If cinema is an empathy machine, then the audience is the amplifier.
Hmm, does that work actually? Science was never my strong point…Anyhow, if you can bear with the possibly mangled metaphor, what I mean is that your response to a film is magnified when you see it in a packed cinema.
You laugh louder at the funny bits, you hold your breath in collective suspense, and you leave the cinema high on the communal euphoria of a happy ending.
It’s something I’ve been reminded of in my first few days at the Aesthetica Festival, attending packed out screenings across the city and sharing in the joy of a good story well told.
Here’s a round-up of some of the films and talks that turned it up to 11…
Always one of my favourite ASFF categories, animation is an endlessly versatile form which can encompass everything from the gleefully absurd to the profoundly moving.
Pick of the bunch so far is Idodo (Animation 2), an Aesop-like fable (based on a local legend in Papua New Guinea) about how the reef fish got their distinctive colours – a winning blend of beautiful artistry and simple, elegant storytelling, this was a pure pleasure from start to finish.
Coming a very close second is A Guitar in the Bucket (Animation 2), a funny, satirical and endlessly inventive dystopian tale set in a world where everything, from your house to your morning shower, is purchased from giant vending machines, and where all human interactions, right down to small talk, are cynical cash transactions – save, that is, for those of our lone guitar-toting heroine.
Elsewhere, Another Presence (Animation 4) gives a sensitive portrayal of the dream-like visions caused by dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) – animation being the perfect medium to depict the shape-shifting nature of the hallucinations – while Echo (Animation 4) is the engaging story of an alienated young woman finally making a connection, and Memento Mori (Animation 2) is a spooky, atmospheric morality tale about a Victorian photographer of the recently deceased, voiced by (who else?) Mark Gatiss.
Comedy and Drama
Two of the standouts in the Drama category are both semi-comic character studies of people who are out of sync with mainstream society.
If you’re going to start your film with a Human League classic, you’d better not disappoint, and Hollywood (Drama 7) certainly didn’t – powered by a radiant central performance, this portrait of an aspiring actress stuck on life’s launchpad is a smartly observed, charming tale which doesn’t put a foot wrong.
No less impressive is Journeying (Drama 10), a tremendously winning film which subverts the stereotype of the angry male loner by having its protagonist – a handyman with his face painted like Heath Ledger’s Joker – actually just be really nice; it’s an exploration of male mental health and an ode to perseverance which turns what could be Hallmark card platitudes into something funny, true and ultimately moving.
Le Pompon (Comedy 4), meanwhile, is a reminder that the best comedy is often shot through with a little pathos, as a chaotic single mum puts her young son through an impromptu bootcamp to win the titular fairground prize, for reasons that aren’t just to do with getting one over on her snobby middle class rival.
Opening night highlight Venetian Men is a perfect introduction to the Documentary 1 strand, which puts together a set of six films about nostalgia and coming-of-age which are all killer, no filler.
Venetian Men’s theme of teenage female solidarity was picked up by Run With Her, an affecting study of an endurance running group for girls which unobtrusively observes its subjects, allowing the joy, mutual support and escape they find in each other to shine through.
Another tight-knit gang are the focus of Twinkleberry, which reunites the members of a “super gay” school year group in Tewkesbury which contained an unusually high percentage of queer students – this smart, funny, thoughtful bunch are terrific company, and the warmth of their camaraderie radiates from the screen.
21 and Love You, Bye are both moving portraits of the strength and succour found in female friendship – the former had visual style to spare, and the latter’s tender, confessional voice messages put me in mind of Self Esteem’s I Do This All The Time – while my appreciation of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen increased 1000% thanks to The Twins, a clever, heartfelt and perceptive homage to the duo and the millennial fans who grew up with them.
Tickets this way for the Chatsworth Express: Screenwriting and BFI masterclasses
As a big fan of Shameless back in the day, it was a treat to hear from Paul Abbott, the man who brought Frank Gallagher stumbling and swearing into the world, in Wednesday afternoon’s Masterclass, Script Lab: The Writer’s Journey.
Abbott and fellow writer Sean Conway (who worked on hit US crime drama Ray Donovan) were great company, providing plenty of honest, funny and practical insights into the screenwriting process.
It was interesting to hear that Abbott got one of his early breaks thanks to the sponsorship of Alan Bennett (off the back of writing to him out of the blue), and I enjoyed Yorkshireman Conway’s account of the culture shock he felt on looking round the table at a US writers’ room: “He’s from Mad Men…he’s from Homeland…I’m from Batley”.
Both men were admirably pragmatic about their craft: Abbott talked about the pride he felt from getting paid for his first few writing gigs, while Donovan acknowledged the struggle to make time for writing alongside working in call centres in his early days, but also pointed out that even when you’re not at a keyboard you’re still working, with ideas percolating in your head as you go about your day.
Equally engaging was Jason Wood, Executive Director of Public Programmes and Audiences for the BFI (British Film Institute), who was in conversation for the Audience Choice: Who Decides What’s On-Screen? Masterclass on Thursday.
A passionate champion of cinema and the moving image in all its forms, Wood spoke candidly of some of the challenges facing the UK film industry, and the exciting ways in which the BFI is evolving and adapting – in particular in the areas of diversity and supporting talent outside of the M25, as well as expanding its remit to newer media such as TikTok and video games (in which areas, he explained, they were keen to engage with and learn from the practitioners).
As Wood argued, the future of culture is young people, without whose input and enthusiasm those Best 100 Films Ever lists will keep turning up the usual suspects – on which note, he indicated we could expect to be pleasantly surprised by the results of BFI magazine Sight and Sound’s prestigious once-a-decade poll, due to be revealed in the next few weeks.
Wood’s blend of knowledge, infectious enthusiasm and caustic wit made for an entertaining and illuminating talk, and it would be remiss of me not to end without passing on a couple of his recommendations which will be hitting our screens soon: Cornish folk horror Enys Men (from Bait director Mark Jenkin) was described by Wood as one of the most exciting British films he’s seen in the last ten years, while Polish drama Eo, going on its trailer, looks to be a film about the life of a circus donkey in the way that Everything Everywhere All At Once was a film about a woman doing her taxes.