This year’s London Film Festival shorts programme was a win for accessibility, even if the shorts were up and down in quality. Here are 6 favorites. Read more coverage of the London Film Festival.
Pandemic life has opened up opportunities for film festivals to be more accessible, which some, like TIFF, have steadfastly circumvented. I have mixed feeling about the London Film Festival in this regard. While the majority of the programme is screening digitally, only a handful were available with captions. A lot of titles were also available in cinemas, and I’m worried that we might see the health repercussions of that in the coming weeks. The festival also held nationwide screenings for some of their larger titles, so you could watch Ammonite at local independent cinemas throughout the UK. It’s great that more of Britain is getting access to high profile festival screenings that are usually only reserved for insular London. But it leads me to wonder, why only this year, when ‘nationwide cinema event’ is just another way of saying ‘pandemic super spreader’? I hope they make these simultaneous screenings a yearly tradition when it’s safer to do so, rather than just a one-off.
The biggest win at the 2020 London Film Festival, in my book, is the shorts. Not necessarily their quality, but the fact that they were made available to the whole of the UK online, and for free. Plus, all of the ones I watched were captioned. This is the most accessible the shorts programme has ever been, which also means that these films will get more eyes on them than they ever have. It’s another pandemic-era innovation that I hope will continue in future years.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the quality of the shorts was less than stellar — although there were some gems among the bunch. I can’t help but be disappointed after watching through the incredible Canadian shorts at TIFF, which outclassed the feature programme in terms of consistent quality across the board. The talent is out there. Still, myself and contributing writer Ben Flanagan found six films between us that are must-sees. Today is your last day to watch them, so get to it. Orla Smith
Bittu (Karishma Dube, India)
Bittu would make an intriguing double feature with Farnoosh Samadi’s 180° Rule, a feature film that’s also playing at LFF. The protagonists of both films rebel against a patriarchal society and face almost cosmic consequences: a shocking accident occurs that correlates with, but isn’t caused by, their rebellion. In 180° Rule, those consequences are horrific for protagonist Sara; for the young school child Bittu (Rani Kumari) in Bittu, her rebellion is what saves her.
The first scene of Bittu, in which adult men encourage Bittu and her best friend to dance and sing lewd song lyrics, grounds us in a world where the exploitation of women starts as early as nursery. We follow Bittu during a day at school when she plays joyfully with her friend, gets kicked out of class for misbehaving, and restlessly wanders the school grounds. While Bittu is our focus, in the background, Dube portrays the adults in charge as cold and dismissive of those less powerful than them, whether that’s their employees or the kids in their care. It’s their unwillingness to listen that leads to a fatal accident; it’s Bittu’s questioning of authority that saves her from becoming a victim of their negligence. OS
Chicken (Alana Hicks, Australia)
Chicken is probably one of the most purely enjoyable shorts playing at LFF. It’s a short that tackles racism in Australia, set in 1992. But director Alana Hicks foregrounds the wit and smarts of her main character, Barbara (Mariah Alone), a young Black girl whose mother has recently migrated from Papua New Guinea. When Barbara’s mother realises she’s been overcharged at the grocery store, she enlists her whip-smart daughter to go to the store and sort things out. Barbara does so reluctantly since she’s worried she won’t get home in time to watch The Simpsons.
The film mostly takes place in the store where Barbara engages in a battle of wits with the hostile, racist shopkeeper — a battle Barbara takes pleasure in winning. Hicks has crafted a comedy that’s both funny and sweet. We feel the closeness of Barbara and her mother in how they work together to outsmart the shopkeeper, and we joyfully celebrate their victory together afterwards. OS
Dungarees (Abel Rubinstein, UK)
Dungarees is such a lovely, blissful respite from the harsh world and the heavy cinema that reflects it — I’ve seen it twice now, first at BFI Flare, and a second time at LFF, because I couldn’t resist.
At Flare, I wrote: “Abel Rubinstein’s Dungarees, is a charming, casual day-in-the-life study of Blake (Pete MacHale), a gay trans man who, after years spent transitioning and battling gender dysphoria, finally feels comfortable in his masculine presentation. After years of being asked to prove to people that he’s a man, Blake struggles with expressing himself in ways that might be considered feminine, like wearing nail polish. Surrounded by the supportive presences of his boyfriend and sister, we witness Blake take those first steps, during a day of lazing around in bed, playing video games, and having sex.” OS
Gramercy (Jamil McGinnis, Pat Heywood, USA)
Shaq’s (Shaq Bynes) emotional state on his return to the Louisiana town of Gramercy is delivered, in Jamil McGinnis and Pat Heywood’s Gramercy, through enigmatic signs and symbols. Lo-fi beats, ansafone messages, and chopped-and-screwed passages create a playful aural and visual palette that represents a young man’s mind filled to bursting with intrusive thoughts. Returning home six months after his brother’s shooting, neither Shaq nor Gramercy slow down to fill in much backstory. Instead, images of bucolic rambling that could be from a dream, and monochrome sequences of reunions with boys from the block render the experience of coming home into a heartbreaking cocktail of excitement, nostalgia, and awkwardness. Gramercy captures spontaneous scenes of celebration and tension; its long takes turn youth rituals into something mythic. Some of the visual symbolism can be on the nose, but this barrage of sumptuous imagery collates it all into a veritable feast of atmosphere. Happy eating. Ben Flanagan
Mandem (John Ogunmuyiwa, UK)
A couple of South London drug dealers drive around, drop off their wares to posh intelligentsia types, flirt with customers, and hang out in a takeaway place. So far, so High Maintenance. But what separates John Ogunmuyiwa’s 10-minute short from HBO’s Hallmark-card vision of gentrified drug consumption is the critique of performative masculinity that runs throughout.
Moving from customer to customer, with one eruption of violence even seen as just a part of the job between banter sessions, London’s aesthetic beauty is a shield for shifting mores, desires, and social status. Stevie Basaula, an Eastenders actor who plays Malcom, is a serious talent, and his easy chemistry with Bradley Banton’s Ty, builds to a moment of romantic tenderness that is unexpected only because it is so rare to see between these character types. BF
Stray Dogs Come Out At Night (Hamza Bangash, Pakistan)
Away from home and now under the auspices of his uncle, Iqbal (Mohammad Ali Hashmi) is a sex worker in the big beachside city of Karachi. He talks to his family on the phone; they ask when he’ll send money, and when he’ll return. Iqbal tells them he’s going to work, but he and his uncle spend the day being tourists at the beach where stray dogs are pervasive. Iqbal has an STD diagnosis that throws everything into jeopardy. How can he return home to look after his wife and community without them knowing about his transmittable disease? What danger is he putting those around him in?
His uncle shrugs it off: “I’ll send you medicine.” But Iqbal feels like a stray dog, and Hamza Bangash’s short film continually makes questionable parallels between abandoned animals and sex workers. Bangash cuts from a stray meandering on the beach to Iqubal, as he stares at the sea. Other times, Iqbal strolls with his back to camera while the sound of a panting dog is heard. Stray Dogs Come Out At Night brings that parallel together by ending at a moment of change that makes the viewer gasp. Bangash stops there, giving us enough to work out the morality afterwards. BF