By Anna Jílková and Michaela Medveďová
When trying to answer a simple question – what is art – one may come to realize that this question is, indeed, very tricky. At least the search for the answer is. The definition varies from one person to another – what one considers to be art someone else may see as trumpery, and vice versa. However, what can be agreed on is that art comes in all shapes and sizes and can be found in the most common of things. We only need to open our eyes and look for it.
Art was also on the minds of the organisers of the 57th International Short Film Festival in Brno –BRNO 16 which took place on the 12th – 15th October. They decided to dedicate the whole festival to the positive and enhancing effects art can have on its audience, all comprised in a simple motto: Art Makes Us Stronger.
Story of this festival dates far back in history. As mentioned above, year 2016 was already the 57th edition of this event without skipping a single year. In the 60s when the festival was just beginning, it was designated for 16mm formats only (hence the name of the festival itself). In the 70s and 80s it was extended both to 8mm and 35mm. And although it has changed a lot since then, the festival has remained focused on short films. “The only requirements today are the length (no more than 30 minutes) and the fact that the film has to be found interesting by the dramaturgical team,” commented marketing manager of the festival Kristina Ketmanová.
Let’s now have a look at the way the events were following one another:
The first evening was planned to commence with an opening ceremony in the big hall. However, this intention was thwarted by undoubtedly the biggest star of the four-day event – Chuck Palahniuk. The author, most famous for his novel The Fight Club, who was present for his author reading, accidentally delayed the whole event by half an hour – courtesy of Czech highways traditionally full of traffic accidents which prevented him from arriving on time along with the never-ending interest of his fans during a book signing which prevented him from leaving on time.
The opening ceremony thus took place in a very informal setting – the hallway, already crowded with the audience, jury, and organisers. The not-so-dignified venue, however, did not take any impact from the words uttered by the director Mirek Maixner and the art director Marika Kupková to open the festival – a lengthy thank-you to all people (staff or artists) involved in making the festival possible, and a powerful statement about the art itself: “Art values are here on their own; however, they need our help to be maintained.”
There were 39 short films from 22 countries in the competition, distributed into 11 sections. Each of them was shown at least twice, so that every visitor could theoretically get a chance to watch all of them. Apart from the competing films, which varied significantly in their form and content, there were six additional off-programme sections, which mainly supported the festival’s main theme and motto – most notably STRENGTH IN ART! focused on the stories of Czechoslovak artists and monuments, and ART MAKES US STRONGER – IDENTITY & TRAUMA.
The competition was judged by a professional international jury. It consisted of film researchers and teachers, directors, writers, and other influential people. Additionally, there was a special jury – Student Jury consisting of six students from Czech, Slovak, Romanian, Belgian, and American universities. These people all decided on the final winners.
All of the films presented at the festival were unique in their own sense, however, there were some which simply stood out:
Translator (2014, Great Britain) is a coming-of-age story of Yusuf, a young Syrian refugee, living in bad neighbourhood of a Turkish town. The film offers a harsh reality of the rough conditions Yusuf, his family, and his peers live in. The story is strengthened by the absence of music throughout most of the film, even during the credits, with the exception of real-life tunes which are part of the story – this gives the impression that the audience is not watching a piece of fiction but a true story of a boy who could be anyone. In only 24 minutes, Yusuf’s character is particularly well-developed – the viewer can see his kindness in small acts but also a childlike disinterest in changing his situation. He is a normal teenager, concerned only with his affection for his beautiful neighbour. Her proposal for meeting is the turning point in which the film abandons the set course of immigration issue and surprises the audience with a comic twist. The viewers laugh at the misunderstandings happening on screen, but the end is bittersweet – we watch Yusuf take charge of his own life but lose some of his goodness and inexperience.
Language and its importance underline the whole story – either on the basic plot-level, with language having the power to ruin what seemed like young love, or on the level of society, with language being the core reason for a life in bad conditions, or for being an outsider. The director of the movie, Emre Kayis, who was present for the after-screening discussion, said his focus is always on the outsiders. For this particular film, which is his graduation project, he got inspiration from Istanbul – a city, where there are many Syrian people living at the moment – from a particular establishment where he was a regular. “There was this 17-year old boy there and he went on about the things he could do if he only knew the language,” said Kayis.
The very beginning of Ave Maria (2015, Palestinian Territory), a short film which received an Oscar nomination, already indicates that the story is going to be full of comic scenes as well as ironic and poignant dialogues: it presents a true cultural clash as well as literal crash. A Jewish Israeli family runs over a statue of Saint Mary standing in front of a convent. The nuns try to help them in spite of their religious differences, but their religious practices are, in fact, the real problem. The nuns, observing a vow of silence, clash with the Israeli family, for whom the Shabbat has just begun. The film handles a delicate topic with ease, entertains without offending, and mocks impractical values and habits without being ignorant and intolerant. Ave Maria – after 15 minutes of twists and situational comedy – arrives at a beautiful ending void of pathos, which shows that no matter what our differences are, superficial boundaries are worth being broken in order to help another human being.
Fear (2015, Slovakia) – the story of a young apprentice who, in the midst of his own peer problems, witnesses a violent attack on a night bus and tapes it on his phone – stands out thanks to its brilliant gradation. The film brings believable tension and suspense into an ordinary story and works with it brilliantly. It portrays an average teenage boy with unusual struggles. He, being a teenager, tries to deal with them on his own, not being able or willing to let his emotions and panic on to the surface. The audience can feel the climactic horror of the boy who, paradoxically, continues to lead his everyday life. This contrast is one of the sources of the movie’s appeal, the other one being the raw lifelikeness of the setting and authentic dialogue of the characters.
One of the 6 films that were awarded an honourable mention by the festival’s jury was Lookout (2016, Israel), which was awarded for an outstanding and smart screenplay which, according to the festival’s website, “link the real and the imaginary world” in an original way. It is a perfect summary of the charming yet haunting film. It is a story of a young girl doing her military service – currently on the lookout for possible threats posed to soldiers. From early on, she is presented as quirky and detached, and so is the service. The threat of war is imminent, yet it is presented more like a videogame than reality. The girl spends her life in her own fantasy world full of lights, colours and imagination, and seems unable to understand the gravity of the situation she is in. The most beautiful scene of the 18-minute film is the one in which she imagines the other girls in her squad as puppets being controlled both by the army – literally – and by the rules of the outside world – metaphorically. However, after a tragic plot twist, the scene is repeated once again, just with the girl herself this time. She ends up standardized, normalized, controlled. The ending implies a very strong anti-war idea – that war is destructive and malign, that it takes not only lives but also spirits and ideals, and that no matter the outcome, no one makes it out alive.
With Inferno (2016, Canada), the question of what exactly art is arises once again. It is a story about erotic dancers set in a nightclub, and thus it – in its essence – touches the issue of the boundaries of art, as many of them feel like this particular kind of performance is beyond them. However, the film’s take on the provocative visuals is subtle and very aesthetic. The most impressive feature is the cinematography – the 13-minute project is shot with no or very few cuts and the long, sort of dragged out scenes are beautiful. As far as the plot of the film is concerned, the story is presented from a different, fresh perspective – it lacks the usual glorification of the girls’ occupation and unveils the risks involved. With the sudden, bloody twist at the end, there is the need to come back to the question asked before, and that is whether some things – explicit gore, in this case – can be still counted as art.
One of the most intriguing sections presented at the festival was Bloody Asia which comprised of seven short films. As the overall title suggests, viewers with sensitive stomachs would be, of course, warmly welcome to the screening, but they probably would not be very content. It presented several interesting stories which had the power to entertain or sadden instantly, and often contained violence, as well as an immense amount of creativity and innovation. Trunk (2013, South Korea) perfectly sets the mood of the whole section with a well-balanced mixture of suspense, gore, and humour – the combination which can be used to describe most of these films. Chainsaw Maid (2007, Japan) and Himiko The Godslayer vs. The Daemon Legion of Azure Dragons (2015, Japan) primarily catch interest of the audience through the simple fashion they were shot in – plasticine zombies in the former and amateur, cosplay-like action in the latter. However, despite the lack of complexity in appearance, they are far more satisfying than a number of big-budget Hollywood action productions. It is the ultra-short, 2-minute film Papapa (2016, Taiwan) which will most likely stay in the memory of the viewers – quite unexpected combination of sex, cosplay, and nature left the audience in tears of laughter. However, the true gem of this section comes just before the end – Keep Going (2015, South Korea) is a wonderfully touching post-apocalyptic vision which, by pointing at the issue of genocide and xenophobia, tugged at the heartstrings of the audience. Even though the film is bloody, violent, and full of action, it is also incredibly gentle on top of that all. The ending once again leaves the audience in tears, but this time, they are of the sad kind.
A fairy tale and a horror in one, that is Leshy (2015, Czech Republic). Lesapán (as it is called in Czech) was the only Czech nominee in the film contest. It tells a story of a forest monster that is preventing unwanted visitors from going to its wooded area. The story of an ordinary family – a father and daughter – is from the very beginning connected to the one with Leshy. The father works as a gamekeeper and it often happens that he leaves his daughter at home on her own and goes out to check the forest. During one such a night, she meets Leshy who comes to visit.
The director of Leshy, Pavel Soukup, created this film as his graduation work. Thus, it was mostly funded by his university. Soukup and the other creators – e.g. screenwriter Petr Koubek – have been interested in folklore for couple of years. And they put all their experiences together to create this amazing work. The atmosphere is rather dark and the end of the story tragic. These two characteristics show a link to Karel Jaromír Erben and his ballads. Formally, it is a very advanced film which does not let the audience relax for a single moment.
Our Legacy (2015, France) and Leshy are two films played after 10pm and dedicated to 18+ audience. But both of them for a completely different reason. Whereas Leshy was a dramatic horror film, Our Legacy is a film with porn elements that tells the story of a young French couple. At the first glance, it seems as a casual love story which, however, evolves into something slightly less romantic. As the plot unfolds, it turns out that the father of the main male character works in the porn industry and shoots videos with young ladies. The boy knows about it and the viewer can feel his internal struggle with keeping it secret on the one hand and with himself so as not to become the same person on the other hand. Unlike Leshy, this movie has a happy ending and so the boy decides to leave all his roots behind and gets back to his girlfriend.
Jonathan Vinel and Caroline Poggy are credited in Our Legacy. All in all, this shot takes 24 minutes. 24 minutes means 20 minutes of nude shots. The plot is strongly reduced and the audience is exposed to an uncountable number of female nude photos and videos presenting the father’s work. But despite all this, spectators still may receive the message of true love.
Although only some of the films were discussed, there were definitely many more of them which deserve to be mentioned, especially those that won in various categories. The main award went to German Ozan Mermer and his film Terrier. The audience awarded the Romanian film A Night in Tokoriki, and the student jury gave their votes to Maria Luz Olivares Capelle and her film Forest of Echoes. Additionally, there were six more films awarded by the honourable mentions for their exceptional features.
The 58th year of this festival is expected to take place on October 11th – 14th 2017. “The topic of the next year will be Family. The system of the competition will remain the same, and so will the traditional sections such as archive and amateur films, national cinematography or short Czech films,” concluded Kristina Ketmanová. Hopefully this tradition will last long and keep gathering all interested movie-goers and great film-makers at a single spot, which is not huge, but is nice and cozy.
Official website of the festival