The fifth night of the Edinburgh Short Film Festival was a collection of short documentaries, all exploring the back-alleys of identity, group mentality and anonymity. With five of the seven films based in Scotland, the audience expected a distinctly more comfortable ‘home-turf’ feel to the evening. All of the films, however, approached the genre of documentary in equally surprising and engaging ways, to deliver a beautifully crafted peek into the lifestyles and obstacles of many varying characters in a contemporary society.
The night opened with ‘Ma Bar’. Winner of the BAFTA Scotland Best Short Film back in 2009, the film documents the obsessive lifestyle followed by Bill McFadyen, the 73 year old world champion bench presser from a small town on the south-west coast of Scotland. Using almost entirely close-up facial shots and accompanied by snippets of Bill’s own narration, the film is intimately moulded around the bodily and mental extremes which some are determined to achieve. Very engaging yet at times unsettling, ‘Ma Bar’ creates a well-crafted juxtaposition of aesthetic pleasure and the shock factor of human endeavour.
‘Commodity City’ stood out for its sheer originality, beautiful shots and sense of humour. One of the two international films of the evening, it has been screened worldwide and has won various short documentary prizes. Set in the world’s largest wholesale market in the Chinese city of Yiwu, the audience is given a beautiful 11 minute insight into the life of the stall owners whom we daily take for granted. The sellers, full of life and individuality, are isolated in their own cubicle stalls, set against an oppressive backdrop of cheap pens, toys and hairdryers. A sombre man in charge of a pen shop takes care to painstakingly count metal parts on his desk; an elderly lady sweet talks one of her customer, insulting and complimenting him at the same time; a woman shouts at her son for hitting another child on the head with a toy. With barely any dialogue and the continuum of tinny mall music playing in the background, ‘Commodity City’ presents a seamless montage of individual shots which individually seem insignificant on the surface, but which combine to take on new weight and meaning; a brilliant film.
Also Scottish-themed, 'The Big Lie’ skilfully weaves in historical events with contemporary issues and trends. An interview with one of the last surviving members of the Scottish International Brigades forms the template for the film, through which we learn about the hundreds of Scottish men and women who, between 1936-39, volunteered to fight for the Spanish Republic against the fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. The big lies that Fascists weave into society come to the fore in the course of the film, as well as the stupidity of the masses in following. The well-crafted interview is cleverly combined with original historical footage, and slowly climaxes to turn the focus back around at the end of the film; the significance of mass media and the redefinition of truth is, sadly, just as relevant almost 100 years later.
‘The Devil and the Holy Water’ also explores human extremes. Shot on location in Addis Abeba, Ethiopa, anthropologist Diego Malara sheds light on the power held by controversial exorcism priest Mehmer Girma, whose charisma draws hundreds from across the country. Narrated entirely by a woman who has herself been exorcised by Girma, we watch individuals screaming and writhing as Girma, standing on a stage and equipped with a microphone, forces the devil to reveal itself. With close-up intimate shots that often last longer than would ordinarily be comfortable, ‘The Devil and the Holy Water’ reveals the shocking reality of contemporary exorcism practice with a distinctly eerie feel.
All in all, the short documentary night of the ESFF was an extremely interesting evening, at times shocking and at others very funny, and offered intimate glances into seven very different realities. A common theme developed as the films merged into a collective, one of appreciating the difficulties surrounding identities in a contemporary world; yet these are difficulties we must respond to whilst holding together rather than dividing.