Short films: ‘An art form in themselves’

spiked-film: Bitesize Cinema is taking shorts to the masses.

Suchandrika Chakrabarti

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Filmmakers Matthew Jones and MJ McMahon want to make short films a viable alternative to just wandering down to your local Odeon (1).

The philosophy underpinning Bitesize Cinema is an ambitious one: ‘for too long short films have remained the forgotten art form; a consistently underrated medium that has never been given the exposure it demands. Bitesize Cinema is about exposing that art form to the masses.’ By presenting the best of international shorts, they hope that these films will eventually ‘sit alongside feature films at cinemas’.

Screenings, which recently took place at the Curzon Cinema in Soho, London, are are currently moving around the UK, include some of the most award-laden short films from international festivals. The current selection, the Spring 06 Films, includes A Message from Fallujah, a horrifying glimpse into war-torn Iraq that won ‘Best of the Fest’ at the LA Short Film Festival; and Antonio’s Breakfast, a 15-minute look at the life of a teenage boy, which won the 2006 BAFTA for Best Short Film. The people behind Bitesize Cinema are also involved in making short films themselves: the creative manager, Matthew Jones, is one of the producers on upcoming short film, Hawk, and its director, M J McMahon, has had his previous effort, Southside, screened by Bitesize Cinema.

The project began back in 2003 ‘in bars’, with six recent graduates who were keen to get their short films screened. Apart from festivals, they found nowhere that showed short films on a regular basis, so the logical conclusion was to start doing it themselves. After eight months of screening short films in a Soho bar, they were invited over to the Curzon Cinema in Soho by the manager, and have made it their base ever since. Meanwhile, they have been steadily spreading to other cities such as Cardiff, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow, where they take their short film selections after the premiere presentations in London.

Jones attributes part of their success to the fact that digital film distribution is now becoming more popular throughout the UK: ‘50 cinemas now have digital projectors, and this makes it cheaper and easier to get films out there’. McMahon agrees: if short films can look as stylish and high-quality as feature-length ones, the audience is more likely to see them as just as worthy of a trip to the cinema.

Certainly, the trailer for McMahon’s Hawk is very striking, dramatic, and has the feel of The Lord of the Rings films. It has become the first short film trailer to be distributed in cinemas across the UK, as well as featured on television, and owes much of its feature film-like look to digital facilities (2). As McMahon says, ‘it’s almost as though there’s this invisible rule: you’re not allowed to promote short films’. However, since the British Council is now giving out £250,000 digital projectors to promising young filmmakers, access to state-of-the-art technology has become easier. This means that short filmmakers can now compete on a more level playing field.

The Bitesize Cinema organisers have great hopes for the filmmakers that they work with. As Jones mentions, ‘everyone started this way, Lucas, Spielberg, they started with shorts. You might just see the next big thing here’. The talent and determination of the people behind these films certainly stands out. For instance, the American makers of Cuco Gomez-Gomez is Dead, part of the Spring 06 selection, had no budget, and the cast doubled up as the crew. After having made the official selection at numerous festivals, including Hong Kong, Manhattan and San Diego, this visually stunning black comedy has reached our shores. The story of its making shows the growing ‘democratisation of filmmaking’, Jones says, and it is exactly these kinds of artists who are celebrated by the Bitesize Cinema screenings.

Showing filmmakers of all nationalities is an important part of the Bitesize Cinema manifesto, and Jones and MJ McMahon are going on their next scouting trip in May, to the Cannes Film Festival. The six members of the Bitesize Cinema committee will sit through ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of shorts, and then take turns in presenting their favourites to the rest of the panel, with the hope of eventually showing the film back home. Jones admits that there are arguments sometimes, but that is generally a good sign, because ‘that’s someone’s opinion, there’s something to talk about’, and much to interest the prospective viewer.

This is the main reason why going to see short films should be just as easy as catching the latest blockbuster. Bitesize Cinema events are ‘conversation-generating’, and give more food for thought than your Scary Movies or Mission Impossibles. The five shorts that form the Spring 06 Film collections are excellent examples of this. The films are all impressive to look at, and ambitious in their themes. Yet they maintain just enough ambiguity so that the audience is left still puzzling over the piece afterwards. In Lucky, the tale of an AIDS orphan, the reasons for the protagonist’s situation must be inferred from clues; the timescale of events in A Message from Fallujah has to be thought through again after viewing in order to grasp the full meaning.

However, it is the incomplete portrayal of an intergenerational encounter in A Supermarket Love Song, both laugh-out-loud funny and quietly disturbing, that caused the most fervent post-screening discussion; not something you always hear upon exiting your local multiplex.

Suchandrika Chakrabarti is working as an intern at spiked. Visit the Bitesize Cinema website here.

(1) Stephen Daldry, quote on Bitesize Cinema website

(2) Trailer can be seen at Hawk the Movie

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