Nurturing talent in the young is hugely important and when efforts are made to support, showcase and ignite young talent in film, it warms the heart. The British Film Institute (BFI), in tandem with companies like LaCie and Back the Future, host this yearly festival for 16 to 25 year olds.
It’s designed not only to give them a chance to learn about their chosen future trade, but also to network with industry professionals who could open doors for them. In my second session of the day, Virtual Umbrella’s Samantha Kingston offered exactly that – a warm invitation to chat with her after the event, and even an offer to hook students up with some of her industry contacts.
As someone who’s older than the upper bracket of this audience (by five years) and someone who sometimes wishes they’d tried their hand at filmmaking in their youth, the limitless value of this festival was as plain as day. And the students saw that too – many of them asked questions, interacted and lingered behind. They didn’t squander the opportunity that these talks presented, and it was nice to see.
The festival runs for four days, but I only attended the Friday, because this was the day that held the female short films segment ‘Shorts: Female Portraits’. Of the numerous talks on offer, I also elected to attend ‘Immersive Storytelling and Virtual Reality’ and ‘Audio Storytelling’.
Shorts: Female Portraits
Settling into the small and intimate NFT2, we were treated to 13 short films (back-to-back, without breaks) that celebrate the diversity of female experiences. First, six or seven UK directors were brought up on stage – the young talent behind many of these potent shorts. Each gave a lightning quick introduction, then sat back down.
Below I address the five shorts that impressed me and affected me the most. What really struck me was the boldness of some of these films – the unabashed ability to tackle taboos head on; everything from attempting to unveil potential government cover-ups, to attempting to alter perceptions of necrophilia.
1 in 5
This was the first short film of the roster to strike me as something special. Rape is a difficult subject for victims of this crime to even think about, let alone place on film, but Director Katheryn Olson boldly stares the subject in the eye.
Using pale, minimalist art, she tells the story a girl enjoying chatting with a boy in his bedroom, then suddenly being set upon and raped by that boy, despite her protests.
“Please, please, please,” she begs her assailant, but it falls on deaf ears. The use of art softens the nudity and the harshness of the scene, for the viewer, but the strength of the message remains intact.
It’s all bookended beautifully with something sweet and simple – her innocent observation that she likes her own wrists, followed by her closing wish: being able to enjoy that same small pleasure, in her post-rape depression.
Dead. Tissue. Love.
Sometimes films bowl you over because of their subject matter. This was one of those. Despite the festival guide warning that there was ‘discussion of necrophilia’ within, I didn’t quite expect what director Natasha Austin-Green presented here.
A girl narrates the story of how she warmed towards necrophilia – from the germ of the idea first settling in her mind, to her secretly touching dead bodies at funerals (non-sexually), when no one was looking.
This narration is spoken over beautiful imagery – crimson mountaintops (no doubt meant to represent the beauty that she sees in decaying flesh) – and also artistic, up close shots of bodies (seemingly alive and dead), as well as bacteria and other microscopic life.
Visually, it’s a smooth watch, but audibly, it’s a challenge – the narrator attempts to normalise necrophilia to some degree, wanting the myth that “they all want to break into morgues and sleep with dead bodies” to be abolished.
Whether you can get on board with the sexual adoration of dead flesh is down to you. The narrator posits that “you can do anything you want to a dead body and you know it’s not hurting anybody,” but I would argue that’s far from true, when you consider the lack of consent from that individual and the lack of consent from their family.
None of the other shorts hit me so hard. It’s the boldest film of the festival and the one that will stick with me the longest.
More than one film was about the early periods of a young girl, but this was the best of them. Argentinian director Lucila Mariani proved herself the most aesthetically capable director of the bunch here, crafting a beautiful (if narratively rather empty) short.
I often favour visuals over story, but there needs to be a balance, and I think Mariani’s film falls a little too heavily on the visual side. But it’s great, regardless.
There are moments where this 11 year old girl is simply sitting in her room and shining a light on the wall, yet you’re captivated. That’s powerful filmmaking. Stylistically, it was my favourite short film of the day.
Few of these films had a really powerful beginning, middle and end (something not easy to achieve in such a short time frame). Endings especially are vital – to punctuate a great story – and too many of these films lacked that, choosing instead to peter out into nothing. This Thessaloniki film managed that best.
It flicks between the partying life of a happy girl, who very clearly used to be a guy, and the same girl, dead in a morgue, being prepared for a funeral.
As the preparation progresses, you realise they’re not just removing her make-up to make her look presentable – they’re doing it to make her look like how her family once knew her: like a boy.
It’s unfair to the girl’s lifestyle choices and her desire to be a woman. Luckily, the ending rebukes that injustice a little, when her friend crosses out the male name on her tombstone with lipstick, then writes on her female name instead.
The girl-as-narrator observes that she’s now been reduced to nothing more than an object – some lipstick. It was the best ending of the festival.
This film snags the spot for holding the most vital message, in my opinion. It opens with a remark that it’s difficult to make a film in a place where filming isn’t allowed. It also states this is a place that the government doesn’t want you to see.
That immediately grabs your attention. The British government aren’t often accused of secret facilities, in which illegal abuse allegedly occurs, but that’s exactly what the filmmaker alleges here.
She’s talking about the Immigration and Removal centre – a middle-point for those who might soon be deported from the UK. We hear a phone interview with someone within this facility, who talks of trying to hold onto hope.
“Freedom is in the mind,” she cleverly quotes, and on screen we see an actress in a ‘cell’ surrounded by darkness, and other representations of these women being trapped.
If the allegations of rape and abuse are true (the fact that UN want to investigate, but aren’t allowed in, is shocking), then this is by far the most important film of the festival. And I hope it prompts some change and some action against this oppressive place.
There were many other short films within this reel that impressed me in similar, if slightly reduced ways.
Amygdala was about a girl’s spiral into alcoholism and one night stands after her female lover departs for Mexico. Guy’s Girl held interviews with successful female DJs, who give advice young girls who might aspire to the same goal. Led was the story of a Russian girls’ rugby team and a player who models on the side.
All of the 13 films had something important to say and stood out in their own unique ways.
Immersive Storytelling and Virtual Reality
Settling into NFT3, amidst a few active film cameras this time (an effort to record the best of this year’s event, for next year’s marketing), I sat down to a talk by Virtual Umbrella’s Samantha Kingston. I found her to be engaging, personable and the best speaker of the day.
Her passion for VR storytelling really came across and the points she raised along the way were all insightful – things you wouldn’t have thought of about the potential benefits and the potential barriers of VR’s sure-to-be-soaring future. The best part was her recommendations – having tried a wide gamut of VR herself, she was able to offer honed suggestions.
One of these was Unrest VR, about a bed-ridden woman whose doctors don’t believe her, which is currently on Netflix. Others included We Wait by the BBC, a trip down an amazonian river (the name of which I fail to remember) and a VR experience from the point of view of a child (First Impressions), by The Guardian.
Come 3pm, I sat down to the final talk in The Blue Room. Ironically, given the subject of this talk, I found this panel discussion very difficult to hear. The room is large and spacious, with clanging going on above, and the microphones didn’t seem to be working. So those of us towards the back were left straining and just about able to hear what the panel were saying.
I’ll be honest, this panel wasn’t quite what I thought it was going to be. I expected a heavier lilt on the side of podcasts and telling stories within those (like Lore), but this was three professionals (happily, all women again) from radio documentary production – Eleanor McDowall, Olivia Humphreys and one other guest, whose name wasn’t on the original roster.
As someone who doesn’t listen to the radio, I struggled to find the talk interesting. But it was clear that these guest were all intelligent professionals who knew what they were talking about and anyone present who might want to take this career avenue would no doubt have got something out of listening to them.
They played us 5 to 6 snippets of audio documentaries and projects by these three women, only one of two or which struck me as something I’d choose to actively listen to. The best of these was one that interviewed the partners of PTSD sufferers and showcased what they have to go through, and the best story of the afternoon was Eleanor’s tale of a man whose eye popped out after being punched by a wrestler.
Should you go?
Definitely. If you’re within the 16 to 25 age bracket, this is a wonderful opportunity to help you on your way to your chosen career, whether that be in film, radio, VR or something else. And if you’re older, like me, you can still attend as a chaperone, or simply because you find it interesting.
The festival had far more to offer than the above, too – it has four days in total, which includes guest speakers, Masterclasses and much more. It’s worth having a look at the listings, to see the wide range of events on offer. This is the 11th festival too – so the BFI have been repeating and perfecting this for a long time, no doubt with different talks each year.
The film industry is infamously difficult to break into, but thanks to the BFI and events like this, young people have a much-needed helping hand. Attending might ignite the spark of an idea that you hadn’t thought of, might inspire you down some new road, or you might come away with new connections that you’ll keep for life – maybe even people who will form your crew for your future films. Whichever events you choose, you’re bound to get something out of it.
Image credits: BFI, Virtual Umbrella, Samantha Kingston, Eleanor McDowall