minute film about the short life of stop-motion puppets – and Symbolic Threats. This German film about New York’s Brooklyn Bridge comes from artists Matthias Wermke and Mischa Leinkauf who claimed credit for the 2014 incident in which the bridge’s stars and stripes were exchanged for white flags. Their stunt, intended as a celebration of “the beauty of public space”, resulted in widespread panic. Using Archive news footage, Symbolic Threats probes our relationship with art, its context and the way we interpret it.
The selection’s closing short, Supporting Film, met with the audience’s nodding endorsement as it scrutinised our experience of film itself. It comes from Douwe Dijkstra (of last year’s Flatpack favourite, Demontable, a chaotic dissection of war and global news) and gives voice to individual viewers who share their, often conflicting, thoughts on special effects, unrealistic storylines and the use of music. Dijkstra experiments with sound and image as deaf and blind film fans weigh in with their verdict on audio cues and orchestral scores.
Pick ‘N’ Mix
Where de Clercq’s Black employs darkness as tool of meta-cinema, the highlight of the British Pick ‘N’ Mix short film selection, Isabella, harnesses it to explore memory. As 92-year old Isabella tells a story about her childhood, losing her way and repeating herself, we glimpse faint images through a black screen. Hands and faces emerge, but a whole, coherent picture appears only when Isabella is lucid. It’s another poignant examination of old-age from Duncan Cowles whose participatory documentary Directed By Tweedie screened at last year’s festival. Speaking about Isabella, co-director Ross Hogg explained the film began as an animation about memory but evolved into a deeper analysis of dementia as Isabella’s condition worsened.
It’s the tragedy occurring off-camera that powers the most suspenseful film in the selection, Caroline Bartleet’s Operator. Kate Dickie (Games of Thrones, Prometheus) is a 999 operator taking a call from a mother trapped in a burning building with her son. Dickie – the only actress to appear on screen – gives a gripping performance. Comforting words contrast with urgent requests; panicked eyes with a soothing voice. After just six minutes we feel as drained as the operator who after the call has mere seconds to gather herself before she must take another.
Second City Firsts
In the 1970s, fifty-three standalone films aired on the BBC under the banner Second City Firsts. The thirty minute film series was the brainchild of David Rose (the first Head of the English Regions Drama Department at Birmingham’s Pebble Mill) who wanted to find fresh talent outside London. Six of the films screened at The Mac, Edgbaston’s hub for visual arts, just half a mile from the Pebble Mill studios.
Featuring the first on-screen performance from Julie Walters and early roles from Alison Steadman, the strand attracted a more mature audience than Flatpack’s norm, demonstrating the festival’s expanding reach. Former Pebble Mill employees populated the crowd and at intermission the auditorium reverberated with old production stories.
Series producer Vanessa Jackson was also on hand to introduce the films along with script editor and producer Tara Prem. Prem, who scripted A Touch Of Eastern Promise (1973), the first television film to feature an all Asian cast, sparked a fervent debate on diversity. In the Q&A the audience praised Prem for writing a universal story (about a man’s misplaced ambition) and for demonstrating that Asian actors can play any role.
Second City Firsts certainly lived up to the boundary pushing claims of its title. Politically charged Club Havanna (1975) examines capitalism, race and class from the perspective of a Jamaican immigrant, while Girl (1974) features the first televised lesbian kiss. Yet the highlight of Flatpack’s selection was a much smaller, rare studio project from Mike Leigh. The Permissive Society (1975) features the nuanced characterisation and intimate feel of the director’s later work: his rehearsals through improvisation result in a close family drama loaded with society’s rules and freedoms as a young man negotiates his first sexual relationship.
A darker twist on this theme closed the selection. Jack Flea’s Birthday Celebration (1976) was the first writing for television from novelist Ian McEwan. It’s a perverse and sinister metafictional tale about a young man’s smothering parents and his sordid relationship with the older lover who treats him like a child. The most surreal and challenging film of the Second City First’s selection, Jack Flea’s Birthday Celebration echoes the jet-black short stories McEwan was writing at the time. The film’s peculiar climax met with nervous laughter from an audience intrigued and unsettled by McEwan’s dark comic twist. We can only imagine what audiences made of it in 1976.