It was the hottest day of the year, a sticky twenty-five degrees outside, but an intimate gathering of film fans gave up the sunshine for a dark auditorium at Derby’s QUAD arts centre. It was time to indulge in a shared love of short films. Each year, Derby’s festival reaches its conclusion with Eat My Shorts, a collected screening of the finest short films submitted from across the globe. This year the programme was also followed by This Is Not A Cartoon, an additional seventy-five minute selection of short animations. Here are some of our favourites.
Eat My Shorts
Derby’s Eat My Shorts event has an excellent track record of brave, varied, occasionally zany shorts handpicked by the festival’s co-ordinators from a plethora of genres. This year’s selection followed suit, featuring dramas and sci-fi, thrillers and psychological horror. Where it parts from earlier programmes is in the consistent tone of its films. All of this year’s shorts shared a dark, foreboding mood. Festival co-ordinator Peter Munford briefed the audience, “there are no laughs here”.
The concept behind Razvan Barseti’s Positive, is especially troubling. An anxious, hypochondriac is tired of thinking about death and just wants to ‘jump’. In an attempt to control her destiny, she invites a HIV positive man into her home, seeking his ‘gift’. We’re taken into the mind of another disturbed woman in Chris Neilson’s Demons. Lia is convinced she can see evil disguised in human form. At first we might believe her – Neilson’s orange lighting giving the scenes an impression of hell – but as Lia describes her dubious methods for identifying these male demons, we begin to doubt her conviction.
In contrast, the darkness within Matthew Hopper’s Rumble emerges from its realism. Ben, a hearing impaired boxer must choose between the sport he loves and an operation allowing him to hear properly for the first time. Hopper uses sound to draw us in to Ben’s way of experiencing the world. For the majority of Rumble’s nineteen minutes we interpret events as Ben does: through low, muffled sounds, lip reading and body language. It’s a jarring experience, plagued with unease: the world without sound can be a frightening place. Ben faces animosity and violence from his boxing opponents inside and outside the ring. For Ben, the tactile experience of physical combat is as natural, as innate a sense as sound: could he really give it up?
Josh Ormerod’s sci-fi Mould, also elicits a bleak atmosphere from the frailty of the human body. In this version of the future, science is able to create human clones but it ‘cannot fix the human mind’. Leonard has dementia but he’s more concerned with the effect this might have on his wife Anne than he is about himself. Ormerod concentrates on the first meeting between Leonard and his replacement clone (both parts are convincingly performed by David Shackleton). Their conversation about shared histories and possible futures reveals much about human consciousness and freedom.
This Is Not A Cartoon
This international showcase of animated festival favourites currently touring the UK, makes an excellent case for the emotional power and thought provoking possibilities of the animated medium. Its highlight, Tea With The Dead, demonstrates just how far from its childish ‘cartoon’ roots animation can travel. The squashed faces of its hand-drawn 2D characters á la Peppa Pig only emphasise this distance. Frank (voiced by the late Frank Kelly) is an embalmer. Each day after he prepares the dead for burial he makes a cup of tea and talks to them about their lives. The conversations are the genuine recordings of real Irish people: voices crack reading out a letter from a deceased parent, a woman describes a bloody, premature birth that left her traumatised, while another talks about being given up by her birth mother. It’s not all doom and gloom though, the stories are interlaced with children’s games, romance and happy endings. This true-story twist to Tea With The Dead lends it poignant authenticity and it’s difficult not to be moved by its funny, weepy, rollercoaster of emotion. Director Gary Gill (aka Gilly and co-founder of Dublin Animation studio Wiggleywoo Ltd) has created an honest story of love and loss, loneliness and friendship.
Wackatdooo is a direct response to the idea of animation as mere ‘cartoon’. This five minute film from Montréal based artist Benjamin Arcand is a surreal, retro, jazz-fest of dancing cats and mice complete with pianos, trumpets and gramophones. Everything is reminiscent of classic cartoon from the colours to the wallpaper and the intricate swing dancing. There are scenes evocative of Dumbo, Mickey Mouse and Tom & Jerry. When a flashing digital alarm clock reads ‘JOB’ and our moggie wakes up to face another monotonous day at work, he refuses to leave the dancing in his dreams. Bringing this classic cartoon behaviour into the ‘real-world’ only results in catastrophe. It’s a superb comment on the escapism offered by cartoons and the fun-loving child that exists within us all.
Other films in the selection explored the tragic consequences of broken promises (French speaking, Japanese-style folktale Carn) and human anxieties (chuckling, tongue-in-cheek Dutch animation Panic!). Genius, self-referential animation Mr Madila or The Colour Of Nothing, sees Rory Waudby-Tolley animate his own interview with a spiritual healer. The result is both amusing and profound. This eight minute film invites us to contemplate atomic science and the significance of the universe while giving us an ironic glance at ego and the trivialities of human life.
Finally, Rhiannon Evans’ Fulfilament explored the nature of thought itself. Her painstaking stop-motion film follows a lightbulb around the wiry maze of the human brain as it searches for a place to switch on. A train of thought whizzes by. In another room a phallic lightbulb awaits a seven second countdown before it flickers to life. Evans, who was on hand for a Q&A at the end of the screening, described Fulfilament as response to the unexpected success of her previous short, Heartstrings: a means of exploring why audiences responded so positively. The light-bulb was metaphorically wandering around her own head. Speaking about the filmmaking process, Evans struck on the cost of the stop-motion form and the uphill struggle to attract funding outside the film school arena. In light of This Is Not A Cartoon’s compelling statement about the power of animation, this reality is especially sad.
Derby Film Festival ran from April 28 to May 9. You can read part 1 of our coverage, which includes reviews of Mustang and The Call Up, here.
For more information the This Is Not A Cartoon film programme tour, visit the site.