The City as a Cinema

Our short film festival is a celebration and a launchpad for emerging filmmakers;
find out what happened at this year’s event, who the winners were and watch some of our films.

The Aesthetica Short Film Festival (ASFF) 2012 screened over 200 films in 15 iconic and historic locations throughout the city of York from 8 – 11 November. It was a fantastic year with a host of delegates attending from across the world – the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Serbia, France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Germany – as well as from all corners of the UK. York was simply buzzing. We opened on the Thursday night at City Screen York; Dan Jarvis, Shadow Minister for Culture and Arts, attended, as well as representatives from Channel 4, Warp Films and other leading organisations. The night was completed with a preview screening of what the festival had to offer, and ASFF offers a programme that spans all genres including drama, documentary, comedy, thriller, art, experimental, music video and animation. Across the weekend, we had a total of 180 screenings making up a whopping 469 hours’ worth of content.

The idea for ASFF was born when we launched a short film competition in 2010 with the aim of producing a DVD to be distributed with our Christmas issue that year, as well as various other prizes including screenings at five UK festivals, training with Raindance and a cash prize. How did we go from running a competition to holding a multi-venue and city-wide event? Here’s what happened: we received just under 1000 films that first year, but we could only include 13 on the DVD. This was one of the most difficult tasks in the world, especially as the ethos of Aesthetica, as a company, is to promote high quality art and culture. There were so many great films that were rejected that first year, and every minute of that process was difficult. At least 150 of those films that could have been on that DVD, but the time limitations of it meant that some tough decisions were made. Still, there were several films that should have been included, and we knew this, which is why we knew the competition had to develop from a DVD to a large-scale event.

In June 2011, we were invited to BAFTA, as part of Rushes Soho Shorts Festival, to participate in a panel discussion about how filmmakers can work with brands. In this instance, the focus was on how filmmakers could work with the magazine, and the type of work that the magazine already did in the area of film. After the event there was a queue of people waiting to speak to me, and most of them were filmmakers who had been rejected from the competition. Several of them were asking, “What sort of feedback can you give?” or “How can I improve?” The truth was that some of these filmmakers produced the very films we struggled with and debated over for that first DVD. Some of their films could have been included, and that was the problem. There was a realisation that if we were going to be an organisation that worked with filmmakers, it was essential that we could work within much wider parameters. This was a major turning point for our work with film, and cemented our commitment to it.

On the train ride back to York, reading Decalog, a film journal, I decided that the only way forward with this project would be to roll it out into a major event. It was the only possible option, otherwise there would be no point at all in continuing this work when we knew we could do it better. The upside is that Aesthetica is based in the beautiful and historic city of York. There are so many celebrated and intriguing locations here, and the city had never had a film festival before, so really it was a match made in Heaven. Fast forward two years, and we’ve just closed ASFF 2012. The city came alive; there were delegates everywhere and, inside each venue, filmmakers and audiences were engaging, conversations were happening and new collaborations and plans were being formed. This is really what film festivals are all about and, in many ways, we were presented with such an opportunity. To be the first people to do something somewhere is rare, so we relished the challenge.

This year’s festival saw thousands attending the screenings, and the masterclasses alone attracted 1050 people who were here, in York, to engage with industry professionals such as Barry Ryan, Head of Production at Warp Films, and Danny Cohen, cinematographer of The King’s Speech, in association with BAFTA, as well as Channel 4, The Hepworth Wakefield, Raindance and various other organisations. We live in a country that has some great film festivals – Encounters, Glasgow, Underwire, Sheffield Doc/Fest, London Film Festival – and we hope ASFF only adds to the UK’s rich film culture.

Winning films this year included Sasha Nakhai and Richard Williamson’s documentary The Sugar Bowl (winner of Best Documentary and Best of Fest), which charts the rise and fall of the sugarcane industry in Negros, Philippines. It depicts deeply personal stories, and powerfully captivates the emotions of the audiences through its dynamic characters and excellent cinematography. Best Comedy was awarded to Mark Davenport for the superb Photoshopping – a brilliantly dark comic tale about a woman who is obsessed with photographing celebrities and breaking a world record. Ashley Dean was awarded Best Music Video for Let It Go, which was made for the band Fossil Collective (Desert Island) and tells a story of heartbreak and tragedy but also hope and determination.

Best Animation went to Mark Nelson for The Jockstrap Raiders, which is set in Leeds during World War II. This delightful animation tells the story of a group of underdogs and misfits who are excluded from the war for various reasons, but who come to the rescue when Britain is almost invaded. Best Artist’s Film was awarded to Joanna Tam for Reduction Study (Ping Pong). This film discusses identity and what it means to belong in society, particularly as an immigrant. Best Drama went to Layke Anderson for Dylan’s Room. It’s a complex and gripping story about loss and grief set in a bedroom. The cinematography captures the essence of the room with long shots of objects, and, with this as a narrative device, we come to understand the emotional elements of the film. Best Thriller went to Martin Bargiel for Augenblicke – gripping, twisting and turning, this film moves in so many directions at once. As a viewer, you are completely pulled into the story and its non-linear treatment of time. Its use of light and sound creates an experience that is enthralling and riveting. Finally, Best Experimental Film was awarded to Anna Valdez Hanks and Anna Blanford for To The Sea, which is an intricate film that experiments with its use of narrative and contemplative cinematography. To The Sea probes into morality in a harrowing manner. It leaves viewers questioning: “What would I do in that situation?” For this reason, it resonates long after it has finished.

If you couldn’t make this year’s event, we have included a festival sampler either online or via DVD. This sampler showcases some of the films that were included in the festival, spanning a variety of genres including thriller, documentary, music video and animation (Dylan’s Room, Augenblicke, Let It Go, To The Sea, Oil & Water, The Man With the Stolen Heart and Happy Birthday Jim). Offering a fantastic insight into this year’s films, the sampler gives you a feel for some of the themes on offer at ASFF 2012.

To take over a city centre for an entire weekend is no easy feat, and a big thank you goes to the Aesthetica team, as well as our venues, partners and sponsors – York St John University, Coles, 1331, Northern Rail, Creative England, BFI, National Lottery, Arts Council England and York800. There would be no way that we could ever do this without them, and, of course, a big thanks also goes to our filmmakers.

We hope to see you at ASFF 2013 (7 – 10 November, York).

Cherie Federico