Northern Ireland Screen encourage the filmmakers of tomorrow
Digital Shorts is a yearly programme of short films, run and funded by Northern Ireland Screen and the UK Film Council, to give film-makers in Northern Ireland a chance to work with professional crews and equipment. Applicants are invited to submit ideas for short films - the four most promising concepts are then developed into professional shorts.
Four such films are screened this week in the Queen's Film Theatre, from the production company Red Ray Films, offering a glimpse at the work of some of Northern Ireland’s future filmmakers, and a reminder of how invaluable Northern Ireland Scrren and lottery funding can be.
The first short is Happy as Larry, a comedy written by Dave Kingham and directed by Brian Phillip Davis. A slightly surreal take on celebrity and happiness, its hero, Larry, is the ‘world’s happiest man’. Fitted with a ‘happyometer’ to constantly measure his level of happiness, he becomes famous overnight.
Despite offering a few laughs and some examples of stylistic playfulness, it's difficult to really buy into the premise of the film, and, like the always-smiling protagonist, Happy As Larry feels like it's trying a bit too hard. Frothy, and even slightly amateurish.
Lonely Hearts Interrupted, written and directed by Tanya Andrews, is a step forward. A short study of loneliness, it follows the fragile divorcee Bret getting used to living on her own, while her ex, quite literally, empties her life with visits to pick up his belongings. Living next door is the eccentric Herb, fond of peculiar mannerisms and his stuffed dog, who tries to develop a friendship.
Small touches stand out the most in this piece: objects in Beth’s room are covered in differently coloured dots to designate ownership; the recurring use of the answering machine to promote a sense of distance; and the design of Herb’s flat, all doilies and quiche. The ending – in which Beth snaps at Herb and returns from a trip to find that he’s moved out – is perhaps one melodramatic trope too far, especially given the formulaic pan-out shot of the heroine crouching in the corridor.
Michael Lennox’s Rip and the Preacher, written by Mark Jordan, looks and feels much slicker in comparison, partly because of the excellent turn from well-known actor Gerard McSorley, who has starred in acclaimed dramas including Omagh, Butcher Boy and Bloody Sunday.
McSorley plays the titular preacher, who confronts friends Rip and Micky on their way back from Rip’s father’s funeral. A heated discussion about death and dive plans infuriates Rip, who produces a gun and instigates some Russian roulette. A much more solid production than the first two films, there is a discernable sheen about Rip and the Preacher: the dynamic camera movements create tension and the willingness to boil the action down to a single vignette creats an energy and an authenticity.
The star of the show is the final film, Chains, by Alanna Riddell - a tragi-comedy about magic and escapism. Joanne, played superbly by Amber O’Doherty, is an eight-year old girl obsessed with Houdini. She dreams about the art of escapology, while her mother shouts at her for blocking the television.
The film culminates in Joanne’s grand final act - an attempt to escape from chains in a freezer filled with water. As she slowly leans over the edge, it’s a genuinely heart-in-mouth moment, before her mum pulls her away and scolds her for wearing her good school jumper, apparently unaware of her intentions. Funny, clever, and most importantly, real, the film is the best in show. Alanna Riddell is certainly one to keep an eye on.
This installment of Digital Shorts is, in general, a solid showing. The most impressive aspect is how polished the films look - the effect of Northern Ireland Screen's involvement is evident. Chains and Rip and the Preacher are the kind of shorts you would see on television: self-contained, dramatic and effective in their sub-10 minute construction.
When everyone’s uploading half-baked material onto Youtube, one of the problems for film-makers with lots of ideas but no money is how to produce something that can command real attention. Digital Shorts is the sort of platform that is essential for bridging the gap between imagination and screen, and creating tangible structures for Northern Ireland's film-making community.