The Satisfied Eye International Film Festival


Epsom isn't exactly steeped in film history. Zulu star Stanley Baker lived here for a number of years, while Norman Wisdom divided his time between his luxury flat on Church Street and a residence on the Isle of Man. Just around the corner from where I'm writing this is the former registry office where Margaret Lockwood and Oliver Reed got married (not to each other). In the local cemetery you can find the neglected grave of striptease artiste Phyllis Dixey, who made a mercifully brief foray into acting as an ersatz femme fatale opposite Herbert Lom in Brit noir Dual Alibi (1947). Other than that the Queen's Stand at Epsom Racecourse implausibly doubled for St Petersburg Airport in Goldeneye (1995) and... well.. that's pretty much it.

So, with the greatest respect to those concerned, it's taken me a while to be sold on the idea of Epsom hosting a film festival. Consequently, I didn't pay much attention when the first Satisfied Eye International Film Festival (SEIFF) took place in 2018 and even less so when, in its second year, it relocated to Kingston for want of a venue. But we're living in extraordinary times and, having been starved for much filmgoing during 2020, it seemed churlish not to show some appreciation for the efforts made to hold this year's event, now restored to Epsom and relocated to the recently refurbished Odeon. 

Overseen by Epsom-based writer/producer Chris Hastings, and aided by fellow industry professionals and an army of volunteers, the third SEIFF was a programme comprised of 90 predominantly short films screened across three days. Naturally, the current situation brought constraints, with few filmmakers able to attend in person and all manner of social distancing measures, including reduced capacity. Even Hastings himself was conspicuous by his absence, for what I took to be Covid related reasons, but instead supplemented the big screen offerings with various Zoom interviews with the contributors which were made available on the festival's YouTube channel.

Although screenings were grouped into some general categories, SEIFF largely eschews a themed approach, preferring instead to screen the films that score highest with a panel of judges. While that means that some interesting but rougher-round-the-edges productions don't make the grade it ensures the standard is impressively high and serves as a showcase for some of the best independent filmmaking around. Perhaps this year it's also benefited from the pandemic's impact on the festival circuit, with entrants willing to take a punt on a lesser known event. 

Pre-Covid zeitgeist

Despite the much publicised glut of no-budget filmmaking that's taken place on Planet Covid, of which by all accounts there was no shortage of submissions, the festival instead offered up a snapshot of life before ubiquitous face masks. The programme included some (relatively) well known offerings, such as the Oscar-winning The Neighbors' Window (dir. Marshall Curry, US) and Skin (dir. Guy Nattiv, US), which won the same gong a year earlier. The latter film in particular, with its account of poetic justice meted out on a gun-loving bigot following a horrific race crime, is a masterclass in succinct storytelling that's more timely now than when it first entered circulation.

The world, you might have noticed, is a pretty intolerant place these days. That toxicity was encapsulated by one of the standout entries, Australian short Blood Rule (dir. Harry Tamblyn), in which the innocuous setting of a public swimming pool becomes the backdrop for an explosive eruption of tensions when an autistic man accidentally brushes against a young girl. 

Elsewhere, in the Egyptian Ward's Henna Party (dir. Morad Mostafa), the genial relationship between a bride-to-be and the Sudanese henna painter who comes to decorate her suddenly unravels with violent consequences. Both films opt not to linger on what follows, leaving the horror to fester in our imaginations as the credits roll. 

Conversely, Danish offering No Ill Will (dir. Andrias Hogenni) begins with the awkward encounter of two friends at a supermarket after one has blocked the other on Facebook. What appears at first glance to be a social satire a la Ruben Östlund takes on an altogether more tragic turn in the second act as we learn the impact of that ostracisation. For one haunting moment there is the fantasy of a reconciliation that never was, nor ever can be. 

Voices of the dispossessed 

Unsurprisingly, there was no shortage of films with a political subtext, in particular the humanitarian issues resulting from those seeking a better life. Spanish short One (dir. Javier Marco Rio) opens on the surreal image of a mobile phone, sealed in a plastic bag, starting to ring while drifting far out at sea. When it's retrieved by a passing trawler the resulting conversation between a fisherman and unseen voices on the other end make it apparent it belonged to an asylum seeker now presumed drowned somewhere in the Mediterranean, along with all those he travelled with. The minimalism of the scenario is permeated with the weight of human loss and anguish of those they have left behind.

Cargo (dir. Christina Tournatzés), a German contribution, is an account of human trafficking based on the actual recorded telephone conversations of the smugglers. A truck laden with 71 refugees travels along the motorways of central Europe and the scene agonisingly intercuts between driver terrified of captures, and his slowly suffocating cargo, whose pleas for help he ignores. 

Greek sci-fi Third Kind (dir. Yorgos Zois) takes an altogether different approach; imagining archaeologists from the distant future returning to Earth and discovering the abandoned migrant camps in Athens, although to my mind the point was laboured and took too long to get anywhere. More absorbing was the The Roads Most Traveled: Photojournalist Don Bartletti (dir. Bill Wisneski), in which the veteran newsman recalls his years documenting the Mexican border.

There were also a handful of what might be called historical films. The German King (dir. Adetokumboh M'Cormack) is the extraordinary story of King Rudolf Douala Manga Bell, a Cameroonian prince who was raised in Germany alongside the future Kaiser Wilhelm II, only to return to his homeland and attempt to lead a rebellion against those same colonial oppressors. Although perhaps a tale too complicated to be whittled down effectively into twenty minutes it's an admirable attempt.

Meanwhile, in Russian effort Mum's Hairpins, Tatiana Fedorovskaya reconstructs her Jewish grandfather's escape from the Nazis as a young boy eighty years earlier. It's a lyrical piece of filmmaking, with shades of Come and Play or more recently The Painted Bird, and one of the highlights of the festival.

The art of caring

Maybe it's reflective of our ageing society that films involving care for the elderly and infirm constituted a major theme across the weekend. In the opening feature, Piláte (dir. Linda Dombrovszky,), a Hungarian adaptation of the bestselling novel by Magdo Szabó, a widow is pressured to move in with her daughter in the big city with disastrous consequences. 

A triptych of shorts shown in a slot billed 'Wonder Women' depicted female protagonists struggling to balance their duties as caregivers.
Keep It Quiet (US, dir. Yaya) sees seasoned character actress Rusty Schwimmer deliver a devastating performance as a veterinarian struggling with depression, while in the Canadian effort Wanted: Strong Woman (dir. Marilyn Cooke) a hospital worker discovers her inner strength when she takes up wrestling. This was followed by 
Lieve (dir. Vincent Groos) in which saw a young nurse spends her day dashing about the Belgian countryside attending to her homebound patients, before time agonisingly runs out.

In Dogwatch Austrian director Albin Wildner appears to draw inspiration from Ken Loach with the story of middle-aged man trying to balance a new job as a security guard with caring for his mother. There's a sad inevitability when things take a turn for the worse, but the climactic scene is a beautifully realised note of optimism.

The devastating impact of Alzheimer's was explored in the feature documentary When All That's Left is Love (dir. Eric Gordon), which pulls no punches in its warts and all depiction of a wife's efforts to care for her ailing husband (the director's own parents). It's certainly not one for the faint hearted, being an emotionally shredding experience, but there are also beautiful moments of tenderness and it's a worthy inclusion. 

Themed screenings

For the late afternoon and early evening Saturday slots SEIFF blocked in programmes of comedy and horrors shorts which I found to be somewhat hit and miss affairs. 'Laugh Out Loud' included the Scandinavian farces Rubbish Robbers (dir. Anders Teig) and Hardballer (dir. T2) which, for me, fell wide of the mark. Better was the German Night Shift (dir. David Dybeck) which, although clearly indebted to Kevin Smith's Clerks, features a memorable riff on Brecht's Kuhle Wampe as two characters debate the merits of Fair Trade coffee. Also noteworthy was Lady Parts (dir. Erin Rye, Jessica Sherif) which satirised the casting opportunities for women actors.

The standout film of 'Terror in the Cinema', in style if not substance, was the deliciously excruciating Bad Hair (dir. Oskar Lehemaa) from Estonia. Anyone who's despaired at the ravages of male pattern baldness will have yearned for the miracle formula that will restore them to former hirsute glory, but probably not at this price. In addition to the most terrifying pairing of an eye and a razor blade since Un Chien Andalou and gloriously gungey prosthetics, the sound design is a masterpiece of nausea.

Altogether different were the two blocks of animated films. The first, more adult themed, included The Girl in the Hallway (dir. Valerie Barnhart) in which poet Jamie DeWolf recounts the harrowing true story of a young girl's disappearance to a swirling collage of drawings in pencil and chalk. Gentler in tone, but personally resonant, was Floor Adams' Mind My Mind, exploring the anxieties the more socially challenged of us must navigate in forming romantic relationships.

Perhaps the most enchanting animation of the weekend was The Fox and the Bird (dir. Sam and Fred Guillame); the unlikely story of a fox raising a young chick. Such is the gentle innocence, and the exquisite technique, all you can really do is sit back and smile. By contrast, Molly Mayhew and Mia Moore's student film Come Wander With Me offers a decidedly darker take on the natural world, albeit styled like the love child of Oliver Postgate and Jan Svankmajer.

The latter film played as part of 'The Best of British', a block of films that appeared to have been selected with eclecticism in kind and sometimes only notionally British. Anna (dir. Dekel Berenson) is the story of a middle-aged Ukrainian woman's attempt to secure an American husband at an organised party. Finely balanced between humour and pathos, it ends on a (literally) riotous note.

Another highlight was Birds with No Legs, in which Greek director Pavlos Stamatis demonstrates how foreign directors can sometimes find an aspect to London that eludes natives (think Blow Up or Deep End). Here the setting is an oneiric all-night cafe, where two lost souls wash up and muse on the passage of time. Exquisitely shot, with note-perfect performances, one can forgive it perhaps being a little too on the nose in its homage to Wong Kar-Wai.

The British section closed with the wonderfully weird The Devil's Harmony (dir. Dylan Holmes Williams), in which a bullied teenage girl seeks revenge on the school jocks with the help of the soporific powers of her a-cappella club. It's the sort of nonsense you can imagine being devised and discarded during a wild brainstorming session, only somehow this has made it to the big screen to glorious effect. 

 A surplus of quality? 

SEIFF’s problem is that maybe it's done too good a job. If that sounds counterintuitive keep in mind that at most shorts programmes at festivals there’s usually no shortage of duds and in a strange way they’re not entirely unwelcome, because you simply switch off and ponder what’s coming next. A programme of top-quality work, particularly three full days of it, is like being force fed haute cuisine. Sometimes you'd be quite happy with a Pot Noodle. 

But there's a painful awareness that there were some films I'm doing a disservice by not mentioning and in a perfect world it would be great to return to them. Above all one appreciates the enormous dedication required by so many people to make even a relatively modest production.

A few more favourites I've not even had a chance to mention yet; Sandrine Béchade's paean for childhood misfits, Angel & Alien, starring her own daughter and only let down slightly by the fact there was clearly more story than could possibly be squeezed into its 19 minutes. Another gem was Blocks (dir. Bridget Maloney), about a mother who inexplicably starts vomiting up Lego. Elsewhere, actress Clare Adams delivered a tour de force in Hot Chocolate (dir. David Hay), as a young woman who discovers her flatmate's suicide. 

African cinema was a little light on the menu but there was the Ghanian entry  Da Yie [Good Night] (dir. Anthony Nti), in which two children are led into danger when a mysterious stranger offers to show them a good time. The kids' performances are raw and unaffected, and more than likely they couldn't repeat it if they tried, but it's accutely judged direction that extracts just what's required from them. 

Honourable mentions are also due to A Dog's Death (dir. Matias Ganz) and Sticker (Georgi M Unkovski), black comedies from Argentina and Macedonia respectively.

 Finally, it would be apt to mention feature documentary Narrowsburg (dir. Martha Shane), the story of how Richard C. Castellano - an ex mafioso turned bit-part actor - and his film producer wife founded 'the Sundance of the east' film festival in an upstate hamlet. Persuading the townsfolk they could all star in a locally-shot Hollywood movie, thousands of dollars were swindled and Castellano eventually served time for grand larceny. A stranger-than-fiction fable about not getting hoodwinked when the carnival comes to town.

One can't imagine such folly ever taking place in the stockbroker belt where, even in the best of times, persuading filmgoers to take a chance on something not bedecked with star names or pyrotechnics will always be a struggle. Yes, for short films it's long been thus, and as a form it continues to find new platforms, but I don't share Hastings' optimism that Netflix will prove a significant benefactor. 

Moreover, it will always be a pale imitation to the big screen experience. Prior to the pandemic there were plans in the works for a second Epsom cinema, to be run by Picturehouse, but although there's been no official statement it would now look highly unlikely. Even the Odeon must face an uncertain future given the slump in attendances with little hope of a reversal in the near future. That could leave SEIFF seeking another new home by next year. 

It should be said the festival achieved some respectable attendances, with several events being effectively sold out. The bigger challenge will be building upon this success, maintaining sponsorship and support, in the coming years and that will mean building its reputation. Those in the know don't need any convincing that there's great independent cinema being made, but I fear those cognoscenti may be in short supply in Epsom.


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