A belated report on what I did a couple of weekends ago: a trip to the Sci-Fi London film festival. Currently held in the extremely plush Apollo West End, the programme is a mixture of classic SF, newer independent works, panels, film all-nighters, and short films. The latter is one of my favourites, because there are few opportunities to see short genre films, and there’s always a few brilliant films, plus you get a bonus short in front of every feature. This year the short film programme included not one but two sets of sub-15 minute shorts, a feature on the short films of Israel, and even a programme of “long shorts”, for those films which were a little too long to be in the short film competition.
The “long shorts” were first, and ended up containing some of my favourite films of the weekend. Arcadia is a shining example of how well an ultra-low-budget short can work. The sets are made of cardboard – literally, as every set looks to have been built as a tiny cardboard set, with the actors green-screened in. At first it’s distracting, but I stopped noticing the fuzzy edges and the cardboard props, and enjoying the weird and charming film. The very ending is perhaps a little predictable, but too many shorts lose their way near the end for me to fault this one, and the penultimate scene manages to tie everything together in a couple of well-chosen lines.
In Afterville, the countdown which started when spaceships which landed in Italy fifty-one years ago is about to hit zero, and no one knows what will happen when it gets there. It’s reminiscent of Last Night, the Canadian film about how people face the end of the world, except they’re facing uncertainty and not certain death (and consequently it’s less depressing). Clearly made on a much higher budget than Arcadia, they’ve put the effort into some excellent effects shots of both the spaceships and the near-future tech, and it’s shot well enough to pull off a long, dialogue-free walkthrough of a half-deserted Turin. Once again the ending doesn’t quite hold up, with the focus on two young Italians reconnecting rather than on the exciting spaceships, but it just about pulls it off. It’s also notable for featuring Bruce Sterling as a scientist/futurist, who appears to be playing himself. In Italian.
Do It, by contrast, is not only not science fiction it’s not very good. Bernie is a lowly store clerk in Los Angeles, who often fantasizes about cleaning up the streets but never acts out his fantasies. When he learns the Mayor is visiting his store, he decides that killing him will solve all the problems, and he has three days to get the courage to act. It’s another well-made film, with a washed-out and industrial vision of LA, but not SF unless you think that Bernie’s visions make it fantastical. The main problem is that Bernie is a pretty unpleasant character to spend a half-hour with – he fantasizes about cleaning up the neighbourhood, but that equates to befriending prostitutes, imagining himself beating up black guys, and judging the customers of the pharmacy where he works, and he blames all of his personal problems on the Mayor as well. The film doesn’t take sides on whether Bernie is a violent and dangerous figure or someone to be applauded, but the plot is very slim, and as a character piece it has a central character I don’t want to spend any time with.
Soulmates is much more lightweight – a terrible couples counsellor must use his skills to avoid being possessed by an old woman’s ghostly lover. It’s quite funny, but not really funny enough, and it’s the only one of the four I felt could have been done at shorter length without losing anything.
I only saw half of the short short films, and there were no real standouts as there have been in previous years. Too many films don’t seem to have an ending, or a plot – I can see that if you’re making a short film to showcase your skills, the focus may not be on the writing, but too many of the films were let down by stopping rather than finishing – Jerome’s Weakness, an atmospheric and creepy film about the resurrection of a dead child, was technically good but seemed to stop about a minute before I expected it to end. The Day the Robots Woke Up is a cute animation with 50s-style robots roaming around abandoned London and a slightly forced narration all in rhyming couplets, which won the audience award; Marooned? is an entertaining take on live-action roleplay and 50s SF, which no one liked but me; and Die Schneider Krankheit is a bonkers fake newsreel film about a space chimp who brings a deadly virus back to Germany, which can only be treated using a huge turtle-leech-lizard creature which sucks your blood.
Focus On: Israel is intended to be the first in a series highlighting the short films of different countries (next year is Poland): there was an introduction from Uri Aviv, director of the Icon Festival, followed a series of ultra-low budget, incredibly depressing films, of which the least depressing was about the Grim Reaper wanting to give it up. (Aviv assured us that not all Israeli film is this depressing.) My favourite was Circuit, a short animation about a bomb-disposal robot, but the two entries made for the 48-hour film challenge did good things on a very low budget, and were better and more coherently plotted than the bigger-budget War of Salvation.
The only feature film I saw was Cryptic, another low-budget time travel film which gets compared to Primer and is inevitably not as good. Interestingly this one was originally scripted as a much higher budget special effects heavy film and they removed a lot of the flashy effects. It’s focused on a teenage girl who changes her timeline by communicating with her younger self on a mobile phone, and spends a lot of time dealing with teenage drama, while the time-travel is a magical MacGuffin. I did like that the protagonist was a young woman who didn’t get rescued by someone else, but in fact rescued her younger self and changed her life for the better.
There was also the pub quiz, in which our team Ultimate Awesome Fist Explosion came third, avoiding the tie-breaking dance-off which is probably a good thing. They got an Xbox and a crate of beer; we got a Star Trek: Enterprise promotional kite. Maybe next year we will triumph.