From new work by renowned Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos to Pakistan’s first entry (and Best Short Film winner) at Venice Film Festival, the Melbourne International Film Festival’s 2020 International Shorts line-up is packed with heavy-hitters. Spread across nine films from 12 countries, the International Shorts bundle showcases a diverse range of fictional stories based on real social issues, such as the difficulties of asylum seeking (Ali’s Circle) to child trafficking in Ghana (Da Yie).
Among the program, three films stand out in particular for their respective social commentary, unique concept, and technical excellence. Bound by their women-centric stories, Roqaia, Instructions to Let Go, and Pillars explore various facets of female isolation in their reflective tales of life-changing experiences and coming-of-age.
Afghanistan, Bangladesh • Dir. Diana Saqeb Jamal
The line between ‘reporting on’ and ‘exploiting’ tragedy is often a thin one, moreso complicated by the oft-quoted (yet highly problematic) journalistic mantra ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. Diana Saqeb Jamal’s Roqaia lays bare the moral complexities of the media’s relationship with trauma through the eyes of the titular 12-year-old terrorist attack survivor.
From the beginning, writer-director Jamal is not subtle in her cutting critique of the media circus which follows tragedy. Piecing together the days following the fictional attack, Roqaia is directed by several journalists and even family members to emphasise her trauma, with one director asking her to remove a protective bandage so that it looks more “fresh” and to show she is a “victim, not a bride”.
Although Jamal’s criticism of the ethics of journalism is undeniable, she also acknowledges the desperation of the unheard to utilise media in their plight. Roqaia’s father, while clearly uncomfortable at the media’s use of his daughter as a literal prop, uses the opportunity to speak out against the Afghan government’s cover up of the attack.
As both sides exploit the media for their own purposes, it becomes abundantly clear that Roqaia has no choice to tell her own version of the narrative. Working with no dialogue, and shot in claustrophobic handheld close-up as journalists and family squabble around her, lead Roqia Rasula communicates Roqaia’s lack of agency and dissociation from her surroundings with affecting stoicism.
While those in the film may sideline Roqaia, the short as a whole does not, refusing to indulge in the practices it loudly rejects. Instead, when those around Roqaia abandon her, Jamal’s camera stays squarely fixed on the lone girl, reminding us to keep our perspective and compassion with those who need it most.
Instructions to Let Go
Mexico • Dir. Gustavo Gamero
The image of a lone woman sitting forlornly by a hotel poolside is contrasted with the sound of an off-screen conversation between two women who have just met. One voice remarks about the friends you meet by chance, those who you “can’t remember the name of”, but you “keep on mind even though you don’t know them”. From there, we follow the woman, Daphne (LD Handal), as she wanders through hotel rooms and hallways, the conversations continuing to play, slowly revealing the course of a one-night romance that occurred there a year before.
Utilising sound and sight to represent past and present respectively, writer-director Gustavo Gamero’s unique approach to Instructions to Let Go elevates a simple premise of reliving past romance into a picture which astutely captures the depression and loneliness of lost relationships.
The hopeful, playful nature of Daphne’s past relationship (communicated entirely through disembodied dialogue) and its parallels and tonal dissonance with her present-day isolation is key to what makes Instructions to Let Go work. Through believable dialogue and smart pacing, Gamero charts the entire trajectory of the romance convincingly within the film’s eight-minute runtime, using his stylistic concept to further emphasise minor moments of bonding. In one instance, Gamero’s handheld, observational-style lens captures Daphne wearing an unzipped dress staring at herself in the mirror, while the chatter of the two women fills the soundscape, happily offering to zip the other up and helping to apply each other’s makeup.
By wielding the cinematic form to so clearly evoke the pain which can come with retrospection, Gamero’s piece inspires further questions on human relationships and our place in others’ lives, especially around being forgotten when out of sight. Given how COVID-19’s shadow looms large at the time of writing, where law-mandated self-isolation makes maintaining relationships even more difficult, such questions hold particular weight for a society in which being physically disconnected is the new normal.
USA • Dir. Haley Elizabeth Anderson
With three shorts under her belt, newcomer filmmaker Haley Elizabeth Anderson is quickly becoming one-to-watch in the short film circuit. After receiving grants and mentorships selected by the likes of Spike Lee and Queen Latifah for her past projects, Anderson’s latest short Pillars showcases why she has caught the eye of such cinema legends.
Pillars is a quintessential coming-of-age story which spans an impressive amount of ground, touching upon the familial, religious, and romantic complexities of this liminal phase of life. Set in Anderson’s childhood background of the American South, Pillars paints a delicate and empathetic portrait of teenager Amber (played by impressive first-timer Kandence King), where, one Sunday morning, Amber’s brief experimentation with kissing a female friend at church complicates her home life and worldview.
Anderson, who worked in street casting with director Terrence Malick, has stated that Pillars is in part a response to Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), noting the minimisation of people of colour in a story which attempts to speak to philosophical questions of all mankind. Anderson told Filmmaker Magazine: “You know that scene where the boys get barbecue from these black kids? Well, that’s my family — the ones selling barbecue. “I walked around after seeing it, thinking, ’I need to make a response to this.”
With such context in mind, the influence of Malick’s mix of religious and existential symbolism with intimate examinations of family and youth are clear in Anderson’s own work. With the opening narration of the film explaining ‘theophany’ (or the appearance of God) and using imagery of the guiding ‘pillar of fire’ to symbolise Amber’s awakening, Anderson shows she is unafraid of being overtly metaphorical. Thankfully, the imagery never becomes overly-indulgent; the dips into poetic storytelling feeling natural and satisfying given the tight interweaving of religion and adolescence throughout.
Anderson also shows a deep understanding of how to ground her characters and story, and in turn create an engrossing, highly-personal atmosphere. Scenes of Amber catching fish with her father, getting ready for church, and playing tag with friends are all imbued with a sense of nostalgia. The choice to shoot on 35mm, an emphasis on the warm hues of the day and cool pastel tones of the Southern night, and an abundance of intimate, handheld medium-close ups create the aesthetic impression of a home movie with a dream-like filter.
Particularly striking within this style is Anderson’s ability to indicate the changing relationships and emotions of her characters without words. An early scene of Amber boxing training with her father (Nicoye Banks) sees the camera float gently between the two characters from side on, a sense of energy and connection flowing between them. Later, after her Baptist father learns of his daughter’s actions at church, the scene plays again. What was initially an act of father-daughter bonding is recontextualised into tense sparring of emotions. The camera that once moved gracefully between the two undisturbed now cuts between them, mostly to shots looking down on Amber over her father’s shoulder, a clear shift in both power dynamics and perception.
From such detail in cinematography to the overall cohesion of its narrative and thematic interests, Pillars is an example of a filmmaker who understands how to balance the dichotomies at work within their art — symbolism and realism, the overt and the unspoken, the stylish and the understated. With a number of projects seemingly in motion (in 2019 it was reported she is working on her debut feature Coyote Boys, while earlier this year she was announced to be joining the advertising arm of Pulse Films), it will be exciting to see how Anderson’s promise continues to evolve across different audio-visual mediums.
The International Shorts bundle screens for free as part of the 2020 Melbourne International Film Festival from 6–23 August.