Glasgow Short Film Festival 2017
John Smith's Steve Hates Fish
Glasgow Short Film Festival has just celebrated its 10th anniversary edition, in what is now an institution in the city’s cinematic landscape.
The opening programme was dedicated to reviewing highlights from the festival’s first decade, which, with the addition of all the programme trailers and personal messages from past participants, actually ended up being too long.
One area where the festival does excel though, is putting on parties; a particular highlight was An Evening With Bukowski, held in the excellent new venue Joytown Grand Electric Theatre, an ex-snooker hall which felt suitably illicit and clandestine. A mixed bag of poets and performers set the scene for a screening of Matteo Borgadt’s You Never Had It; An Evening With Bukowski, a documentary culled from a video interview with the writer at his home in San Pedro in 1981. While some of this footage was damaged, the glitchinjess of which the filmmaker exploited for archival effect, the film itself proved to be a fascinating document, with Bukowski on fine form, going on a characteristically grouchy alcohol-fuelled long night of the soul, before finally revealingly and movingly talking about his relationship with his abusive father, and the wellspring of his writing.This was all intercut with footage of the locale and readings from his poetry, which, let’s be honest is better than his prose.
An Evening With Bukowski
The evening was capped by a live gig from Jacob Yates and the Pearly Gates Lock Pickers, who remain Scotland’s finest exponents of pure rock n’ roll, albeit imbued with abrasive, socially conscious lyrics.
A filmmaker in focus was Gunhild Enger, a Norwegian filmmaker who briefly lived in Scotland when she studied at Edinburgh College of Art. I only saw one of her films. The Committee, but it was a joy – a dryly witty comment on the absurdity of official art, as representatives from Norway, Sweden and Finland meet to try and decide on a monument to the area where their three countries geographically meet, and celebrate their respective cultures.
Dry wit was also in evidence from the preeminent British short filmmaker, John Smith, whose Steve Hates Fish deliberately misapplied a translation app to the streets of Islington to force it to produce an inadvertent Dadaist attack on the banality of signage. Another highly regarded British filmmaker, Ben Rivers, produced a more uncharacteristic work, working in Portugal with Gabriel Abrantes on The Hunchback. This visually beautiful variant on the science fiction film is about a technology-free retreat where over-stressed workers can get back in touch with their primal sides – in this case, too literally, as mayhem soon ensues.
This film, taken in conjunction with last year’s feature The Sky Trembles…, suggest that Rivers may do his best work abroad, and working with narrative rather than in the ethnographic mode he’s better known for.
Jazz Is Our Religion
Perhaps the most heralded film in the festival was Jazz Is Our Religion, an attempt at a ‘total jazz’ film from 1972 that has assumed totemic status amongst connoisseurs, partially because of its unavailability. John Jeremy’s film takes its cue from Ted Jonas’ poem of (almost) the same title, using interviews with prominent jazz musicians about their lives and lifestyles over photos by Val Wilmer. Wilmer’s photos are remarkable, partly because they avoid so many of the clichés associated with jazz photography, showing them in their real domestic milieux or with their families.
A film made solely of static images about one of the most dynamic live musical forms might sound self-defeating, but Jeremy rises to the challenge with dynamic montages of the images to match the music, and occasional bursts into live action, a la Chris Marker.
This film’s quite a major rediscovery, one celebrated with another party at Joytown, this time with The Ezra Collective, a contemporary, very London take on the genre.
Ten Metre Tower
GSFF also gives out prizes to films in competition at the festival; typically I only managed to see one of the prizewinners, Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck’s Ten Metre Tower, which won the Audience Award. The film shows the reactions of different people on being asked to jump off a ten metre tower in a swimming pool, which had the audience cheering on the brave souls who attempted it. As someone who suffers from vertigo, I could only empathise with those who chickened out.
For my money though, both the best short and the best medium-length film I saw were on the same programme, courtesy of Deborah Stratman.
Hacked Circuit is a supremely elegant meditation on the illusionism of cinema, an extended single shot (lasting fifteen minutes) which takes us down a street in California into a Foley stage, where the paranoid final scene of The Conversation is being soundtracked, and back out into the street, to question our first interpretation of the scene.
The Illinois Parables
Stratman’s new film, The Illinois Parables, is one of the richest and most complex essays in recent documentary. The film opens with landscape shots of the Chicago-based filmmaker’s unloved home state of Illinois, tracking down legends and stories over fourteen centuries. It begins with the Native Americans, documenting their oppression and slaughter, before moving onto secular French Utopians and the Black Panthers, taking in disasters both natural (tornadoes) and unnatural (teenage telekinetic firestarters) along the way. Ultimately, the film shows how human belief systems have altered and deformed the landscape, from Indian burial mounds to environmental art. What makes this film unique is its formal daring; just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, and you’re watching a landscape film in the avant-garde tradition, the film introduces archive footage, then embarks on historical reconstruction, beautifully so in the case of the teenage firestarter.
The film reaches maximum levels of thematic complexity in a restaging of a restaging of the killing of Fred Hampton, murdered by the police in fear that he would become a black “messiah”. Using original audio but restaged by Stratman so convincingly that I thought it was actual footage, this segment returns to the concerns of Hacked Circuit.
Beautifully shot in 16mm, which can be an affectation in artists' films, here the format fits the subject perfectly, encouraging a permanent sense of temporal slippage, encouraged by the rich soundtrack.
This film says far, far more about American society in the space of an hour than many longer works do, and is undoubtedly one of the documentaries of the year.