People’s Choice at On the Rocks thrills and chills

Yesterday St Andrews cinéastes gathered at School 6 to view student-made films that didn’t quite make it into Half Cut, but were still well worth a view and a shot at the People’s Choice Award, which gave the film with the most votes a slot at the Half Cut awards ceremony this Thursday.   Of the 22 short films submitted to the Half Cut Film Festival this year, 8 were nominated for awards and will be screened on Thursday, and the others were shown at the People’s Choice Awards, a new addition to the festival as of last year.

A still from Striking a Balance (dir. Andrew Fox), screened at the People’s Choice Awards

“The People’s Choice Awards is basically a chance for all films to be screened if they weren’t nominated for an award,” said Charlotte Walsh, a third year Philosophy and Social Anthropology major, and President of Rogue Productions. “We like to promote people getting involved in film, [and] we wanted to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.”

Ms. Walsh said a little over half of the shorts submitted were from St Andrews, and the rest were directed by students from universities across Scotland.  Films by students from Glasgow and Sterling have been nominated for one of four awards–Best Film, Best Animation, Best Technical Ability, and Best Acting–and will be screened alongside local nominees at Half Cut on Thursday, 22 April.  The two Pixar animators who Rogue Productions will fly over, with help from sponsorship from Celebrating Fife and Fife Council, to help judge the nominated films had not planned on attending Monday night’s event, Ms. Walsh said.  The likelihood of their appearing on Thursday is dubious (God, Iceland, can’t you do anything right?), and if British airspace does not remain open, they may watch films from California  and judge via Skype–the show must go on.

“We had nine people who wanted to come,” Ms. Walsh said, “and we could only fly over two.”

The Rogue team has its fingers crossed that Eyjafjallajökull cooperates and allows those two lucky chosen ones to land in Scotland.

Though the celebrity judging panel was absent for the People’s Choice evening, the room was still electric with enthusiasm for independent filmmaking.  At 5:00, directors of the shorts screened looked anxiously around the largely empty lecture room, but by the time the screening started 10 minutes later seventy keen students had arrived to support their work.  The first film, The Simplest Trick directed by James Smith, was greeted with laughter and appreciative nodding for its innovative, rapid editing choices.  Mr. Smith chose Snatch-like decoupage, freeze frames and voice overs to craft his hero’s blind egoism.  The main character narrates the film, and until a small twist, leads himself and viewers to believe that he’s clever and badass.  Smug undergraduate masculine bravado exposed and humiliated for comedic effect. Excellent.

Director Jules Newton opened Unrealistic Expectations About Love, the next short screened, with a surprising dose of nudity that lead to some surprised giggling.  As in Mr. Smith’s effort, here the protagonist addresses the camera to divulge her guilt over having a one night stand and  yearning for a steady boyfriend, which dated the short slightly at the outset.  However, Ms. Newton moves viewers swiftly through the development of that relationship with an awkward first phone call that drew genuine laughs from the audience, and playfully inserts several other characters who deliver their funny–and pathetic–expectations of love to the camera.  The inventive script–despite the mildly depressing opening–and the fabulous lead performance by David Heathcote made Unrealistic Expectations one of the most audibly enjoyed films of the night, eliciting more giggles and guffaws than any other short screened.

Reverie by Ian Hendry, a 20-minute long science-fiction drama, marked a sharp change in the evening’s mood.  Beautifully shot with saturated filters in primary colours, sunflares and crisp focus (HD, as many short filmmakers can attest, is at times inescapably blurry), Reverie tells the story of four survivors and one strange prophet in post-apocalyptic Europe.  Mr. Hendry’s 20-minute odyssey was probably the most ambitious of the movies submitted, and through the bleak locations and simple costumes he chose, it was very believable.  The film contained moments of genuine suspense as the survivors struggle to avoid mysterious, fatal “storms” that periodically seize the desolate landscape, aided by an eerie, futuristic soundtrack that, marvelously, didn’t sound like it was crafted on Garage Band.   Mr. Hendry obviously has an eye for cinematography if not an ear for dialogue (“everybody’s dead!” could have been cut), and the film’s exceptional, original cinematography and special effects made it stand out.

Alone, directed by James Howe–a “Soggy Biscuit Production”–depicted the brand of loneliness, and hope for human connection, experienced by a man who lives and just is, yes, alone.  The director punctuates the hero’s solitary routine with poignant images of stagnancy many university students may be familiar with from their own homes; the cold apartment stairs, the overflowing kitchen garbage bin, the repetitive click of an electric kettle.  Mr. Howe succeeds in creating a weird, funny story that expounds the film’s main and only character’s loneliness compellingly, and manages to craft an attractive, scruffy aesthetic of blurred, curved lines and long still shots that makes the viewer feel as isolated as his protagonist.

“You know, I really love your lips.” One of the many hilarious lines of Paranoia, a short horror comedy that lets the audience in on its humour slowly, through a combination of comedically overwrought classic genre shots–man in the window! body in a trunk!–and deliciously creepy dialogue.  Paranoia tells the story of one woman’s stalking by Adam Creeperjee, an innocent pervert whose intentions are unclear. Director Azhani Amiruddin takes jabs at genre conventions by giving a definitive answer on the veracity of the protagonist’s suspicions; she refuses to leave the usual “is she crazy?” question up in the air, with very funny results.

As the evening wore on, many viewers left–a large chunk of the support team for  Paranoia voted and left at around 6:15.  Many stayed on, however, for Your Beautiful Land–an allegorical music video about the plight of migrants by Helene Sifre–and the abstract No More Laughter by Ulrika Becker.  Your Beautiful Land captures a man’s trying journey and brief happiness as he finds love and a home in St Andrews, set to a beautiful, melancholy song by Heaven Sheep.  The music video showcases St Andrews’ idyllic scenery, and is a touching reminder of how lucky students are to go to school here (at least during the summer, when the film seems to have been shot, when it doesn’t rain).

No More Laughter explores the contours of bourgeoise malaise at a crumbling mansion in a bucolic forest.  A rebuke to HD, Ms.Becker’s short looked like it was shot on film, and was given a soft, slurred effect by shifts in focus and handheld tracking shots.  The meaning of the metaphor of the old man and the Disney book he cherishes flew over the heads of many present, but the poignancy of his struggle to maintain some form of childhood wonder–brilliantly echoed in his childish costume–wasn’t lost.  The man’s daughter seems to be able to recapture the sense of innocence he has lost, giving the short’s dark turn a hopeful ending.  Ms. Becker’s style and voice was the most cohesive and clear, and its cohesion and aesthetic appeal helped the audience understand–or at least appreciate–the abstract ideas it expresses.

And I’m on a Mission by Mariko Primarolo, a reflexive documentary/narrative genre-blurring take on how to make a good movie, seemed to give a nice commentary on the different approaches taken by the films screened during the evening.  The Department of Film Studies’ infamous David Martin Jones tells Mariko that movies must encompass a variety of emotions to be successful, along with a dance number for added entertainment.  Various interviewees “found” (what’s staged and what isn’t is left ambiguous) on the streets of St Andrews listed their preferences for different genres; indie-aficionados, rom-com lovers and those who believe a great narrator is key detail their ideas on what makes the world’s greatest film.  In the end, Mariko seems to settle on a traditional Hollywood narrative of search, strife and revelation, with the help of a love interest.  The result might not quite be the world’s greatest film, but an entertaining, earnest testament to the thriving student film culture in St Andrews and the director’s passion for cinema.

A Short Detective Drama demonstrated that passion in a most more focused fashion, channelling film noir for inspiration.  Slick cinematography in black and white, and self-satirizing lines like “I don’t have time for all this passive aggressive sexual tension crap!” from a mock-femme fatale made Kabelo Ntsele’s short one of the coolest, and most meta of the evening.

A still from A Short Detective Drama

The director cleverly, and believably, used pans of black and white photographs for his exteriors, giving the film an aura of professionalism and high production value that was similarly displayed through the clever use of filters and a minimalist landscape in Reverie.  A scary boiler room, creepy face mask, spiral telephone cord and a pair of wayfarers–as well as a very 40s male narrator–allowed the audience to feel as if they had stepped into an old detective drama, while making viewers laugh at the operatic excesses of the genre.

“A true story based on genuine events that really happened”, The Cave Painters is a jovial, sardonic romp by “Rad Jihad Productions” that exposes the futility and pretension of the aspiring-artist’s lifestyle.  Directed by brothers Ben and Lawrence Dunat, the last film The Saint could cover follows two brothers, one desperately trying to make non-bourgeoise art and the other confirming that his art is, indeed, too bourgeoise.  Long scenes of the aspiring brother’s self-imposed isolation made the crowd laugh, as did the techno that the elder brother seemed to find comfort, meaning, and some form of artistic subversiveness in.

The directing duo also used expressionistic dream sequences to show how the characters saw their emotional states; the question “how do I feel right now?” is answered by one of the brother’s repeatedly stabbing his hand, which the Dunats manage to make light of.    The film flaunts a non-Garage Band soundtrack made by actual bands with instruments, which was timed to add to the short’s humour.

The audience was allowed to vote for two films, and after the screening finished they filed their votes–they were allowed two each, first and second choice. On Wednesday the votes were tabulated, and Paranoia (dir. Azhani Amiruddin) and Unrealistic Expectations About Love (dir. Julz Newton) were selected by the audience to go through to the awards ceremony, which takes place 8:30 tomorrow evening at the New Picture House.

To read more about the other films screened during the People’s Choice Evening which were not covered here, pick up a copy of The Saint tomorrow, Thursday 22 April.  Striking a Balance, Delenda and The Fresher’s Film are featured in the Screen section.

UPDATE: Ég hata þig, Eyjafjallajökull!  Due to volcanic ash-hattery the Pixar judges will now hold their pre-Half Cut talk via Skype, and will watch the awards and help judge them from California.

– Katie Meyer


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