Report: Durham Film Festival – Screenings and Awards

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Image: Durham Student Film
Image: Durham Student Film

The Durham Film Festival, now in its fourth year, is a professional-looking affair, with snazzy posters and an impressively humungous film screen – it even has its own movie-trailer now. Outside the hall in which the screenings were to take place I was surprised to find mountains of sweets on sale where distressing numbers of people who are technically adults were getting a buzz on with mini-eggs and haribo – the short-film festival equivalent of cocaine and Bellini’s, I suppose. Inside, what must be the world’s smallest popcorn stand, giving off the smell of burning playdough, was left cackling away throughout the night, rendering certain quiet or dramatic scenes totally surreal – not the intended effect, I’ll wager. But, happily, this was the only thing about the event I could find to criticise. And so, to the films.

A depressing number of short filmmakers seem utterly enthralled by beautiful cinematography and post-effects, all the technical flapdoodle that can be so engrossing when you first discover half-decent editing software. Screenplays, however, often seem subject to the same selection criteria as the bass player in a teenage band: bring your own guitar and you’re in. It is the common denominator of watchable but forgettable short films, which, when not hobbled by cliché, are didactic and grimly expositional. Great films are made by readers, not moviegoers. A strong script can carry a shoddily-made film, but all the steadi-cams in the world won’t make a difference if the story is a dud. Luckily, whilst many of tonight’s films demonstrated technical competence and a mastery of the tropes of modern cinema, they were obviously made by people also well aware of these truisms.

Student film highlights

While having one of the more questionable titles I have come across, the German-produced documentary INSTALIFE was admirably original. It consisted mostly of stills, screenshots from the most popular social networking sites. A voiceover reads Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts with their accompanying photos, attempting to take in the breadth of human experience, slowly descending into horror, violence and despair. It is an obvious choice of style for the age of social networks, but, at first, works beautifully. However, horrible things are not fundamentally interesting; putting them on a screen says nothing about them, and this film is at times more than a little gratuitous, ending as it does with footage of a selfie-style suicide. There is a fine line between documentary and voyeurism, and Instalife trips clumsily as it crosses it.

Another highlight was the Chilean film Francine’s Fragments, exploring the life of the eponymous Francine, struggling to understand and accept her own wavering mental stability. The acting is universally brilliant, so good that I didn’t even think about it until sometime later, just as great writing draws no attention to itself. The understatement of this film gives the imagination space to work, and is certainly the better for it. A triumph.

The great revelation of the night was an animated film from Vancouver Film School. Perversely, Religatio, while totally void of dialogue, had by far the best story of all the films shown. A group of nebulous black blobs embedded in great long wobbly stalactites, all interacting with each other, is hardly a promising pitch for a short film, but Religatio is funny, dark, and deeply sad. Acknowledging my descent into foam-mouthed hyperbole, this film is truly cinematic, in that it could not work in any other format, and has to be seen to be understood. Absolutely the highlight of the festival.

Professional film highlights

Next up were the professionally-made films. These were more accomplished in almost every respect, as of course they should be, though I saw nothing of the quality of Religatio. Patient 39, about an amnesiac British soldier convalescing in a military hospital during the Second World War, was, while moving in a blunt sort of way, riddled with cliché and sentimentality, more so than any of the student films, and, though beautifully made and well edited, was a little dull. Mrs K., about a woman stuck in an infinite regress of form-filling and officialdom while trying to find her husband, was a proper psychological thriller – satisfyingly unnerving. Just Had a Dream, comparing the lives of two little girls with very different backgrounds, amounted to little more than a reaffirmation of the power of positive thinking. And Bus Stop, about a chance meeting between two people at a bus stop in Woking, of all places, rightly took away the Best Professional Film prize.

This film festival is ambitious, and what the organisers have managed to achieve is deeply impressive. The standard of filmmaking was far beyond what I had expected, and the fact that they received over 200 entries from universities all over the world, and managed to get two filmmakers of international renown to judge the films, speaks to the esteem in which Durham is now held in the student film community. Highly recommended for anyone with even the remotest interest in cinema.

Awards

Student Category:
Best Film – Religatio
Best Directing – Sing Again
Best Editing – Sing Again
Best Cinematography – Sirimiri
Best Visual Effects – Another World
Best Writing – INSTALIFE
Best Acting Ensemble – Francine’s Fragments
Best Original Score – Seventh Heaven
Best Documentary – Hebron is Beautiful
Best Animation – Religatio

Professional Category:

Best Film – Bus Stop
Best Cinematography – Mrs Kaye
Best Acting Ensemble – Bus Stop
Best Editing – I’ve Just Had a Dream
Best Original Score – Patient 39

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