The Oscars were beset by controversy this year. The new "popular film" category was swiftly axed; comedian Kevin Hart had to quit as host after a social media storm. But it was the plan to announce the best live-action short award in an advertisement break that caused the most consternation from the likes of Alfonso Cuaron, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese – all of whom had in some way cut their teeth in short film, a medium crucial to the development of our best writers and directors.
And yet – with the exception of the short animation screened at the beginning of Pixar films – it’s a genre that garners little attention; which is why the industry was so furious that the one moment where short films are in the spotlight was being cut in favour of a commercial.
In the end, the Academy saw sense. Everyone was able to see Guy Nattiv and Jaime Ray Newman take the gong for their 21-minute film Skin, in which the perpetrator of a hate crime in the US faces retribution. For cineaste Dean Archibald-Smith, issues such as those at the Oscars are symptomatic of a general lack of knowledge about the importance of short film. But as chief operating officer of short film organisation Frame Light, he, along with his partner Aya Ishizuka, have decided to do something about it. On Saturday, their second annual Short Focus Film Festival kicks off, with screenings taking place in two UK cities.
"Short Focus is a combination of frustration and inspiration," Archibald-Smith explains. "There are so many good, impactful short films that don't get seen, so it became a question of how we could curate a programme that was meaningful and could showcase emerging talents."
Last year, that meant starting small – Archibald-Smith literally asked a cafe and a pub in London with film projectors if they could host a celebration of short film – and although it was successful, he quickly realised that one of their main reasons for putting on Short Focus was to give short films some legitimacy. Hence why this year there are two dates at "proper" cinemas – Close-Up Cinema in Shoreditch, London on Saturday and Sunday, and Fact in Liverpool on Monday. The 24-strong short film programme covers fiction, narrative cinema, experimental films, documentaries and animation, and takes in work from all over the world – including a documentary short from the UAE by The National's Samia Badih.
"These are great films that we feel are inspiring and deserve treating with the respect of being screened properly in a cinema," Archibald-Smith says. "In hindsight, maybe we let these filmmakers down a bit by hosting their work in a pub last year, but getting them recognised is essentially why we exist. It's still the case that short-form cinema in particular is a way for a lot of people to get into the industry, whether it's music videos or commercials or just experimenting with short narrative stories.
"It's easy to forget where the roots of feature-length films are, that big filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson started making shorts and experimenting. This is where great cinema starts, and Short Focus allows us to present that message in a really valuable way."
And proof that Short Focus is on the right lines came with the short chosen as last year's winner, Pa'Lante, by Kristian Mercado Figueroa. The Puerto Rican director made a music video for the band Hooray For The Riff Raff detailing the hurricanes that hit the Caribbean island in 2017 and Short Focus was one of the first places it was recognised. "It went on to be voted as one of Rolling Stone's top 10 videos of 2018," says Archibald-Smith, "so that not only validated our process but made us feel that we can really promote filmmakers who aren't massive names, but can and should be recognised by larger publications and big international audiences. Hopefully there's a value to the filmmakers being presented with a laurel they can put on their film poster."
This commitment to short film practitioners isn’t just focused on one weekend in September. Archibald-Smith’s Frame Light organisation aims to discover, introduce and celebrate short films in many different ways; FLTV is a curated short-film-on-demand channel set up to ensure people can enjoy short-form cinema beyond a film festival. There’s also a Frame Light podcast, which discusses the latest short films, and a written reviews section. “We’re just trying to broaden and expand our platforms so there are more opportunities for people to see short films and talk about them,” he says, encouraged by the amount of festival submissions they received this year.
"I'd say the short film scene and medium is in a strong place in the festival circuit, but beyond that it's less clear what's happening. So we want to keep growing as Frame Light and Short Focus, and hope people keep submitting their work. It's about bringing brilliant short films to the people, whether that's in the UK or much further afield."
So, next stop UAE? "It would be nice! We've always wanted to take the festival to a different city each year, so why not?"
Three shorts in focus
'Tide' by Berkant Dumlu, Switzerland
An experimental animation depicting a stranded man exposed to a high tide in a vast land, exploring themes of loneliness, isolation, humanity and nature. “Though Tide is only two minutes long, it was really important to me that we reflected a genre of cinema I particularly enjoy,” says Dean Archibald-Smith. “It’s abstract, beautifully drawn and has a kind of Studio Ghibli aesthetic. It feels closely inspired by Japanese cinema, which makes the fact it’s from Switzerland all the more interesting.”
'The Ride' by Kacper Anuszewski, Poland
Warsaw airport on a still, grey day. A taxi picks up a passenger and they set off, striking up a friendly conversation until the driver realises they have met before. It is at this point that things are not as innocent as they seem. “We have some succinct, compelling thrillers in the festival, and this one from Poland is really good,” says Archibald-Smith. “I’m so excited that more people are going to see it; we want to try and cover as many territories as we can in our programme.”
'Bingo Ladies' by Irina Alexiu, UK
Three ladies meet in a London bingo hall in this documentary video portrait capturing their conversations and personalities. "This one is really funny – three dynamic old ladies having a chat about everything from religion to pets and their love lives – but it's also a great short documentary, too," says Archibald-Smith. "I hope people really enjoy Bingo Ladies. It kind of proves that there are stories everywhere that can inspire creativity."
Short Focus Film Festival is at Close-up Cinema, London, and Fact, Liverpool, from Saturday to Monday. More details can be found at www.framelight.org