Short Films at the 17th Leeds Film Festival

2nd-12th October 2003

October saw the Leeds International Film Festival descend upon the city for the 17th time. This year’s programme was perhaps the most varied yet, ranging from dialogue-less Japanese animation to 1970s Westerns filmed, somewhat paradoxically, in communist Eastern Europe. But I was interested in seeing the domestic British films on show and, as I had only two days, I concentrated on the short film showcases. In other words, I saw as many British and Yorkshire based short films as my backside could sit through.

Andrew Wilson, the festival’s convenor of the short film section, described this year’s programme as ‘interesting and cheap films… a masterclass in what you can do with a video camera and not a lot of money’. The obvious starting point was therefore the programme of short films by the Leeds Metropolitan University students. The quality of filmmaking was encouragingly high, thanks in large part to Denise York’s resurrection of the university’s ‘Film & Moving Image Production’ course over the last couple of years. The students’ camerawork and editing throughout was highly professional, displaying both knowledge and skill for their chosen craft.

Some, however, were evidently over-eager to make a film before the rudiments of the script were sorted out. Prakesh Patel’s Hard Knocks, for example, told the story of a young boxer who plans to take a fall in order to finance running away with The Big Man’s girlfriend. It seemed to lack the irony needed to carry off a story that was already a cliché in 1950s B Movies, but the direction and editing displayed considerable skill, especially in the action sequences.

Bottom of the pile was The Reunion, featuring awful pseudo poetic dialogue and voiceover with romantic scenarios reminiscent of, but not as good as, a Nescafé coffee advert. Top of the class was a very clever little film called Indecision, based on the universal farce of man’s indecision to commit to, or leave, his girlfriend. As the man walks away from his girlfriend on a beach and rests in a field the camera swoops over him, through the ground and comes out into the beach again; this motion continues like a horizontal pendulum thus mimicking the man being caught in two minds/ two places. It ends with a static camera showing the man’s legs sticking out of the field and his head emerging through the sand, realising that the girl has gone and the tide is dangerously coming in. It was one of the shorter films on show, but recognised the artistic potential of the short film rather than merely acting as a trailer for a feature length film, as some of the others appeared to be.

The best script award goes to Michael Burton for A Night in the Life of… proving it is still possible to give a fresh take on teenage vampirism. The central character describes the hard life of living with his ‘disease’ without being entitled to disability allowance, inter-cut with interviews with his parents and scenes of him working the night shift at his local supermarket. Shot perfectly in a mock documentary style and strong acting throughout (especially from Mathew Rutter as the central character), it made the free entrance fee fantastic value for money.

The Best of UK Shorts showcase was slightly more high profile and I had to pay accordingly. The leap of quality from student to professional filmmaking was a small one, which is again a testament to the University’s film course. The most obvious difference was that the scripts and central ideas were consistently strong and original. Again I felt a preference towards the very short ‘concept’ films, or the longer character based films. Of the ‘concept’ films, Greig Johnson’s Hilarity and Simon Eliss’ What About the Bodies? were the better executed. The humour focused on a man sat in front of his laptop with writer’s block (not hard to see where this script came from then) who decides to saw off his unproductive right hand. The calm matter-of-factness of his actions creates an uncomfortable comedy and when, halfway through sawing, his girlfriend phones up, the pleasant mundanity of their conversation is hilarious – as is his attempt to peel a potato with one good hand and one bloody stump.

What About the Bodies? also followed the programme’s unofficial theme of blood and gore. A man driving in the Yorkshire moors pulls up by the side of the road and begins to start digging a hole, as we see the legs of his seemingly murdered wife sticking out from the backseat. He is spooked by a van which appears down the road, and we soon discover the van driver is there for the same sinister reasons. The first man’s wife then comes to, and in turn tries to kill her husband. If one were to boil Shallow Grave down to its condensed comic essence you would get something very similar and as perversely enjoyable as What About the Bodies?

The strongest character based film was Barry: Born to be King, although there were several very good ones including Harold the Amazing Contortionist Pig, Claverdeek and Man With Fork. Like A Night in the Life of…, Barry is a masterclass in the comic mockumentary. It follows the story of a Brummie nightclub Elvis impersonator who decides to branch out into Birmingham’s popular wine bar scene. Essentially it explores the notion of fame within a celebrity-obsessed western culture. The lower levels of regional fame, much like Steve Coogan’s I’m Alan Partridge, exposes the laughable universal elements of man’s need for fame and adoration. Barry, for example, realising his Elvis act is outdated, decides to don an Eminem costume (with an electric meat carver substituting for the chainsaw) to tap into the youth market – much to the horror of the bar owner. Being a Midlander myself, it was also good to see the comic potential of the Brummie accent mercilessly realised to the full.

From my short time in Leeds (very weak pun intended) it was clear that the Leeds International film festival is growing rapidly. The volunteer ushers consistently expressed their surprise at how popular each event was, as their printed handouts ran out before even half the audience had taken their seats. Leeds is also an excellent city for such a festival, this year boasting 18 different venues for the various programmes on offer. I only hope there remains a place for these low-budget domestic short films in years to come. Denise York opened the third student showcase with an Oscar acceptance style speech, profusely thanking the event organisers for their place in the festival, no doubt with the underlying intention of cementing their role next year. Here’s hoping that they do, not only for the future of domestic British talent, but also to maintain the art of the short film within an era of cinema obsessed by big-budget blockbusters.