Smartphone filmmaking is now a growing trend amongst filmmakers, particularly since the critical and financial success of Tangerine (2015) by Sean Baker. His debut feature film about a black transgender sex worker in LA was entirely shot on iPhone. The film achieved what would have been seen as impossible a few years ago: it made it into some major international film festivals including Sundance, and its rights were bought by Magnolia Pictures so the film could be commercially released.
The 1st edition of the Walthamstow Smartphone Film Festival, organised by the local film club the ‘Last Frame’ and Cheap Cuts Short Doc Fest and held at Centre17, was a roaring success at a local level. The idea behind the festival was to showcase a selection of short films under 5 minutes, all shot with a smartphone. About 25 films competed in three different categories: Women & Community, Amateur Short and Professional Short.
The evening started with a Community Showcase and the projection of films made by ‘The Rainbow Collective’. ‘The Rainbow Collective’ is a documentary production and training company founded by Hannan Majid and Richard York, and two of their short animated films made by the young children training at the collective were screened, focusing on social issues and human rights through the eyes of the young filmmakers. The first one was a stop-motion animation revolving around a young boy and his father having to go to the food bank in Peckham. The re-creation of Rye Lane in cardboard was impressive, featuring every single building on the street including the famous Peckhamplex cinema. I was amazed by their creativity and resourcefulness, considering the fact that most of them had no prior filming experience. The second film was also a stop motion animation, inspired by a poem about second generation Windrush children, to celebrate Black History month. They had animated a boat transporting those who had left everything behind to move to England, re-creating the movement of the sea with paper. The visuals married every word of the poem.
The showing of The Rainbow Collective’s projects was followed by the screening of five diverse short films as part of the Community Showcase. While the majority tackled more politically explicit issues – the murder of Melita Jo, a homeless woman in Walthamstow; gentrification in London; interviews with Berni Callaghan, the first Black woman to be elected Deputy Mayor of Cambridge – the last piece to be shown was lighthearted documentary about Vasileios Burlos, a quirky dog groomer working in Notting Hill.
The Community Showcase was followed by the second strand of the evening: Animation & Documentary. From a stop-motion 3D animation about a young boy trapped in the torment of the Holocaust, to an animated documentary about voice hearing, or a piece about homelessness in America, every single film was phenomenally creative and unique in its own way. I particularly enjoyed the last film screened in this section, ‘Womxn’. It was an English-language satirical film made by French filmmakers Adrien Gystere Peskine and Eden Tinto Collins, on the theme of police violence against black people. The story revolved around a superwoman (played by Eden Pinto Collins herself) who comes to rescue a young black boy brutalised by the police. The visuals were an original mix of live action and animation, almost as if the film was designed to look like a video game. It was trippy and somehow fun, tackling a difficult issue in a light-hearted way. However, the film ended on a more serious note – as the filmmakers reminded us, in real life there is no superwoman that comes to rescue black people brutalised by the police.
The third strand of the evening was dedicated to 8 Professional Shorts. Some filmmakers really played with the possibilities offered by smartphone filmmaking, embracing its aesthetics to fully incorporate them into the story. A phone became a security camera in a street, or a mean of communication during a heist. It was tough to pick a favourite, but two films in particular stood out for me.
The first one was ‘The Combustibles’ by Jon Callow, a gripping piece about a heist told entirely through text messages. I was amazed how there was no need to see the characters for the story to grab the viewer’s attention. The filmmaker had the camera moving across the screen and blue lines to represent the fingers typing in order to make it more dynamic, turning the mobile device into the ‘main character’ of the film.
The Combustibles by Jon Callow.
The second was ‘Bubbles Don’t Lie’, by Stephan Etrych, a hilarious Czech short film about small bubbles suddenly appearing above people’s heads across the world. Each bubble had a different number for everyone, some high and others low, and no one knew what the bubbles meant or where they came from. Until one day, scientists discovered that the numbers in the bubbles corresponded to people’s number of sexual partners, and comical situations ensued. Despite the image not being of the best quality, the quirky plot immediately immersed me in this bizarre cinematic world.
‘Bubbles Don’t Lie’ by Stephan Etrych.
The fiction showcase was followed by the awards ceremony. As a reflection of the simplicity of the festival, there were no big announcement or building of suspense à la ‘Academy Award’. The winners of the ‘Amateur Short’ category were Steven Frasier with ‘What It Feels Like’ – the animated documentary about hearing voices – and Ahmed Tag M. with ‘14th Aug 201: Future’, a poetic and reflective documentary about a young man living in the Middle-East, discussing his hopes and fears for the future. The winner of the ‘Professional Short’ category were Adrien Gystere Peskine and Eden Tinto Collins with ‘Womxn’. Finally, the winner of the ‘Women & Community’ category was Naima Isla with her film ‘Dare to Dream’ about Berni Callaghan, the first Black woman to be elected Deputy Mayor of Cambridge. It was refreshing that the Walthamstow Smartphone Film Fest organised awards in categories according to filmmakers’ experience rather than genre (fiction, documentary or animation), allowing less-experienced filmmakers to compete against people at the same level.
‘Dare to Dream’ by Naima Isla, winner of the Women & Community award.
The award ceremony was followed by a panel discussion on DIY filmmaking featuring the festival judges: Paul and Liza Fletcher (founders of the Walthamstow Film Festival), Richard Clarkmac (founder of Radiant Circus), Richard York (co-director of The Rainbow Collective), and Nuala O’Sullivan (director of the Women Over 50 Film Festival). The illuminating discussion ranged over the opportunities and limitations the rise of DIY filmmaking is giving rise to, Walthamstow’s own forgotten history of filmmaking (it used to be home to four major film studios of the silent film era that produced classic films such as The Battle of the Somme (1916) directed by Geoffrey H. Malins), and the real world power of smartphone films as being used to document and evidence real world events as well as framing fiction.
The Walthamstow Smartphone Film Festival was a statement of how the film industry is evolving. As it was the 1st Edition of the festival, it showed how more festival directors and critics are starting to embrace a non-traditional approach to filmmaking. The film industry is gradually being forced to change as it cannot ignore the arrival of new technologies, and DIY filmmaking is slowly liberating cinema from the elitism dominating the industry. Of course, a smartphone cannot re-create the image quality of professional cameras. However, it allows more people than ever to create and mediate. Anyone owning a smartphone can tell a story, and the possibilities that opens up are truly exciting. And who knows? Maybe the BAFTAs or the Academy Awards will soon have their own ‘smartphone film’ category. In terms of widening access, it would certainly be a step in the right direction.
Words by Iris Jaouen