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Manchester Lift-Off Film Festival – Day 2 Shorts, Part 1

James Gill outlines one half of the short film selection for the second day of the Lift-Off Film Festival

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After a fantastic opening to the Lift-Off Film Festival here in Manchester we returned to Texture for Day Two. Eleven more shorts and one feature film were on show in genres ranging from thriller to drama to documentary, six of those shorts will be covered below.

The Botanist

Deep in the mountainous region of Pamir, Tajikistan lives Raimberdi, the focus of this fascinating documentary short. After the fall of the Soviet Union, famine spreads, and inevitably so does war. Raimberdi must learn to survive in his isolated village. Luckily he is both an accomplished botanist and a genius inventor.

Initially their family was very poor, ‘we didn’t even have a goat’ he remarked. But slowly, we learn of the incredible resourcefulness and creativity he employs to improve their day-to-day life. Out of whatever scraps he could find he builds a basic hydroelectric station, and when visitors came to the village, he paid them to build him a small reservoir to make the entire process of generating electricity much more efficient. Whilst all around him burned kerosene lamps, he had electricity.

It is not enough to just have an intriguing subject, the direction and cinematography have to also be of the same calibre. In this respect, the directors Maude and Maxime have really excelled in crafting a well-rounded short. Its narrative was split into several parts, each separated by an animation showing a different plant from the area, accompanied by its latin name. For such a small, and for the purpose of the narrative, irrelevant detail it adds another dimension, one that helps to make The Botanist a standout film in the genre.

Over time Raimberdi has become able to live very comfortably, with luxuries that those around him cannot afford. He can even tell us about Obama’s recent visit to Japan from his own personal radio. Despite all of this, and especially in this unforgiving terrain, community is key. He contributes by teaching at the local school long after his retirement age in order to help the next generation. A shot of him walking to school with his grandson reinforces the truly solitary environment in which he lives. Not one to be disheartened by life, he instead thrives upon its challenges. ‘Sometimes life forces you to do some things’.

Out of all the documentary shorts, this was in my opinion of the highest standard and I heartily recommend it for its portrayal of ingenuity in the face of great adversity.

Directed by Maude Plante-Husaruk and Maxime Lacoste-Lebuis

Found

Director Richard Hughes gives a masterclass in tension with his short, Found. Reminiscent of Denis Villeneuve’s Sicarios, he effortlessly holds the audience on the edge of their seat until the bitter end, with only brief moments of respite.

The plot centres arounds a father whose daughter, when out of his sight for but a few seconds, is kidnapped by a person unknown. For ten years he searches from farm to farm in the hopes of finding her. We open to a fabulously shot sequence of him parking up outside the gates of a farm, checking his map to see if he has been here before, then committing to searching it.

The cinematographic quality escalates further when the camera follows first overhead, then alongside as he travels through the farmer’s corn field towards the house.

Sweaty palms were a sure feature of every audience member as our protagonist reached the house. There were no hints yet that his daughter was in the house or even alive but after just a couple of minutes I was transfixed. While exploring the grounds to the house he finds a vehicle under tarpaulin, the suspense crescendos, reaching almost tangible levels before we learn that this car is the one used in the kidnapping.

Flashbacks often fail to have the desired effect but it was employed very successfully. For the purpose of not spoiling this fantastic short, my description of the plot must end here. However, this is a thriller of the highest order and one that deserves to be watch.

Directed by Richard Hughes

Wanderlust

Set in the heart of an unknown forest, two siblings must navigate their way through the endless wilds, seemingly devoid of any fauna. When night time approaches it’s time to set up camp and they start to search for supplies. As the sister collects firewood she runs into a white horse, and after running back to share this amazing experience with her brother, she finds he has disappeared.

When a short film is illustrating a metaphor, the metaphor itself has to be engaging enough to sustain interest otherwise no matter how well acted or shot it is, the audience will disconnect. I feel Wanderlust fails here but also it fails in the execution.

There is a massive constraint involving time and every moment has to add something or push the narrative forward. Several scenes including the opening where they discuss their mother’s cooking didn’t have an impact large enough for the percentage run-time they occupied.

A cliché that really irked me whilst watching the film is where there are two people and one looks away for a moment, and when they look back the other person has just vanished. It’s lazy writing that breaks the immersion the film is supposed to create.

Directed by Barnaby Boulton

Heathen

Trent’s dad is a renowned anthropologist who spends most of his time on expeditions. When he is back Trent finds it very difficult to get his attention, deciding to complete his own anthropological study on the effects of his towns current drought to try and impress him. However after discovering a darker side to his father, he finds a little dark side within himself.

Heathen is the only film at this year’s festival to break the forth wall, to directly address the audience. Director Siobhan Mulready utilises this technique to emulate the documentaries of those Trent’s father worked with, such as David Attenborough.

Our protagonist is played by Jayden Caulfield who, at just 16 years old, gives a very respectable and versatile performance as Trent, managing to switch from documentary style to the plot driven style confidently.

Directed by Siobhan Mulready

The Cyclops

When a husband and wife divorce, the children often feel the effects most. The Cyclops captures this brilliantly with two brothers each choosing the side of a different parent. A once tight fraternal bond begins to crumble as they place the blame of the failed marriage on the other’s side. Through it all, their mutual love of graffiti hold them together, but for how long can that last.

This social realist film confidently tackles a delicate issue that will surely be familiar to a proportion of those watching. It beautifully details the brief moments the brothers reminisce on the closeness of their past before splintering apart once more. The two actors who play the brothers are sublime, with the intricacies of their complex relationship displayed excellently.

Directed by Hugh Mulhern

A Battling Body

A Battling Body is the shortest short at this year’s festival, at approximately one minute in length. It is a dance routine illustrating the life of those suffering from multiple sclerosis. Initially she dances exquisitely but slowly, limb by limb, she loses the ability to control her body. The piano score that accompanies paints her frustration and sadness in a way she cannot.

My only issue with Laura Ghazal’s absolutely necessary short is that it was not long enough. I feel that had the short been five minutes long, showing a longer initial sequence before exploring in more detail the slow decay her body undergoes, we would be looking at a short worthy of the highest acclaim. Nevertheless this is profoundly beautiful film, one that demands to be seen.

Directed by Laura Ghazal