The winners of the 2016 Glasgow Short Film Festival awards, presented on Sunday the 20th of March, all told the kind of story that seems uniquely suited to the short film format: a single solitary figure, a glimpse into a neglected life.
In the international category, Anwar Boulifa swept up, winning both the jury and audience awards with A Short Guide to Re-entry. Following a young man through his first days out of prison, it’s a hard and honest film about living on society’s serrated edges. As Khalid, Ussama El-Houari’s quiet performance simmers with subdued anger. Scenes from an employability class are cluttered with the brash, indignant chatter of other former inmates, whose clashes with the teacher lay bare the deadlock of their position, the deep experiential chasm between inside and outside and the impossibility of traversing it on equal terms. Among the bristling back-and-forths, Khalid is blank and silent; when we follow him into the streets, his failure to find a place for himself on the outside is tinged less with despair than with a harsh detached resignation.
In one small but potent scene, a tight shot of Kahlid’s face against a wall as he sniffs glue charts the trajectory of his existence: a weary, disinterested numbness; a fleeting moment of elation, his face clearing with joy and his demeanour dissolving into giggles; then, too quickly, the blank look settling back over his features, the face darkening back into self-awareness. It’s a hopeless image, and A Short Guide to Re-entry is an unapologetically hopeless film that refuses us the narrative satisfaction of redemption.
The two Scottish award winners, meanwhile, were oddly similar in subject – documentary pieces centring around elderly figures, infused with the fascinations and anxieties that aging holds for the young. The audience award went to Scott Willis’ Dear Peter, while the jury selection was Isabella, a collaboration between Duncan Cowles and Ross Hogg. Peter and Isabella are very different characters, and they embody two ideas of old age: Peter is the curmudgeonly, comical old man who has shed all the inhibitions of social nicety; Isabella is the drifting, meandering, uncertain mind that is losing grip of the memories of life she tries to relate.
Dear Peter’s concept is compelling – the discovery of years’ worth of postcards addressed to the same person, a life pieced together by the words of the people that passed through it, the filmmaker’s journey to meet the man behind the address – but the film is carried largely by the felicitous charm of Peter himself. In Willis’ earnest voiceover, there’s sometimes a sense that he’s trying to shape a certain story; questions like “So what is the mystery of life and death?” belie a youthful desire to squeeze meaning and truth from elderly minds, a sense of old age as something sombre and spiritual (compounded by the closing scene of Peter playing the piano in a church hall). Peter himself, though, has a gratifying tendency to resist such romanticisation, to speak his mind with a terse matter-of-factness, to scold Willis for spending too long filming his face. He is a man interested in spirituality, content to oblige questions about religion and afterlife, but he also wants to talk about how the big bang is a myth and 9/11 was an inside job. At this point, Willis steers the conversation back to more comfortable territory (“Let’s talk more about the postcards”) – the portrait he set out to paint, perhaps, did not anticipate the possibility that a culturally and spiritually distinguished old man can also be an internet conspiracy nut, and it’s as if he’s unsure quite how to incorporate the disjunction.
Isabella is a different kind of documentary: instead of trying to craft a narrative or a character from its subject, it is a quiet reflection on the disintegration of narrative and character that time inflicts. It is composed almost entirely of Isabella trying to relate the same story, at different times, with greater or lesser success. As she falters in the telling – a name that has slipped away from her, a thread of sense that has unravelled and tangled until she’s no longer sure what she was saying – Ross Hogg’s animation unravels across the screen. Ink-like blotches expand and contract, darken and fade, bloom and wither; Isabella’s image slides in and out of focus, distorts and stretches. Her words, spoken in a slow, weary voice that bears the weight of its years, are not dispensations of wisdom but an unsettling fixation on a childhood incident – the single act of violence that Isabella’s long life has perpetrated. The things that linger with us, Isabella suggests, are not necessarily the things we might expect to matter. Peter’s lovingly collected souvenirs, his years of correspondence, his reflections on art and religion, seem the stuff that life is supposed to be made of. But as we fade and falter, what remains of us may not be the sense of character we have so carefully cultivated, but strange sinister moments, old unresolved feelings, and the fragments that don’t quite fit into the life story.