This month saw the eighth edition of the AESTHETICA SHORT FILM FESTIVAL in York. LISA GRABOWSKI risked bruised eyes, aching knees and a rumbling stomach for a cinematic binge.
“Have you been before?” The friendly volunteer takes my crumpled booking confirmation and checks me off a list.
“Seven years running,” I reply, a sense of pride dulled only by the regret of having missed the first year.
She hands me a familiar yellow lanyard, festival pass dangling from the little, metal clasp. “Me too,” she smiles, “Me too”.
I am not really a creature of habit. I’m more of a ‘been there, done that, didn’t buy the t-shirt as they sell them in Topshop’ kind of a girl. A sarcastic eye-roller, desperate to not be caught in any kind of monotonous rut. Like unexploded fireworks, I find many things best left where they are, taking pleasure in the thrill of moving forward, onwards, dancing into the night on my next adventure. But when a firework is properly lit, they are spectacular; fizzing, popping, theatrical bursts of energy, leading to tingly toes and screams of ‘Again! Again!’. The Aesthetica Short Film Festival has been one of those rare illuminations. For me, it’s become a ritual, an anticipated marker of the year, like Easter, Christmas or (ahem) Fireworks Night.
Launched in 2011 and taking place in the beautiful city of York, the Aesthetica Short Film Festival has been steadily building year on year. Attracting industry professionals, students, filmmakers, and avid film fans like me, it celebrates short films in all their guises. Screening blocks of around 6 short films are held in various venues across the city, alongside a series of special screenings, masterclasses, networking events and panel discussions. Judges decide on the winners from each genre, viewers can vote for their favourite film and winners are announced at the closing awards ceremony.
Every year has been an adventure. Whether going for one day, or the whole festival, I’ve let fate decide where this festival will take me. My first, poorly planned visit saw me running across the city in the pouring rain, risking foot rot and stomach-cramping hunger, in a quest to cram as many films as possible into one day (69 if you’re interested). Last year, I only went to two screenings, opting instead to catch up with a dear friend, a bond that was forged at a previous year’s festival. I’ve explored buildings normally off limits, built life-long friendships and shared in their winning celebrations, drank too much, eaten too little, walked many miles. I’ve watched the fantastic, the mediocre and the most bizarre of the festival’s offerings.
This time, I was determined to be prepared. I planned my day, perusing the programme online, setting aside time for coffee and resting my overstimulated eyes. I guarded against ‘Aesthetica knee’ (a dull ache brought on by long periods of cinema sitting) by choosing aisle seats so I could stretch out. I knew which screenings I would get most out of – Comedy and Documentary are firm favourites. And, most importantly, I had snacks in my bag, ready to fend off the dreaded Stomach Rumble.
While the festival has inevitably changed over the years (farewell plinky-plonky intro music), one thing that hasn’t is the ability for this festival to transplant, transform and inspire. This year, I travelled to Spain, Austria, Australia, Japan, the future, the past and the unknown. I had a sex education class, met a clown, swam with a Syrian refugee. I joined Tony Rogers (keyboardist for the Charlatans) on his family’s farm and drew amusement from the audience reactions to the lambing scenes. City types, eh?
I learned the invaluable lesson of why I should prick my potato before microwaving, a warning given by 94-year-old Lily Bee, queen of the faux infomercial and, in my humble opinion, the clear star of the festival. Writer-director Benjamin Bee created another of this year’s highlights, Metroland; a macabre ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ style comedy, full of shocking wit and outright glee.
Sadly, though, not all films hit the mark and one in particular made me so uncomfortable, it left a bad taste for the rest of the festival. Billed as a comedy, it centred on a young man being sexually assaulted by his dentist, the attack made ‘comedic’ by vigorous choreography to the raptures of Rossini. But an attack it still was, and amused I was not. For an industry heavily under the spotlight for misogyny, harassment and rape allegations, I was surprised this film had made the selection.
In a state of discomfort, I couldn’t help but notice other disappointing failings. That the female roles were mostly jealous, manipulative or, even worse, sex robots. That, out of the 30 films I saw, only 6 were made by women, there were only 2 minority actors in lead roles, barely 5 in support. The festival has always opened my eyes to other cultures, worlds and stories. This year it opened my eyes to the inequalities of the industry. I realised how many of these stories have been told from the perspective of one white male viewpoint.
There are people working hard to change things behind the camera and hopefully this will lead to better scrutiny of the narratives portrayed on screen. For these have a reach and influence far beyond dear old Tinseltown. There’s work to be done and just as the festival has been a marker of my year, now, I hope, it will become a marker of our progress.
As I headed home on the crowded train, drunken tourists staggering down the aisles, I caught my reflection in the blackened window. The yellow lanyard attracted my eye and I remembered the friendly volunteer’s words.
“#metoo” I thought “#metoo.”