The Edinburgh Film Festival once more delivered an excellent, wide-ranging selection of short films, organised in eight programmes, including international and UK films, digital and animation, and Cinema Extreme, an initiative from the UK Film Council and Film4.
The clear highlight for this writer was Maska, the new film by the Brothers Quay, whose achievements in the field of animation were celebrated by the festival in a special event on June 22. Based on Stanislaw Lem’s short story ‘The Mask’, it tells the story of a robot created in the shape of a beautiful woman by an authoritarian king in order to seduce and destroy a noble man who opposed him. The robot tries to work out its identity, ‘it’ coming to know itself as an ‘I’, then as a ‘she’, before discovering that she is in fact a metallic construction resembling a praying mantis, which violently erupts from her previous female shape. The Brothers Quay’s elaborate animation style lends itself remarkably well to a rich visual exploration of the fluctuating identity of the creature and conjures up disturbing echoes that connect the female, robot and insect natures she successively adopts. Artificially gendered, then born of herself, she leads us on a journey through the dark mystery of creation and metamorphosis. Parts of Lem’s wonderful story are narrated in Polish and although the Quays are generally wary of using large amounts of text in their films, the fusion of the sumptuous imagery with the poetic narration and Krzysztof Penderecki’s unsettling music is here perfectly realised and richly evocative.
Other animated shorts of note included the Brothers McLeod’s excellent Gothic fairy tale The Moon Bird, which was shown earlier this year at Flatpack, and Max Hattler’s witty, Busby Berkeley-inspired war satire Spin. Nick Cross’s Yellow Cake was another smart political satire from the USA about the consequences of big cats’ exploitation of small blue creatures, in which escalating death and destruction was contrasted with a cute, childish animation style that underlined the ironic tone. In The Astronomer’s Sun, Simon Cartwright and Jessica Cope told the story of a young man who goes back to his father’s observatory and revisits a traumatic childhood memory, with unexpected consequences. Bathed in melancholy blue tones, the enigmatic story was a true delight. In an entirely different style, Stewart Comrie’s Battenberg was an impressive example of digital animation which saw a squirrel and a magpie locked into a power game inside a miniature cabinet of curiosities within an abandoned house. The objects, evoking the human world, created a bizarre, disquieting setting for the cruel fight to the death between the two animals. A work of startling originality and technical mastery.
In the live action shorts, Cinema Extreme was a somewhat disappointing section – although it is a very laudable scheme – partly because the films seemed rather tame in contrast with what could be expected from such a label. Daniel Mulloy’s Baby won the UK Film Council Award for Best British Film. The story of a brief encounter between a young white woman and a black boy from a street gang, it played with viewers’ assumptions, but reversed them in such an unsubtle way that it was utterly predictable from the start. Scott Graham’s Native Son, which focused on an outsider in an isolated rural Scottish community, was mysterious and menacing but the pace was not quite controlled enough. Tony Grisoni’s The Pizza Miracle, about a man having an imaginary dialogue with his dead Italian restaurateur father, was humorous but offered no genuine insights or emotions.
Among the international shorts, Joyce A Nashawati’s The Bite (La Morsure, France) stood out through its masterful composition, sharp editing and atmospheric quality. A young woman takes a little girl to a park, where she meets her lover. While they talk, the little girl disappears into the woods and has an encounter with a man who is sleeping rough in the park. The story had a fairy tale quality and was told in a nicely elliptical, suggestive manner, which contributed to the unsettling, ominous atmosphere. Magnus von Horn’s Echo (Poland) opened with the reconstruction of the apparently motiveless murder of a young girl by two boys and ended with the confrontation between one of the boys and her parents. It was bleakly realistic and looked fairly drab, but the constant rainfall, timeworn face of the detective and striking finale made it worth checking out.
In the UK shorts, Ben Lavington Martin’s Dust was a particularly affecting and ingenious work. Using NASA archival footage, Martin constructed the story of astronaut Glen Gordon, who is stuck on the moon after his mission goes wrong. As we see images of the moon, a spaceship, an astronaut on its silver surface, we hear Glen Gordon talk to man on the ground Jimmy, fellow astronaut Alan, and his wife Patty. The dying moments of a man alone in the universe are captured with humour and pathos, as he poignantly describes the astonishing experience of walking on the moon, reflects on what is important and ponders the existence of God. A very full and rich 10 minutes.