All films are essentially an act of interpretation. It’s a question of whether or not we decide to depict our strangest dreams and desires or to translate something that already exists in the real world. At the sixth edition of the Bolton Film Festival, running physically from 5th to 9th October with its online element taking place between the 12th and 23rd October, the programmers curate a strong, internationally-minded collection of shorts that straddle the line between the harshness of the kitchen sink and the pure possibilities of fantastical imagination — sometimes even within the same film! Featuring homegrown talent, Ukrainian entries, German sci-fi, American cowboys and Scandinavian absurdism, we are treated to the world as it is and the world at its most cartoonish and exaggerated. Straddling animation, documentary and traditional fiction, this programme was an absolute pleasure to dive into. Ahead of the festival’s opening tomorrow, here is our take on ten of the most unmissable shorts screening this year.
// Fantasy //
Claudio’s Song – Andreas Nilsson
When Andreas Nilsson’s Claudio’s Song starts, you’ll have no idea how it ends. It plays with stereotypes, starting in generic Slavic criminal land; a couple of short-trimmed gangsters driving in a Lada, listening to Soviet pop and smoking cigarettes. There’s a famous Ukrainian Instagram star in the boot, being extorted for his supposedly vast wealth. But things take a fascinating, musical-inspired turn in the second half, creating an elegy to the life of the eponymous Claudio, whose last word is both deeply strange and rather affecting.
The Diamond – Vedran Rupic
This is a delightfully weird film, using the full spectrum of whimsy without ever becoming overbearing. A lonely, socially awkward man tries and fails to attempt human contact, until discovering a diamond in the ground. Unable to enter the hole himself, he enters into a friendship with a very (very) small man, all the while endeavouring to use him for selfish aims. In its detachment from conventionality and musical ambitions, it makes a perfect two-parter with Claudio’s Song — both playing in the aptly named Marmite programme.
Till – Marc Philip Ginolas
A bleak yet nonetheless compassionate experience, Till imagines a world where society can deem us no longer useful and has the power to turn us into AI (not quite as far-fetched as you think in a world of creeping digital authoritarianism). Using muted colours to capture a world of dingy hotels, bleached white walls, and seemingly emotionless doctors, it shows the capacity of tech to reduce us to almost nothing. Feeling only creeps in the edges here — whether it’s the strains of classical music, a searching synth score, a small friendly glance or a snatch of human-like conversation.
Zoon – Jonatan Schwenk
A lesson in evolution. White bright tetrapod-like creatures with cute tails and faces swim out of the sea and start playfully mating. Darker, obscured animals — more human-like in appearance — arise and eat these creatures for dinner, their voices incoherent singsongy murmurs. In Jonatan Schwenk’s enjoyable, off-beat animation, feasting on the natural world is given an otherworldly sheen. The bodies ascend to the heavens and then evaporate, perhaps displaying the natural course of consumption. Little is explained, but on a pure cinematic level, there is something incredibly satisfying here.
Leopard Heels – Chris Turner
Job interviews are usually dreadful and dread-filled, a chance to try and sell a certain version of yourself in order to get the right position while being scrutinised by staring eyes. In Chris Turner’s Leopard Heels it literally descends into a nightmare, as our protagonist finds she’s getting all the wrong kinds of attention. While occasionally too on-the-nose, the film’s horror tropes are well-deployed, displaying the lengths people are willing to debase themselves in order to make enough money to survive.
// Reality //
Dad’s Sneakers – Olha Zhurba
With a striking topical relevance considering the huge numbers of people who have left Ukraine since late February, Dad’s Sneakers is a heartrending tale of a young orphan preparing for a new life in the USA. Rooted in a keen observation of young, unsure life on the margins of society while cleverly finding emotional anchors to move the story along, it asks the hard questions about ‘being lucky’ and leaving everything you previously knew behind.
Sweet Little Despair – Carolina Petro
The stresses of raising a baby while having a full-time job are acutely rendered in the highly empathetic Sweet Little Despair. Small details — from feeding to sleeping to commuting — are accrued to devastating effect, showing how even the simplest and thoughtless of mistakes can potentially spell disaster. Imbued with a sense of tenderness throughout, Carolina Petro gets great mileage out of her small yet committed cast.
Five Weeks – Geej Ower
As a complementary tale of strained motherhood, Five Weeks offers a fine double-viewing with Sweet Little Despair. But while Sweet Little Despair takes its time to find moments of closeness between mother and child, Five Weeks — using long takes, close angles and immersive sound design — plunges us into the deep depths of alienation, with Director Geej Ower turning a simple shopping errand into a horror movie of the protagonist’s own making.
Shut Up and Paint – Titus Kaphar & Alex Mallis
The paradox of being a successful Black artist is successfully rendered in this self-reflexive documentary portrait from filmmaker Alex Mallis and best-selling artist Titus Kaphar — having frank conversations about what it means to make work about the Black experience that predominantly ends up in the hands of white institutions and owners. With a free-wheeling, casual approach — mixing in testimony with poetry, astute observation with self-deprecation — Shut Up and Paint shows how honest creative expression can be compromised by the dictates of the market.
North Star – P.J. Palmer
Of all the films I saw in Bolton, North Star seems like the one with the most potential of being expanded into a feature, covering a lot of rich and fertile ground in its 30-minute running time. It tells the story of two gay cowboys, one of them close to dying, in an ailing ranch seemingly forgotten by time. First examining the stresses of running an estate with being a full-time carer, their set-up is put under intense scrutiny by the homophobia of a well-meaning yet prejudiced family member. Throughout, North Star avoids cheap points to get at the heart of the human experience, resulting in a quietly effective film.