South Australian writer-director Anthony Maras’ The Palace is one of those immersive short films (at a mere 15 minutes) that leaves you in a state of shock not just at the suddenness of events but at the expansion of time as suspense takes its grip in a shadowy old Ottoman building. The film opens with a Cypriot family in flight through the streets of Lefkosia in 1974, ducking the fire of snipers and dashing into the palace where voices tell them to leave, warning that the family’s crying baby will get them killed. The escape from the bright, dangerous exterior into a potential refuge is short-lived—as Turkish soldiers approach, quick decisions have to be made. The mother, a child and baby hide in a walk-in cupboard, her husband and several palace residents squeeze into a wardrobe. A bullying, plundering sergeant and his nervous conscripts soon enough become aware of those hiding, with appalling consequences. One conscript declares his unwillingness to participate—”I’m not a soldier, I’m a drama student, I’m going to RADA.” The sergeant retorts, “This is not a fucking stage!”
The Palace is delicately paced, replete with deft touches that briskly conjure a palpable world. The soldiers banter, one plays a trick (the baklava they find could be poisoned), they worry, as Islamic men, about taking a bottle of 1947 Dom Perignon (until their leader reminds them that Turkey is a secular state) and the sergeant, with unknowing irony, drops the gramophone needle onto The Easybeats’ “Friday on My Mind”—a sharp reminder of cultural connection, between Australia and its Cypriot immigrants. These scenes, at medium distance, oscillate with those of the mother in close-up profile or from her point of view, heightening our subjectivity, peering through the slatted door of the wardrobe.
The Palace, a Cyprus-Australia co-production was shot around the United Nations Green Line in Lefkosia on the divided island. The film won Best Australian Short Film at the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival and Best Short Film (Live Action) at the 2011 Sydney Film Festival Dendy Awards as well as the Audience Award in Adelaide. Nick Matthew’s cinematography and Maras’ editing give the film much of its strength along with convincing performances and the benefits of location shooting in a heritage building. Other than slight suspension of disbelief about the soldiers not hearing the baby sooner, The Palace is expert mainstream filmmaking about a conflict that receives little attention these days (former MP Alexander Downer is supposed to be sorting it out for the UN). At Flickerfest The Palace won the Movie Network Channels Award for Best Australian Short Film.
What follows is a series of surprises ending with a delightful and topical sting in the tail, but with Moore very carefully pacing the film so that there are passages where time slows, where, with Julian, we are outside closed doors, gazing down a long corridor, just looking and thinking as the boy, unknown to us, strategises. Ed Oxenbould plays Julian with just the right mix of innocent and alert observer. Stuart O’Rourke’s camera work and Christian Barratt-Hill’s editing are in complete tune with Moore’s script and direction while Adam Sofo’s jaunty score maintains the requisite air of innocence as morality becomes more problematic. Julian achieves justice; we glimpse the man he will become.
I was also taken by another film about a determined child, Swimsuit 46 (writer-director Wannes Destoop, Belgium, 15mins), in which a chubby 12-year-old swimming champ has her outfit torn by a male bully. The cost of replacing it rules out the new pair of goggles she desperately needs for the swimming finals. Pulling herself together she collects leftover coins from lockers, washes cars and, to complete the sum needed, steals from her mother. The strength of this film is in the clear rhythm of its narrative progression but equally the interiority of the moments when the girl is alone in front of a mirror pondering her weight (about which her mother is brutally frank, let alone her brother), bicycling through the rain or tiring from her efforts to make money. She is loved, but she’s a loner, a champ but overweight. And just when she thinks that stealing hasn’t yielded punishment, karma strikes in this deftly made morality tale.
In a neat blend of suspenseful action and moral fable, Crosshair (director Mike Hoath, writer Peter Templeman), tracks two brothers who steal a sheep and are caught by the farmer who nabs the younger man yielding a potential shoot-out. To force a resolution, the other brother keeps shooting sheep. In the end, the younger man, feeling that his brother has treated his life lightly, decides where his conscience will take him. The older brother sits alone beneath a tree with that inward stare of doubt. This spare tale is, for the most part (the farmer appears a little too convinced of his invulnerability) finely realised with an alternation between moments of churning action and tense stillness as the relationship between the brothers changes irrevocably. Jim Frater’s cinematography (with some fine interplay between the open space of the paddock and the dark of the surrounding bush) and Stefan Androv Radanovich’s editing make for immersive viewing in this Western Australian film.
Silent River (writer-director Anca Miruna Lazarescu, 12mins, Germany) is, not unlike The Palace, another film rooted in relatively recent history, this time Romania before the fall of the Ceaucescu regime, and executed with verve, considerable suspense and moral complexity, here between two men eager to escape an authoritarian regime. One has tried it before and perhaps lost someone when he failed; therefore he begs his friend not to bring his girlfriend—but he does, she’s actually his wife, she’s pregnant and is hidden in the car’s superstructure. Forced to accept her presence in the passage through a roadblock and a town, the first man becomes deeply afraid, the second cocky, and then, as they swim the Danube to Serbia at night, the plan goes wrong.
The film briskly establishes the run-down state of the country (represented by a wretched abbatoir), the invasiveness of its police force, the uneasiness of relationships. The opening shots of the first man swimming and wiping himself down reveal a body scarred with multiple wounds. The film then cuts away to an ominously quiet whirlpool. Most of the film plays out at night amplifying the suspense but also the unsaid, the reticence of submission and flight. Impressively filmed by Christian Stangassinger and edited by Dan Olteanou this film has already received some 50 awards internationally.
The Sydney Morning Herald Award for Best Australian Screenplay went to Cockatoo. Written and directed by Matthew Jenkin, the film is a rather contrived comedy about a man who hires a woman from a company, Reality Dreams, to dress, speak and behave like his former girlfriend, a Londoner. Despite the latter's atrocious behaviour it's exactly what he wants replicated—he's still in love with her. The agency girl struggles to get the right accent and attitude but when the ex drops by, the surrogate finally gets it right, she can play the role, and the man appears to be cured of his misplaced love. Cockatoo is ably performed but this quaint fable Cockatoo is hardly at the apex of screenwriting.
Nullabor (director Alister Lockhart, writer, co-director Patrick Sarell, CG Supervisor Daryl Munton), the winner of the Yoram Gross Best Short Animation in the Sydney Film Festival Dendy Awards, won Flickerfest’s Sandcastle Studios Sound Design Award for Best Achievement in Sound. But, of course, the sound is best appreciated with the virtuosic animation that realises this comic drama of road rage with thrilling perspectives, breathtaking pursuits and a stoic resolution. Also of interest among the festival’s animated films is The Last Norwegian Troll (Pjotr Sapegin, Norway, 13mins) which, if a little ploddy and narrationally wobbly, has some visually adroit moments involving mermaids, goat anuses and bouncing testicles (as the beasts charge full-force) and a 1,000-year-old mythical figure, the last of his kind, a troll who has become sugar-addicted, overweight and irritable. It’s a droll stop-animation tale of lost love and environmental decline narrated by no less than Max von Sydow. The Last Norwegian Troll won the top animation prize at the Fantastic Festival in Las Vegas and received a special honour at the Ottawa International Festival of Animation.
More dextrous is the hugely ambitious The Itch of the Golden Nit, an Aardman and Tate Movie Project collaboration using drawings from uploads by thousands of school children, collaged and animated (with children again involved) in diverse ways into a comic tale in which the Sun is dying. The bug that ignites the Sun has gone missing and is sought by the evil Stella (an appalling singer with her own spacecraft) who wants to rule the universe. The nit resides in the hair of a boy with superhero fantasies. The great thrill of the film is to be found not so much in the plot but in the sheer vividness of the activated drawings (the lead characters are drawn by 12 children) and the endless wit at every level of the film’s realisation (with voices provided by David Walliams, Miranda Hart, Catherine Tate and Rik Mayall, among others, as well as two of the participating children).
Although this small sample from a huge number of competing films reveals little in the way of innovation, the sheer diversity of short film in form, genre, technique and cultural roots is an eye-opener compared with much of standard cinema fare, hence the value of a festival that gathers such treasures together for us.
Other Australian award winners: Icebergs Dining Room & Bar Award for Best Direction in an Australian Short Film, Bear, director Nash Edgerton; Miller Australia Award for Best Cinematography in A Short Film: Collision, writers David Ngo, Nick Matthews, director Nick Matthews, cinematography Sam King & Nick Matthews; Avid Award for Best Editing in An Australian Short Film, Peekaboo, writer, director Damien Power; Other international Award Winners, Flickerfest Special Jury Award, Opastica, writer-director Eric Morin (Canada), Yoram Gross Award for Best Animation, It’s Such A Beautiful Day, writer-director Don Hertzfeldt (USA), ING DIRECT for Best Short Film, Ebony Society, writer-director Tammy Davis (New Zealand).
For other winners and the Flickerfest national touring program go to www.flickerfest.com.au
This article first appeared as part of online e-dition jan 31, 2012
RealTime issue #107 Feb-March 2012 pg. 29
© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org