There is a clear hierarchy to films in the London Film Festival. The features chosen as the main galas are shown to press in the biggest screens, which are usually filled to capacity, while others are slotted into smaller screens according to the expected interest. This week we had a morning screening of the very high-profile Suffragette in the Odeon Leicester Square, which was unsurprisingly very well-attended, but later that afternoon when two programmes of short films were scheduled in a comparatively small screen at the BFI Southbank, both screenings were shockingly underpopulated. There were no competing screenings at the same time, and the shorts being shown were the twelve that have been nominated for the festival's Short Film Award, so we could expect the quality to be high. So what happened?
Someone suggested to me that the fact that these shorts are available on the Festival's online viewing platform affected the attendance, but as the vast majority of people who have mentioned Cinando (the festival's online platform of choice) have commented on how utterly useless it is, I don't know if that's true. In any case, shorts work in the same way as features, with great filmmaking always benefiting from being experienced on a big screen and with an audience – and there really is some great filmmaking evident in this collection.
They aren't all winners by any means, and there are some pretty awful shorts here – the less said about unbearable Red Moon Rising and the polished but tiresome Dissonance the better – but I found five that I would recommend as exemplary pieces of economic storytelling that can stand alongside anything in the festival.
For example, Caroline Bartleet's Operator manages to create an incredible amount of drama in six minutes with just two actors, only one of whom is seen on screen. Kate Dickie is Laura, a London Fire Service operator who answers a 999 call from Gemma (Vicky McClure), a mother calling from a burning house with her son trapped upstairs. The camera stays tightly on Laura's face as she gets the information required to despatch engines and then does everything within her power to calm the panicked Gemma and ensure she does nothing to put herself or her son in danger. Dickie's controlled delivery is perfectly pitched and Bartleet uses the sounds on the other end of the phone line to ratchet up the tension. But the writer-director's real masterstroke comes right at the end when, in contrast to last year's sentimental and undeservedly Oscar-winning short The Phone Call, she makes it clear that these isolated instances of high drama and unbearable tension are faced by emergency services operators every single day.
Another British film that packs unexpected layers of depth and emotion into a scant running time is Nina Gantz's remarkable Edmond. This nine-minute animation begins with a man dragging a rock towards a lake, and then taking a moment to sit and reflect upon key moments in his life thus far. He dives into his memories as Gantz takes us further back in time and locates instances of great pain, embarrassment and confusion that have left their mark on Edmond ever since he was a child. There's a wonderful tactility about Gantz's puppets, which have been made out of felt with 2D facial expressions being animated onto them, and she has has an appealingly dark and bizarre sense of humour. Each of the stops on Edmond's journey made me laugh out loud and gasp in surprise, while I was also deeply affected by the melancholy undertones that grow stronger throughout. It's a beautifully crafted piece of work.
It was a strong showing all round for UK-based filmmakers in this collection. Jörn Threlfall's Over is a film that takes a long time to reveal its purpose, but it gets its hooks into the viewer almost imperceptibly and when Threlfall played his hand the impact knocked the wind out of me. It begins in a quiet London residential street at 11:45pm and then it gradually takes us back through time, stopping every couple of hours to watch what is happening in the same spot. We realise that we are being shown unfolding of a crime scene in reverse, with the clean-up operation occurring first, and then the police cordoning off the area to investigate, before we finally see the body lying motionless in the street at 6:45am. But how did it get there? The answer to that is surprising and brilliantly staged, and Threlfall's clinical approach adds to its power. I was left contemplating just how quickly a shocking incident can be pushed out of our minds to allow life to go on as normal, and how a person's entire existence can be reduced to just a few items in police evidence bags.
Looking further afield, the French short Maman(s) also had an incredible emotional impact on me. This is the story of a divided family told from the perspective of 8 year-old Aida, who doesn't fully understand what is happening inside her home when her father returns from a visit to Dakar with a second wife and a new baby in tow. All Aida knows is that she can't sit idly by while her mother is heartbroken – one shot of Aifa crying silently as she listens to her mother's sobs is devastating – and she begins rebelling against this new presence in their lives. Maïmouna Doucouré creates a real sense of a family in a few brief strokes before she begins turning the emotional screw, and her storytelling is consistently sensitive, perceptive and involving. The film quietly accumulates a power that culminates in a twist that had me holding my breath and fighting back the tears. A hugely accomplished film on multiple levels.
While these films are all examples of bold and skilful storytelling there was only one short in this selection that genuinely felt like something I've never seen before. Peter Tscherkassky's The Exquisite Corpus is an exhilarating 19 minutes that begins in a deceptively sedate way, with a naked couple taking a small boat out to some kind of naturist island, but when they disembark and find an unconscious woman on the beach the film suddenly begins to splinter, flipping between positive and negative images and suddenly incorporating different types of sexual images. Tscherkassky has taken all of the footage in The Exquisite Corpus from a variety of adult films through the ages, and he has cut them together in a way that is thrilling to behold – a dazzling piece of visual and aural montage that plays like a feverish erotic dream. The way pulls all of these disparate elements into a cohesive and satisfying whole is nothing short of astonishing, and he caps it with a quiet punchline that is as inspired and affecting as Chris Marker's La Jetée. On a brilliance-per-minute basis, there's probably not much in the London Film Festival programme that can match The Exquisite Corpus.
How many people will see it, though? How many people will see any of these films? The apparent lack of interest from the press corps was particularly disheartening, and I've long felt that the London Film Festival doesn't do these films any favours by ghettoising them in a separate short film programme apart from the main features. Wouldn't it be better to show one of these shorts before each feature film screening in addition to having the shorts programmes? It would instantly increase the number of viewers that these films can expect to receive and, when a tickets are expensive as they are at the LFF, I think people deserve a little added value. Of course, I can only pity the feature that has to follow The Exquisite Corpus, but there is some wonderful work being done here that demands greater exposure.