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Northern Lights

London premiere of "Stingers", digital shorts fostered by Northern Film and Media (20/1/09)

There was no sign of Cleo but de cinq a sept seems now to have become the time when regional film agencies visit their latest wares on the movers and shakers of the metropolitan media milieu. I was glad to have attended the showcase presented by Newcastle-based Northern Film and Media of some of the latest digital shorts from their 'Stingers' scheme, co-funded by the UK Film Council, in the suddenly busy and bustling rendez-vous of BAFTA(the British Academy of Film and Television Arts,no less) on Piccadilly. At last, BAFTA has transformed itself into a successful haven for professionals, to meet and greet and screen and plan future productions. On Tuesday evening, 20th January 2009,every corner of its building on one of England's most elegant and celebrated streets seemed filled. The British equivalent of Hollywood's Academy, BAFTA may be better known for its televised awards ceremonies, the film event cunningly held before the 'Oscars', but it is a permanent power-house of talent and networking.The smaller of its two auditoria, the Run Run Shaw Theatre, was packed for the presentation of four fiction shorts, produced on grants of around £10,OOO each I think. Over the past six years, Northern Film and Media has invested nearly half a million pounds in making 66 such 'Stingers'.

The short can be a wonderful training-ground for director,writer, producer as well as actor, and a calling card for all their talents, but at its best it can and should be a work of art in itself, complete and coherent like a short story. After the collapse of the Eady Levy here, shorts are almost never shown now in public cinemas in the UK, and rarely in art-houses abroad. Very occasionally one may flit onto a late-night TV channel as a filler(I accidentally found some dedicated cable/satellite network recently which programmes only World Shorts, but until they send me a press release I am not going to mention it more).

The Clermont-Ferrand film festival in regional France (where else?) is about to explode with its annual cornucopia of new works from around the globe, and later will come Oberhausen - film festivals are the only welcoming refuge for the short film today (I draw a veil over YouTube, even though you can find me there currently interviewing some promising young British thespian by the name of Christopher Lee). However first Cannes then the Berlinale changed their way of programming shorts, now lumping them all together into a couple of hours-long selections, invariably projected during the hottest matinee of the festival when everyone is on the beach (not in Berlin of course) so now nobody seems to view even competing, 35mm shorts except friends and immediate family. I suppose the logic behind the short shrift now given to shorts at the bigger festivals is that "people come late"- the duration of a short allowed festivaliers to stow their coats in the cloakroom, or smoke a last cigarette before being ushered in to the feature, which was what they really wanted to see. But what a marvellous premiere it was for a young film-maker to have his debut work presented before an international audience of 1300- or 2300- professional viewers, when deftly paired as a curtain-raiser to the newest film by Truffaut, Fellini, or Schlesinger. Apparently,one of the new 'Stingers'- which was not previewed in London-has been selected to compete in the Berlinale next month, so I hope I shall see not just its maker and his mother at its screening there.

These new shorts may be regional, but they are certainly not provincial. The territory of Northern Film and Media extends beyond Yorkshire but not quite to the wilds of Scotland, so you can just about understand the English and the accents. Newcastle is a thriving port and cit in our North-east; it has an airport, and good train links - indeed, several of the film-makers attending were going off to catch a late-and direct-train home from Kings Cross after the lively reception of wines and Japanese rice-crackers (no, there was no Brown Ale on offer). All the films shown make good use of Northumbrian light and landscapes,urban as well as rural- indeed,what impressed me most was the quality of the colour photography of all of them, notwithstanding their digital origins.


(9 mins 30-written and directed by Andrew McVicar, produced by Samm Haillay) places a with-drawn teenager (the charismatic Elliott Balchin) on a remote farm and uses a soulful piece of Josef Suk's music to great effect - I could re-title it almost 'The Redcar Spring of Mrs Mirren' but you'll have to see it to understand my allusions.


(directed by Mark Lediard,produced by Chris Chapman) is a darker if flashier tale, with a blind sage duping an apparent boozy wife-beater, with a classic twist at the end.


( directed by Ripon-born Ashley Horner,co-producer Karl Liegis) is a witty piece of a literary road-sweeper,in a marvellous contraption loaned from the Council,penning an urban poem.

(19 minutes 47 seconds,written and directed by Ian Cottage, produced by Steve Bowden) is cleverly set on the Finnish coast (but convincingly filmed nearer Sunderland I suspect) to which a father and small daughter come for a holiday idyll that soon turns into a waking nightmare.Atmospheric music and the brooding presence of a fine Estonian actor show how husbanding modest resources cleverly means that a small budget does not have to limit the imagination of the film-maker.This should prove a natural selection for film festivals specialising in the fantastique.

All the films deserve wider viewing and just as a short film has all the needs of a feature in miniature, I am sure the skills and flair displayed here will make their way into bigger pictures soon.

Phillip Bergson


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