*This review was produced during 2015 Berlinale Talent Press, a workshop held by Berlin Film Festival for young film critics from around the world. Click here to read the original print.
by Heitor Augusto
How do short films address the question of contemporary narrative strategies in their construction? By incorporating elements from the other arts, many of them challenge our understanding of mise en scène. The Berlinale Shorts programme is a platform to help people “set up a voice in the New European cinema,” according to curator Maike Mia Höhne. When filmmakers are released from following conventions, new spaces are opened in all of film. For short films, in particular, that expansion of boundaries can be a plus, because the format offers more freedom, with less financial pressure, to explore fresh approaches. But it can be a minus as well: when anything goes, you may lose the fundamentals.
Of Stains, scrap and tires (Austria/France, 2014), by Sebastian Brameshuber, blurs the lines between fiction and documentary, a trend common in contemporary cinema. The camera work and the use of tools commonly seen in fiction films (e.g., keeping the action outside the frame) lead us to watch this short as though it were a work of fiction. However, it has been classified as a documentary. That hybrid approach enriches our understanding of the story, permitting us to redefine scenes such as the paintball fight (which hints at the idea of the European invader), the opening symphony (offering a view of man as the subject of commodities), and the dialogues between car dealers and sellers (showing Africa as a recipient of unwanted materials from the “first” world).
That kind of fictional organization of nonfiction material – either through editing or the camera’s observation of a situation – is a common trend in recent short films. In Stardust (Belgium), the Tiger Awards winner at Rotterdam in 2011, filmmaker Nicolas Provost placed hidden cameras inside a casino in Las Vegas and shot the regular routines of gamblers, security guards, and workers. By manipulating the sound (through insertion of fictional conversations that don’t correspond to the scenes we’re actually watching) and camera work (via the use of unexpected zoom-ins), Provost turns what could have been a routine observation of a casino into an exciting mystery film, which requires the audience to take an active role in the experience. To anyone unfamiliar with the conventions of genre cinema, the film’s tricks would go unnoticed.
Sea of fire (Mar de fogo, Brazil), part of the Berlinale Short programme, is a short documentary about Limite (1931), Mário Peixoto’s avantgarde film dealing with hope, loneliness, freedom and love. Respecting the experimentalism in Peixoto’s feature, Sea of fire does not attempt to be a didactic piece, but rather incorporates and reproduces the radical inclinations of its subject, drawing its strength from that exercise. Borrowing from the visual arts by using footage from the original feature and mixing it with voiceovers from Peixoto’s previous interviews, Sea of fire pays homage to radical cinema. The experience makes us curious to watch the original film, and to reflect on Peixoto’s creative struggles. Through its innovative structure and style, Sea of fire equates the images of Limite‘s protagonist (a man in deep existential pain) with Peixoto’s personal anguish of not being able to live up to his own expectations — Peixoto never finished another film.
Jennifer Reeder’s recent movies benefit from the liberty of creative editing, with events mixed in a bizarre form unrelated to cause and effect. Her work is full of energy. Instead of toning things down, she allows her character’s struggles and dilemmas to explode on the screen in vigorous fashion, a stream of feelings splashed directly into our faces. Reeder builds a close relationship with her young actresses. That’s why issues like growing up, sexuality, friendship, parents, and beauty are so believable as they’re addressed in Reeder’s films. Her shorts are not the product of a mastermind overmanipulating her audience’s feelings. She believes that the truthfulness of her stories can surface only when she immerses herself in her material.
A million miles away (USA, 2014) and Blood below the skin (USA, 2015) reach a rare level of connectivity, both between the filmmaker and her actresses and the film and its audience. In Blood, a prom dress scene in which two girls reveal that they haven’t touched or even kissed yet builds a connection with the audience; in A million, a choral sequence brushes the film with a tone of deep sadness symbolized through the close-up on the cat’s eyes. Reeder’s work combines a sense of traditional narrative with experimentalism. Blood is a one-week chronicle of the lives of three teenage girls, but the editing does not try to make logical sense of things.
If some short films in the Berlinale Shorts programme avail themselves of freeing, inventive techniques to depart from the conventional, others seem to assume that nontraditional narrative structure can be an end in itself.
Matt Porterfield’s Take what you can carry (USA/Germany, 2015) attempts disjointed dramatic sections that seem unconnected to the larger story. Unfortunately, the strength of the first section (an uncomfortable conversation between a girl and her boyfriend in which the conflict arises between the lines) is undermined by the dance sequence that follows it. Instead of developing that tension, the short opts for the belief that filming bodies dancing in a bizarre fashion enhances dramatic conflict.
In Take what you can carry, for example, we get only fragments of the story of a woman living abroad and longing for a sense of home, giving us only remote indications of the character’s motivations. The result is a flat, bland film. There are also shorts that display technical excellence yet lack dramatic strength. Dissonance (Germany, 2015), by Till Nowak, is technically advanced in its merging of live action with animation, but overall it is a moral story that wants only to make a blunt point: that the boundaries of reality and imagination can be expanded. Momoko Seto’s Planet Σ (France, 2014) is a collection of beautiful images of melting ice, from which giant insects emerge. However, there is not much of a filmic sense, merely an audiovisual one. These images would be more effective in an en passant appreciation at an art gallery. They’re not strong enough to hold our attention on a theater screen.
As people who think about films and are interested in having a close relationship with contemporary cinema, we should be open to diverse narrative strategies that cannot be easily pigeonholed. The risk comes when the mere denial of tradition is seen as a merit and validation in and of itself. We should not renounce our critical faculties, even when it comes to short films.