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For five days this month York was taken over by the Aesthetica Short Film Festival 2017. Bringing 300 short films to the city, it was a veritable feast of cinematic talent. York's 18 different venues also played host to a selection of talks, panels and events across the five-day fest.
Film festivals are, it is well known, places of great variety. Aesthetica, by specialising in shorts, epitomises this. With individual genre screenings, the festival split its array of themes into vaguely organised categories. Yet, despite this, the sheer number of oddities in the programme meant that even supposedly narrow screenings like "Comedy 3: Bad Neighbours" could give you anything ranging from Britain's weirdest pub to a couple of coke heads eating a dead mouse. Yes, this year's programming team were not afraid to 'go there' in their selection. This led, inevitably, to some less successful shorts, but also to an immense vitality and dynamism among the shorts, with a plethora of styles and ideas.
The short format suits the keen filmgoer perfectly. The lack of commerciality in short films and the fact that they are so little-seen and made on a small budget means that filmmakers are more willing to take risks. There was a dedicated 'Experimental' strand at the festival, but this different, innovative streak in fact ran through many of the films on offer. Many of this year's directors were defiant in not submitting to conventional storytelling or predictable narratives. This desire to subvert, surprise and create infused every screening with an inherent excitement, the excitement of never knowing what is going to be thrown at you next.
As it is such a vague descriptor, 'Drama' was the largest category of shorts this year. The variance in tone and subject among the shorts was incredible. Take for example Tinna Hrafnsdottir's devastatingly sad Munda and compare it to the slyly, playfully and darkly funny Mamie by Benoit Monney - two films both apparently united by "The Complicated Truth" but with entirely different aims. Drama screenings this year brought with them the weight of their complex and challenging themes. One such was Matty Crawford's Addy, analysing the damaging implications of the phrase "man up", sparking whole debates on gender, emotion and education. Perhaps the most provocative work came from Paul Philipp with his short The Peculiar Abilities of Mr Mahler. In a festival with such a variety of styles and genres, Philipp provided perhaps the perfect film for it by transitioning between genres within his film with an enviable ease. Gliding from paranormal chiller into political commentary via well-performed detective theatrics, Philipp's work had a lot to say about East German politics in the 1980s while also remaining utterly compelling, making it one of the festival's many highlights.
Short films can often struggle to connect audience and character. With such limited time, it is hard to sketch a character with enough depth for the audience to care about them. This can be particularly damaging to genre films such as a comedy or a horror. What use is an awkward situation or a teenager in peril if you don't understand or care about the characters? Thankfully, many of the shorts in the "Comedy" and "Thriller" sections of the programme were able to avoid these missteps through strong performances and, quite often, a dose of absurdism that removes the films from conventional humour or suspense. Sharin Chetrit's Soup, for example, is so bloody weird that there is a mystery and a tension just in working out what the hell is going on. It is a tense, atmospheric depiction of an unusual chain of events that may well be loaded with philosophical meaning. Finding a foetus in your tea and ultimately seducing and killing the grown version of said foetus is not exactly your typical viewing, and one that could likely only be found in a short film festival like Aesthetica.
At the comedic end of the spectrum, there was an abundance of the surreal at the "Alternate Realities" screening. One of the most successful examples of this humour, playing off the absurdity of a world that is entirely different but also entirely similar to ours, was Martin Garde Abildgaard's Lovebirds. In a world where it seems like literally anything can be sent to you in the post, a woman orders a clone of herself. As ridiculous as the premise sounds, it makes for great observational comedy, with the two identical women quickly realising that having to live with yourself would be something of a nightmare. A perfect example from the film: you hate doing the dishes, so you ask other you to do them, but of course other you hates doing the dishes too, so the dishes remain unwashed and the two of you spiral into a very odd kind of self-loathing. It is a good reminder of the thoughtfulness and intelligence that comedy can have. One of the best examples of this at the festival was Mrs McCutcheon, John Sheedy's exploration of transgenderism and what it means to grapple with one's identity while still a child.
The subversion of genre was also highly prevalent in this year's "Animation" screenings, with many of them being much more 'adult' than expected. People have a very narrow view of animation and this was cheerfully dispelled with Vincent Gallagher's darky funny Second to None, the tale of the world's second oldest man setting out to kill the oldest. With excellent stop-motion technique, it is a standout in a good year for animation.
The innovative techniques seen throughout the festival extended to the documentary filmmaking too. Pawel Ziemilski's Urban Cowboys used an unusual and highly naturalisitic approach to match up its content and its style. Yet elsewhere, as in Tom Huntingford & George Cowie's warm, funny and deeply felt Dial-a-Ride or the honest and complex portrait of transgenderism in Dionne Rayner's Boi, it was proven that sometimes the old tricks are the best. In simply pointing a camera at someone and letting them talk, a documentary filmmaker can elicit humour and emotion that is hard to create in any form of cinema.
Few things are certain in this world, but one thing that cannot be denied about this year's Aesthetica Short Film Festival is that it provides something for everyone, while united in challenging the filmmaking establishment. An event such as this gives a voice to artists without them having to fit too rigidly into the commercialised world of Hollywood. Risks were taken; some risks paid off and some risks did not. But the selection never stopped being interesting. What this year's Aesthetica has proven is that it can provide a fertile testing ground for a variety of filmmakers and keep us entertained to boot.