Encounters Short Film Festival: So you think that’s funny

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I’ve always had somewhat of an ambiguous attitude to the Encounters Short Film Festival, which has taken place in the city of Bristol once a year for the last 19 years.

I’m a fan of the short film, I enjoy sitting in a darkened and otherwise quiet room when all gets a little too much. Whether that’s hiding in the corner under a blanket with a cup of coffee watching A Field in England at this year’s End of the Road Festival, or escaping to the press room – where lights are compellingly dimmed – at almost every single conference on game development I’ve been too as I try to escape both the talks, and a hangover. Stranger still, I’ve never been a games writer.

That’s why I’ve added this Late Lounge event to my schedule. A full programme of adult-orientated (not that kind of adult, by the way) shorts is exactly the way I like to be re-orientated into real life, i.e. the weekend.

This is one of just two Encounters events I’m attending this year – I’d like to attend more but while most events are only the price of a cinema ticket, I’ve never been to the cinema five days in a row.

But then I’ve always been to just two Encounters events – which is where my ambiguous feelings arise. Even when I wrote about animation, one of Encounters’ strongest arms, with a particular focus this year through an overview of the work of Richard Williams (Who Framed Roger Rabbit) and input from Peter Lord (Aardman co-founder), they would only reluctantly offer me two passes to the very specific animation screenings. Mostly shorts I’d seen before – I wanted to hear about how they were made – but those events were deemed unnecessary. Fine, I thought, I’ll refrain from writing about your event in an internationally distributed magazine. I’d seen most of them at the world’s biggest computer graphics and short film festival earlier in the year anyhow, the organisers of which felt strangely more comfortable with our attendance.

I apologise if that sounds a little bitter, I mostly say these things because the event takes part in my own city, where this magazine was based (well, 10 miles out in Bath) and it was a shame that I felt unable to cover it in any meaningful capacity.

But you could say Encounters doesn’t need the help any coverage of mine could give – they’ve almost hit two decades and the event remains popular, but it would be a shame if they didn’t keep up and move things forward.

Having not been for a couple of years I found that not a lot had changed. I saw the same faces, and while the shorts had changed, the events, largely, followed suit of previous years. It felt that Encounters lives in its own little short film bubble, a welcome location in the Watershed, ready made animation presence thanks to Aardman. But the problem however, is that some of the genuinely intriguing and potentially insightful events come off as unorganised, unstructured, overly-expensive, and inevitably disappointing.

Or by that I mean, the second event I’m attending at Encounters. Or rather the first, because I went to it last night.

Comedy: The hardest genre to get right?

It was titled ‘So You Think That’s Funny’ and saw Peep Show and Fresh Meat co-creator and co-writer, Jesse Armstrong, Peep Show actor and stand-up Isy Suttie, and director Jim Field Smith who while trying his hand at Hollywood comedy with She’s Out of My League and Butter is now involved in the BBC’s Episodes, and the forthcoming James Corden vehicle The Wrong Mans, talk about their favourite comedy shorts.

The premise was that the comedy short is one of the hardest genres to get right, and saw each panel member choose a short film that they think is particularly funny, and then deconstruct the short afterwards to get to the root of what made it funny.

Je t’aime John Wayne (2000)

Armstrong’s choice came in the form of Je t’aime John Wayne – a great short from 2000 featuring Kris Marshall in the lead role. Directed by Toby MacDonald, it sees a young man in London imitating Jean-Paul Belmondo in the 1960 French film, Breathless.

One of the film’s writers, Luke Ponte, described it very well as, “an Englishman who thinks he’s a French man who thinks he’s an American.

The great thing about this short was that whether you knew it was a take-off of Breathless or not, it was still funny, highly and successfully parodic, and hugely enjoyable. Much of its humour comes from the directing which matches the jump-cuts and fast pace of French new wave cinema at the time. The character’s obvious foibles and flaws open him up to clear ridicule, but also makes the character just likeable enough to make the short successful from all sides.

The panel went into little detail on this – only really pointing out the importance of structure. With comedy, they said, there’s less room for the bizarre. If it’s not structured, it doesn’t work. The problem was, the panel and the event’s own lack of structure meant there was a certain level of irony that was missed by the panel.

The character was, like, vulnerable, you know?

The problem was that half the audience was there as fans of the work of some of the panelists and were interested in their process, the other half probably more intrigued by the art of comedy writing and production. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that either group got much out of tonight.

Post-short talks was largely a stumbling over of analytical cliches to justify the choice of film. “I liked that the character, was like, vulnerable.”, was uttered a couple of times. But worse, too often the discussion got prematurely thrown over to the audience to give their opinion. “I’m just really intrigued, as a writer, how the audience feels about this,” said Armstrong following his short. Though I’m not sure, apart from those wanting to get their own opinion heard, if this helps to produce the result of a successful and insightful panel discussion. A good chunk of the audience would have been there to learn, it seems that unfortunately, the panel were there for the same reason – Field Smith also noting with genuine intrigue how useful the experience of hearing an audience reaction to the shorts was to him as a director.

Misogyny, or parody?

Armstrong had the opportunity to bring the discussion back to the panel after throwing out the mic following the airing of Je t’aime John Wayne. It  was picked up by a woman half way to the back, who unfortunately managed to completely miss, or misunderstand the nature of parody. “I just think it hugely, hugely misogynistic,” she said. “I don’t understand how you or anyone could enjoy it when it’s so incredibly misogynistic.”

You’re right. It was. The filmmakers made a parody of Breathless and employed the same directorial turns, the same sexist approach, and ripped it apart, exposing its misogyny, ridiculing, and therefore reducing the power of such material when it’s presented as a serious work. That was the point, that was unfortunately missed.

It was a shame, but Armstrong was somewhat remorseful and suddenly uncertain of his choice. Despite the groans from fellow audience members, the show of hands that showed an overall approval of the short, it was really a shame that Armstrong wasn’t able to express the root of the films humour, to convince the woman otherwise – from his expert mind, providing insight into his own process.

It was this lack of confidence, paired with fascination with the audience reaction to their chosen works that really made the talk fall flat. Despite this, it may have proved its point. Comedy really is one of the hardest things to get right, whether in shorter or longer form – and these professionals, alongside their fans, and students, are all still learning.

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