Exeter Shorts Film Festival

About 18 months ago I managed to convince the manager of our local multiplex cinema that she ought to screen the film Splice, because Mark Kermode had made it sound intriguing and nowhere else in Exeter (not the other multiplex, the arts centre, nor the chain arthouse cinema) had it scheduled. Amazingly, for someone who works for a corporate behemoth, she agreed, on the condition that I convince 12 other people to come along so that she could break even (and on the understanding that it would be screened at 11pm). Me being me, I went to Twitter and Facebook and emailed some contacts from when I ran the film department of the university library, and managed to gather 20 odd people for a Friday (late) night at the cinema to watch some schlock sci-fi horror. At least half a dozen people I didn’t know also turned up, and I gather that at least someone went to watch it each night it was on that week. Everyone’s a winner.

About a year later that same multiplex manager, Ros, announced that she was going to run a short film competition for local young filmmakers, and asked me, on the grounds that I’m gobby and not shy of giving an opinion, if I’d be on the judges panel. Of course I said yes; having judged battles of the bands, and both assistant directed and acted in short films by excellent local film makers, it seemed both a pretty logical step and a nice way to return the favour she’d paid me with Splice.

So Ros pretty much single-handedly went about setting up a website for people to upload films to, organising a judging panel (also including the director of Animated Exeter, a young filmmaker on Ros’ staff at the cinema, someone who works for a local film & TV production company and who teaches at Plymouth University, and a local arts education specialist), and soliciting entries from young people across the region in two categories; under 16s, and 16 to 24.

Many months, many emails, many films, and several meetings in person followed, culminating in last night, when the finalist’s films were shown on the big screen in front of a sizeable audience (replete with popcorn) at Ros’ cinema. Each finalist got a certificate and a splice of celluloid from an actual film (frames of Twilight and Sherlock proving unsurprisingly popular – the cinema is replacing all its film projectors with digital over the coming months), with the winners and highly commended choice in each category getting another certificate (we’d have loved to have given something more substantial as a prize, but had literally no budget; website et al was entirely due to people’s generosity) and a day’s work experience at the TV & film production company.

Judging was made difficult by the surprisingly high standard of the entries; every film had something to commend it, and there was significant bartering and opinion-swaying amongst the judges. We had stop-motion animations, experimental black + white mysteries, action films, zombie films, and more – and that was just in the under 16s category. A tight visual joke, an unexpectedly stylish camera move, a sophisticated use of sound – the pleasures of the under 16s films were many and varied, and I can see several of the entrants going on to do even better things in the coming years. In fact, if they don’t, I’ll be having words.

Joe, the u16 winner, submitted several stop-motion animations, all characterised by being very tight, funny, and sophisticated, often fulcrumming on a simple visual joke (often very clever and metatextual in nature, like the punchline of Cat Golf, which revolved around the cat’s golfball not going down the hole because, obviously, the hole isn’t a hole at all, but a black plasticene circle – Magritte-esque) and containing absolutely no narrative or visual fat. He’s 11, and you could see definite progression in the films chronologically as he tried new ideas (lip-synching to audio! Human intervention in his plasticene characters’ worlds!). I suspect that a future at Aardman beckons. This is the winning entry, which we thought combined humour, pathos, and ambition in spades. And all portrayed by a lump of plasticene.

The u16 highly commended entry was another stop-motion animation, an ambitious project from a local village primary school which included almost all the pupils from 7 years old upwards, whether they were scripting, animating, voicing, or filming. The aspiration behind such a large venture, getting a whole primary school involved, and giving kids in a tiny, sleepy, but beatific (I ride through it semi-regularly) Devon village the chance to engage with the kind of creative arts normally reserved for city kids was wonderful. Plus, again, it was pretty funny!

Unsurprisingly there was a quality leap from the under 16s to the 16-24 category in some ways; many of the 16-24 entrants were doing A levels or degree courses in media-related areas, with access to equipment and expertise that younger kids just wouldn’t have. Projects were longer, generally live-action, and ambitious in scope, if often more than a little adolescent in subject matter – there was a raft of horror films (mainly from female directors; it was heartening to have so many female entrants in this category, actually), and some were predictably much better than others. Again, though, there were pleasures to be had from every film; a surreal and effective performance by an actor, a breathtakingly well-composed bit of framing, tight storytelling that managed to convey a narrative without any dialogue, or a genuinely multi-layered grasp of humour.

The winning film didn’t come from someone with the support of a media studies department at school though; the director is from a grammar school which eschews that kind of subject, and this was the first time he’d ever tried to make a film, shooting the entire thing on a DSLR with a 50mm lens, experimenting with lighting and capturing sound as best he could. Talking to him last night confirmed that narrative was almost an afterthought, which we suspected, but nonetheless we felt that Platform One was exquisitely shot and well edited, and felt like the most “high quality” submission we received. As a film competition, we felt we had to reward the best film qua film. That he could so effectively tell a slight story suggests great things in future; give the man a proper narrative and slightly improved pacing, and he’ll make something even more impressive.

It was a close call over which film won, though, and in fact the ‘highly commended’ award was suggested by me as a way of distinguishing between the top two films in this category. Because the runner-up would have won on any other day, I suspect, and only some slightly loose editing and pacing (which, to be fair, was tightened up quite a bit for the screening) cost this spoof music documentary, or rockumentary if you will, the top prize. A film most definitely of the YouTube generation, with its to-camera asides, editing that somehow recalls the humorous use of html strikethrough tags, and gags about inappropriate search-engine-optimisation in song titles, it’s layered with laugh-out-loud moments which come from an array of places; gentle mocking of its principal characters’ pretensions, an irreverent attitude towards both music makers and fans, visual gags, and tiny references and subtleties you simply don’t notice first time around (the hapless documenter being named after Holden Caulfield, for instance). If you’ve ever played gooseberry between a “rockstar” and a female admirer or felt that the depth of your fandom deserved attention from the object of that fandom, you’ll cringe just as much as laugh. Give these guys a budget and a camera crew, and let them concentrate fully on scripting and acting, and they’ll be amazing.

I had a great time being a judge for Exeter Shorts, unsurprisingly, and we’re hopeful, given the success and attention this start-up venture has had (plenty of coverage in local media; a full cinema screen – that picture up top is from the screening; and some amazingly promising work by young filmmakers), that Vue Cinemas will continue to support it, and, with luck, make it a national thing; as far as I’m concerned, it’s exactly the sort of venture that big cinema companies should be undertaking in order to encourage the development of the talent that needs to feed the industry if its to continue to be successful; not everyone who takes part will go on to become Terence Malick (or even Michael Bay), but there are countless editors, producers, cinematographers and so on and so forth who make film & television what it is, and who need to cut their teeth.

There was much applause, as there should have been, for the filmmakers last night, but I need to make a word of thanks to Ros; not only is she the kind of person who’ll challenge her management for the sake of a good idea (be it screening some obscure, atypical-for-the-chain film at the behest of a mouthy customer, or something actually worthwhile!), she’s also the kind of person who gets things done through force of will and energy. She’s given dozens of kids a platform through which they can gain experience and exposure, which is invaluable. Good work.

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