Spling’s Top 5 AFDA Graduation Festival Short Films (Cape Town/Durban 2020)

This year’s AFDA Graduation Film Festival 2020 in Cape Town went virtual with a drive-in screening of the student short films, TV productions and musical performances at Atlantic Studios in Cape Town. The examinations were conducted online in a first for AFDA and to their credit it went exceptionally well. Apart from one or two technical hiccups, 2020’s online shift made a great deal of sense.

While we had to hold off watching the films on the big screen until the drive-in, the examination portion enabled reviewers to watch films from home and serve a more active role when it came to post-movie Q&A. Usually this element is done after productions are screened and while this generally works well to see the cast and crew in a typical post-movie scenario, they often feel rushed and can be offset by the audience. Getting some time to contemplate the films and come up with some good questions made the Q&A much more engaging for the panel.

The year was dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which affected many people, companies and institutions. Yet, this didn’t stop AFDA from embracing the challenge of producing films under difficult lockdown conditions. While this provided some context in terms of strict shooting conditions, students still managed to deliver. Just completing their films was an accomplishment but there were a few films that stood out from the rest. Understandably the themes revolved around psychological duress, spiritual soul-searching and tended towards escapism, when in the past movies have had a much more political slant.

Serving on the critics panel for several years now, Spling has made it something of a tradition to review his favourite five short films he saw at the festival.

The House My Grandfather Built

The House My Grandfather BuiltAlzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, a condition that affects a third of people aged 85 and older. Devastating in terms of losing loved ones before they’re gone, the cost implications can be equally debilitating when it comes to sustained high level care. A difficult subject matter, The House My Grandfather Built tackles the affliction with great sensitivity. A personal story taken from the perspective of a granddaughter caring for her influential and loving grandfather, the short film drama could have easily tipped into melodrama or become overly sentimental.

Instead the drama counterbalances a tendency for these kinds of stories to falter into overwrought emotion and personal connection by keeping its chin up. Using guitar music and playing guitar helps weave the soundtrack and storytelling in so beautifully. The earnest performances capture the essence of the characters while the production design helps immerse us in this neighbourhood. Capturing the priorities we came to appreciate during lockdown, this film has been handled with care and nuance. Transporting audiences into this heartfelt tale, the filmmakers have done their research into the disease, allowing it to flow without any guess work. It’s a lovingly made and beautifully portrayed family portrait.

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The Audition

The AuditionThe Hunger Games was a major film series and its influences have been felt in films like The Audition. Originally based on William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’, it’s an arena for action-adventure and psychological torment. The latter is the focus in The Audition, which plays like A Clockwork Orange version of Big Brother or The Belko Experiment. Several strangers are flung together in a house where phone calls determine their next risk and reward. Pitting them against one another in what appears to be a cruel penitentiary or social experiment, things naturally run amok.

Convincing performances, mysterious characters, an unpredictable scenario and a picturesque landscape compel this thriller. Airdropping the characters much like the audience, the enigmatic setting keeps one guessing as reckless actions turn up the heat. The Audition seems like an effective translation from idea to screen. The costumes, intensity and escalating violence make it a thrilling encounter and it uses its short film duration so well. It could be extrapolated into a feature film or episode of Black Mirror, but delivers a nightmarish scenario with elegance and without flinching.

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The Writings on the Wall

The Writings on the WallInfatuation is the central theme in The Writings on the Wall, a story about a writer in search of his next muse. Disillusioned by rejection and inspired by his next heartthrob, he seems to be stuck in a cycle of attraction and repulsion. Injecting some classic writer’s block elements, the short film panders to some typical preconditions… alcohol dependency, stuck in a rut and cabin fever. Yet, as cliched as this sounds it’s made timely by virtue of the lockdown and overarching pandemic making it feel surprisingly relevant. Sound is always a challenge, but The Writings on the Wall cleverly bypasses much of this by using voice-over narration, allowing them to focus on what’s in frame.

Flowing quite comfortably in terms of the edit and quickly luring us into the writer’s head space through narration, we soon connect with the protagonist’s disposition. At first a harmless crush, things escalate to the point of becoming a stalker. The film could have gone much darker in the vein of Nightcrawler, but has a lighter feel, happy to drift in and out of daydreams. An entertaining and quirky drama with comedic aspects, it seems content to wallow in self-loathing and self-delusion. Good casting, palpable atmosphere and a timeless story about intrigue and infatuation, it makes for a curious commentary on the nature of love and inspiration.

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LiminalLiminal tackles identity, specifically the experience of the so-called coloured person in South Africa. The mixed race grouping has come to encompass many people who would describe themselves as coloured, yet there are many who struggle with their identity or this classification. Liminal delves into this delicate matter by peeling away layers to the story of what it means to be coloured.

Starting with an artistic representation of the shades of skin colour in South Africa, this elegant documentary discusses the subject through several interviewees who are trying to navigate the nuances of their identity in a country historically divided by skin colour. The modern slant focusses predominantly on 20-somethings who are trying to find their place in a country still largely ruled along racial lines. It’s a fascinating discussion, compelling by way of its beautiful people and eloquent in terms of mining the subject. It will always be a challenge to encompass every angle but it would have benefitted from other voices or done well to reiterate its demographic focus.

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Muffin Top

Muffin TopA young woman reaches a crossroads where she must decide between pursuing her dream of becoming a fashion designer or taking on a managerial position at a bakery. In Muffin Top, a film as cute and sweet as its title, the comedy drama tracks with Piper who’s stuck in limbo. While toying with sentimentality in the same way romantic comedies do, it remains fixed on the protagonist’s journey, allowing her to exist independently without having to pursue a romantic interest. Muffin Top’s consistently sweet-natured tone may be a bit too sugary for some but serves up an entertaining and worthwhile distraction.

Complemented by its soundtrack, styling and performances, the light comedy drama has charm, heart and determination. Playing like an excerpt from a broader film, the filmmakers are able to keep it compelling when its boxed in a bedroom or expansive overlooking fields. Finding little moments of human connection and latching onto bubblegum fun and carried forth by a naïve spirit, it’s a refreshingly colourful and cheerful bit of emotional escapism.

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