By Tara Judah
Deciding what to see, and what not to see, at a film festival is always an issue; when I attended Cannes in 2013 I missed the Palm d’Or winner in favour of dinner because I hadn’t eaten a meal in a week, at LFF I had to skip High Rise and Carol to talk about a bunch of other films on radio, and in Oberhausen I missed all three sessions of Jennifer Reeder’s films because I was writing on something else. Call it an occupational hazard, but the truth is, no matter how sleep deprived you’re willing to be, it simply isn’t possible to see everything.
So as someone who doesn’t specialise in short films – but who believes that they are entirely an art form unto themselves – I find selecting sessions based on genre or categorisation deeply problematic.
Though I know I would enjoy a drama and a thriller or two, I’m not entirely sure I want to sit through an hour and a half of them in one go. Won’t I be weary of the generic tropes after I’ve seen them repeatedly and in such concentration? Is there an arguably good reason as to why an Opening Night showcase offers a taster across genres, to entice a supposedly broad audience, but the four-day program it samples does not?
Like many festival attendees, I’m experienced enough to be aware of my own tastes and preferences, but I also want to be surprised and challenged. Having also contributed to short film selection for various film festivals over the years, one thing I know well is that I tend to favour nonnarrative works. I find their inherently disparate nature more engaging across those ninety minutes in the dark.
As such, at the Aesthetica Short Film Festival, with no possible way for me to see all 300 films in the program, I decided to attend, almost exclusively, the Experimental and Artists’ Film strands.
Four days, and I’m not quite sure how many short films later, what I’m left with are questions. Cheifly, what are the parameters or guidelines for separating ‘Experimental’ and ‘Artists’ Film’? And who are those categories best serving; programmers, audiences or filmmakers?
There seemed to be some grouping of aesthetics or thematics in some of the sessions I attended, but what mostly I found in seeing these films, that are seemed much like each other, was monotony. Clearly it’s not the fault of the third film in a sequence of aesthetically and formally aligned films that I should grow bored of watching it, and yet, that is what happened.
What, then, is the alternative? Would it have been to the audiences’ benefit to see but one of these among a selection of completely atonal works? Mixed in with documentary, dance, music videos, thrillers and comedies? For mine, after attending Oberhausen over the past three years, where that’s exactly how they program their international competition screenings, I’d say yes.
I used to think (perhaps naively) that a short film program should be curated to tell a story, or have an arch, or collectively make a point of some kind. But that’s as daft as expecting to extract meaning from all visual art works, or in thinking that a full day of feature film viewing should be somehow cohesive. Context and tone can be useful, for sure, but artworks must stand alone, too.
Giving a film the space it needs in any sort of grouped program is a terrifically difficult task. And, even as I write this report, I can’t be at all sure that I didn’t miss the most successfully curated sessions of the festival - perhaps I was having a meal, or getting lost in the charming streets of York as I meandered between venues, or maybe I was writing and reflecting on something else, entirely.