Leading up to a screening of BFI Academy short films in Nottingham, Fikri Jermadi looks at some films produced in past editions of the programme.
The BFI Film Academy is a programme aimed at guiding young filmmakers through a more structured filmmaking process. In essence, we’re looking at a cohort of twenty or so teenagers taking their first steps through a four-month course, attending sessions led by experienced professionals. This year, in the lead up to the screening in March, I figured it would be timely to take a look back at some of the films made by previous batches, beginning from 2018.
First up is the film ‘Signed.’. Directed by Saul Knight, it is a low-budget high concept short film, with two students, Henry (Charlie Jacob Reck) and Cara (Elise Morgan), drawing in an art room. Their disdain for one another is made evident, initially through cursory glances here and there, before exploding into something bigger. The high concept bit comes with Henry’s breaking of his pencil, leading to his discovery of one imbued with magical powers, making the drawn objects disappear in real life when the drawing is signed.
The first few minutes made me feel as if it was set up as a silent film. Though this expectation would be upended soon enough, that change was something I found to be less than pleasant. It’s a small thing, though, and it did not stop the film from reining me in, keeping me glued until the end to find out what would happen. This is particularly helped along by the editing of Harriet Kennedy (doubling as the cinematographer), as the dramatic tension increased apace with a rapid intercutting of shots near the end.
However, there are moments when my suspension of disbelief was disrupted, as exemplified through Henry’s search for the pencil. Here, there were some shots in which the perspective shifted from the filmic, over-the-shoulder third person to one that is more objective, almost as if we are looking through a security camera. Tangentially, I am reminded of an empty arena wrestling match between Mankind and The Rock, in which a close up shot on The Rock removed us from the standard, single-camera operation televised wrestling language is founded upon. It became a film, rather than reality. Here, the reverse has happened, but the impact is no less disturbing.
Beyond such technicalities, I like how the film explored an idea of existence and reality. This may not have been the intended implication, but it remains an interesting inference to make, particularly in the interplay between the copy and the real. When photography first came along, many were skeptical of the form; how can they exist in the picture when they already live in real life? There is also something about the film’s morality that reminds me of another classic, ‘The Black Hole’.
The next film, ‘Gone’, considers a darkness a different kind, one more emotional than anything else. We follow the story of Grace (Ella Harding), a young teenager who is in conflict with her father at home. Distraught, she immediately leaves in the middle of the night: “You wouldn’t even miss me if I am gone.” That’s the core of this film’s journey, on which attempts to consider the emotional states and stresses people experience under great duress. Grace’s own journey leads her to a bridge, readying herself for a jump before being stopped by Nathan (Nigel Nyanhete).
The ensuing conversation between the two oscillates between being important and feeling a little cringey. On the first count, there is a strong sincerity and honesty I could appreciate, as the scriptwriter, Jade Nolan, let loose on the topic of emotional isolation and disconnect. For instance, Grace emphasised the feeling that talking about things is no good, as people would not understand. It’s a common refrain, balanced by Nathan’s contention that people can relate, if you let them in.
Letting this out, however, required slightly more dramatic nuance, as the interplay between the two felt like it lacked something. I am not entirely sure what to put my finger on, but I can certainly attest to the tricky transition between script and screen. Oftentimes, what felt like a great read on paper becomes something less cinematic when uttered in real life. Additionally, the use of music, perhaps somewhere near the end, may also help to hammer home some of the points on an emotional level.
Having said that, apparently the film’s production hours clocked in at less than a day, so that’s the context we have to bear in mind. The team, led by director Serena-Faith Burton, chose their location well, with bridges often serving as a place of transition from one state to another. I place it on equal footing to railway tracks, often seen as a visual signifier of division in cinema. My points above does not invalidate the film’s aforementioned sincerity, especially in light of recent grassroots and top-down efforts highlighting the importance of mental and emotional wellbeing.
The final film from the 2018 group is ‘Fascination’. Directed by Ravi Ghelani, the story is about two friends, Mark (Adam Henchcliffe) and Liam (Rhys Gillet). They are walking in the park, in conversation with one another… or so one of them thinks. Liam, having spent some time talking about his problems, is annoyed at Mark’s constant interaction with his phone; instead of actually listening to his friend, he is more interested in what he sees on his phone. Liam wonders aloud about the usefulness of such videos, but the difference brought about by Mark’s insistence on their value is film’s foundation here.
‘Fascination’ works as a comment on youth and the digital age, in which people are supposedly very distracted through their fascination with digital devices. There is a saying, likening such attractions to a car crash people can’t quite turn away from. This is a marriage made real in the film, with Mark finding himself particularly wedded to the extremity exposed online. Examples of people fighting online, for instance, lead to the boys having a play fight. While there is nothing serious about it, an elderly passerby looks at them with disdain, a tsk tsk ticking off by a boomer not OK with what he sees.
The film’s black and white aesthetics adds to the so-called bleakness of the story, though it feels like there would have been little difference should it be presented in colour. I am more concerned with the editing, though, as the fade ins and outs suggested a shift in time (that the story plays out over several days) that didn’t really manifest itself (it feels more like a singular event on one day). Though minor, it also disconnected me further from the narrative. Once again, however, the film’s compressed filmmaking conditions must be borne in mind.
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