The 2023 edition of the BIFA and BAFTA qualifying Bolton Film Festival is scheduled to take place in-person from 4th – 8th October before continuing online from 11th – 22nd October. It’s a festival that holds a special place in DN’s heart as alongside industry talks designed to arm filmmakers new and seasoned with essential career knowledge and connections, it continually showcases an impressive spectrum of work from across the globe that has been concocted by filmmakers of all statures throughout the independent film scene. This year’s lineup is no different, with a collection of shorts that range from macabre stop-motion musicals to meditative and philosophical sci-fi dramas. If you’re looking for a way into your viewing this year then we’ve prepared a list of ten films to kickstart your journey before you head deeper into the illustrious programme of filmmaking work on offer.

If You’re Happy – Phoebe Arnstein

In Phoebe Arnstein’s short drama, a young mother is struggling with the pressures of motherhood as her baby is crying for hours on end and there’s no one around to share in the difficulty. In order to alleviate herself from this stress she decides to attend a local baby group and when an opportunity for pure catharsis arises, she takes it. Arnstein’s film is expertly directed through a gripping edit and a tender, caring approach to its subject. It’s one of the longer shorts on this list but you wouldn’t guess from watching as it flies by, which is down to Arnstein having a strong narrative focus and an empathetic understanding of the troubled interiority of her protagonist.

To the Brink – Hugo Docking

If you’re a fan of Henry Selick’s stop motion work but wish he dialled up the gore then I recommend to you Hugo Docking’s delightfully macabre short To the Brink. It’s an animated musical with devilish characters that personify the intrusive thoughts of a man overwhelmed with a world in a pre-apocalyptic state. Docking’s design takes a broad cabaret aesthetic and melds it with characters who look like they were cobbled together from a collection of trinkets that lurk in the back of a mysterious Victorian thrift store.

Original Skin – Mdhamiri á Nkemi

Mdhamiri á Nkemi’s thought-provoking short Original Skin is a quiet piece of science fiction that asks questions about the relationship between identity and our bodies. It’s set in a society where having sex causes you to switch bodies with your partner and follows Bea, a young girl from a conservative community where swapping is seen as taboo. But when Bea encounters Lexi on a night out the pair can’t help forming a connection. It’s hard to encapsulate Nkemi’s film in a short paragraph as you could write essays about the philosophical questions it asks but what I will say is that there’s a great warmth to the film too which you don’t often see in sci-fi.

Intro – Anne Isensee

When audio descriptor Simone is set to the task of narrating the film in front of her, she becomes unable to make sense of the very action on screen. Anne Isensee’s animated short is a unique work that highlights the benefits of accessibility in film whilst telling a gripping story. Like Simone, we the audience are asked to explore the frame, which Isensee renders with a charming, handrawn visual style and specific splashes of colour. We watch and try to decipher the sheer busyness of what’s on screen in the same way she does. It’s an intuitive film in that sense and a work that could only be expressed through the malleability of animation.

Ma Mère et Moi – Emma Branderhorst

An intimate portrait of a mother/daughter relationship and the emotional difficulty that comes with leaving the nest. Much like her other short Spotless, what I really enjoyed about Emma Branderhorst’s familial drama is how she invests in the full spectrum of emotion that comes with the dilemmas her characters face. Yes, with mother/daughter relationships there are difficult waters to navigate at times but there is also love and warmth too. I won’t spoil it but the ending of this one is great, one of those final moments in a film where everything is said in a subtle poetic moment. If you’d like to read more about the making of this one, we spoke with Branderhorst back when Ma Mère et Moi premiered at Berlinale.

Linda – Joe Lycett

Comedian Joe Lycett’s trademark dry wit translates smoothly into the short film format for Linda, his latest work as a director. The film follows the titular Linda as she begins work at a post office but when the customers start to pour in suspicions are raised as every conversation seems to remind her of an anecdote from her past. The many claims she starts to make, such as dating David Bowie and owning a pet walrus named Winston, become all too much for her college Tariq who is convinced she has to be lying. The joy of Linda comes in the form of Janice Connolly’s wonderful performance as Linda and the way she brings Lycett’s snappy, comedic dialogue to life.

The Snip – Ben S. Hyland

Tony and Lindsay are at a stage in their life where they feel they don’t want any more children and are looking for a permanent solution to their fertility. But, for Tony, a vasectomy is about more than stopping an extension to their family. Ben S. Hyland, who DN last featured back when his film Talk Radio played at The Shortest Nights in 2020, returns with new short The Snip, a film that depicts the buckling frailties of masculinity when one’s gonads are on the chopping block. If you’re a fan of Hyland’s style of comedy then be sure to mark your diary for DN’s Halloween premiere screening of his things that go bump in the night comedy Bleep.

Sèt Lam – Vincent Fontano

Like if The Seventh Seal was set in an insular city’s ghetto. There’s a haunting beauty to Vincent Fontano’s short fantasy Sèt Lam. It’s about a young girl struck by fear who speaks to her Aunt and learns the story of when one of her kin first confronted death. Fontano cleverly refuses to separate the fiction being told from the reality of the situation as he conveys the entirety of the film through stark black and white photography which gives both the tale and the young girl’s reality a dark, ritualistic and ethereal quality.

Spinning – Sam Spruell

Sam Spruell’s short drama Spinning is an ode to empathy. It follows a man whose world is crumbling and he’s just about clinging on through his masculine obsessions. But when he encounters someone who treats him with a genuine sense of kindness, he maybe sees a way through. Spruell’s acting background comes through in the way he shoots performance, his leads Jonny Phillips and Bethan Mary James are both excellent and the success of the film comes down to how they translate the inner turmoil of their characters through gestures and small lines of dialogue.

Endless Sea – Sam Shainberg

When a 70 year old woman gets told her medication has doubled in price she has to call in all the favours she can to afford them. It’s a tale of desperation in a capitalistic world and Director Sam Shainberg captures that specific New Yorkian energy with shots of chaos amidst the bustling streets and a lead character who is quirky, feisty and immensely likeable. There’s a fun nod to Le Ballon Rouge in there too.

You can find more unmissable films, like the ones featured at Bolton Film Festival, in our Best of Fest collections.

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