By Francesca Lewis
Living in West Yorkshire, mostly famous for its Victorian exports (textiles, Brontës) and for producing the most Shakespearean space captain in history (Patrick Stewart), I don’t get to attend a lot of cutting edge events. As a journalist who writes a lot for US publications, I often find myself sighing wistfully at invitations to events in exciting far-off places I must respectfully decline. Hollywood, Cannes, London – these are the places we associate with film festivals. For those of us unable to travel, access to independent film is limited to the few that become cult hits or win awards. Yet, as Leeds’ No/Gloss film festival taught me earlier this month, independent films, with their diverse stories and characters, provide us a glimpse into worlds and perspectives the big screen rarely does.
Founded in 2012 to “showcase art free from the restrictions of corporate expectations and the clichéd, glitzy superficiality we have come to associate the industry with,” No/Gloss is a staggering achievement. From its atmospherically industrial former pie factory venue, to its fresh local food, this event sits comfortably on the right side of hipster and is a wonderful way to spend a weekend. For the price of a £20 ticket, attendees can sample as many fine, fascinating films as they can cram into their eyes in a two-day period.
A “no-frills film festival,” No/Gloss is not exactly luxurious, but the winter coats, hot chocolate and cuddling made necessary by the British late September weather make for a cosy, autumnal experience. With Q&As and workshops interspersed between the films, audience members with an interest in filmmaking also have the opportunity to learn something new. A particular highlight of this portion of the event was a visit from Kev Curran of Inspired Youth, a local non-profit working with kids from challenging backgrounds. When he spoke about what led him to this work and screened the music video below, written and performed by current and former children of the foster care system, there was not a dry eye in the house!
The films themselves range from student films to indie movies, from horror shorts to feature length sci-fi. No/Gloss has a very open submissions policy, open to “ALL” and totally free. This paves the way for a wonderfully diverse lineup of films that range in technical ability, budget and genre, all with something unique to offer. Though No/Gloss is based in Leeds, they accept international submissions and many of the films this year were partially or completely in a language other than English. The stories told in these films are as diverse as the styles and nationalities, featuring queer characters, people of colour, hard-hitting political commentary and disability themes. There is a very inclusive feel to No/Gloss.
With so many amazing films on offer, and two screens running simultaneously throughout, the only painful thing about No/Gloss was the difficult choice of which films to see – and which to miss. Over the course of the weekend, I saw at least fifteen films, from three minute shorts to full length features. Here’s a run down of my top ten (in no particular order).
Short Belgian film Electric Indigo was one of the most anticipated and talked about of the weekend. It tells the story of a young girl’s unconventional family background, having been raised by two straight fathers in a “non-carnal” marriage. Narrated by its protagonist, the titular Indigo, the film gives us a glimpse into this life through her young eyes and as she begins to notice the inconsistencies and lies in the world her fathers have constructed for her, we too feel our opinions about the adult characters change. Beautifully acted, with dual-language dialogue and an electrifying performance from Christelle Cornil as Indigo’s tragic and complicated birth mother, the film suffered slightly from trying to cram too much plot into a short running time. Despite this, it was a thought-provoking and original story that left a lasting impression on all who saw it.
Ackee and Saltfish
Arguably the best film of the festival, though it didn’t win the Viewer’s Choice award, was British short film, Ackee & Saltfish. As two friends wander East London in search of decent ackee & saltfish, a traditional Jamaican dish, a tense and hilarious discussion of gentrification and cultural appropriation plays out. Everyone in the audience could recognise their own friendships in the one between Olivia and Rachel, as they bantered and bickered. With no incidental music, the only soundtrack the bustle of London and a shakycam shooting style, there is a very intimate and real quality to Ackee & Saltfish. What really makes this film so brilliant is how cleverly it is able to move between frivolous conversations about the difference between rice and cous cous and serious discussions about race, politics and how much we should care about the small injustices of life. The film’s director, Cecile Emeke, is working on a web series based on the film.
Daughters of the Niger Delta
A powerful and important documentary from Nigeria, Daughters of the Niger Delta shines a light on the struggles and resilience of the women and girls who live and depend on the Niger Delta river. Their fishing livelihoods impacted by oil pollution, these women are facing a difficult time, compounded by the sexism that makes those in power see their concerns as insignificant. Filmed by a group of Nigerian women, Daughters of the Niger Delta is a refreshing portrait of people often ignored by the media, showing us not only the simple economic hardships faced by these women, but the more complex systems of patriarchal oppression they have to navigate both at home and in educational institutions. Perhaps because it was made by filmmakers from the community, this documentary managed to avoid patronising or exploiting its subjects, letting the women speak for themselves and providing a real window into their lives
The Missing Scarf
This delightful animation from Ireland, narrated by George Takei, is very short and extremely funny. It had the entire audience howling with laughter as its cast of cute animal characters face darkly comedic situations. It tells a simple story of a squirrel named Albert and his search for a misplaced scarf, but in doing so manages to entertainingly poke fun at many of our darkest, most paranoid fears. Takei’s narration is, of course, perfect, with a storybook quality that makes the black comedy all the more surprising and wonderful. You can watch the film in its entirety above.
El Espejo Humano
Probably the most chilling film of the festival was El Espejo Humano (The Human Mirror), a short horror/thriller shot in black and white about a young woman’s descent into paranoia and violence under the influence of the media’s constant fear-mongering. Billed as “based on a true story,” it tells the tale of anxious seventeen-year-old Alicia, who takes to staying home from school, feigning sickness. Absorbing the atrocities reported on the news all day, she begins to become paranoid and suspicious of her parents, with horrifying consequences. The young woman playing Alicia, Anna Castillo, does an admirable job of conveying complex emotions with very little dialogue and steers clear of giving a clichéd “horror performance.” The title, The Human Mirror, is thought-provoking in itself – suggesting that we, as consumers of media that churns out story after story of shocking violence, are at risk of becoming reflections of the world we are subconsciously absorbing.
The poignant story of a lonely young woman’s search for companionship, Australian short Only One has a quirky charm and an uplifting message that make its original central premise even better. Quiet loner Alex, tired of having no one to share her life with, signs up for a service that matches people with their doppelgangers. Through them she meets Lex, who is like a bolder, more exciting version of herself, and for a while it seems her void has been filled. However, when the inevitable cracks begin to appear in their new relationship, Alex has to wonder just what it is she is actually seeking and whether Lex is equipped to provide it. This film was particularly interesting for its fresh perspective on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, with Lexi fulfilling the role of Manic Pixie Dream Me, that better version of ourselves we all suspect is out there.
I Am Monster
Explicit, shocking and darkly comedic, I Am Monster is a thought-provoking exploration of one woman’s fetish for necrophilia. For the first half of the film, we watch every gory, sickening detail as Vivienne, a fetishist in a rubber dress and huge heels, has gruesome sex with dead bodies, capturing it all on Polaroid. Just when we feel we can’t stomach another moment, a voice speaks from across the room, “You have some serious issues.” The speaker is Jason, a freshly dead guy who talks a lot of sense and forces Vivienne to examine the motives and psychology behind her actions. Definitely not for the faint-hearted, this is a freaky, graphic and unapologetic film. What is perhaps most fascinating about it is that it was written by Shannon Lark, who plays Vivienne, and co-directed by her and another woman, Lori Bowen. It would be easy to assume a film like this must have been made by a man, so I Am Monster raises interesting questions about the male, female and lesbian gazes. The directors are working on a full length feature version.
Billed as one of the festival’s “Official Selections” – films that had a special place in the panel’s hearts – Hideaway is indeed an impressive and affecting film. Made on a tiny 2k budget, with a crew and cast that worked for free, it paints an intimate and beautiful picture of a kidnapping turned friendship. When girl-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks Phoebe, in debt to her drug dealer employers, is forced to take rich girl Jessica hostage, a strange bond begins to form as the two hide out at Jessica’s holiday home in the country. With incredible chemistry between its central pair, a simple yet beautiful script and breathtaking location, this is a film that proves you don’t need big bucks to make good art. Following the film, its crew did a short Q&A, during which it was revealed that the actors lived at the location, chose and wore their character’s wardrobe and were woken at unexpected hours by the crew to enhance the emotions of the story. These unconventional methods definitely paid off!
If the stunned silence that accompanied its closing credits is anything to go by, the most unsettling film of the weekend was Howl, a tense psychological horror about a primary school teacher trying to protect a little girl from dangerous forces. With very little dialogue and strategic use of soundtrack, the film has an unnerving tone from the very start, long before we’re quite sure what we’re unnerved by. As the teacher, Miss Crawshaw, becomes increasingly concerned about creepy one-eyed new kid, Eleanor Stagg, who speaks to a strange man named Big George at the school fence and draws odd pictures, we begin to realise that her suspicions are aimed in the wrong direction. Drawing a clever parallel between fairytale horrors and realistic everyday ones, the film explores the dread and paranoia involved in trying to protect a vulnerable child. Funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign, the production values and special effects are impressive and cleverly implemented, never showing much, keeping us in suspense.
Pictures of Superheroes
By far my personal favourite of the weekend was Pictures of Superheroes, a riotously funny, off-beat U.S comedy about growing up, responsibility and the absurdity of everyday life. It tells the surreal story of Marie, a recently dumped maid who has been unknowingly working for a “maid service” (always described using air-quotes) that was actually a front for a prostitution service. When the “maid service” closes down, she goes to work for Eric, a serious businessman trying a little too hard to be a “big boy” and strikes up a friendship with his forgotten roommate, comicbook-drawing manchild Joe. Through the juxtaposition of these characters, the film explores three different responses to modern life and employment, with insightful commentary on hedonism, apathy and workaholism hidden beneath bizarre scenarios and ridiculous dialogue. With its quirky original soundtrack, distinctive voice and incredibly quotable dialogue, I can see this one becoming a cult hit. This film is available to rent and buy on YouTube and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
So there we have it – No/Gloss 2014! I can’t wait to see what they come up with next year!