A look back at November’s Reel Femme

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The fifth instalment of the Sheffield-based film night which celebrates female filmmakers came to the performance venue DINA, showcasing an international parade of short films on the theme of music (writes Diana Read)

On a cold November evening, there were few places as comfortable as the film night’s venue as the cosy room was illuminated by candle light. The chatter coming from the people seated in a lose semi-circle around the projector faded as the screen lit up, displaying the name of the first film to amaze the audience that night. 

Destiny. The title’s yellow letters were stark and bold, much like the film’s protagonist, a New York rapper named Destiny Nicole Frasqueri, aka Princess Nokia. The documentary, directed by Orian Barki, takes a close look at this musician of Afro-Puerto Rican descent.

Out of all the scenes captured in the documentary, the most potent is that of Nokia kneeling by her mother’s gravesite, looking up into the camera as she tries to hold a smile. It cuts a sharp contrast between her vulnerability and her unshakable stage persona. In its contrasts, the short film finds its strengths.

It switches between oppressive locations such as dilapidated dressings rooms or packed, run-down flats and the open, sunbathed streets of the city. Much like Nokia’s pieces to camera about her less than ideal childhood, the documentary paints an unapologetically frank picture of New York and its self-named, self-made Princess.

A short credit sequence later and we were taken through a complete tone shift with the next film, Houvast. From the offset, this film, directed by Charlotte Scott-Wilson, distinguished itself as fiction through its stylised, crisp film work. The plot centres on a young cellist named Kyra and the fight with her swelling anxiety during practises in the build up to the orchestra’s real performance.

Skilful camerawork and immersive acting aside, what left the biggest impression was the music. Weaving the exotic and dramatic tones of Scheherazade’s second movement throughout the piece was not the film’s only way of ramping up the tension. The sound design created a visceral force out of Kyra’s anxiety as her breathing during panic attacks drowned out all but the undercurrent of distorted music. The relief from a satisfying resolution was infected with a touch of melancholy at having to leave the encompassing, dark atmosphere created by the short film.

Any regrets were not given long to fester as the next film’s esoteric nature seemed to flip the mood of the evening inside out and upside down. It began with a cartoon sea into which slowly sailed a pirate whose colour palette would make a rainbow jealous. We were then snatched from this strange sight to see a colourless interview with a musician before once again being put into the world of animation.

‘The Pirate of Love’, directed by Sara Gunnarsdóttir, continues in a similar fashion, swapping between the real and the illustrated. It tells the story of Daniel C whose CD was discovered by the various people being interviewed. This CD featured an album of songs, for which the film provides the strange animations. These were allegedly written as a love confession to Sherry, a 13-year-old girl. The humour here can only be understood through hearing Daniel C’s less-than-stellar singing voice, combined with his ridiculous lyrics and seeing the inconsistent but somehow hypnotic animations.

After a short bar break, seats were retaken for the next film which was based on Nina Simone’s song, Four Women. This short, directed by Gabourey Sidibe, gives a glimpse into the lives of the four women featured in Simone’s song.

First, we are introduced to Peaches by way of webcam as she sits in an empty room, rallying against the unjust death of her son. Next comes Aunt Sara who’s forced to call social services as she struggles to provide for her young niece and nephew after their mother was put into solitary confinement. Third, we have the teenager, Saffronia who, after coming home with bruises from being bullied, confronts her mother about her heritage. Finally, there’s Sweet Thing, an artist who is the mistress of a man that doesn’t care for her. By the end of the film, most of these conflicts find their solution, all underpinned by Peaches’ defiant speech calling for a change in the justice system as the screen cuts to black on the sound of police kicking down her door.

From a grounded look into racial issues to a film that was the comedic highlight of the night and the closing act: A Night in Tokoriki. Directed by Roxana Stroe, this short opened with a young man named Alin as he was riding at the front of a horse-pulled cart.

This film’s backbone comes from the subversion of expectations. For instance, the trendy club we expect Alin to arrive at is a barren church hall with two tables, a disco ball and an old computer to play the music. More expectations are proven wrong as unlike in most cases, the film doesn’t use speech, instead deriving meaning from subtitled song lyrics and character movements.

This is all amplified by the filming direction as the camerawork serves to highlight not only some of the funnier interactions but also to direct the central conflict. ‘Club Tokoriki’ was presumably rented out by the parents of the birthday girl Gianina who spends most of her time sitting with her boyfriend, Bebe. From when Alin enters, the camera continually flips between his unblinking stare and the couple.

The camera’s progressively greater focus on just Bebe in the staring contest negates what perhaps would’ve been a twist to the ending. As it was, by the time Gianina witnesses Bebe and Alin kissing, the audience is not so much shocked as relieved if the cheers and applause at the scene were any indication. As a final subversion, the film turns the confrontation between Gianina’s dad and the male couple into a face-slapping contest after which, we end as we began, with Alin driving his cart back home.

A fitting conclusion the evening which showcased beautiful, emotional and hilarious works from female directors in a wonderful celebration of not just women but the art of film itself.