In movies like Blade Runner, Strange Days and The Matrix, the future always seems to be happening in derelict areas of industrial rain-lashed cities. It seems appropriate, then, that the Glasgow Short Film Festival should exploit such spaces in its on-going mission to pioneer not just new short works, but also new modes of watching films.
Glasgow Short Film Festival ****
Various venues, Glasgow
Celebrating its tenth anniversary edition over the weekend, Scotland’s best annual showcase for short-form filmmaking certainly had its eye on the future when it transformed a dimly lit, former snooker hall in Glasgow’s Chinatown into a virtual reality movie house.
Crumbling plasterwork, exposed piping and a fading poster behind the bar of snooker legends Steve Davis, Terry Griffiths, Tony Meo and Dennis Taylor gave the Joytown Grand Electric Theatre the playful tech-noir vibe of an abandoned space repurposed for illicit activities – something enhanced by the fact that the virtual reality (VR) experience itself was housed in a curtained-off area at the back of the blacked-out hall. With participants sitting on swivel chairs and wearing VR goggles with headphones attached, it was a curious mix of low and hi-tech, but once plugged in, VR’s potential as a fully immersive cinematic experience did become a little clearer.
Among the films screened was Scotland’s first VR short, The Circuit, a documentary about Ayr races showcasing a typical day in the life of a working jockey. Though the film didn’t put you on the horse, it did allow you to move 360 degrees around the environment, so within each scene you effectively become the cameraperson, with the freedom to choose where to focus your attention – something that can make for unsettlingly voyeuristic viewing if you happen to miss the entire race because you’re too easily distracted people-watching.
Other films screened included a narrative short about an android entitled I, Philip (in tribute to Philip K Dick) and Indefinite, a documentary that attempted to use VR in a meaningful way to highlight the uncertain plight of refugees caught up in the British detention system. Thought the overall experience still feels like a novelty, it’s going to be interesting to see where this all leads.
Of course one of the arguments against pursuing fully immersive cinema is that film is already a pretty immersive, interactive artform, one frequently enhanced by communal ways in which we experience it. That was reinforced on Saturday night with the return of A Wall is a Screen, a mobile pop-up cinema that projects films onto the sides of buildings. Last at the festival in 2015, the Hamburg-based collective that run it led more than 100 film fans on tour of the Merchant City and beyond, screening site-specific works on the sides of shipping containers, parking garages, apartment blocks and Glasgow’s oldest pub, The Old College Bar.
The films screened, each just a few minutes long, highlighted the weird, unpredictable energy of a city after hours. And with the rain teeming down and the crowd moving through yet more derelict spaces, it also functioned as a reminder that film’s expansive and escapist qualities will ensure its future for a long time to come.