Edinburgh Film Festival: Auteurs at play in 'Historic Center,' and other short treats
One of the pleasures I’ve allowed myself at this year’s Edinburgh fest is more time than usual to graze the handpicked short film programme – annually a point of pride for the festival, though inevitably swamped in the attention stakes by even the most negligible features in the lineup. That’s understandable: it’s hard to cover films that your readers have no certain way of accessing, and even with advances in online exhibition, distribution of shorts remains a niche affair. Taking aside from the annual release of those fortunate shorts rather randomly singled out by the Oscars, civilian cinemagoers are unlikely to see any at all.
That’s a shame, since a film like “Vultures of Tibet,” from Austin-based director Russell O. Bush, is one of the standout documentaries of the festival, length be damned. This 20-minute study of the fascinating, somewhat poetically macabre Buddhist ritual of ‘sky burial’ – whereby a human corpse is sacrificed to carrion vultures, birds believed to house the souls of spiritual elders – belies its length with remarkable depth of interpretation, as anthropological observation gives way to sobering socio-political commentary. Coupled with the poised, panoramic sweep of Drew Xanthopoulos’s lensing, it’s a reminder that “short” and “small” are not interchangeable adjectives.
Others make a virtue of the form’s limitations, like Karin Hammer and Stefan Hafner’s nifty gallery experiment “Funny Games Ghost,” a series of synchronized, overlaid scenes from both the Austrian and American versions of Michael Haneke’s brutal home-invasion chiller. In feature form, it’d be a gimmicky endurance test; at 10 minutes, it’s precisely as long as it needs to be to convey the eerie oppressiveness of repeated narrative, proffering the remake as a form of voluntary confinement.
I’ve also seen more snazzy animated shorts than I can list here, the range of techniques and effects between them driving home the point of just how aesthetically conformist most feature animation – even at its most expensively hi-tech – can look by comparison. I was particularly taken with “Woody,” the debut short from Australian animator and editor Stuart Bowen. A monochrome stop-motion charmer about a wooden artist’s mannequin whose lifelong dream of becoming the next Liberace is thwarted by his fingerless, paddle-shaped hands, it’s jauntily animated and shot through with mordantly goofy Down Under wit: most inspired is an instructional montage demonstrating appropriate lines of work (air traffic controlling, pancake flipping) for the non-articulated likes of Woody. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Seattle Film Festival a few weeks ago, which, if I remember correctly, qualifies it for Oscar consideration: I wouldn’t be surprised to see it pop up in that race.
One way of ensuring wider attention for shorts – if only those by the name auteurs who tend to participate in these endeavours – is the trusty old portmanteau picture. There’s at least one of these patchwork affairs at almost any major festival: an omnibus of shorts linked by a common theme or cause, bound together as a feature-length film. They invariably receive (and deserve) the “mixed bag” label, but the strike rate is pleasingly high in “Historic Centre,” an alternately whimsical and mournful anti-travelogue commissioned by the Portuguese city of Guimaraes to celebrate their appointment as 2012’s European Capital of Culture.