Spling’s Top 5 AFDA Graduation Festival Short Films (Cape Town/Durban 2021)

This year’s AFDA Graduation Film Festival 2021 in Cape Town continued with online assessments in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Staging the graduation film festival examination in a virtual space, the film school’s live event gave the opportunity to showcase films on the big screen, culminating in a drive-in screening of the student short films and TV productions at Atlantic Studios in Cape Town over two days. The Durban campus event took place at Ster-Kinekor where strict Covid-19 health protocols were observed.

Serving on the critics panel since 2014, Spling has made it an annual tradition to review five of his favourite short films from the festival.


IhsaanMuch like Brazil, crime seems to be a go-to genre and theme for South Africa. Being based in Cape Town, an internationally-recognised film and tourist destination, it’s easy to see why young filmmakers gravitate towards this element in the wake of powerful crime dramas such as Four Corners and Noem My Skollie. While idyllic on travel brochures, Cape Town’s drug and gang-related problems continue to plague many of its law-abiding residents.

Taking inspiration from local gangster films and injecting the angst of Waves with a touch of Moonlight’s elegance, writer-director Taahir Sarguro crafts an exceptional student film that journeys with Ihsaan, a young Muslim man who is haunted by the violence he’s experienced and compelled by active neighbourhood watch members who have taken the law into their own hands. Starring Ayden Croy as an impressionable yet determined Ihsaan, the short film captures a slice-of-life in the young man’s life as he tries to observe his faith, protect his family and do the right thing. Supported by the tenacious Stefan Erasmus as Angelo with a surprise appearance from Zenobia Kloppers (Field se Kind) as Ihsaan’s mother, this immersive postgraduate level crime drama demonstrates remarkable control and covers a great deal of story in the space of 24 minutes.

It’s clearly a labour of love for Sarguro, who together with a talented cast and crew, creates something fresh in spite of its distinct influences. From the symbolism of its red-blue dynamic, the religious undertones, thematic threads relating to mercy and its commentary on vigilantism taken too far, Ihsaan is a short film of many layers that dexterously weaves everything together to create something substantial and powerful even. While it starts with a shaky tonal shift as we’re introduced to this world, nerves quickly dissipate as surefooted filmmaking and confident performances take over.

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CaelfCalf or Cælf has an eerie and alienating feel that echoes recent sci-fi dramas such as Oxygen and Arrival. Centred on Stella, a young woman whose memory and intelligence set her apart from her peers, we discover she’s been specially selected for a deep space expedition to intercept a signal and seek out other forms of intelligent life towards the edges of our solar system. Starting with some disconcerting images including a two-headed calf as a thematic symbol, Cælf uses these visuals to compose an idea of our planet’s history and some of the treacherous things humanity has done in the name of progress and conquest. This stock footage gives this atmospheric short film its edge as memories from the protagonist’s mind play out in a bid to help her relax on her pioneering mission.

Blurring the lines and hinting at what’s real with archive footage creating another dimension, the claustrophobic space capsule and all of its iffy technology and electrodes makes way for vivid memories from Stella’s past. Communicating with the voice of Bernard, Stella is able to find a degree of comfort in some of her bittersweet memories as she recalls being selected and reminisces about the prospect of romance with a high school sweetheart. Cælf has a haunting science-fiction mystery undercurrent, which is beautifully reinforced by its sound design and soundtrack as wistful imagery takes on fresh meaning against the backdrop of a space mission.

There’s a compelling poetry to the visuals and storytelling from writer-director, Lee Brown, who offers viewers hints of story rather than spoon-feeding. This enigmatic quality and tendency to leave unanswered questions creates a wonderful mood to the sci-fi short film. Aiming to create a fuzzy tension to scenes, there’s rarely a dull moment and while some of the budgetary constraints are evident… it’s treated in such a quaint, nimble and humble way, it hardly matters. Led by an ethereal Candice de Klerk whose curious and beautiful look underscores the short film’s tone, she’s ably supported by Menzi Dlamini allowing their star-crossed and unrequited love an ellipsis that harks back to the timeframe and inter-dimensionality of Interstellar.

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Butterfly Clips

Butterfly ClipsHigh school romance and political satire mingle in Butterfly Clips, a compelling postgraduate short film about a young student’s compulsion to conform within her school limits and a self-discovery that beckons a reawakening of identity. Shot at a school in Cape Town, this sprawling romance comedy and political drama has been cleverly supplanted in this real environment, making great use of its young cast and resources. School uniforms, classrooms… every scenario rings true at this location, giving the story the right atmosphere and its actors the perfect setting to realise their characters.

Lumka Sibeko’s short film starts off in the key of American Vandal as if the filmmaker was gearing up for a mockumentary. Yet, these echoes quickly dissipate as the driving force and main character are realised. Leaning in the direction of a high school “romcom”, Butterfly Clips remains entertaining as oddball students emerge and the flutters turn romantic. Yet, as with American Vandal… there’s a subversive element… political machinations underfoot that punctuate the comedy tipping Butterfly Clips into the realm of drama as our protagonist’s journey finds her questioning school rules, uniform and identity.

This is an entertaining short film with a trailer that pokes fun at prestigious schools. This insubordination sets the platform for a more substantial dialogue as a young student questions her allegiances and finally expresses her rebirth through a protest striking out at conformity. Enjoying the collective talents of a solid and charming ensemble with Bokang Ntsutle, Mihle Gubevu and Daniel Stromin leading from the front, good performances anchor us in this high school of hard knocks. While the wardrobe and styling points to greater freedoms at this school, this short film is charming and well-paced enough to compel audiences past some of the smaller discrepancies. Tracking as a coming-of-age short film, Butterfly Clips makes a stirring statement managing to push off the convention of the “romcom” genre into the edgier terrain of political drama.

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Where Is Mr Adams?

Where Is Mr Adams?Films like Noises Off starring Michael Caine as a director trying to keep his play of ceaseless calamities on the go have a way of presenting theatre that’s difficult to capture on stage. The camera’s roving eye takes us behind-the-scenes, captures more of the panic in close up expressions and takes us behind the façade of what should be a series of graceful interludes from the audience’s perspective. Seeing what’s been swept under the carpet unveils the magic of theatre but like a good blooper reel, winds up the hilarity. This farce style of comedy is the stuff of opening and closing doors, often used in the sitcom Frasier, which translates to some fiasco fun for audiences.

While Where Is Mr Adams? is influenced by Birdman, taking an edgier approach to its language, its core is the “what could possibly go wrong?” approach to theatre as a key character mysteriously vanishes during a live production. Taking place on stage and behind-the-scenes, a stricken director, stage hands and cast members flounder as they try to fill the gap using improvised bits. Taking place at a real playhouse amplifies the realism of the big night’s real drama as people whip themselves into a good froth in trying to locate Mr Adams. Energy is on high in this short film comedy and the madcap performances from Thulani Nzonzo and Jordyn Linklater drive this home as Where is Mr Adams? builds to a crescendo.

Directed by Cameron Murray, the acrobatic emotions are soon brought under control as the film coasts into a calm bay. Moving from the nuttiness and spontaneity of being in-the-moment, things are brought back into alignment ending on a poignant note with many vivid interpretations on offer from life’s philosophy to overarching narratives for our times. While it’s not in the same league as The Big Lebowski or The Wolf of Wall Street when it comes to coarse language, the hype-inducing dialogue is liberally peppered with expletives. While this may even be an accurate reflection of the behind-the-scenes atmosphere of any theatre production, it’s overuse does become distracting. While this may irk more sensitive viewers, the characters and story’s charm, pizzazz and energy is infectious enough to wait on Adams.

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Pursued by a Bear

Pursued by a BearProjecting into the future, many film students anticipate the dreaded “what now?”. Having received their degree, they’re pushed out onto the stage without any safety nets to shine. This happens quite literally to fledgling actors, armed with some experience and a short film or two. Referencing one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, this short film about the audition process is a dark comedy but quite possibly a thriller for students who may identify strongly with the story of a fresh yet struggling actor.

Directed and edited by Keane Stroh, Pursued by a Bear takes a few bold risks – the kind of thing that fuels the circus of underground theatre. Journeying with a young actor who just can’t get a break, whose self-conscious auditions tend to land her in the “next” category, she takes it upon herself to secure an acting role by whatever means necessary. Sabotaging other talents, the Home Alone style comedy shifts gear as the ambitious thespian approaches the man with the clipboard directly. Still suffering rejection after doing almost everything in her power, she takes matters to the next level in all her fury… a move that ultimately works in her favour.

Headlined by Kizzy Khuzwayo as a desperate actor with Izifiso Ndlela playing an overbearing and callous director, Pursued by a Bear has some wonderful power dynamics as the see-sawing dark comedy unfurls on stage with cutaways to previous attempts. Channeling the emotional turmoil and mix of talent, timing and luck that generally determines breakthrough moments in an actor’s career, Pursued by a Bear is quirky, amusing and surprising. Cleverly centred on a big audition, the stage backdrop and hopeful student auditions make it feel comfortable. While Pursued by a Bear lures you into this state of familiarity, it switches things up in a shocking way to land at an outcome that pokes fun at the whole audition process.

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The following student short films deserve a special mention: If These Walls Were Wallets, Feel Good, Time After Time, Love in the Smoking Section and It Needs An Ending. Discover more student productions from the AFDA Graduation Film Festival 2021.Here are the films that made the Top 5 last year.