Independent film-making at its best from London Lift-Off Film Festival
The international Lift-Off Film Festival came to a close on the year 2017 at the Art House in London’s Crouch End, where a stellar selection on independent shorts, featurettes and feature-length films were showcased, and here are five personal highlights.
The Accomplice: Opening the festival was the brilliant eight-minute short ‘The Accomplice’. Jerry (director John F. Beach) comes home to some unopened mail and an increasingly worrying build-up of phone messages from his friend Randy (wonderfully played by Evan Peters, even if he only has thirty seconds of screen time). The short builds around these messages, as Randy plans to rob a bank with Jerry’s help, but Jerry is too late to have any input. In fact, the robbery has gone on without him, and suddenly a distressed Randy is at Jerry’s window, and the interaction they have is the piece de résistance of the short. Peters is wonderful and precise, body language and timing being the strong point of both actors’ performances. ‘The Accomplice’ feels like a preview to a new Netflix Original, in the best way possible.
Contractor 014352: Here we have what could be any corporate office in London, and a man who could just be another carbon-copy worker amidst the masses. But this particular worker cannot quite perform the emotionless motions that task at hand requires. Instructed to ‘copy and paste’ a rejection email to thousands of people that are nothing but data to the company, our sensitive employee turns what should have been a mindless email to contractor 014352 into a poetic letter of the man’s integrity and self-worth. In this fourteen-minute short, director Simon Ryninks is onto something wonderful, from the sincere performances to the commentary of today’s society that rings devastatingly true and reminds us of something that we are not told enough – “You are so much more than the sum of your digits.”
State of Emergency: The product of an increasingly paranoid society, France is literally in a State of Emergency since the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and at the Bataclan in Paris over the last few years. Set in Paris, director Tarek Roehlinger brings us into a regular day for Omar, who is securing an official building at the heart of the city. The common mantra seems to be that no one is to be trusted and everyone is a potential threat. It is when Omar notices an unattended suitcase in the middle of the grounds that the short picks up in intensity, as we know all too well by now, unattended luggage is synonym to something suspicious and malevolent.
Omar and his colleague tape off the area, redirecting any pedestrian that comes by. Up until this point the short was incredible and almost belonged in a high calibre feature length film, but the clumsy placement of an unruly homeless person who doesn’t quite understand what’s going on and attempts to take the suitcase, seemed totally unnecessary and quite frankly out of place. Similar to Selim Azzazi’s featurette ‘Enemies Within’ which echoed the French government’s paranoia of the sixties, ‘State of Emergency’ mirrors that of contemporary France, and illustrates how mercilessly history repeats itself, as if those events had never occurred.
Between a Rock and A Hard Place: In a dark part of Scotland where the land meets the sea, a young teenage boy is pursued by a rough, aggressive looking group of boys around the same age. Finally, he finds a small cabin next to a secluded house where he hides – but the anguish does not end there. The owner of the house, a middle-aged man we later find out is named Walter (Clive Russel), comes out threatening the now not-so-menacing group to get off his property with a rifle. Needless to say, they are gone within seconds and the boy seeking refuge is treated with a surprising kindness by the man who in fact, wasn’t just protecting his territory but knowingly saved Neil (Scott Reid) from a vicious encounter.
Fast-forward fifteen years, Neil and Walter meet again. Neil has just come out of prison, and finding it impossible to find work with a criminal record, which is when Walter reaches out to him by employing him as a sort of assistant and house keeper, once again rescuing Neil from a difficult situation. The acting is sincere and seamless, with two characters that have suffered in life and are forced to live on the edge of society. The storyline is not as original as it is gripping, but it draws us in and retains our interest throughout. A few days after working and living with Walter, Neil becomes inquisitive as to what Walter goes off to do every few days. Is it a profession? A meeting? A ritual? The intrigue shifts to suspicion that Walter is up to something not exactly legal, and one day Neil follows Walter on one of his excursions (although how this went unnoticed by Walter I do not know). His findings lead him to an unsettling discovery – one that will put him between a rock and a hard place, to say the least.
The Silent Child: This short hit the festival with a subject of unequalled importance to raise awareness to. A deaf child is born into a hearing, middle-class family, and like too many others, suffers from the lack of support to what the people surrounding them consider a learning disability which must be overcome, by learning to lip-read and even speaking.
In order to prepare the child for elementary school, the parents hire a social worker. Upon introducing the social worker to the child, the mother describes her deaf daughter as if she if abnormally closed-in on herself and quiet, unable to communicate with her adequately. As the days go by, the social worker teaches the girl sign language, which opens up an entirely new, joyous side to the girl, and as she is able to communicate without the usual obstacles she faces with lip-reading. Naturally, the girl and the social worker develop a special bond, to which the mother becomes jealous and fiercely argues with her husband that she doesn’t want their daughter to be a “freak”, hating feeling alienated by the sign language her daughter is learning.
The social worker is consequently sent away, for reasons that were clearly not economical. Not only was this an awful step backwards for their daughter, but an emotionally traumatising one, destroying an important, if not the first, true connection the young girl had ever made. A hard-hitting short about a much too frequent reality for thousands of children.
Right Between Your Ears: Director Sheila Marshall and neuroscientist Kris De Meyer have managed to bridge one of the many existent gaps in thought and difference of opinions we have as individuals. The filmmakers met a group of Americans who were convinced that Judgment Day was going to happen as a fact. With a scientific and unbiased approach they were not only able to help us see the believer’s point of view but depict layer by layer the psychology and neuroscience insights into their convictions.
Convictions, as we have seen throughout history, have been the source of endless disputes, wars, and death. The film poses the question as to why we, as humans, are sometimes prepared to die and kill for those beliefs, even if there are no hard, scientific facts to support them. These cases are the most combustible, as the contenders will either spend time and energy trying to convince the believers that they are wrong, or immediately dismiss them, being completely closed to discussion with a person of the opposite opinion as them.
The documentary delves into this community over a period of six weeks, the first half part of the film being the run up to the predicted Judgment Day; the second being their reactions after it didn’t occur. During the Q&A, Kris took great pains to get across to us what happened emotionally to these people, “the closest you could compare it to is what you go through when you lose a loved one”. People had left their jobs, wound down businesses and made other drastic decisions based on their conviction.
Philosophy student Maurice was a very interesting and open-minded individual, whose interest and growing conviction that Judgment Day was absolutely going to happen caught the audience off-guard. Here was a perfectly well educated young person, who by their own research came to the conclusion that something unscientifically proven was factual. Happy to help Sheila and Kris, Maurice voluntarily underwent some brain scans, as to observe what neurologically happens when asked if we believe something or not. The most important thing Maurice learnt during his Philosophy studies, is that Man does not, and cannot know everything, and it is for that reason that he welcomed the information that seemed rationally plausible to him.
This documentary put many socio-cultural aspects into perspective, such as why still today human beings are an extremely dysfunctional group who have a long way to go before ever hoping to achieve peace and tolerance. Through this film, Sheila and Kris have shown us that the problem is Right Between Your Ears, and we must make efforts to encourage discussion when confronting each other’s different stances.