Laurence Boyce examines some of the films that screened at La Cinef during Cannes 2023.
The 2023 selection of La Cinef films yet again cast away the tired notion that student works are ‘… practise before a real film.’ With many bold and provocative works, the 2023 films show a fine command of the short form as well as a striking diversity, in terms of both genre and style. As ever, the selection provides an insight into many filmmakers who will be leading the charge of a new generation of filmmakers.
While the films in La Cinef are usually from those filmmakers we are discovering for the first time, the latest film from Czech animator Daria Kashcheeva has been eagerly awaited. After her 2019 film Daughter hoovered up various plaudits on the circuit – amongst them an Annecy Cristal, a Student Academy Award and an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Film – Kashcheeva has rightly been lauded as one of the great animators to look out for in the coming years. Her latest film, Electra (Czech Republic), does not disappoint. While she approaches some of the same thematic territory that she did with Daughter – in exploring the complex relationship a girl has with her family – her approach is completely different. The Dardennes Brothers inspired dour stop-motion animation of Daughter is a replaced by a mixture of live action and animation that comes across as a mix of Jan Švankmajer, David Lynch and a smattering of Nicolas Winding Refn. It’s an uncompromising, but brilliantly executed evocation of burgeoning sexuality, female repression and the desire for escape that is nothing short of breath-taking.
Also bristling with an angry energy is Musa Alderson-Clarke’s bluntly titled Killing Boris Johnson (UK) which, as the Bits would say, (almost) does exactly what it says on the tin. Following the lonely, COVID-isolated death of his mother, Kaz (a searing performance from Shadrach Agozino) must deal with his grief. But when he sees British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on TV deliver interviews defending his decision to break COVID protocols to hold a party at Downing Street, his grief turns to anger. This is raw and angry filmmaking, that not only examines the destructive power of grief and loss, but also the hypocrisy of a Tory government – and the man who embodies all their patronising and destructive values – for whom the lives of ordinary people are worthless. This is a piece steeped in the traditional tropes of social realism yet still feels thrillingly and angrily fresh and relevant.
The theme of translators, immigration and politics has been touched upon in a number of shorts before, including 2014’s multi-award-winning Listen (Rungano Nyoni, Hamy Ramezan, Denmark/Sweden) and Eliane Esther Bots’ 2021 documentary In Flow of Words. Director Fatima Kaci’s La voix des autres is as equally compelling as those that have come before, following a translator whose job it is to strictly translate the stories of those scarred by war and fear and whose stories are judged by those who will determine whether they will be deported. Exploring the limits of neutrality – our protagonist is continually conflicted as to whether to help the victims express their stories in ways which would help their cause or to remain completely impassive – within a system that seems devoid of feeling or compassion, it’s an often dark yet compelling piece of work. With a brilliant central performance, it’s a film that is both personal and universal.
Family life is also at the centre of many stories. The Lee Families (Seo Jeong-mi, South Korea) explores a family that feuds after the death of a grandfather. Leaving his house to his eldest grandson, his daughter refuses to accept that her father has left her out. Soon, the family is split apart as they argue about who deserves what. Whilst there is a vein of comedy here – the usual foibles of a squabbling family being mined for humour – there is also a well-wrought drama not only about loss but our connection to objects and locations and how they become an integral part of our lives. This theme is also central to Trenc d’alba (Anna Llargués, Spain) as a family face the fact that the farmhouse they have been living in for generations has been declared unfit for habitation. This is a meditative reflection of the past and future that speaks of how things break down but also allow us to think of a new way for the future. While there’s a constant air of a dreamlike melancholy there is also a spark of hope and renewal in a film that is often delicate and moving.
Change with an air of the dreamlike is also central to A Bright Sunny Day (Yupeng He, US), in a which a young man’s outlook on life is changed by the appearance of a girl in his village. This is a languid affair as our chief protagonist lives an everyday existence. But as modernisation pushes ever closer, he realises that his life will change: whether he likes it or not. As its title suggests, this is a world bathed in sunlight and suggests something of an idyll. The film is slightly ambiguous whether the modern world will bring grey clouds with it.
More brash is Katie Blair’s Imogene (US) which sees the titular character come home to find her family have set up a blind date with a potential sperm donor. This starts out as a dryly absurd comedy of manners and family dynamics, with some witty interplay from the main characters (and a wonderful performance from Stephanie Hayes as the 40-year-old eponymous lead) and a wry take on modern life and femininity. But it seamlessly morphs into something more surreal and affecting, and becomes a bravura piece of filmmaking that – in facing stereotypes head on – defies its own stereotyping.
More films play with expectations, such as Solos (Pedro Vargas, Brazil). A construction worker thinks he hears noises under the site where he works. He soon finds dreams of lush forest and fins the earth beneath his feet. This is a gently surreal film, in which the destruction of the natural environment – and the human impulse to be connected to nature – are explored with a foot both in realism and the dreamlike. The same goes for Nehemich (Yudhajit Basu, India) which ostensibly talks about a girl who lives in a village who banish people to a hut while they are on their period. Wanting to elope with her lover, she must determine the course of her future amongst the superstition. This is a film which lives between the liminal spaces of folklore and science. While ancient beliefs can hold us back – often used as a barrier against progress and critical thinking – they are also an important link to our collective pasts and ancestors. Basu cleverly navigates these spaces to create an ethereal yet sharply observed piece.
Hole (Hwang Hyein, South Korea) starts off a straight dramatic piece about someone who goes to check on the welfare on some possibly neglected children. But when she gets there – and finds a mystery manhole in their house – the film becomes something darker and more sinister. This genre piece takes the classic cues of Korean horror blending some scary moments – often utilising audience perspective – with an underlying comment on a society that can forget about some of the most vulnerable in its midst
At 44 mintues, Norwegian Offspring (Marlene Emilie Lyngstad, Denmark) strains at the limits of what a short film is but it is a testament to the confident direction from Lyngstad and the assured performance by Jan Gunnar Røise in the lead that the film justifies its running time. It’s an insight into the psyche Stein a man who – after his estranged mother dies – finds himself longing for a child of his own. But his fragile mental health and forthright views on the ‘subjugation’ of male sexuality would seem to make this difficult. It’s both a compelling character study as well as a delve into – what are often right wing – views on the roles of men and women on society. It’s an often dark and dour piece of work (both literally and figuratively), but is consistently visually and intellectually arresting. A final revelation just before the credits is also an excellent twist and it is unsurprising that this film was the ultimate jury winner.
Lighter – but no less affecting – is Daroone Poust (Shafagh Abosaba & Maryam Mahdiye, Iran) about teenage football player Ali who has a secret he wants to keep. It’s one of those films where to reveal its main narrative thread would be to suck the air of it, but it’s a tale that plays with conventions of Iranian society but does so in a clever and human manner. It’s emotional and delicate with a slight sense of the other worldly.
Uhrmenschen (Yu Hao, Germany) is a sharply observed animation in which modern day interviews are spoken through the mouths of characters from primitive times. Taking its cues from the Aardman Animations and shorts such as Creature Comforts (Nick Park, 1989, UK), the film is full of gentle humour alongside a satirical view of modern-day capitalism and just how easier life has meant to have become since the Stone Age.
The full selection of the 2023 La Cinef films is:
Daroone Poust by ShafaghAbosaba, Maryam Mahdiye, Karnameh Film School (Iran)
Killing Boris Johnson by Musa Alderson-Clarke, NFTS (UK)
Nehemich by Yudhajit Basu, FTII (India)
Imogene by Katie Blair, Columbia University (USA)
Al Toraa’ by Jad Chahine, High Cinema Institute (Egypt)
A Bright Sunny Day by Yupeng He, Columbia University (USA)
Hole by Hwang Hyein, KAFA (South Korea)
La voix des autres by Fatima Kaci, La Fémis (France)
Electra by Daria Kashcheeva, FAMU (Czech Republic)
Trenc d’alba by Anna Llargués, ESCAC (Spain)
Norwegian Offspring by Marlene Emilie Lyngstad, Den Danske Filmskole (Denmark)
Osmy den by Petr Pylypčuk, FAMU (Czech Republic)
The Lee Families by Seo Jeong-mi, Korea National University of Arts (South Korea)
Solos by Pedro Vargas, FAAP (Brazil)
Ayyur by Zineb Wakrim, ÉSAV Marrakech (Morocco)
Uhrmenschen by Yu Hao, Filmuniversität Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF (Germany)