With more than 400 films and 40 events, Encounters is a difficult festival to approach. With its Sinead O’Connor inspired header and unusual exhibition format, the festival’s “perpetual cinema” strand ‘Nothing Compares to EU’ stands out a little. A rolling programme of 28 films, each from a different EU member state, the perpetual cinema merges the freedom of movement (no pun intended) of the gallery space with the focused sit-down environment of the theatre, to slightly strange effect.
Part of Encounters for two years now, the programme usually runs unticketed all week, allowing those curious about short film to drop in and out at will. As a one-off Sunday programme, running a total of just under 6 hours, this year’s event was a more serious affair. Consider how taxing 90 minutes of short film can be, with so many contrasting styles and ideas to ingest in a short space of time, and the idea of 390 in a single dosage seems as much an act of an endurance as anything else. It’s spiriting then - that though hugely variable in style, approach and indeed quality - this six hour micro voyage around Europe remained engaging when taken in it’s entirety, even if that may have not been the curator’s intention.
As one of 28, it takes a lot to stand out. Sebastiao Salgado’s Everything’s OK stands alone for it’s cinematography, the most breathtaking in the programme. No relation to the photographer of the same name, this new Portuguese filmmaker’s debut is an unexceptional drama about a fraught father-son relationship elevated by consistently extraordinary imagemaking from DoP Pedro Patrocínio. Expressively panoramic, Patrocínio’s landscape images are artful and breathtaking, imparting scope and grandeur upon Salgado’s intimate story of rural struggle in a world that favours urbanity.
Similarly attention grabbing, German micro mystery We Will Stay In Touch About It unravels almost in a single take. Mute lead man Alexander Fehling hits a pedestrian whilst speeding through a desert landscape, the camera winding across mirrors and through windscreens out into the open as he internally considers the ramifications of a split second lapse in judgement. As the seconds pass, director Jan Zabeil packs each moment with a sense of weightiness through high-mixed, anxious sound design that narrows the expansive space. Simple, brief and effective, Zabeil builds tension inconclusively but satisfyingly through considered, controlled direction.
Even more of a calling-card, one of several border-themed films in the programme, Slovenian filmmaker Žiga Virc’s distressing immigration thriller A New Home is as contained and effectual as short film can be. Crafting a home-invasion thriller with a twist, Virc initially cuts between apartment block interiors and refugee camp exteriors, establishing tension through the clear definition of cinematic space that makes the explosion of violence he introduces midway through all the more coherent and incisive, as well as the introduction of context that complicates and alarms. Transporting Europe’s anxieties about the security of it’s borders and the violence inherent to the enforcement of them into a home-invasion horror, Virc smartly identifies fear as the root of all prejudice, muddying the waters of an otherwise generically conventional thriller.
Covering similar issues in an entirely different style, Jens Assur’s bleak A Society is set entirely within the confines of a shipping container, as eleven strangers struggle with the ill effects of their forced intimacy. Assur may be fairly charged with aestheticising the unassailable, shooting his refugee characters in an artful chiaroscuro that seems to serve no broader purpose than beautifying their distress. Another twist on an existing format - the chamber piece where hostile strangers are forced to find similarities through extended containment - as the title suggests the characters of A Society are intended to be microcosmic. Made in 2012, this Swedish film’s purported purpose of encouraging viewers to “raise [their] voice against xenophobia and in favour of a European society in solidarity” already seems more than a little naive, though the final shot of the tank being hauled open and the exterior light pouring in retains a great deal of power.
Two films that draw less attention to themselves but still impress, Italian short Rosa, from Vincenzo Caricari and the Bulgarian Red Light, by Toma Waszarow. Both minimalist narrative pieces with undramatic plots and understated direction, even in a lengthy programme the milieu they depict lingers in the memory. Rosa shows the repetitious existence of a middle aged Italian woman whose life appears to be an unbroken cycle of ungratifying rituals. In a series of repeating scenes, Rosa moves between the home where she cares for her mother, the doctors surgery she works at, and the choir group she spends her evenings with, before closing each day with dutiful, cathartic prayer. Caricari’s camera tracks her constantly in lengthy, unbroken takes, finding the grace within the drudgery through a hypnotic persistence, all the while giving room for actress Manuela Cricelli’s expressive face and mournful eyes to command empathy despite minimal dialogue or backstory.
Red Light is similarly simple and effective, using a restrictive environment to instigate conflict between a group of individuals forced into close comfort with each other (as with a number of the films in the programme and indeed many shorts, for obvious reasons). In it, a principled driver refuses to move his bus through a red light, even when the light is clearly broken and his resistance means remaining there indefinitely. His passengers, stuck at an impasse, first squabble then begin to bond, their differences becoming points of connection. Waszarow, directing with an invisibility that is a credit rather than a point of detraction, orchestrates their interactions expertly, teasing out class, gender and age divides without being too overt about anything, before introducing a plot-twist, undramatic but gently moving, that reintroduces action to the situation and sets the bus, and indeed the lives of those contained within it, back into motion.
“It’s been 7 hours and approximately 94 days, since you took EU away” read the programme notes introducing the strand, paraphrasing the words of the Irish Popstar-Priest with a lyrical ruefulness. Spending just under 6 hours more in front of shorts from each and every member state doesn’t soften the blow of soon facing exclusion, but it is a pleasant distraction. A British film is included in the twenty eight (Toby Fell-Holden’s Balcony) because, as co-head of the festival Rich Warren stated when addressing the rather prominent logo of Creative Europe on the sponsor list and its tentative future there, “we are still in the EU!”
Amongst 28 films, you might expect more points of connection, or at least a more definite sense of the cinema of each region and what ties or separates it. Perhaps not. With increasing levels of co-production and cooperation between countries and national bodies, the idea of a national cinema seems increasing irrelevant; as does the idea of a film expressing the values of it’s home nation as opposed to the politics and personality of its creators. Encounters’ programme claims that these 28 films are a way of “celebrating our European-ness.” In reality, watching them collectively in a post-referendum (and festival closing party) stupor, it’s hard for it to not feel like more of a lament.