Clermont-Ferrand 2019: seven of the best short films

The programme at the world’s biggest short film festival reflect the event itself – eclectic, and somewhat anarchic. We round up some of the best of this annual state-of-the-art snapshot.

Laurence Boyce

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Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels’s This Magnificent Cake! rolled around the world’s film festivals last year

Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels’s This Magnificent Cake! rolled around the world’s film festivals last year

The Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival has always been a curious mix of both the anarchic and the commercial, much like the medium it celebrates. It draws audiences of more than 100,000 each year (making it the second biggest French film festival, after Cannes) and hosts the world’s biggest Short Film Market, welcoming more than 3,500 accredited buyers, distributors and festival representatives.

However, those vast audiences reflect the fact that the festival offers free tickets for the homeless and the unemployed as well as hugely discounted tickets for children. Not only that, but the team that organises Clermont-Ferrand has no hierarchical structure, which means that there is no festival director, and everyone is paid exactly the same.

The festival champions shorts as a distinctive art form, yet also recognises the fact that many of the filmmakers it lauds will move on to the feature-film world. That was illustrated this year by the presence on the International Competition jury of Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid, who also brought a selection of his shorts and mid-length features that had screened at the festival in the past. A little over a week later Lapid was collecting the Berlinale’s Golden Bear for his feature Synonyms.

The trailer for Nadav Lapid’s From the Diary of a Wedding Photographer (2016), one of three shorts screened in a brief retrospective

Clermont-Ferrand has always seemed comfortable embracing many of the contradictions that exist within short-film culture and, for all its support of the industry, does feel like an annual celebration of the medium. It has no premiere policy and does not position itself as a place to see all brand-new shorts. Rather, it hosts new discoveries in the context of a snapshot of the past year, examining both the best shorts on the circuit and the talents behind them. And while the programme can be unwieldy – with more than 160 films across three competitions, and often little sense of a through line within a screening programme – it is still possible to pick one or two films to give an idea of where short film has been over the past year and where it is going.

The winner of the Grand Prix in the International Competition was Bogdan Muresanu’s The Christmas Gift (2018), a tight and claustrophobic examination of paranoia in Romania during the time of Ceausescu. In the lead up to Christmas – and a scant few days after Ceausescu has crushed an uprising in Timisoara – Gelu returns home to discover that has son has written and posted a letter to Santa Claus that mentions his father’s fervent wish to see ‘Uncle Nick’ dead. Convinced that he’s going to be arrested for sedition, Gelu begins to rifle through various scenarios to get the letter back.

The Christmas Gift trailer

With a shaky handheld camera giving a touch of the documentary realism associated with much of Romanian cinema, as well as emphasising the nervousness and fear of the main character, this is an engaging glimpse of life under a dictatorship. The film’s closing scenes, set during a Ceausescu-orchestrated march, provide an air of almost existential dread at the sheer impossibility of indulging hopes, dreams and desires when crushed by the weight of history; but there are also moments of quiet humour that make this as much a family drama as a historical treatise.

History also weighs heavily in Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels’s National Competition Grand Prix winner This Magnificent Cake!. Already garlanded with many plaudits from the festival circuit [you can read more about it in Sight & Sound reports from Cannes and Manchester], this 45-minute stop-motion animation is a surreal and often cruelly satirical deconstruction of 19th-century colonial Africa, and excels as an exercise in building an atmosphere of oppressive heat, with the ‘fluffy’ puppets giving everything a tangible quality, alongside some dreamlike tableaux. It’s a consistently fascinating film whose run of dominance on the animation and short film circuit speaks volumes to its ability to linger in the mind.

This Magnificent Cake! trailer

While confronting and contextualising history was a prevalent theme, so was the idea of people dealing with their own redundancy – both literal and figurative. In a world in which we’re constantly told will be taken over by mechanisation, what was once the realm of sci-fi has begun to shift into contemporary drama.

Tan Wei Ting’s Ca$h focuses on a set of female cashiers who decide to lock themselves in their supermarket when they discover that they’re going to be replaced by machines. The film has a slight element of comedic slapstick, with the disparate personalities of the protesting workers being played for smiles as well as a later chase round the supermarket. But the film has a sobering coda, with a reminder that more than money that is at stake – it’s a sense of purpose.

Ca$h (full movie)

This is also apparent in Laura Carreira’s magnificent Red Hill in which Jim, a former miner turned security guard, faces down his last days until retirement. Carreira intercuts the final days of Jim’s employment, on the site of a former coal mine, with moments of him attending a group session intended to prepare him for a life without work. Jim’s work places him in isolation, emphasised by the vast vistas of moorland where he makes his rounds.

The irony of Jim guarding the remnants of his previous job does not go unnoticed and, for all the good nature of those in the group sessions, it’s clear that the job is Jim’s entire life and retirement will be something of a living death. This is a slow and richly rewarding work thanks to the confident direction of Carreira, who combines documentary style realism with a lyrical beauty, alongside a breathtaking performance from Billy Mack in the lead role.

Red Hill teaser trailer

One of the standout documentaries, screened in the Lab Section, was Ismaël Joffroy Chandoutis’s Swatted, a disturbing film about the phenomena of Swatting, whereby trolls send SWAT teams to the homes of unsuspecting innocents via hoax emergency phone calls. Chandoutis’s use of computer graphics and wireframe imagery, alongside real-life accounts of being Swatted, result in a films that’s eerily unsettling. The film brings home how disengaged people are from the consequences of their actions while emphasising the real-life fear that these ‘pranks’ engender.

Swatted trailer

While there were many films dealing with the important issues of the day – issues of migration and identity still loom large across the short-film world – there were also those that revelled in making the best use of the short film medium for its own sake.

Chief among these was the warm and witty To Plant a Flag from writer-director Bobbie Peers. Peers – who won the Palme d’Or in 2006 for his short film Sniffer – bases the film on the fact that NASA used Iceland as a training ground for astronauts, due to the terrain’s similarity to the moon. When two said astronauts (Jake Johnson and Jason Schwartzman) discover their American flag is missing, they find themselves in a confrontation with a local farmer. This is a shaggy dog story, ultimately not going anywhere – but the short film can get away with such a tale much more than a feature can. It’s an enjoyable piece for some witty banter and some beautiful shorts of the Icelandic countryside.

To Plant a Flag trailer

Special mention must also be made of Norteños, a UK film directed by the (one presumes) pseudonymous ‘Grandmas’. Northerner Barry tries to enlist the help of his former girlfriend after a terrible incident with his grandma. This is an exercise in mostly broad comedy, which takes 1980s fashion and northern stereotypes to extremes and is queasily hilarious thanks to some committed performances and a willingness to play with the tropes of social realism. There’s an air of Ben Wheatley about the piece, in which the mundanity of everyday life is mixed with moments of palpable horror. At a lean eight minutes, it’s a perfectly formed piece of work.

Norteños trailer

There were plenty of other gems, ranging from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s surreal and elegant Blue to Guy Nattiv’s earnest Skin, the recent recipient of the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short. The medium of short film remains as vital and important as ever, which is reflected in the energy and power of Clermont-Ferrand as a festival.

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