Founded in Bristol back in 2004, ‘Screentest’ is the UK’s National Student Film Festival. Now based in Southbank University in London, the festival showcases short films from university students across the country. Broken into 7 genre-groups; Drama, Comedy, Documentary, Thriller/Horror, Experimental, Sci-Fi/Fantasy and Animation/Music Video, and with 6 screening areas, there was plenty to experience over the course of the weekend.
While your stereotypical student schlock was present; long shots of the sky, dry acting and tediously minimalist writing, the festival contained some real gems and some real oddballs. Comedy/Drama Hadley TK-421 and Sci-Fi thriller Departure altered our somewhat generalised sensibilities towards ‘student films’ with high production values, impressive writing, excellent acting and expert direction. Meanwhile other seemed to puzzles us: Alice in Space, The Many Faces of Bangers And Mash (simply a cooking show) and Matador, whose cinematography was excellent but mainly consisted of shots of dancing interlaced with a pretty intense sex scene. Not surprisingly that won the Audience Choice award. But after sitting through around 16 hours of film, here are our favourites from the festival:
Quizmaster (Sam Haire, University of Bristol)
Comedy is a difficult genre for any filmmaker and screenwriter to genuinely nail. With its heavy reliance on the comedic tastes of the audience, creating a film that accommodates the multiplicity nature of humour is a complex and constantly challenging one. Sam Haire’s Quizmaster managed to balance a simple story with smart, witty writing and memorable performances. The short follows a relentless pub-quiz host as he attempts to humiliate his contestants and retain his “god-like” status. However he soon meets his adversary in the form of shady, wine-drinking ‘stranger’ who seems to know all the answers. Writers Marcus O‘Toole and Euan Ferguson have constructed a script purely focused on comedy rather than attempting to intertwine every genre, which so many of the entries endeavoured to do. There’s a certain Sherlock Holmes ‘Battle of Wits’ that definitely comes through the clever script and the entertaining acting. The exaggerated performances from Anthony Miles ‘The Quizmaster’ and Jack Bailey playing ‘The Stranger’ really bring an enthusiasm and sharpness to the film. Coupled with the quick editing and first-class cinematography, Haire’s technical composition has an intensity and fast-paced character that works well with the strong narrative writing.
Meet Me on the Hill (Gavin Foden, University of Westminster)
The ‘Drama’ genre was the most saturated category at the festival and after sitting through 6 hours of shorts, certain narrative themes and plot elements were constantly on show. However Gavin Foden’s take on the ‘coming-to-terms-with-the-death-of-a-loved-one’ story-line was one of the more impressive and memorable ones. Meet Me on the Hill follows a homeless women struggling on the streets of London. She finds a glimmer of hope and companionship in the form of an old friend, Father Christmas. It’s definitely an unusual premise, but an engaging one that’s invaluably helped by Bill Hutchen’s charismatic performance and great beard, as the down-to-earth Saint Nick. Exploring themes of suicide, homelessness and loneliness, Stephen Monger’s writing is inevitably an uncompromising and depressing affair. Yet smart dialogue and some light-hearted moments add charm and humour to the drab locations and dark tones. The final scene perfectly brings a satisfying note that doesn’t further flood the picture with more ambiguity and allows the characters and visual imagery to carefully conclude the film.
Red Letter (Tom Marshall, University of Westminster)
Directed by Tom Marshall, Red Letter managed to tick all the right boxes with an interesting concept, good acting, good camerawork and an engaging storyline. It follows some conventional horror staples; the main character isolated in unfamiliar surroundings, here a London boy adjusting to life in a village in rural Wales, a seemingly polite but inherently creepy old woman, with the rest of the community ignoring said women’s creepiness to the bemusement of the lead character. However, compared to a lot of films within the festival, particularly those in the horror category, the production values of Red Letter are surprisingly high. The film manages to mimic Let the Right One In’s foreboding atmosphere, and the feeling of impending doom, as the film’s restrained surface might at any moment crack to reveal the horrors beneath. Not to reveal any spoilers in case anyone reading manages to catch this short film, but the ending is an intriguing one and certainly leaves the viewer with one or two interesting questions after the film has finished.
Callum (Michael Van Der Put, University of the Arts, London)
A well-made, edgy drama directed by Michael Van Der Put, which was one of the strongest films of the festival and was unfortunate to miss out on the award for best drama. It follows a boy dealing with the accidental death of his girlfriend, as an abusive group of thugs assaulting the girl accidently pushed her onto the tracks into the path of an oncoming train. Callum has a real grit to it, reminiscent of the work of Shane Meadows, yet it’s also beautifully filmed and has some great performances. The film accurately conveyed the pain of losing someone you love. Whilst other films in this category had perhaps more imaginative ideas, few managed to match this film’s coherency, structure and emotional heft. Having recently graduated from the University of the Arts London Van Der Put is certainly one to watch.
Overall, Screentest is steadily growing in scale and continues to build a strong community relationship with upcoming filmmakers and the UK Film Industry. With Q&A sessions with BAFTA Short winner John Maclean (Pitch Black Heist) and director Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls and Made in Dagenham), it is clear that Festival Directors Chris Nunn and Nic Sanchez have invested time and dedication to create a highly enjoyable and rewarding festival. For aspiring film-makers and film fanatics, Screentest provides a great opportunity to get exposed and see some of Britain’s “future” film talent. And with a day ticket costing £5, why not have a gander?
Jack Singleton & Edward Haynes