Long life of the short take

Sandy Cameron on Adelaide Fringe film

During the Adelaide Fringe Festival the visual arts are often pushed to the periphery by a program dominated by commercial media, comedians and stilt-wearing jugglers. However, sifting through the affected wackiness can reveal some gems that not only reflect the grand democracy of this cultural event (anyone can be shielded under its umbrella provided they pay the registration fee) but also celebrate the possibilities of an artistic medium. The Shoot the Fringe short film workshops and competition is one such treasure. Commencing in 1994, it still has the same parameters: all films to be on Super 8mm format (one reel); the productions must launch straight from shoot to processing, to screening with only in-camera editing; participants are given a week to produce a piece; and the films should capture the spirit of the festival. The resulting screenings are a microcosm of the Fringe itself, ranging from the inventively stylish to the oddly hilarious, the impenetrably abstract, and the mind-bogglingly terrible. The films, however, are often imbued with a sense of personal creative daring.

Californian filmmaker and walking Super 8mm encyclopaedia Norwood Cheek is the event director, and he drives the workshop component and subsequent screenings with a combination of infectious enthusiasm and plenty of technical expertise. Participants arrive at the production workshop with cameras they have stumbled across and in many cases have never used. Cheek imparts shooting techniques as well as information on the often idiosyncratic antique technology; some models have adjustable frame rates and are excellent for stop-motion, others have lenses that distort light in myriad and sometimes unintentional ways. Armed with these tools, the filmmakers have 7 days to get their concept in the can and a further 4 to weave a synchronous soundtrack—somewhat difficult when you have not yet seen your film.

The entrants are a blend of rank amateurs, talented hobbyists and upcoming professional talent. In a forum such as this of course the results will occasionally be dire; of the 41 finished products a sprinkling of films rely on random fragments of obtuse symbolism, circular tracking shots of bars, and tame time-lapse photographic collages of bustling pedestrians. However, the advantage that Shoot the Fringe has over other short film programs is that even the more conceptually numbing entries are shot in striking black and white film, an aesthetic to get any self-respecting romantic excited. And when each film is only 2 1/2 minutes, long, an audience can be unusually forgiving.

Shining amongst the program were numerous films that employed contrasting tones and production techniques. Jonathon Daw’s The Seagull uses stop-motion animation with mesmerising flair. In a throwback to the Norman McLaren Academy award winning short Neighbours (1952) a single frame is taken while an actor leaps into the air and the process repeated until the end effect is of the character flying. Daw adds a surrealist story of a human seagull trawling for food scraps to amusing effect. Balloon: A Love Story by Dan Monceaux is a highly appealing whirlwind romance that deserves kudos for eliciting the best performances of the evening; an impressive feat when your actors are made from rubber and helium. Perhaps the darkest piece was Kathleen Lawler’s Duel, a tract on social decline utilising an animated chess game intercut with disturbing images of random destruction and waste, its eeriness somehow compounded by its silent soundtrack. The free-spirited Drink, Party and Repeat (director Datsun Tran) deftly captured the boozy routine experienced by many during the Fringe weeks, but with added universality; its energy and style suggested it could have emerged from the archive of the Nouvelle Vague.

The eventual winner was Sam Hastwell with a proficiently executed mini-documentary about a busking couple, Eric and Lynda. A very literal take on the festival and its participants, the film’s evocative environment, engaging characters and precise construction make it last in the memory.

The restricted production practices of the films and the development workshop aspect obviously set Shoot the Fringe outside the ambit of the premier domestic short film festivals. But Shoot the Fringe advances beyond gimmickry or quaintness to remind us of the possibilities inherent in underground film. It is extremely rewarding to see a spectacularly well framed shot, a particularly well-struck gag, an inventive technique or a devastating insight when it is done with such unencumbered freedom.

Shoot the Fringe; Fowler’s Live (courtyard), Adelaide, March 14-18

RealTime issue #72 April-May 2006 pg. 21

© Sandy Cameron; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2006