A chattering audience at the end of a screening is usually a good sign. Reactions have been provoked. Cinema has done its job. That’s exactly what happened at last night’s Cross Frequencies selection of shorts. Chatter about these experimental films – the most challenging of all the competition shorts programmes – could be heard in the theatre, the foyer and on the street outside. Sparking debate were the universal themes of Canadian film Controversies, the artistic beauty of animations Between My Fingers and Foreign Bodies (that would be equally at home in a gallery) and the incomprehensible strangeness of Seven Times A Day We Bemoan Our Lot And At Night We Get Up To Avoid Dreaming.
The latter is an experimental German documentary based on interviews with a man who lost his memory in 1989 and became plagued by nightmares. The backstory is virtually unrecognisable from the film which pairs disturbing automatons and their own miniature habitats with troubling descriptions of botched surgeries and abusive pasts. With rapid subtitling, it’s a potent film that demands to be seen more than once.
The programme began with art collective Neozoon’s MY BBY 8L3W, a video collage of owners and their pets. Using 30 videos and a multi-split-screen, MY BBY 8L3W could be seen as an homage to how much we love our animals. A sentiment which, the film demonstrates, can go too far. Layered audio gives owners speaking in a chorus of baby voices, underlining the cliches of the saturated pet video genre and the absurdity of its creators. Amplified by a packed split screen, the finale is a bizarre concoction of the gross and the laugh out loud ridiculous.
MY BBY 8L3W was the first of the night’s three films to reconfigure archive material. Ryan McKenna’s Controversies uses archive phone-ins from a Canadian radio show, Action Line, over video of suburbia. Shot in black and white, the houses and residents appear inert, either entranced or indifferent, to a barrage of transient concerns about dangerous balloons, the price of gas and the fat reducing benefits of cayenne pepper. Much is comedic (like one man’s simplistic take on child abusers and rapists, ‘why don’t they just masturbate?’), as Controversies flirts with the idea that we’re unable to recognise our own absurdities. For all the impassioned vociferating about dangerous dog owners, police inquiries and justice, Controversies’ visual lethargy asks us if we’re really doing anything to help.
Although less visually slick in its reworking of archive video, Transformers The Premake packs in a critical examination of Michigan’s film tax credit, a cynical look at the lure of the Chinese box office and suspicions about the internet as a distributor’s treasure trove. Director Kevin B. Lee probes the fine line between free advertising and copyright infringement and even manages to strip Michael Bay of his glossy, Hollywood magnate persona. Lee takes us on a tour of filming locations with DIY behind the scenes footage and there’s an irreverence to his style. Public who defy Transformers’ city lockdowns get a kindly nod, while crowds of fans glued to the sidelines get a snarky ‘grow up’ caption from their fed up dog. It’s not all disapproving though. The on-location footage reveals the effort (and expense) in each second of finished cinema, while the genuine excitement of fans offers a surprisingly buoyant vibe.
Duane Hopkins’ Twelfth Man gives us a darker side of fandom. Part of a 2014 World Cup omnibus project entitled Short Plays, this crowd centred documentary opens with the anticipation of a game. Camaraderie quickly erupts into hostility between Sunderland and Newcastle fans unified only in their antagonism of the police. Bruised faces and collapsed men vomiting in the street, communicate the escalating maelstrom without need for voiceover. Instead, an oppressive wall of of crowd noise and football chants push and squash the audience. It’s claustrophobic. The upheaval feels on the verge of spilling over into complete chaos and is rescued only by the order of the game.
While the ideas of Twelfth Man and Transformers The Premake are easier to detect, Netherlands’ short Demontable is harder to digest. It’s a bonkers mash-up: part action flick, part documentary but the two bleed together unfathomably. Taking place on a tabletop, a war is waged by miniature soldiers while a person eats dinner. A lorry appears out of the mashed potato and is exploded by a drone. Pouring coffee is sprayed by a helicopter and a newspaper is shredded. We could be inside the mind of a child at the dinner table but the mounting chaos suggests there’s more. In spite of the military carnage, life at the table continues as normal. This, says Demontable, is how we react to global news. When the tiny soldiers begin to step out of the battlefield, revealing full sized men and a green screen, things get even more enigmatic. Reality and metaphor blur and it all goes a bit Berberian Sound Studio. A man pops bubble wrap to create the sound of gunshots and soldiers drop dead one by one. Is this a comment on filmmaking, or a deeper suggestion that we are all responsible for our military, manipulating them like toys in The Lego Movie?
It’s puzzles like these that make experimental shorts so worthwhile, and programmes like Cross Frequencies a festival highlight, sparking debate and contemplation long after the journey home.
Cross Frequencies is the first of five competition programmes at this year’s Flatpack Festival. All of the winning shorts, along with Flatpack’s audience award, will be announced on Sunday 29th March 2015.
Flatpack Film Festival 2015 official site.