Prior to watching God’s Lonely Men: Going Solo (which I went to on my own. Oh, the irony!) at the London Short Film Festival I was expecting an hour and a half of tears and misery, largely based on this description of the programme:
Modern society sees a lot of lonely men out there, growing old without friends or family, whether by choice or by accident, or maybe they have personal reasons for being alone.
But I was wrong. It was actually pretty funny. The programme tackled the topic of loneliness and outsider-ness from different angles, as the description promised, but often employed humour (albeit of the dark variety). There were those who were lonely because of a dream or obsession, those who suffered a tragedy and couldn’t fit in with daily life, those who experienced transcendental moments that made ordinary life hardly bearable and those facing a challenge that few could relate to.
Of the obsessive, dreamer variety we first saw Toby (left) by Jonathan Schey. A film about a man who has a mundane job in a supermarket and lives at home with his mum, watching shit TV in his pants and munching custard creams. Finally he has enough and purposefully goes to an open-mic music night at his local pub where he raps in front of a nonplussed audience. It’s not stardom, but at least it’s an attempt to take control and do what he wants.
There were a number of subtle, darkly funny moments in the film, as well as moments of pure pathos. It was a character piece that could have fallen flat given its short 7 minute running time, but confident direction and a strong performance by Luke Barnes (who also wrote it) drew the audience in and carried the film. It didn’t seek to answer or explore any big questions (thankfully), but it did sketch out an empathetic character. Its simplicity was to its credit and its execution made it one of the best films of the night.
Funnily enough the other film that told the story men with dreams also involved rapping. Gary The Rapper Vs Stefan Blix by Mark Devenport was about an IT technician with aspirations of being a rapper who seeks out a DJ called Stefan Blix who had 15 minutes of fame about a decade before but is now a reclusive shut in. Stefan has a girlfriend who seems tired of his lack of direction and effort and encourages the collaboration. It approached the men’s loneliness with light heartedness and Dean Palinczuk, who plays Gary, puts in a particularly good comic turn.
Away from the comedy we had tragedy. The first dose came with Shanks’ Pony (an idiom meaning “I’m not giving you a lift, you can fuck off and walk”) from John & Tom Turrell, which was about a young man who lives, basically, in the wilderness with just a small rucksack containing his worldly possessions. He’s clearly wrestling with some demons, and the story suggests he murdered his grandfather.
While I’m in favour of directors letting the audience do some work to figure things out, I found the story too opaque. There were strong hints about what the young man had done, but how many times he had done it was unclear and the relationships were confusing. The visuals were beautiful though, and as an impressionistic piece it was a pleasure to watch. It also claims the award for Best Use Of A Wobbly Wheel For Dramatic Effect In A Short Film.
Less tragic, but certainly not comic, was A Portrait by Aristotelis Maragkos. The ruminations of a young man about his grandfather in Greece who had a secret second family. It’s a diary account of Maragkos’s memories and impressions, told through a very impressive and exciting single line animation. It’s hard to explain in words, maybe you can get it from this still…
Another mini-category in the programme was men who had lived through extreme, rare scenarios and now tried to reintegrate into normal society. At one end of this spectrum we had men who participated in pure horror. Incognito, by Jeremiah Quinn, was a dramatic imagining of coffee dates that Nazi fugitives Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele enjoyed while they lived in secret in Argentina after World War 2. Beautifully rendered, it was interesting to think how two such men could go about life as normal after such atrocities.
At the positive, uplifting end of the extreme experiences spectrum was The Man Who Walked On The Moon, by Jenny Lu. The most ambitious film of the night it was inspired by a JG Ballard short story, about an astronaut who had been to the moon during the Apollo missions and was now living out his retirement in a small, anonymous British town. When the theme of the film came through – that this man had experienced something incredible that no one else could relate to – it worked really well. You felt real sympathy for the astronaut’s isolation on Earth.
However, there were a few instances where the presumably low budget nature of the film got the better of it and punctured the verisimilitude. In one particularly jarring scene, three, apparently, old women come into a diner where the astronaut is a regular and mocks him. Apart from one of them, these were very unconvincing old women, they were too agile, one of them didn’t look a day over 35, and their costume was ‘fancy dress old woman’. Also, the actor playing the astronaut looked 60, tops, whereas the actual astronauts who went to the moon are much older. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, are now 84 and dead, respectively.
I bring this up not to needlessly nit-pick at the film, but this sort of detail is really important in short films. A jarring scene can be brushed over in a feature because 10 minutes after it’s happened the film has moved on and your attention is on something else. In a short film though, 10 minutes on and the film has ended and the scene that took you out of the film is still stuck in your brain. The Man Who Walked On The Moon had a good idea, a good script and (his age incongruity aside) a good central performance, but lapses in production sadly stopped it being a great short film. Aside from this though it was enjoyable and its ambition should be applauded, especially the surprisingly good moon scene.
While I enjoyed the ambition of The Man Who Walked On The Moon, the pick of the night was probably the simplest in presentation; Another Green World. It featured a man who was alternately sat alone watching a large video projection, sat in a doctor’s waiting room and sat on a train, with his thoughts coming across though voice over. The film was about facing death, specifically with terminal cancer.
The man we watch reflects on effectively receiving a death sentence and facing the end. His insights are familiar; we shouldn’t get bogged down with passing problems, should look at the big picture, appreciate the small things in life and try to live in the moment. But they were expressed with sincerity, and even verve, with the visuals combining to deliver these messages with some weight that actually left an impression. Inspired partly by interviews with the author Iain Banks (who sadly died in 2013) and the musician Wilko Johnson, who were both diagnosed with terminal cancer, Another Green World is a thoughtful, delicate and sympathetic film that relates familiar ideas but with a power that is sometimes lost.
Overall the LSFF put together 100 minutes of short films that were engaging, entertaining and thought provoking, tackling similar themes from different angles. My fear that it would be 100 minutes of misery was entirely unfounded and there was a good balance between the serious, the comic and the inbetween.
The Lonely Men programme has been part of the London Short Film Festival for years, and it’s an area rich with material. The ‘lone man’ is a slightly bizarre constant throughout storytelling history, from isolated holy men seeking revelation through solitude, to the determined hero on a noble but unpopular quest, to the more modern hard-boiled cop or the Man With No Name type in the likes of Sergio Leone’s westerns.
It will be interesting to see how filmmakers tackle this trope in a modern context in coming years, and hopefully we will see the results at future instalments of the London Short Film Festival.
The London Short Film Festival runs until Sunday 18th January. See our pick of events.