The Drunken Film Festival in Bradford, England, returned in 2021 for its sixth annual event. The festival ran throughout November, with screenings simultaneously online and in-person (and all free). The festival celebrates local and international indie filmmakers alike, showing their short films and music videos in local venues and bars — that’s where the “drunken” part comes from. In 2021, DFF Bradford, which has a sister fest in DFF Oakland, broadcast for its (sometimes fizzed-up) audiences 39 films. From pandemic productions to sea shanties, social dramas to futurist reggaeton, the six award-winning films from DFF Bradford’s 2021 lineup are alternately exciting, impressive, absurd and necessary shorts.
Best Music Video: Wellerman — The Longest Johns (Matt Harris-Freeth)
Remember Sea Shanty TikTok? Back in 2021, sea shanties ignited on the platform after Scottish musician Nathan Evans went viral with a cover of “Wellerman.” The ship of #ShantyTok has sailed, but lyrical-historical music is still having a moment, be it with Southern Gothic groups like Delta Rae and The Blasting Company; or dramatic folk group The Amazing Devil; or the Bristol group of devout sea shanty singers, The Longest Johns, whose a cappella rendition of “Wellerman” soundtracks Matt Harris-Freeth’s sea-faring music video.
The four singers busy themselves on a historical boat, sailing gracefully (on location!) along England’s Jurassic Coast. The song’s about a whaling ship, though no whales were harmed, hopefully, in the making of the music video. “Wellerman” is a bop, if you’re into sea shanties, with the boys heartily guffawing and shouting in unison. There are certainly no better songs to strip a whale to. (The festival director told me they had the entire audience in the bar singing along, which sounds like the best festival experience ever.) The aerial drone photography in the video, coupled with Sarah Smither’s crisp gold-blue cinematography on-board the boat, lends both an intimate charm and the sense that we’re watching a music video set in the Sea of Thieves video game — like the Kraken could emerge at any moment and wreak havoc.
The reliable pirate iconography and The Longest Johns’ amiable grins and vintage folk-chic wardrobes endear us to the group and their passion for shanties, while Harris-Freeth’s drumbeat editing keeps the short sailing on. Props to art director Nagea Rose, who had the unenviable task of finding new items to represent “sugar and tea and rum” every time the chorus rolls around. The sets aboard the ship in general are excellent — the deck is improbably populated with living room decor and old candies that complement The Longest Johns’ enchantingly haphazard, vintage aesthetic. If you’re a fan of such nerd folk, a genre term I use lovingly, the group is also currently on tour.
Best Local: Takeaway (Lou Sumray)
Lou Sumray’s avant-garde hand-drawn experimental animated short reminds me of the Chilean animations of Cristobal León and Joaquín Cociña. Their projects like The Wolf House and the short film The Bones incorporate stop-motion in eerie, anthropomorphic ways. Objects have free will of their own. In Takeaway, plastic forks and a styrofoam takeaway container seem to dance, move and flit about with agency. Sumray’s short, which the artist writes, directs, produces and animates, depicts the complete entanglement of this non-biodegradable waste with the natural world. In smoky, vivid charcoal sketches, she shows us a bowerbird, who garnishes his nest-place with single-use plastic.
Bowerbirds — as anyone who watches BBC nature docs will tell you — construct elaborate wooden structures to attract mates. They live halfway around the world from the United Kingdom, from which Sumray hails and created Takeaway as a lockdown project, but it’s clear how the bird and its strange ritualistic antics would have inspired this fantastical exploration of waste’s unholy union with nature. The birds make a nest of discarded forks, a takeaway box, a mask, gloves and human hair, and they birth a blue plastic fork baby bird. Only by nurturing it with bugs and fruits does the bird-thing shed its plastic skin and fly.
Jenni Molloy’s evocative instrumentation similarly blends traditional double bass and cello with extraterrestrial, warped sounds of birdsong and snapping twigs, creating a discordant soundscape that contributes to Sumray’s vision of an unusable, unfixable world.
Are we, like Sumray’s bowerbird chick, children of waste, children of detritus? I’m reminded of the microplastics inside the food we eat, inside our own bodies. And I’m struck by the inventive, ashen charcoal style of Takeaway — taking something burnt, a tool otherwise used to start fires, whose very production requires carbon released into the atmosphere, and using it to sketch trees, hills, and birds. I’m not sure whether Takeaway is a eulogy or a reclamation, though that ambivalence is part of its alluring mystery.
Best Narrative: Jump (Rosa Crompton)
DFF Bradford’s third and final short winner from the UK is Jump, a highly unusual production. It’s not every day you see a 28-minute social drama with only one character presented as a spoken rhyming-verse dramatic monologue as he treks across suburban England. Our bard is George Edwards, a wide-eyed, luminous talent in the capable hands of director Rosa Crompton and writer Niall Ransome. Luke Dale, who serves as editor, director of photography, and producer, never lets Edwards out of the camera’s eye, giving us a fiery one-man show in crisp digital.
Unsurprisingly, Jump began life as a stage play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, also directed by Crompton. Crompton easily makes the jump to film, though, and she and Dale craft a dynamic, energetic, almost frenetic style that matches the hyperactivity of Edwards’ performance. Playing the teen at the center of Jump, he has to care for his younger brother with no support — their mother’s bedridden, their father’s gone, and the state is… well… we wouldn’t see so many dramas about the desperate socio-economic circumstances facing British families and their caregivers if the UK government and its local councils actually gave substantive help to these people, now would we?
Jump erases all the other characters in the narrative — even the younger brother remains invisible, only registering as an occasional diegetic sound like soft breathing or distant shouting. The brothers flee their home when council workers show up, presumably to take them to child welfare services. They go on the lam, nicking a car and escaping to the countryside, where they have a final confrontation with police at the edge of a cliff. It’s an apt metaphor for the precarity of the UK’s social and health programs facing massive underfunding, as well as the precarity so many families across the nation find themselves in as bills pile up, the cost of living increases and poverty rates continue to climb. Edwards goes from swaggering and confident to erratic and desperate at a moment’s notice. He’s the key to Jump, condensing all the energy of the film’s unnerving narrative (it’s of the same cloth as Andrea Arnold’s Wasp) into a crystal of emotional clarity.
Best Animation: Nuevo Rico (Kristian Mercado)
From the United States, Kristian Mercado’s transcendent Nuevo Rico keeps its foot on the gas, or whatever powers its hover cars and keeps the lights on in its neon-pink reggaeton clubs. From the streets of its dystopian future Puerto Rico (“Nuevo Rico”) to its hazy, drug-permeated Miami dens, the short drips with Latinx-Futurist aesthetic. That’s the filmmaker’s term, but it fits. Barbie (Jackie Cruz) and Vico (Antonio Vizcarrondo) are two struggling reggaeton artists on the run — they’re hip anarchists who dress like members of the Parliament-Funkadelic collective, rising up against the robot police forces of Nuevo Rico and the system that keeps the powerful and rich in control of a country rife with inequality.
They crash their hovercar into the rainforest and manage to steal a mystical scroll from the Gods, one that grants them unlimited fame and musical success. But they swap one capitalist hellscape for another, traveling to Miami to hit it big. Nuevo Rico’s Miami is built on pontoons, far above the sunken ruins of the old city. Now a haven for wealthy tourists hungry for the best drugs and the latest incendiary music trends, Miami soon swallows Barbie and Vico.
Mercado and co-writer Juan Arroyo find a way to speak to sociopolitical problems affecting modern Puerto Ricans while upending what we traditionally expect from animation and creating a rich mythos for their world. Nuevo Rico navigates this thematic terrain while juggling an immersive Orwellian world and centering two badass wannabe reggae stars. The animation, defiantly vibrant and rich, often veers into psychedelic territory, especially for the musical sequences. The car chase pops, too, as the camera sweeps around Barbie and Vico like they’re in Tron or Akira. That dynamism is matched by Josh Madoff, whose score and sound design are fantastic, futuristic and earwormy — “Me Voy,” which the characters sing early on, is a banger of a track, and Madoff’s aural mastery is what brings Nuevo Rico home.
Best Avant-Garde: Cutstein (Hamidreza Khosh-Bazan)
Hamidreza Khosh-Bazan works as an editor for Islamic Republic of IRAN Broadcasting. His debut film, Cutstein, compares the job to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — where hers was a story about man’s command over nature, Khosh-Bazan’s film is about man’s command over narrative. Not only does Khosh-Bazan assemble videos from the comfort of his home between rounds of EA Sports, but the officials whose soundbites he’s cutting together always have opinions of how they want to sound. What should the citizenry know, what’s best for public image, what could have been worded better?
The malleability of government image and messaging is a universal theme, something viewers in the US and UK should be intimately familiar with, but as a film made during the pandemic, Cutstein’s moral dilemma appears especially sinister. Khosh-Bazan is asked to edit out segments commenting on Iran’s relationship with China and how the government should distribute money to its citizens to keep them quarantining indoors. (Whether these segments are authentic or invented for the film is anyone’s guess, but I’m sure Khosh-Bazan has been in this boat before.)
Still, Cutstein (which is in Persian, subtitled) has charm and humor. In its 11 minutes, its day-in-the-life structure allows the filmmaker to reminisce about how watching football on TV endeared him to the medium, and how TV dramas helped bridge a divide between his argumentative parents. The intensely intertextual film isn’t shy about its references, splicing in clips from cult Persian films and Abbas Kiarostami as readily as Fortnite highlights or Young Frankenstein.
Khosh-Bazan plays himself, and he writes, directs, produces, edits and operates the camera. Some of the references — an extended metaphor likens editing to surgery, then, of course, to Frankenstein — might be obvious, but the purity of Khosh-Bazan’s enthusiasm toward the medium shines through. For avant-garde work, Cutstein is thematically tight and easy to follow. For a lockdown project, the breadth of his editing and filmic references allows the film to extend beyond itself.
Best Documentary: Still Processing (Sophy Romvari)
On a third viewing, Sophy Romvari’s Still Processing still has the quiet power of a hydraulic press on my lungs and heart. I’d meant to write about it two watches ago, when I saw it on MUBI, but I had no idea how to approach it. Romvari’s work is incredibly personal, raw and delicate — it’s a cinema of memories, and of objects: a letter from mom and dad; a “treasure box” of old photographs, never developed; a projector throwing these black-and-white images onto a wall.
Romvari has lost two of her three brothers, and the loss still burns — in panic attacks, depression, and in Still Processing itself, not so much a film as a process by which Romvari is maybe seeking closure. A Canadian filmmaker who’s been making shorts for over 10 years, Romvari writes, directs, produces, stars in, and edits Still Processing. She brings to her work a slow, crisp elegance and vulnerability like an open wound, while you know there’s a well of anxiety and trauma lingering just beneath the surface. “There are some things that cannot be said out loud,” she writes to us in subtitles. “I’ve been working on this film for three years. I’m still not sure if it’s finished.”
As with Romvari’s previous shorts, Devan Scott serves as DP here, observing Romvari on the train and in her home with patience and distance; Will Ross edits with Romvari and does the sound, which tactfully leaves in stuff other sound editors would cut — the room tone as she sorts through photographs, the imperfections of speech, and the drone of the train crowd. Kalil Haddad edits as well.
One image that stuck with me from my first viewing is Romvari in that eggshell room, seated beside a wide, bright window, carefully unpacking boxes of childhood photos and her father’s old cinematography equipment. And we cut to the table, to a bird’s-eye shot of a stack of photos, which her hands deconstruct, unspooling around the table, to two, five, 15 photos of her as a kid, her brothers, her cat, their wide eyes and neat haircuts. “Trauma is relative,” she says. Later, home movies show on a screen occupying about a quarter of the frame. The rest of the space is black. Like a darkroom. Or a window. Like they’re just outside. “I wish I could have done more to help you.”
Half of Still Processing is her film; half is its own making-of. She calls her parents, develops the photos, and sits down with her brother, Ben, to look at old videos. We watch the process of trying to remember. Like all of Romvari’s films, the stillness catches you off-guard, because just underneath is a torrent of raging emotion that, if you let it, will pull you under and drown you.
Learn more about Drunken Film Fest here.
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