The Satisfied Eye International Film Festival
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.
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
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.
The art of caring
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.
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.
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.