Does film have the power to change society? With Ken Loach’s latest film, Sorry I Missed You now in cinemas, this seemed to be a very pertinent question when considering this selection of short films entitled Collective Consciousness. Co-hosted by the Cyrenians, it was clear from the start that there was an agenda: these films were intended to expose human rights abuse and exclusion, and to provoke discussion.
One theme threaded throughout the films was the right to life. The screening began with a historical drama, Qui Vive, set in First World War Belgium, when a visitor to a farm poses a major threat to a young woman – and her unborn child. In the next, titled The People Under the Bridge, the eponymous subjects of this Australian documentary are threatened with eviction from their makeshift homes in a suburban park in Sydney.
The UN Declaration of Human Rights talks of the right to housing, as well as the most basic right: to life. When the subjects of the film are asked, towards the end, if they have a motto in life, for many it is the latter right which they focus on. When one says their motto is “to be me,” they sum up just what Human Rights should be about.
The film Unregistered presented a dystopian future in which not everyone has a right to life. A highly-enforced system of one-child-per-family presents a dilemma for those born as twins.
Being in the Wee Red Theatre at Summerhall, with seating reminiscent of a lecture theatre, if it felt to any that we were being lectured, for those around me I could hear how each film was stimulating thought and discussion. As I’ve said of the Edinburgh Short Film Festival before, the programme is always varied. There’s enough light and shade, even within a ‘heavy’ selection.
Two very short films allowed some relief: a hilarious cartoon about how some in society are self(ie) obsessed, and another extraordinarily-made and moving animation about a whale trying to rescue a ship-wrecked caged bird. When the song-bird inevitably drowns, its soul flies into the friendly whale, giving it a voice. A metaphor of compassion and empathy, and a stunning piece of art.
There isn’t room for me to mention all the films (listed below) but the final offering, Deleted, was the most powerful, and the subject for the post-screening discussion. Director Stephan Pierre Mitchell, with Ali Kerr of the Cyrenians, and EIFF Ambassador Jamie Robson were led by EIFF Director, Paul Bruce, in a revealing discussion that posed the question at top of this review.
The answer, as Ali Kerr pointed out, proved to be a resounding ‘yes’ in the light of Ken Loach’s early TV film, Cathy Come Home, which famously resulted in the setting-up of charities for the homeless. Whether Loach’s current film will have the same impact on the injustices of zero-hour contracts, who can say? Or, for that matter, his recent I, Daniel Blake, which is a fictional account of the harsh truth told in Mitchell’s Deleted – the devastating impact of suspending and sanctioning benefits to those whose right to a job has been compromised.
A fly-on-the-wall documentary, the film follows Ahmed Siddiqi, an articulate, educated, and characterful man who is down on his luck. “We need to be treated with humanity,” he says: “not computerisation.” And yet he is philosophical about his situation, even if he is caught up in a system that is wrecking society by treating people merely as numbers.
The statistics that appear in the film tell the hard facts: that 92,000 people are evicted per year due to benefits suspensions, and 597 people die as a result. Throughout the film, as we follow Ahmed, we hope he won’t become one of those numbers.
A wave of sadness came over the room when the film’s credits showed this to be true. But as one audience-member said, while we may be motivated, how do we reach those who are not motivated to attend these films? There are two problems, it seems. Not everyone likes this sort of gritty realism; also, those who really should be watching them can simply ignore them, or dismiss it as simply fiction, as was done with I, Daniel Blake.
Jamie Robson spoke from a film-theory point of view, saying that leaving space for ambiguity by blending fiction and drama is important, since the ‘final cut’ is then in the hands of the audience. Continuing a relationship with the audience is essential for creating a call to arms; “it’s more about empathy than sympathy.”
As Mitchell said of his film, it looked directly into the character’s eyes; there was no sugar-coating. “If they don’t want to watch it, turn it off.” He went on to say that it might not create great change, but might cause a spark. This was furthered by Ali Kerr, who pointed out that easy access to films has an effect: “Things change by people talking about it.” She went on to say that arts do have a role to play, “Even if politicians rubbish it, people are talking.”
Hopefully Deleted and other films from this evening will reach a greater audience, including those who need to hear the truths they reveal. As Ahmed, in Deleted, says: “we might start as a whisper, but we can end up roaring if we work together.” For now, festivals like Edinburgh Short Film Festival, and Take One Action, play an important part, and whisper a message of hope.
QUI VIVE Anaïs Debus
THE PEOPLE UNDER THE BRIDGE Andrew Seaton
THE BIRD & THE WHALE Carol Freeman
UNREGISTERED Sophia Banks
SELFIES Claudius Gentinetta
AVARYA Gokalp Gonen
LIFE! Ramesh Jai Gulabrai
GOLD FISH Fish Wang
DELETED Stephan Pierre Mitchell