Dresden Filmfest 2016 – My Best of the Fest

In our ongoing plan to watch interesting films and visit interesting cities, Clare and I attended FilmFest Dresden in April 2016. We attended 6 of the showings covering 45 short films, and I’ve picked out my top 10 favourites below.

The trailer sets the tone suitably:

 

A note on context

While the festival is primarily about the international and national short film competitions, we’re most interested in animation, so we focussed on the (non-competition) animation strands. Since these are curated out of some of the best animation over the past decades, this has the fortunate side-effect that almost all of the films I found interesting are available to view online!

Do also note, however, that the viewing context here is almost completely opposite to the festival experience. On the internet, you can skip through a video or stop at any time; when attending a short-film selection, you are far more obliged to take in everything put in front of you. You also know very little about what is to come – in fact I can’t think of any other media experience that has a wider gap between how little you know about the work, and how strongly you are compelled to consume all of it!

(An emergent result of this is the applause behaviour of the crowd. It seems an audience for short films will usually applaud at the end of each one, but if the first film is over-long, distasteful or otherwise displeasing no applause will start, and the crowd will remain silent after each film! However, if they are then shown a particularly delightful film, applause will break out, and is then likely to continue after each subsequent film regardless of quality).

Consequently, I recommend using your internet browsing power to get a taste of the highlights below, and then set aside the time and find a good screen to watch the ones you like the look of most in the best way, back to back.

Film highlights

The more accessible:

Photograph of Jesus (2008) is a whimsical animated documentary on the subject of less reasonable requests received at the Getty photographic archive:

Jain: Come (2015) isn’t really an animation, but combines a number of nifty visual effects throughout and achieves a few particularly striking moments:

Dahlia (2008) is the most abstract of the films I’m calling ‘accessible’, being a montage of stop motion-style animation generated seemingly off-the-cuff by looking for interesting things in San Francisco. Nevertheless it achieves that thing I’m always looking for: a kind of animated beauty unlike anything I’ve seen before.

We caught Wider Horizons (2015) by at one of the festival’s award-winner roundups (in this case the Minister of Fine Arts Promotion Prize), and I’m glad we did. It’s a fascinating animated documentary on what a holiday by the sea was like in East Germany in the 80’s. Being more recent you can’t view it online yet, but here’s a trailer:

Less accessible:

Some animations displayed were significantly more abstract. This is where the festival format really shines, because if it were easy to turn away or fast forward, most people would, but when you don’t have that choice you must simply allow yourself to fall under the spell being cast. Well, that or perhaps fall asleep.

Recycled (2013) was my favourite of the whole festival. As the film usefully declares near the start, French “collector” Thomas Sauvin salvaged over half a million photos (!!) from a recycling plant; over three years, the Chinese artist Lei Lei picked out 3000 (!!!) and, presumably with some amount of computer assistance, assembled the following montage/animation. It starts out quite abstract, but soon you realise hundreds of images are being carefully strung together to produce a kind of emergent stop-motion:

Imagine yourself in a screening of short films, and the next one begins with a caption informing you that “All animals photographed were found as roadkill”. I felt a silent wave of apprehension ripple across the crowd as Yield (2013) began in this way. Fortunately the film was about the most promising thing one could make from that alarming preamble, achieving similar effects as Recycled by stringing unrelated photos together to generate animated effects. Fascinating, but still very disturbing, so I won’t embed it. (link)

Continuing the theme of achieving artistic results through ridiculous amounts of effort (as animators are fond of doing), Liquid paper (2010) generated animated figures by flicking through catalogues with pages cut in precise shapes:

An alternative demonstration of prowess is to produce a work that implicitly asks the audience to wonder: how on earth did they do that? This was demonstrated in Kaizer (2006), in which a steadily rotating camera taking in a crowd continues to pan while people move forwards and backwards with hypnotic effect:

(This reminded me of State of Flux, which appeared to show a continuous traversing shot over a water barrage while the water itself flowed impossibly backwards and forwards, although I suspect was achieved by a very different method).

Finally some more experimental works each elaborated on a simple idea with perhaps too much thoroughness, testing the patience of the casual viewer (and perhaps being more pleasurable online where you are free to take as much or little from it as you like).

Atman (1975), makes extravagant use of a sequence of possibly just 12 photos of a figure sitting in a field in some sort of Noh mask:

Spacy (1981) makes portals out of photos within photos to dizzying effect:

 

Q&A / discussion

When it comes to the Q&A section of an event, I think Kate Beaton summarised it best:

(I can’t find the original link for that but it’s referenced here)

At the animation events, a new layer of entertainment was added to the proceedings thanks to the need to support two languages. The host (Carola Queitsch I think) began to translate as necessary. Unfortunately for her, much of the questioning and discussion was conducted by the academic curators of the films, who would tend to elaborate on an idea with run-on sentences for about two minutes, after which she was expected to provide a summary in English; possibly one of the hardest translation tasks going.

To add to the fun, everyone concerned actually knew a reasonable amount of English as well as German. As a result, primed by hearing the host’s English translation, the speaker would then resume their line of thought or questioning in English – which obliged Carola to then translate into German, provoking a response in German, and so the language cycle could begin again.

Over the course of several showings the translation approach was tweaked, finally settling upon having a film-maker more fluent in English, Gusztav Hamos, translate the high-brow musings of academic curator Thomas Tode. This seemed reasonable, but it gradually became clear that the words did not correlate: Thomas offered his opinion in German, and then Gusztav would make some alternative point in English, to which Thomas might respond in German, and so on. This proved more entertaining and satisfying than any other alternative and so became the main approach.

A more surreal form of Q&A arose when Japanese animator Maki Satake was brought on stage to answer questions about her work. It proved difficult for her to understand the questions posed by the German-spoken English, even when they repeated just the nouns in the sentence with more emphasis and waved their arms for effect; the curators asking the questions also already knew the answers they were hoping to evoke, so ended up spelling out the point completely, enabling Maki to, when understanding was reached, finally answer ‘yes’. A translator from the audience volunteered to smooth things over, but, perhaps on the basis that this would have been too easy, was only called upon to help out with one question.

Finally, in one of the most entertaining Q&As I’ve seen, the children attending the special selection of child-friendly animations were invited to ask particular animators about their work. In a revealing clue to a child’s understanding of culture through the lens of gender, the animator behind a work starring an animated reindeer and a live-action young girl was first asked point blank by a boy: “Why was it a girl and not a boy?”. The animator shrugged, but this line of enquiry provoked a stir among the young crowd, who then demanded to know: “Is the deer a boy or a girl?”. (While neither implied within nor important to the film, the animator responded that the deer was a boy, perhaps because he had provided the animal’s wordless vocalisations).

This raised another important question from a child in the audience: “Does the deer like dancing?”. It should be noted that the film did not involve dancing in any way. Vaguely intimating the rules of improv, the animator got over his initial confusion at the question to answer in the affirmative.

Finally one child stumped the animator by asking “Do you know what reindeer eat?”, to which he could only hazard “Grass… and cocoa?” (the deer was depicted drinking hot chocolate). The host was about to move on when he realised that this had been a rhetorical question, and the child wished instead to impress his own knowledge of the matter upon the audience, demonstrating a precocious understanding of how adults usually interpret their part in a Q&A: “Chestnuts… carrots… and grass. And cocoa.”

– Tim Mannveille tweets as metatim and previously highlighted lovely short animations from Tricky Women 2011

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2012 – My Best of the Fest

I went to the Edinburgh International Film Festival for the third consecutive year, and although the general consensus seems to be that new artistic director Chris Fujiwara steered it back in the right direction after 2011’s low-budget-no-carpet-no-deals worries, it wasn’t quite as exciting for me (see my overview of EIFF 2011).

That said, there were still some great films, so here’s my personal Best of the Fest.

Rentaneko
IMDb 7.2 / RT (not enough reviews yet)


Pro: Cats everywhere, all the time.
Con: More like a series of short films.
Overall: Funny, charming, enjoyable in the ways it defies convention, and did I mention, cats everywhere.

Wu Xia / Dragon / Swordsmen
IMDb 7.0 / RT (not enough reviews yet)


Pro: A brilliantly conceived and executed combined crime-scene-investigation/fight scene.
Con: Seems a bit like an imperfectly edited adaptation of a more complicated novel, but apparently it isn’t.
Overall: Although it peaks early (see ‘Pro’), it remains a consistently surprising and entertaining take on some of the tropes of the genre.

V/H/S
IMDb 6.1 / RT 77%


Pro: A delightfully varied horror anthology, creepy in some places, ghost-pigeon insane in others.
Con: The misogynistic tone and slow build of the opening half-hour.
Overall: Worth sitting through the irritating opening for the goodness inside, particularly at the very end. Don’t watch the trailer more than once.

Berberian Sound Studio
IMDb 7.0 (27 votes) / RT 100% (from 15 reviews)


Pro: Does some extraordinarily powerful things with sounds and silence.
Con: Could have gone in a number of directions, ultimately opts for perhaps the least interesting of those.
Overall: If you like the trailer, you’ll love the film.

The Making of Longbird
The winner of the animation category, as well as my personal favourite. Despite seeing a lot of impressive different animation styles across the whole animation strand, the simple joy of a silly-looking character speaking with a weirdly fitting voice was just impossible to beat:

Vexed
Every year we’ve attended some or all of the ‘Black Box’ experimental short film screenings curated by Kim Knowles, and these are always fascinating and memorable. For me, this year’s most most powerful selection was the 28.5-minute long ‘Vexed’ by Telcosystems. Unusually, Kim warned the audience in advance that this would be a particularly intense experience, which heightened our expectations, and we were not disappointed.

As the film progressed, I formed the impression that I was pushing through the edge of the universe, passing through layers of quantum foam, tuning my way systematically through 10 dimensions, uncertain if I would find anything on the other side, knowing that every minute spent pressing further added years to the return journey should I choose to make it, and at every moment I felt imbued with purpose and fulfillment. And there’s not many films you can say that about.

You can see some of it in this video, in between the interview segments that I can’t understand:

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2011 – My Best of the Fest

I went to the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) in 2010, and discovered that film festivals are exactly the kind of thing I should be doing. Earlier this year I therefore went to the Tricky Women animation film festival in Vienna, which was intense and wonderful, and then attended EIFF again this year, and enjoyed it again, but in a different way.

Wait, wasn’t the film festival terrible this year?

It was different, that’s for sure. Here’s my understanding:

i) A 3-year Film Council grant came to an end in 2010; by one account the grant had been conditional on the film festival taking place in June instead of August (when all the other festival craziness is going on), by another account the grant was to support a move to a June slot. In any case, with less money, something had to give.

ii) Festival director Hannah McGill stood down after 2010’s festival, and it seems they struggled to find a suitable replacement.

This produced some major changes:

  • No red carpet events
  • No competition
  • Much fewer new films

From the perspective of the industry, this was something of a disaster.

As a regular punter that just wants a fun film holiday, I was more bothered by some of the minor changes:

  • No ticket deals
  • Difficulties finding out what was on

Last year you could get tickets to 4 films for £24. This year there was no such deal (although some events cost only £6 anyway), but more worryingly there were a number of late-announced special offers like 2-for-1 on documentaries, perhaps in response to poor ticket sales. Naturally this makes me think that next year I should buy fewer tickets in advance and wait for the last-minute deals, and others may do the same, so creating a vicious circle.

In practice we ended up going to about the same number of events, it cost about 20% more, and the events were actually better than last year. Meanwhile I was able to keep up with what was going on through the Twitter hashtag #EdFilmFest, so that solved the problem of finding out about when and where things were happening. Net result: for me, EIFF 2011 was just as enjoyable as 2010, if not more so.

My Top 5 Events

5. Polyester, presented in Odorama
There are some experiences in life in which one can derive satisfaction from the feeling that you are experiencing it in the ideal way (like drinking Afternoon Tea in the afternoon). This was just such an event.

I was only familiar with John Waters from his stand-up / autobiography This Filthy World (2006), but was very interested to see some of his notorious back catalogue. Midnight Movies put on Polyester (1981) at the Filmhouse, at midnight on a Friday, with a pre-recorded bespoke introduction from Waters himself, and superbly reproduced Odorama cards, matching the original design and array of 10 novelty scratch-and-sniff experiences which the film cues you to interact with at certain points.


The film was deleriously over-the-top with a rich undercurrent of satire (as I had expected); the smells were amazing, far more than a token effort; and the screening was packed with exactly the right kind of crowd for the movie, all of which created a sublime cinematic experience.

4. The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema
Not related to Jon Waters, this is a 2006 TV documentary that ended up exceeding its originally planned run-time to become a 3-part 2.5 hour epic, and consists almost entirely of a strange man with a beard talking about how Freudian a lot of cinema is.

On the face of it, this does not sound like a very good idea, which may be why it was shown in the smallest of the screens. In practice, though, it was the most consistently entertaining showing of all the films I saw at the festival.

The strange man with a beard is Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek, who has a wide knowledge of film and also of Freudian and Lacanian thought, and he evidently finds it tremendous fun to view one through the lens of the other. His ideas are just the kind of thing I occasionally read and find ridiculous (the floors of the hotel in Psycho represent the Ego, Superego and Id; David Lynch’s recurring nightmare figures are all ultimately oedipal in nature; the blank screen of the cinema represents the mysterious ur-space our minds imagine toilets flush into) – but when these theories are delivered with such brio, and intercut with perfectly selected moments as his cinematic references, it all makes sense.

The film is directed and perhaps more importantly edited by Sophie Fiennes, who was present for a Q&A and is clearly a great admirer of Žižek’s ideas. It turns out that almost everything he says in the film was delivered off-the-cuff, through rambling 15-minute takes, conducted with the DVDs of the relevant movies close to hand for immediate reference where necessary. I got the impression that few others would have the patience and enthusiasm to do the painstaking work of connecting these individually cogent but collectively disparate ramblings together to form a coherent structure – indeed, the process of doing so apparently took 9 months.

Interest is also maintained with some artful reconstruction work in which Žižek delivers his monologues while apparently standing within the very sets or locations of the moments he is referring to, a technique which apparently served to stimulate his ideas significantly, and also just makes the whole thing more fun.

The film fully exploits Fair Use making liberal use of other works to illustrate points. Unfortunately it seems distributors are afraid that this won’t hold up in court (although it should), so if you like the sound of it you’ll need to order it from their own microsite.

3. Troll Hunter
It’s often hard to identify films you’d be interested in at a festival. In many instances no trailer yet exists, and reviews are scarce or non-existent.

Troll Hunter was rather easier to spot. A strikingly honest and informative title is backed up by a trailer that shows you that even though this is a low-budget independent film, it certainly delivers some excellent Troll action:

As the director pointed out afterwards, the ‘mockumentary’ style has tremendous benefits for those on a limited budget: you only have to render your effects from one angle, and you don’t need to do any when the cameraman is running away from something, as he must inevitably do from time to time. (Of course, this takes for granted the comparatively recent ability to composite CG effects seamlessly into hand-held footage even with a low budget, as was also demonstrated last year at EIFF with Gareth Edwards’s Monsters)

Even more than I had hoped, the film turns out to sit squarely in the small subgenre of movies in which fantastical events are treated as normal or even boring by the protagonists, other examples being Ghostbusters, Mystery Men, Galaxy Quest, Shaun of the Dead, and Skeletons. Troll Hunter, while primarily played for laughs, is filled with the kind of small details that ground it in reality, dozens of little ideas which collectively give the film the ring of truth.

Sadly, the script was not too concerned with making sure that all actions were driven by plausible decisions on the part of the characters (particularly once the dangerous nature of trolls becomes apparent), but there’s so much else to enjoy about it that I’m happy to forgive that failing in this case.

The film will be on general release in the UK as of 9th September.

 

2. The Lion King in 3D
I blogged about this in more detail earlier; the short version is that, amazingly, pushing 2D animation into 3D actually works.

 

1. Bike-powered Belleville Rendez-Vous
This event was mentioned on the EIFF blog, and later on Twitter (which is how I caught wind of it), but seemingly nowhere else. This was a great shame, because the concept was so brilliant I’d have attended a version of it every day of the festival if it was possible.

Four bikes power a battery that runs the projector, four other bikes power the sound, and the audience is invited to join in the effort (all courtesy of the Guerilla Cinema Project). In this way it pairs something I want (film) with something I need (exercise). Brilliant.

Due to the lack of promotion, the audience was actually very small, and although the event was staffed with some incredibly fit volunteers to keep things ticking over, when we decided to step up with about half an hour of the movie to go, there really wasn’t any immediate prospect of relief should we tire. This was also brilliant, as it added a sense of danger while demanding more than I realised I had to give.

The choice of the film could surely not have been more apt: The Belleville Rendez-Vous (2003).

A key scene in the film sees characters doing almost exactly the same thing: pedalling on bikes that power a film screening in front of them (although for very different reasons). Naturally I made sure I was on the bike at that point of the film (having seen it once before many years ago) for maximum weirdness.

Some observations of the emergent behaviour:

If the event had had a strong turnout, I’m not sure how they could have solved the participation problem in a way that kept everybody happy. You can’t be sure how many people in the audience want to step up, or for how long they are prepared to cycle. In that context, I’m not sure what simple allocation system would ensure the film keeps playing and that everyone that wants to gets to participate. As it was, it was more like a game of survival; with so few people it felt as if everyone had to give their all just to keep the lights on. Which was actually awesome.

I would love to have seen the cycling effort data across all the screenings tracked against the events of the film. Keeping an eye on the battery meter, the other cyclists, and my own feelings, it does seem that some interesting feedback loops are at work. For example, at one point the protagonists are cycling with great effort up a hill, prompting an empathic response of extra effort from us, and a notable drop in our effort when they finally made it to the top.

Achievement Stickers
Finally, as has become customary, I made myself some stickers as incentives to do different things on the holiday. Notable non-film events were a visit to Rosslyn Chapel (made insanely famous by the Da Vinci Code), which is fully fascinating in its own right:

… and the Falkirk Wheel, which is self-evidently stupendous:

… with the following results in my sticker book:




So it turns out that even when EIFF is very different, it’s still great. Unfortunately the response to this year’s problems may well be to reschedule it to August, at which point Edinburgh becomes ridiculously overcrowded, which doesn’t appeal to me at all. Oh well.

– metatim

Maintaining a Genial Epoch