“An event that embraces and is embraced by its location”: Aesthetica Short Film Festival — Reviewed

How I Didn't Become A Piano Player (Tomasso Pitta, UK)

In its fifth year of rapid-fire programming, Jack Roe finds York’s Aesthetica Short Film Festival still pushing a welcoming, high quality offer – but is less impressed by the advertising category…

Five years on and with its BAFTA qualification status (awarded in 2014) still something of a novelty, the Aesthetica Short Film Festival (ASFF) has become a well regarded feature of York’s cultural calendar. My initial expectations of a city full of filmmakers and short film enthusiasts were of those furtively scurrying around an ambivalent city, meeting in secret screening rooms and identified only by (rather fetching) yellow lanyards, and loudly expressed opinions about the need for careful exposition and economic storytelling.

This, thankfully, was shattered when a member of train station staff, the hotel receptionist and a random passerby all helped me to find the festival hub within half an hour of my arrival. The combination of artistic ambition and the charm of the local environs was immediately and strikingly apparent; here was the sense that ASFF is an event that embraces and is embraced by its location.

With over 300 short films in the programme, ASFF 2015 covered a range of genres — from experimental to thrillers to music videos — and topics — including astronauts, the grim reaper and the sex industry. As with any festival worth its salt, any attempt to experience the entire scope of the event would be fruitless and yet, again in keeping with good festival experiences, any and every individual sampling of the goings on would assuredly be rewarding in its own way.

“It is clear that the curators of ASFF hold this city dear, and well they should”

The first thing that should be noted is the quality of the festival staff. Instead of po-faced teenaged volunteers working on UCAS applications and greeting enquiries with a sigh (as the cynics among us might expect), this was a team well informed and engaged, more than happy to help the legions of international visitors plan a way through a packed programme. The venues themselves were also noteworthy; a mix of locations in turn innovative, stately, charming and labyrinthine that had obviously been selected with some care in order to show the best of York to even the most preoccupied guest. It is clear, from the classical grandeur of St John’s University and the Grand Opera House, to the more contemporary Thirteen Thirty One — a courtyard pub/bistro whose owners are themselves filmmakers — that the curators of ASFF hold this city dear, and well they should.

ASFF 2015 opening night, York; courtesy Jim Poyner

But what of the short films themselves? The lasting impression that I took from the screenings I attended was the range of standards in production quality, from professional to amateur that speaks to something of the universal attraction and accessibility of a medium that can, through its attendant logistical and collaborative challenges, seem remote. The films I found most affecting and enjoyable included award-winning student documentary A Wee Night In (Stu Edwards, UK): a rare, human portrait of later life shot with celluloid warmth and real affection for its subjects. How I Didn’t Become A Piano Player (Tomasso Pitta, UK) is a comedy played for subtle charm rather than belly laughs, and with more than a nod towards the mediocrity that was such a staple of mid-1990s working-class life, since washed out by rose tinted nostalgia. It was also given the Best Comedy award at the festival finale.

“I was reminded that some of the joy in film is best expressed in shared moments”

Elsewhere, and perhaps inevitably, elements of the festival were less impressive. The inclusion of an advertising category, wherein whatever artistry and skill is incorporated in the film itself is superseded by its obvious attempts at capital gain, felt a little jarring in the midst of such a wide-eyed event. There were also a couple of oddities in the film programme from overblown comedies — like Casey and the Death Pool (Margaret Anderson, USA) – to indulgent thrillers – Suspicions (Alexander Birrell, UK). It feels churlish to focus on such missteps when the overall quality was accomplished. On the other hand, because of the rapid-fire programming, the inclusion of such films left a heightened sense of precious time spent.

The festival was, for me, distilled in the moment I was guided around the labyrinthine St John’s campus by a local; at an advantage, he said, because of living in town and being able to drop in whenever he felt like it over the weekend. Comparing notes there in the dark outside the screening room both before and after the session, I was reminded that some of the joy in film is best expressed in shared moments. Film is a necessarily collaborative form of expression, from the shared inspiration and workload to the enjoyment in interacting with a similarly enthused audience. At every stage, ASFF succeeded in bringing people together; a fittingly communal expression of an intrinsically communal art form.

Jack Roe

Jack saw Aesthetica Short Film Festival (ASFF) Thursday 5-Sunday 8 November 2015 at venues across York — single ticket screenings £5/4; one day festival pass £15/13.50; four day unlimited screening pass £30/27

Full programme of screenings, masterclasses and venues here

Read Jack’s preview highlights here

Posted on 17/11/2015 by thedoublenegative