Like many other film festivals, the Norwegian Short Film Festival last year had to be conducted digitally. The same applies to this year's edition, but in addition, the festival will arrange physical screenings both in the host city Grimstad and in cinemas and cinemas nine other places in the country. In other words, the corona pandemic has forced creative solutions at the festivals, which in fact has also made it easier for the public to seek them out.
Two years ago, the Short Film Festival stopped showing long documentaries, rather than refining its profile as a short film festival. And since the festival has its own competition program consisting of both Norwegian and international short documentaries, the documentary genre is by no means neglected.
Short films give filmmakers a great deal of freedom, while feature films tend to be more bound by dramaturgical conventions. Within the short format, however, it may be worthwhile to strive for a certain noble simplicity. This may be especially true for short documentaries, which with a clearly defined approach and a limited spotlight can say a lot about the topic in question. Several good examples of this can be found in the documentary program at this year's short film festival.
The fish that disappears
Among these is the British-made one Stolen Fish, directed by Gosia Juszczak. This half-hour film portrays three people in Gambia – one of Africa's smallest countries, which is largely dependent on fishing. A Greenpeace conference early in the film outlines several of the challenges in the country, after much of the fishing business has been taken over by international companies that export fish to China and EU countries. There it is used to produce fishmeal which is used for animal feed in industrial agriculture. Through the three personal portraits, the film provides insight into the consequences this has for Gambians, in the form of overfishing, higher prices and less access to fish in the local markets. This has resulted in increased poverty, which means that a high proportion of the population finds themselves forced to embark on the perilous journey to Europe, hoping to provide income for their families from there.
Stolen Fish thus illuminates global conditions based on individuals – or characters, as they are often called in movies. This is not only typical of short documentaries, but of the film medium more generally. Any system criticism is most often formulated by portraying individuals who are influenced by what the film will discuss. This approach follows more or less from the visual, narrative and dramaturgical means of the film medium, and Stolen Fish shows in an excellent way how powerful such an individualization of complex issues can be.
Courtroom drama without main characters
Norwegian Thomas Østbyes Everyone has the right to, which is also a half-hour-long documentary, in turn takes a more direct system perspective. The film is about the climate lawsuit in which Norwegian environmental protection organizations sued the state claiming that permits for further oil extraction in the Barents Sea are in violation of Article 112 of the Constitution – also called the environmental section. More specifically, the film follows the appeals in the Borgarting Court of Appeal in 2019 and the Supreme Court the following year, both of which ended with the acquittal of the state.
The Stolen Fish contains a scene from a conference to put the viewer into the issue, Østbye's film consists exclusively of material filmed during the tort cases (the last of which takes place digitally). The film also has no clear main characters, but presents excerpts from the various parties' contributions and proceedings, in a rather uncompromising form of observational documentary. However, this does not mean that the film is perceived as completely neutral. In any case, it is obvious that the filmmaker has a sharp and present gaze, which also captures small talk during the breaks during the trials and various telling details.
The Fish chair shows how powerful an individualization of complex issues is
On one level works Everyone has the right to as an important documentation of this historical trial. Through its largely basic concept, the film is at the same time able to highlight an overall system perspective that all too often remains a backdrop in films. This somewhat narrow approach is also excellent for the short film format, while a longer film would almost require following some of the people involved more closely.
Neither of the two documentaries mentioned leaves much hope for sustainable development. Rather, they remind us of how depressing far away we are from sustainability, on many levels.
Reconstructing terrorist attacksAlso a recent film I would like to draw from the program is about a serious topic, namely the terrorist attack in Brussels in 2016. The 15-minute long Maalbek by Ismaël Joffroy Chandoutis is an intimate story about a survivor of the bombing of the subway station of the same name as the film. However, she suffers from memory loss associated with the incident, and Maalbek is a subdued and partly poetic rendering of her attempt to form a picture of what happened. Like several recent documentaries, the film uses animation, but also various video recordings as well as reconstructions of telephone conversations with others involved.
Maalbek is a very strong film, which can serve as a reminder that one should also not underestimate the film medium's potential to tell personal and subjective stories. And with the openness for empathic understanding and empathy of the spectator – also in documentaries with current and political themes.
For the record: The undersigned sat on the pre-jury for the Norwegian music video program for this year's edition of the Short Film Festival.
The short film festival is arranged 9-13. June, both as a digital festival and with cinema screenings in the host city Grimstad and nine other places around the country.