Spling served as head judge on the critic’s panel at the AFDA Graduation Film Festival 2017. As an external examiner, he was able to evaluate the full slate of 3rd year short films. Here are his Top 5 short films from the Cape Town leg of the festival, which was held at the Labia Theatre.
Junior is a vigilante revenge crime thriller about a young timid teenager, who gets pushed over the edge by his domineering father. During the course of a tense driving lesson, Junior and his father become unwittingly involved in a hijack as two assailants make a getaway in their car. Cowering in fear, Junior remains on the ground where he is flung, the opposite of his bullish father, who takes the men on and suffers a near-fatal gun wound. Provoked by his father’s continual chastisement, he sets off on a mission to recover the stolen vehicle and exact sweet “justice” on the hijackers.
Suspenseful, edgy yet elegant, Junior taps into contemporary themes surrounding South Africa’s crime-riddled society. Taken from the perspective of a tough father trying to whip his boy into shape, the filmmakers have managed to accomplish much in the short time available. Establishing the characters and getting the ball rolling in the opening encounter, the short film graduates from passive to aggressive along with its protagonist. A psychological snap turns the perpetual victim into the perpetrator much like Falling Down as rage is channeled into a violent corrective crime spree.
The Moonlight-inspired cinematography contrasts against gritty extreme violence as an insightful screenplay informs strong co-lead performances. Deft direction enables the storytelling to flow, diminishing the affect of contrivances and compelling this cautionary tale. The revenge conversion could have used a bit more grease and there could have been more thought around the objectives of the hijackers, but these are small blemishes in the big picture. While self-contained, this excellent short could be extrapolated into a feature film.
Innate is a psychological horror thriller about Joel, a photographer suffering from psychosis on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Embracing classic horror genre elements such as a long buried secret coming to light and a ghostly figure reappearing to goad the protagonist, Innate makes for a sleek and well-rounded short film. The fashion photography context has similarities with The Neon Demon, although it operates on a completely different colour palette with less of an affinity for the grotesque. Great composition and editing reflect the photographer’s descent into madness as snippets of a damning home video complete the puzzle.
Carrying the same dedication to visual superiority as the photographic pursuit in question, Innate moves gracefully with agility and assuredness. The story is compelling, the visual effects are smart and the representation of psychological deterioration is believable thanks to sharp writing and solid performances. This short film could have gone much darker, but settles for a subtle and ambiguous approach. The chilling atmosphere and good pacing keep it suspenseful as the psychological torment escalates to a crescendo.
The harrowing reveal opens up many questions, heightening the creepiness of all that came before much like The Gift. Innate is an excellent short film production, which swathes one in mystery, beckons one with a gripping story and powers the senses with elegant and well-composed finishes. While the echoey voice of the shadowy figure could have been more effective, it’s a minor flaw in the grand scheme of a short film that seems like an excerpt from a feature film.
Deluge is a grand art house drama that deals with Noah, an author ruled by his appetites and the dysfunction and disgrace that comes crashing down upon his family. Rape and other forms of sexual violence are an ugly reality for South Africa, which is possibly the worst affected country in the world. Devastating in any context, it’s probably at its most insidious when it occurs between a familial authority figure and an innocent. This brave short film tackles what Nirvana must have meant by their album title neologism, Incesticide.
Peppering the film with religious artefacts and references, Deluge attaches the scandal at the heart of Spotlight to its mantel as the intimate family drama becomes symbolic for a much greater systemic abuse of power and sexuality. Centring on a committed, powerful lead performance, seemingly effortless cinematography, sensitive editing and a vivid score, we’re painted into a dismal story of a broken family. The screenwriter has approached the characters with empathy and instead of demonising the lead, offers a dark portrait of his tragic hedonism, deep set flaws and cardinal sins.
Prickly, uneasy, haunting and disturbing, the film-makers have created a lofty piece of cinema that grapples with a father’s drunken decision to sleep with his daughter. Sights, sounds and symbolism abound in this well-acted, artful and nauseating short film. The characters may have very few redeeming qualities and the apparitions may leave many unanswered questions, but this dark and smart drama has a spiraling beauty and ugliness that swills around in the glass and the belly.
O-Puncha is an action-packed sports comedy about the little-known art of chess boxing. Throwing us in the deep end, the story picks up straight after a chess boxer defies his team by flying solo at a local derby. Outraged by the incident, the team follow the bloodied rogue back to his mum’s place to remedy the situation ahead of their next big encounter. Zippy, funny and outrageous, O-Puncha is a blast of fresh air that stings like a butterfly and floats like a bee.
Armed with a large ensemble, strong design elements, dexterous fight choreography, a storm in a teacup sensibility and plenty of cocky flair, this short film moves at a relentless pace, oozing geek cool and supercharging a niche hybrid sport. Bloody encounters, frenzied fun and offhanded charm are all part of the attraction in this true original. Taking the pugilist genre and turning it on its head to represent something that could be described as Raging Bull meets Napoleon Dynamite, we have a quick-paced, energetic, intense, quirky and delightful sports actioner.
Stylish to the max, O-Puncha moves at such a furious velocity that we only get snippets in terms of characterisation with the team dynamics and subculture taking centre stage. The concept is funky and nutty enough to make for a rip-roaring 12 minutes, leaving you wanting more. It’s full tilt entertaining, yet could have used some more time to flesh out the sport’s craft, the characters and their motivations. While somewhat lightweight in terms of story, it’s a joy to watch, a real crowd-pleaser and truly packs a punch.
Chasm is a crime horror thriller inspired by real life events involving a serial killer. Set in the confines of a witch doctor’s den, the story branches out to flashbacks, allowing a detective to retrace his steps, memories and thoughts about a series of grisly murders. An intense interaction with a witch doctor foregrounds many twists and turns as the flashbacks acquaint us with a man’s life, his work and a case that haunts him.
Taking a traditional detective story and infusing it with African culture and mysticism gives the psychological slant an added dimension. The narrative structure keeps the short film visually dynamic, embedding story elements in short, sharp bursts. The film-makers hint at what’s going on, giving you a semblance with enough red herrings to cast a shadow of a doubt. Good production values, a pensive atmosphere, convincing props, restrained use of visual effects and determined performances keep you on the hook even when you think you’ve solved the case.
While the quickfire opening credits and an uneven incidental performance could have used a reworking, Chasm is a roller-coaster of dark thrills that remains curious and entertaining. All in all, Chasm works magically and surprisingly well, tapping into the occult and the surreal without losing the grounded feeling of a police procedural. Nimble storytelling and clever positioning keep you guessing all the way through to an unexpectedly satisfying resolution.
This year’s AFDA Graduation Film Festival 2017 featured many worthy contenders, many of which would have been right at home in this list. These student films deserve a special mention for their fine efforts: For Sale, Daddy Long Legs, Close for Comfort, Mary, Lingashoni, Control and the experimental virtual reality narrative, 14 Minutes.