I arrive early at the Phoenix Picture House to find a lot of people already there. The best of the Oxford Broadcasting Association’s productions from the past year are being shown, a number of them for the first time, and there has been increasing buzz for this event over the past few weeks. No-one has been put off by the £10 ticket price, and the cinema is packed. I recognise a few faces who I know are either in the films or have been involved in making them. People chat excitedly; Oxford film is a community indeed. The lights go down and the first film begins.
It’s called Baktrack. OBA offers a short summary in their programme: “Matt used to be a raver, just like his best mate Eezy. Now Matt’s grown up, got a job, and got bored. Eezy hasn’t aged a bit though. He’s still living the 90s and he wants Matt to live there with him. If you could go back to the best days of your life, why wouldn’t you? But Matt has some demons to conquer and Eezy might just be one of them.”
Baktrack opens like a 90s music video, which, obviously, feels appropriate. 1998 home cinema footage captures the rowdiness of a house party, and for a moment I am worried that the whole film is going to be shot like this, and incomprehensible as a result. I needn’t be, though, because after a minute or two we cut forward ten years to a world where editing is far more nuanced and the shots are composed nicely. Matt, the main character, runs into an old friend and gradually slips back into his old lifestyle before realising he might not have remembered everything that happened a decade before.
The film blends a nice balance of humour with real emotional depth. James Corrigan is convincing as Matt, and David Shields even more so as the childish but menacing Eezy, bringing to mind shades of Jack O’Connell in Skins. Bucket hats, shell jackets and party drugs dominate his dingy flat, and Eezy even still uses VHS tapes, proving to us that the 90s have well and truly not left. The most convincing part of the whole production, though, is Nathan Klein’s brilliant soundtrack. It’s so well-observed and imitative of the era that it would be hard to believe it was composed especially for the film and not lifted straight from a late-90s Ministry of Sound compilation were his name not mentioned in the credits.
As the first film shown, Baktrack’s most immediately striking aspect is its assured level of technical production, and I find that this standard is maintained throughout all the other films. Well written, shot and edited, the actors give accomplished performances and the film succeeds in engaging, then unnerving the audience.
Next up is Waterbird, the first of three films directed by Alex Darby, OBA’s co-president. For this, the programme says: “Tom is a champion swimmer whose future prospects are marred by a tragic accident. As a journalist pesters him for a vox pop on the anniversary of the event, the truth comes out and an innocent interview turns to a moving story of friendship, ambition and grief.”
Not a barrel of laughs, then. Waterbird changes the tone from the previous film, with a more contemplative mood. Despite having the same primary actor as Baktrack, the acting and dialogue is less natural and the parts of the film where the camera simply dwells on the river he sits beside are some of the best. The plot and any sense of reality in the film seem not to be the primary points, and instead, Darby and director of photography Nick Lory bring a certain poeticism to the imagery. Interspersed with the river shots are flashback scenes explaining the accident, and if there is one complaint to be made about Waterbird, it’s that the films shies away a mite when facing the moment of greatest dramatic tension. Where we might like to see a reaction from the main character in the face of tragedy, we cut straight back to the present instead. Nonetheless, it’s a quiet and thoughtful film.
Waterbird is followed by a film named Lick. Lick is a film different to all the others in a number of ways difficult to define. The OBA description simply reads: “‘I like your jacket.’ ‘Thanks.’”
It turns out that this is a reference to one of the more comic moments of black humour in an otherwise very intense, very hectic short film. Suddenly, the camera is jumping from car to church ritual to stage performance-cum-motivational talk with little or no explanation. Things get very surreal, very quickly, but despite being oblique, moments of self-parody and oddity help Lick to work well. It could easily have descended into pretention, and I doubt anyone in the audience made any real sense of it, but ultimately Lick is carried out with enough conviction in acting and directing that it doesn’t. The film makes incredibly good use of oppressive and intimidating music (as do all the films, incidentally) and its climax (in which the title is at least partially explained) is a brilliant – if momentary – examination of control, manipulation and mass mentality, for which actor Barney White deserves praise. Out of all the films, it is probably the one which most demands a second watching.
If Lick is the least-understood film shown on the night, then the film following it, Genius, is undoubtedly the most anticipated. People have been loudly asking what time it would be shown in the line-up whilst waiting outside, and it is also one mentioned specifically by Alex Darby (the producer) in the run-up to the screening as one to look out for. OBA’s programme says: “This mockumentary follows a naïve young playwright, Tim, as he tries to take his first play from script to stage. Determined to overcome their dwindling Twitter following and the crippling aesthetic burden of postmodernism, lovable charlatans Eli, Sasha and Tiff are unaware of the darker realisations they’ll face when the curtain goes up on their doomed production.”
A quote from the film sums it up more succinctly: “If you can’t see it, it must be genius, right?” (arguably a logic that could be applied to Lick). Members of the Oxford Revue feature heavily in this clever film, which is essentially a piss-take of Oxford’s thesps, and it comes through in the calibre of the comedy. Will Hislop and Barney Fishwick stand out, handling a script that is sometimes over the top with finesse. This is the only film to receive a round of applause before it has even begun in earnest, and for anyone who is familiar with the Oxford drama scene it’s a must-see. In fact, fuck it; for anyone familiar with Oxford University it’s a must-see. Sycophantic lines aimed at “genius” director Eli (“Instead of a ringtone, he’s got the audiobook of Hamlet”) and knowing declarations from the man himself (“Everyone who knows anything in Oxford drama knows Aids is the holy grail. The little golden goose laying little golden eggs worth five stars.”) puncture everything. The mockumentary format is pulled off with ease, and newbie playwright Tim, played by Jo Allan, draws our sympathy effectively too.
My only wonder is whether in a cinema comprised mostly of Oxford thesps patting themselves on the back for being so hilarious and/or talented, anyone realised the slight irony. But why let that spoil a film where even the credits are hilarious? Genius is undeniably one of the most professional films in the screening.
Catkins, Darby’s second and the partner piece to Waterbird, comes next. OBA says: “Mark escapes from London to find the courage to save his rocky marriage. Feeling liberated among nature and alone with his thoughts, he inadvertently becomes witness to a haunting encounter. The intermingling of passion, sorrow and loss grant him the answers he so desperately needs.”
Understandably, this immediately evokes Waterbird, and it would have been lovely to have watched both films back-to-back. Again, the slow shows of river and flower are poetic, but Catkins is the better film. It more fully realises the almost Romantic mood that Darby aims for, with pretty people sitting in a meadow of English flowers. It’s also surprisingly fresh to see a character over 30 in one of the films for the first time — the middle-aged man who tries to save his marriage. He has no lines of his own to speak, incidentally, because Richard E. Grant does the voiceover, telling the story. Whilst there’s not much to distinguish his voice from anyone else’s apart from a cut-glass accent, it’s a nice touch.
That said, the dialogue doesn’t quite live up to the lovely visuals and the engaging concept. Female a cappella singing in both Waterbird and Catkins works very well to draw the viewer into the almost oneiric natural world, and Catkins is quite touching, despite the fact that the film could have cut all the dialogue and been as strong. You can tell when a film – student-made or otherwise – makes people think because there is a pause before the final applause or before people shift in their seats. Catkins gives rise to this type of pause.
It’s followed by Wight, another slow burner (or at least, as slow a burner as a short film can be). Wight is described by OBA’s programme as follows: “A boy, living alone on a farm, finds a half-wild girl squatting on his land. At first, he is afraid. But as days pass, he begins to see that she needs his help.”
Immediately it’s clear that the premise isn’t an original one, but Wight does what it sets out to do very well nonetheless. We leave Oxford behind for a lonely farm, a setting equal parts ambiguous and creepy. Is this going to be a horror film? A fantasy? The “wight” herself is brilliantly put together, covered in mud and grime and suffering mysterious wrist and ankle welts. As viewers, we quickly understand why the boy is terrified, yet enthralled and fascinated by her. She is part creature, her face hidden behind limp blond hair. There is no dialogue at all until we see her in clothes, nor do we see her face until then, cleverly humanising the character as a result. Of course, it doesn’t hurt the film that both she and the boy are very pretty.
As the film progresses, we begin to wonder how it’s going to resolve. When eventually it does, finally offering explanation as to the girl’s appearance and grounding Wight closer to reality, the film suffers from a similar problem to Waterbird: it shies away from conflict at last moment. Something more difficult to watch and confront might perhaps have enhanced the film. Despite this, Wight has a great, understated ending, in the same vein as most of the film itself.
Alvin Yu’s The Dancing Vendetta comes next. OBA’s programme doesn’t have a huge amount to say: “When an embarrassing video of Johnny dancing is taped by his arch-nemesis Kas, to what lengths will he go to retrieve this video back?” The brevity is soon explained. In the screening’s shortest film, a charming and farcical affair, lead actor (dancer) Wes Lineham almost channels Rowan Atkinson and Mr Bean in the flamboyance of his physical performance. More than any, this seems like it must have been bloody fun to film. It is raucous and absurd, short and sweet, and it makes everybody in the audience happy. Job done.
The strains of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs fade away, and we come to the final film of the evening, The Wishing Horse. For this one, the programme sets expectations high: “The Wishing Horse is a beautiful and moving story about the grief of a young girl. Alone and unsure, she is unable to cope with her father’s failing health and a difficult relationship with her mother. Nothing can comfort her until a folk story her father used to tell her comes alive.”It is the third of Alex Darby’s three features, and by now some of his trademarks are clear — a cappella singing over the opening shots, themes of loss and emotional introspection, et cetera. Seeing three of Darby’s films screened together is interesting, and it strikes me that it would be great to see some of the other directors’ work to compare.
As with Waterbird and Catkins, there is a dreamlike quality to the film. The horse itself (both a metaphorical white horse and the Uffington White Horse near Oxford) is an integral part of the plot, but also transcends it, entering the realms of symbolism. Once again, Nick Lory’s photography lingers accusingly on a smashed mug, or manages to capture the sensation of feeling horsehair under fingers somehow; the sensory experience of the young main character, and by extension the viewer, seems key. Furthermore, The Wishing Horse doesn’t skirt the uncomfortable scenes in the way some of the other films do, and for that it should be commended. Confrontation and tension pervade.
With that, the screening is over. There is supposed to be one final film by an Oxford alumnus, but the event has overrun and it’s cut from the running order. No one seems hugely bothered, and as we all file out of the Picture House I what exactly it is that makes a good short film. Do the comic films work better, or those more stylised? This is of course subjective, but I think so. What is certainly clear is that OBA has the talented individuals to make films like these and bucketloads more, and that’s no bad thing. Bring on next year’s screening.
Since screening, Waterbird and Catkins have been featured on Kickstarter’s Staff Picks page. They will be submitted to Edinburgh International Film Festival, Message to Man festival in Russia, Uppsala International Short Film Festival, BFI London Film Festival, and the Cambridge Film Festival, among others.