“Mastery of the visual language of film… each film justified their inclusion for innovation, style, and control”
The closing night of Underwire produced a beguiling mélange of shorts – together, fierce, provocative and moving.
‘Celluloid Sculptors’ showcased the work of those female filmmakers shortlisted for the Best Director award at Underwire Festival 2013. Seven films comprised the programme, two animation, four live-action, and one potent blend of the two (don’t think Who Framed Roger Rabbit). The award, which aside from the credibility includes a year’s membership to Directors UK, went to Prano Bailey-Bond for her exposé of a Vietnamese boy’s forced labour in The Trip. We found out in the morning that this programme also included Underwire’s Best Actress, Shanon Tarbet, in Frances Poletti’s Woodland.
First Woodland. Poletti’s film shows a strong ability in visual construction, both in a purely aesthetic sense and in congruence with the flow of narrative. At odds with the accomplished direction, I found the premise far less worthy than another of Poletti’s screenplays, Charlie Says, directed by Lewis Arnold and starring Conner Chapman (Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant). Poletti’s writing in Charlie Says resonates with a childish urge for acceptance and the mutation of a simple lie into something destructive. Woodland, an abuse victim’s detached reconstruction of her experience and imagined revenge – Andrea Arnold’s Red Road shown in the flash of a daydream – is far less thought provoking despite its intentions.
Bailey Boyd’s winning short, The Trip, tracks the ordeal of a young vietnamese boy. Arriving in the UK from Vietnam, he never sees the sky before he is put to work in a windowless neon jungle. To his captors, Hung’s continued existence is purely functional, his life less valuable than the marijuana plants he tends. Bailey Boyds drip feeding of the passing of time and Hung’s mental degradation is delicate but impactful, and the film skirts but does not meet with overly an stylised approach. If the film’s tone is set by Bailey Boyd’s direction, it is her editing that controls the pace and the feel of the short. I heard before the screening that Bailey Boyd had taken Underwire’s editing award in 2012, and her credentials were in evidence again.
Writing in terms of pure film-going enjoyment, Physics stole the screening for me, a well rounded and emotive short by Claire Oakley, featuring a small girl with a baseball bat for all the right reasons. When a film can force us to forget about our relentless assessment of its elements for fifteen minutes and simply consume, you know it’s worthwhile. It’s a film where a weight of sadness is not thrust upon us, but floated alongside stolid optimism and the simplest love, such that it’s not love and loss and happiness we are exploring, just human life. The protagonist Rona’s energy is pitched against a lulling indifference in the landscape and the people, overshadowed by the portentous, hulking power station. Rona’s mother has succumbed to either the noxious monolith or the general malaise blighting the town. But the boon of childhood, the ability to snatch at glints of life in a sepia wasteland, and nurture them, is Rona’s weapon – alongside her baseball bat and gasmask of course.
At first I was unsure if Dog Boy was working up to some oddball Garth Marenghi style comedy, but the short left no doubt about its sincerity by the final act. Trevor is on the tail of a dangerous German Shepherd, desperate to clear the name of another (falsely accused) German Shepherd but why does this mean so much to him (and why should we keep watching while he looks for it)? Because the ordeal forces Trevor to confront a tormented childhood, the memory of which manifests itself as both his catalyst and his frailty.
The other women shortlisted for the award were Carla Mackinnon, Amy Wolfe and Natasha Tonkin. Mackinnon’s Devil in the Room has to be seen to be believed, but defies any conventions of style or direction, and exhibits a wholly original mix of documentary and animation. Conversely Amy Wolfe’s Blue is a timeless tale of self-acceptance and belonging, etched out in vibrant fluid colours – its also narrated by a jordie which really works. Tonkin’s Spin is a joyful minute-long piece of hand drawn animation employing continuously subverted visuals and clever associations to describe a day at the beach.
Mastery of the visual language of film was judged here, and each film justified their inclusion for innovation, style, and control. Of course these films too must be accessed on their writing and technical elements, and it is here where the programme showed a slight lack of depth, and why I think the entire programme did not compete for the award. However the function of a festival like this is primarily to raise the profile of female filmmakers, and exhibiting films of a diversity in form and style is of paramount importance. An essential festival whose films go forth in their own right.