London Short Film Festival: A Hostile World
From the lifelong trauma of experiencing an atomic bomb to the suffocating ubiquity of tabloid culture, this international selection looks to shine a light on the hostile, dangerous worlds we occupy – those interior and those waking nightmares, where standing up for injustice is inextricable from consequence or the pains and traumas you endure are perpetrated by those closest to you.
The Atomic Soldiers
Morgan Knibbe’s short talking heads documentary opens up with the world-weary, aged and somewhat haunted faces of 10 elderly men. Each are framed in silo. The silence is drawn out as we wait for the first of the men to speak. It later comes to pass that these moments of silence say more than their words ever could. Some shift uncomfortably, clearing their throats and scratching their heads. The wait for their shared secret to be revealed is agony. Something terrible stirs behind their watery-eyed gazes.
This is the tale of the ‘Atomic Soldiers’. US military men who were recruited for nuclear weapon research at the end of World War II. It’s assumed that 400,000 troops participated in over 1,000 atomic bomb tests. As each participant in the film begins to break their long-held silence a devastating and unbelievable experience is revealed. From the immediate extreme effects of experiencing the blast to the long-term consequences, these men have experienced something the living rarely do. It is as if they have already crossed over the threshold into hell, before being sucked back into the real world.
The descriptions of seeing their own skeletons through their glowing skin are incredible. The talk of hallucinations, tumours, sleep-deprivation, multi-coloured fireballs and extreme heat that felt like an iron pressed into their flesh are painfully recounted. Worse though, is that these men were, under threat of prison, point blank told they could not tell anyone about their experiences. I hope that for their sakes, they feel being able to unburden themselves of the awful experience through this film goes some way to bringing them peace. But it’s not enough, they will all die, and as one participant puts it “nobody will care what really happened to us”.
For all the shocking descriptions of what went on, we can never understand what it was really like. The sights, the sounds, the heat and the horror.
What happens if you’re different in more ways than one? That’s the key question to grapple with at the heart of this Brazilian short film from Carolina Markowicz. Jonathas is an orphan who has recently been given back by his adoptive parents. He is happily playing ping pong with the other children when he gets the news that he is going to have new adoptive parents. What follows is a cross-cut between his life with his previous adoptive parents and his night-time conversations with his friend at the orphanage about his prospective ones.
Jonathas clearly found some form of love and comfort in his former family home. But when the person he really is becomes apparent to his adoptive parents, things quickly change. It’s a sucker punch blow to the stomach to imagine a world where a child could be given up so freely, simply for being who they are. Where the people who are supposed to be closest to us are the ones who can inflict the harshest pain.
Despite an incredibly naturalistic performance from the cast, not least from the young man who plays Jonathas, it’s not a particularly engaging film. The brief fantasy sequences which break up the day-to-day realities of life are a little jarring, but I can see why they needed to be included to emphasise who Jonathas really is.
It’s a thoughtful enough watch, but doesn’t raise enough questions or provoke enough of a reaction from its audience. It simply serves to highlight a few depressing realities.
This little nugget of animated Japanese insanity from director Ryoji Yamada defies explanation. Rationality does not exist here. What exists is what happens when you ask David Lynch to direct an episode of Rick and Morty. Only weirder. In a nutshell, a peeping tom likes to get involved in people’s lives. It just so happens the lives he gets involved in are those of a headless teddy bear man and his unlucky girlfriend. They both end up as hot dogs. That’s the film! No, really, that’s the film.
The whole chaotic mess is set to a frenetic soundtrack which gets increasingly erratic as the visuals on screen do. Think of this as an LSD trip type experience. There’s no denying the animation is expertly crafted. For that reason alone it is worth experiencing. It put me in mind of the old Salad Fingers videos that were doing the round on the internet in the early 21st Century. Unfortunately, it’s not interesting enough to warrant too much analysis. I’m all for obscure and surreal filmmaking, just as long as there is still the notion of a coherent idea simmering beneath the surface. In this case, come for the visuals, but leave all cogent thought at the door.
This short from Iranian director Farnoosh Samadi is the highlight of this A Hostile World category. It is clear to see why this was officially selected for the Locarno Film Festival, which I attended a few years ago. Gaze tells the painfully tense tale of a single, working mother who witnesses a crime on a late night bus journey. Her decision to reveal the perpetrator has nail-biting consequences.
Tension looms heavily over the entirety of the film, amplified by the lack of any soundtrack and the cinema verite style of filmmaking. Dialogue is kept to a minimum and completely naturalistic. As is the situation our protagonist finds herself in. Many have been in this situation before, alone on a bus at night. Vulnerable. Vulnerability is at the core of this story. But what is she to do. There may well be a price to pay for doing the right thing, but we sure as hell don’t want her to pay it.
One of the most powerful moments of the film comes when she holds the gaze of the young man who has committed the crime. It’s in this titular gaze that her strength, her fear and her fragility all play out at once. It left me with a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. It’s all too believable, many have been in this situation and many will be in this situation again. But what would you do, faced with her choice? An absolute gem of a watch.
This Chilean short from director Felipe Galvez is a provocative and thoughtful piece. After attending a seminar on the power of water being the key to reclaiming and owning your life, Ariel decides to do just that. He intercedes when a teenager accused of stealing a girl’s phone tries to run away. Pinning him to the floor, it soon becomes apparent that he has perhaps been wrongly accused. What follows is a morality tale. Should the teen be punished for a crime he may have committed, or let go for his potential innocence.
The notion of mob mentality very quickly comes into play here. As a crowd gathers in the street, emotions run high. I’ll confess my own feelings towards the teenager fluctuated as the film went on. But that’s not to say I didn’t come down on one side or another by the end of the film. It ends in a brutally shocking way. One that only the most hard-nosed would call justice. Let the punishment fit the crime does not fit into this narrative. Or perhaps it does, based on your own morality. It’s this angle which is particularly interesting as it forces us to decide what we think should happen. We are not unlike Ariel, who quickly becomes a bystander to the whole ordeal. If there’s one failing of the film it is that it doesn’t force Ariel to account and take responsibility for his intervention. The seminar scene which opens the film feels oddly disconnected and irrelevant to the wider story, as Ariel is side-lined for the conclusion.
On a grander scale, the film examines the ‘if you’ve nothing to hide you’ve nothing to fear mentality’. Whether or not it was intentionally written to read that way, for a UK audience it’s particularly pertinent in light of the Snooper’s Charter. Innocence and guilt are judged far too easily in the modern world. Social media has made it easier than ever to jump to conclusions and everyone has become judge, jury and executioner as a result. But what happens to the innocents? What happens when the punishment goes too far? What happens to our own sense of morality, when we lack the courage to take a stand against injustice?