Spirits are high on the afternoon of June 7th, in which the third year filmmakers working within the Manchester School or Art are eager to showcase their efforts, films which promise to coalesce both collaboration, and individuality. Ten short films are ready to be exhibited at HOME, Manchester’s leading arts organisation which has become a beacon for young professionals to present their films in a familiar environment. It is “a place for curiosity seekers, for lovers of the dramatic, the digital and the deeply engaging”, and the nearly sold-out audience of friends, family and film enthusiasts have been brought together for the festival, a pedagogical project which the MSA will look ahead to establish as a symbol of their creativity.
Annabelle Marshall’s The Service was the first film to be screened, and it was soon easy to understand this particular choice of selection. A brilliant piece of work, the film quickly illustrated the quality of filmmaking that would follow. At the heart of the narrative is James, an elderly man who uses a peculiar service that allows him to revisit his most personal memories. The exact timing of the film feels futuristic, but it’s never established exactly when the story takes place, something which echoes the sensibilities of a Black Mirror episode. There’s a cerebral undertone here, but it plays out with enough intelligence to remain immersive for the viewer. Accompanied by a haunting piano score and dexterous cinematography, the film has all the potentials to become a major player on both indigenous and global festival circuits.
Carl Austin Behan
Subsequent to this was Carl Austin Behan, an insightful documentary by Jacob Buffett on the former Lord Mayor of Manchester. The interview with Carl dictates nearly all of the screen time, with the exception of routine cut away shots of Manchester city centre. Despite this, the film feels personal and contextual and is inevitably shadowed by the recent tragic events that have shaken the core of Manchester’s diverse, welcoming communities. As Carl opens up, we learn about his dismissal from military employment due to his sexuality, and his disapproval of large corporations festering on Canal Street. The film is ultimately curbed by its own minimalism, but, at the focus of the lens, Carl is engaging enough as a screen presence to inspire the narrative.
The next film to be shown was Callum Latimer’s Eden, an artistic search for meaning in which themes of existentialism are intertwined in an expedition through the natural flowing of the Eden River. Whilst the sound design of the protagonist’s voiceover often sounded slightly unpolished in comparison with the arresting visuals of open landscapes, the film offered another insight into the various creative personalities that give the MSA its identity.
We then moved on to Impact, a much more robust drama from Robert Reader. The film dealt with familial negligence and domestic violence, as we are soon introduced to Lucy, whose insufferable relationship with her abusive boyfriend Steven takes centre stage as the emotional core of the story. To its demise, the film was occasionally reminiscent of a soap-opera in its execution, as it may have tried to pack a little too much into its short run time. However, this was upheld through its strong female lead, who was instantly sympathetic enough to carry such a weighty narrative.
Almost antithetical to Impact came Mirage, an experimental piece much less concerned with narrative and more engaged with initiating a provocative, artistic experience. Nathan Islam’s film combined richly textured sound and vision to help create a startling vision of a young girl named Chloe, desperately trying to escape the confinements of a claustrophobic cellar. The inclusion of an ambient soundscape that echoed Vangelis’ extraordinary Bladerunner score complimented the sensuous cinematography, where the use of vivid reds would struggle to look out of place in the colour palette of a Gaspar Noe film.
Continuing the trend of avant-garde short films was Time’s Up, Karim Al-haj Ali’s often oblique depiction of the coma-induced consciousness of the protagonist was hardly the most accessible selection of the afternoon. We’re given little information or back story to the central character, who seems to be walking a tightrope between life and death, where the latter is personified through a strange man who accompanies the fractured dialogue. The concept of the film is simple, yet well-constructed, with the focus on consciousness, memory and state of mind being reminiscent of the early works of Christopher Nolan. I also understood there to be a visual homage to Donnie Darko in certain scenes, except there’s no bunny suit man named Frank.
From the opening scene of Ryan McNulty’s Inseminate, the film examines the power shifts between a presumably wealthy white collar American, who is being whipped by a sex worker, whom the former is having an affair with. At first glance, the story appears to be dealing with quite hackneyed and predictable story arcs, but the script is clever enough to avoid clichés, and progresses into something that manages to stay one step ahead of the audience. Both actors give strong performances in their roles, who offer a degree of introspection to their familiar yet well-written characters. Lengthy, drawn out sequences allow the characters to wrestle with gender stereotypes, with a standout being a sleazy hotel room scene in the final act. Inseminate was rarely afraid to hold back from getting under the skin of the audience, with that hotel room scene ensuring that even the very title stays with you long after viewing.
Following this came Fractured, Tran Ngo’s story about identical twin brothers Jason and Callum, who happen to fall in love with the same girl. The confusion of identity was initially appealing, and it even gave the story a somewhat playful sensibility about it, before eventually being swept over by unnecessary melodrama. The highlight of the film was certainly the magnitude of Jason/Callum’s performance, with the script lending both characters enough screen time to develop. A tragedy unfolds towards the end of the narrative, which results in the playfulness being tarnished by its cut-throat finale.
Let’s Not Cry Over Spilt Milk
The penultimate film of the screening was Harry Longstaff’s Let’s Not Cry Over Spilt Milk, which begins with the most entertaining opening shot of the afternoon. After the suicide of Libi’s father, she partly sober, partly intoxicated, attempts to decipher the suicide note. With its energetic pacing, the story soon moves on to include Mitch, Libi’s ex-boyfriend who becomes involved with deconstructing the reasoning behind the death. The two actors bounced off each other with at times razor sharp dialogue, and I found myself reminded of the best of black comedies such as Fargo, and In Bruges. Unfortunately, some production values are jarring to the compelling conversations Libi and Mitch engage in, but the film is thoughtful and funny enough to resonate as a real highlight of the festival.
As we drew to a close, the final film to be screened was Aynoa Alvarez’s Drifting Away, a period drama set in 1954 at the start of the Algerian War of Independence. More importantly however, the film is a story of long distance friendship in uncontrollable circumstances, where a young girl, Elizabeth is living in the UK whilst her pen pal Bernard is impacted by the events of the War. The two must rely on their heart-warming friendship to attempt to stay in touch, but the film allows them enough emotional weight to invest the audience in this touching story. The cinematography and location shooting is noticeably impressive, and the plausibility is heightened from mature performances from the two young actors. The 20-year shift in narrative in the final act initially seemed ambitious but is entirely well-executed. In retrospect, Drifting Away felt like a fitting end to the first screening, and one I wouldn’t find myself surprised to revisit again and again.