The Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival, currently in its 18th year, has steadily been building a reputation as an influential player in the European film festival circuit. It takes place in Bristol, the birthplace of Aardman, and has strayed from it's usual November spot in order for shorts to be both Bafta eligible and to give visitors the chance to explore the city with a little more evening light. 

The festival program was overwhelming and despite my best efforts I was barely able to scratch the surface of participation. Aside from the 200 plus films and animations being screened, there were workshops, panels, debates, meet and greets and master classes on offer, Aardman talks and retrospectives, free exhibitions displaying renowned stop motion models and a live shooting of “mask replacement” animation Bob which was then broadcast at the end of the festival. 

There was also a touching short about a nudist getting over the death of his mother by suckling the breast of a giant yeti (Oh Willy by Emma De Swaef and Marc James)

  

Encounters attempts to remind us of the relevance of short film in the currently cash strapped film economy, as well as stimulating the growth of the market with plenty of opportunities for film makers to network, meet agents, buyers and learn how to pitch. Before the event I had doubts about the functions of shorts, thinking them enjoyable within the context of a niche event, say as part of a Vaudeville night in Edinburgh with a whisky in hand or in a hastily made caravan at a music festival, but not taking them seriously as a medium. As the festival wore on I became to retract my cynicism and appreciate their ability to impact the viewer. They could be unnerving at times (The Strange Ones by Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstei)  ripe for expansion into a feature (Frozen Stories by Grzegorz Jaroszuk)  or examples of tired cliches and tedium (Hold on Me by Samuel Abrahams.) 

The main screenings took place at The Arnolfini and The Watershed, both of which overlooked the scenic harbour side and were perfect locations for the creatively minded to spill out onto, plastic glasses of red wine in hand, cobbled streets underfoot. The most rambunctious event I attended was short animation night Random Bar Shorts. Wine and canapés were free, especially commissioned short animations were rife and I saw a brilliantly surreal piece by Phil Mulloy called The Banker. Crudely drawn black and white faces argued deadpan about one mans urge to join The Mayan End of World society. It was so good I scrawled his name onto my hand in biro before passing out.

The short films being screened were all up for the Brief Encounters prize, the festivals own Grand Prix, and were collected together in groups of four or five under a shared theme, or as Gaia Melucci, the programmer suggested, “a proposal to the audience.” Of the many shorts I saw, only two fell under the banner of truly awful. The Metamorphosis by Kinam Yun had so much pastiche symbolism that I had to leave, and Deleting Emily by Zak Klein, focused on a university student’s internal struggle over whether to delete his ex off Facebook. Not all shorts should have worthiness to them, sure, but how did something so trite and clumsily handled find itself in this competition? But that was a low light out of many highlights. The Grand prize deservedly went to Prematur by Gunhild Enger, a one shot Norweign film about an increasingly tense car journey and the damage racist grandparents can do, whilst the audience prize was claimed by brilliant Icelandic short When Rabbits Fly by Halldor Ragnar Halldorsson and Helgi Johannsson

There were countless others of note, but the nature of the juxtapositional presentation of these pieces, (and my own over saturation to them by the end of the festival) meant only the brilliant and sub par ones stood out. Some of the work just didn’t stand a chance at registering in my brain. 

One of the gala events was a screening of the stopmotion film Paranorman, which started life as a short, followed by a Q&A with director (and former Aardman head honcho) Sam Fell. He openly discussed the developmental process of the film, pulling back the curtain of Hollywood to reveal that Tim Burton officially owns the Halloween release date. Although I enjoyed the sense of community during the screening, I sensed Fells links to the South West meant the audiences response was perhaps more palatable then the feature deserved. The heartfelt support of the crowd overcompensated for a slightly muddled viewing experience. It had a well developed first act but promptly fell apart once we left the day to day happenings of Norman and switched to an overcooked zombie escapade.

If I was going to criticise the festival, which I am hard pressed to do as it was such a wonderfully orchestrated event, I would say it struggled with the delicate balancing act of being a cultural event for the general public to engage in, and being an inclusive love in. This was evidenced in a talk called “To Score or Underscore,” a discussion on the changing role of the composer in films. The main speaker, Annabelle Pangborn, took an audience poll to find out whom we comprised off. Directors, writers, producers, students, sound composers, sound designers and film students all of us. I felt the panel may have appealed just as much, if not more, to those less well versed in film. I lost my interest in the dissection of film long ago. It was just after I got my degree and could stop picking apart things I loved. When the debate turned to whether a single note could make us sympathise with a psychopath (Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men) I became impatient. The answer is always should we care, and can't we just experience it?  But, like much with this short film festival, I came away with unexpected rewards, as I was shown clips for many a beautiful looking Italian films I now long to see. 

The best short I saw was a 15-minute film on marble mining in Italy. Having never expressed an interest in the excavation of marble before I was surprised by how much the film, Il Capo by Yuri Ancarani, hypnotised me. 

Frequently the proposals of what I was about to watch seemed extraordinary dull or unrelateable, but when I was in the filmmakers hands all bets were off. I never thought I would finish off the festival with the image of a hairy man waving at diggers stuck in my head for days on end, but when all other memories fade into the ether I will still recall a tanned hand with three fingers missing instructing a heavy-duty machine to drop a block of marble as elegantly as a composer conducting an orchestra. 

I recommend this event whole heartedly, you can make of it what you will and I congratulate the organizers on their diverse programming. I hope to come back next year if only to find something stranger on show then a time lapsed erection manipulated to make it appear to dance with four other penises. (Busby Berkeley's tribute to screen sex goddess Mae West as imagined by director Paul Bush.)