Field Trip #17: Aesthetica Short Film Festival, York

Invited to York by Aesthetica Magazine, we discovered there’s so much more to the city than its Viking heritage…

Think of York and your mind conjures … what? The collective conscience probably turns to images of Vikings pillaging their way through the north, ironically leading to Jorvik centres and a healthy tourism industry today. Then there’s its status – since Roman times – as a ‘walled city’. The place is perceived, above all, as an historic place.

By and large, you’d be right to draw such conclusions. If that’s all you’re looking for. But for a long weekend each year, the city has recently been subject to an altogether different (and friendlier) type of invasion. Instead of massed hordes of conquering Vikings or Romans, it is Aesthetica Magazine and their Short Film Festival (ASFF) which the city has found itself surrendering to; this year’s incarnation commandeering 15 venues, from the predictable picturehouses to the not so likely bars, libraries, restaurants and shops.

We first heard of the festival (established in 2011 in the wake of the Aesthetica Short Film Competition a year earlier) in September, when Aesthetica Magazine’s founder and editor, Cherie Federico, kindly agreed to be a speaker at our Biennial event The Medium is The Medium. We asked could we come to the next one, and much to our delight she said yes.

And so it was we found ourselves at York’s City Screen cinema (think FACT, but on the banks of the river Ouse) for the festival’s opening night. Feeling painfully underdressed (evening gowns and dinner suits were not uncommon attire), being treated to drinks and canapés in the venue’s bar softened the blow considerably. After a bit of film chit-chat, and dare we say it, networking, we were whisked off for a preview screening of some festival picks.

“The ASFF commandeers 15 venues, from the predictable picturehouses to the not so likely bars, libraries, restaurants and shops”

Show-reels are rarely a wholly reliable guide (any more than trailers tend to be) when it comes to judging the overall quality of something, but suffice to say, the snippets we were shown gave us cause for optimism for what the next couple of days had in store. It was with much enthusiasm (hangovers notwithstanding) that we hit town the next day. But before we could get stuck into any screenings, our first port of call was York St John University for one of Friday’s many industry talks.

The Trouble With Film Criticism was our pick of the bunch almost on the basis of title alone. That it featured a panel made up of film studies professor and contributor to Sight & Sound, Ginette Vincendeau, Curzon Cinemas programmer and Artificial Eye acquisitions advisor Jason Wood, and the Little White Lies editor Matt Bochenski, made it completely unmissable.

Debating questions around how critics affect the industry, the onset of the blogger and what the future – if any – of criticism is, it made for a fascinating (often bordering on heated) debate. We could go on, but as it raised a number of pertinent issues, we’ve decided to give the topic its own article (coming soon).

The rest of the festival was about watching films, and much more than we initially expected, discovering venues and sides to York we didn’t know existed. With films drawn from more than 20 countries across genres including drama, documentary, music promo, art, comedy, thriller, animation and experimental, there was a lot to see.

It was nice to be reacquainted with Slow Derek, a film by RCA graduate Dan Ojari, which tells the story of an office drone struggling to keep up with the pace of life. Red Letter, a creepy and touching film about childhood displacement, stood out amongst the bunch of thrillers we saw. It wasn’t the very best though, that honour went to Simone Louise Smith’s Red (which could just have easily slotted into the art or experimental screenings); a thought provoking meditation on the war-addled psyche of a photo journalist.

“Red Letter, a creepy and touching film about childhood displacement, stood out amongst the bunch of thrillers we saw”

Amongst drama, the very poignant (especially for those away at Christmas or with strained familial relations) Long Distance stayed with us longest, but it was perhaps the documentary category which proved most successful. The Sugar Bowl (about the rise and fall of the Philippine sugarcane industry), and Sid Burnard “Free Spirit”, telling the story of a very loveable and eccentric beachcomber, proved memorable.

For us though, best of the lot (of any category) was Julia Bacha and Rebekah Wingert-Jabi’s My Neighbourhood. Following the travails of Palestinian teenager Mohammed and his family as they forcibly lose half of their home to Israeli ‘settlers’, it proved to be an eye opening look at a scenario which is anything but black and white. And amid heightening tensions this week in the region, it is a film which serves to focus the mind on the realities of the situation and the grave plight of those affected. The film manages at once to highlight the daily struggles, while also providing tentative encouragement that common sense, given the chance, might still prevail.

Of course, it wasn’t all glowing, accomplished examples of the short form at its best. Films like music video We Could Have it All (seemingly reliant on photo shop), the unnecessarily mean-spirited animation Bertie Crisp (which wasted great voice talent in Kathy Burke and Tamsin Greig) and the OCD estate agent, sub-American Psycho thriller Perfect, all went to show how it can be such a notoriously difficult art to perfect.

That aside and the otherwise fine programming accepted, perhaps the aspect we could best recommend about ASFF is the way it introduces you to York, its constituent parts and the cavalcade of fine venues at its disposal. How else would we have come across the little screening room upstairs in fashion boutique White Stuff, or (a stone’s throw away) the lovely and sprawling gastro-bar Thirteen Thirty One, with its luxury 20 seater cinema, table service and helpful, knowledgeable staff?

On the evidence of our visit and the array of impressive industry involvement and support, we are intrigued to see how the Aesthetica Short Film Festival will develop, increasing its offer to the city and punters as it grows. Needless to say, we want to see this for ourselves. So, thanks for having us, and if you’ll have us back, we’ll see you next year!

Images of Barley Hall and venue 11 courtesy Jim Poyner

Posted on 21/11/2012 by thedoublenegative