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Manchester International Film Festival Film Festivaling from Home

We review MANIFF's 2021 festival, which successfully transferred from staging a series of films in physical venues to an online event.

“So, the show must go on” - a year-defining phrase with a particular resonance to the entertainment industry. The Manchester International Film Festival (MANIFF) did manage to go on, successfully transferring from a physical series of films staged in venues into an online event. It took quite a bit of planning by the Festival Director Neil Jeram-Croft and his team.

Filmocracy for the People

Upon entering the MANIFF area of the Filmocracy hub, which was selected as the event platform, the homepage shows a group of buildings to select from. For this year's event, there were three themed theatres: Narrative Features, Documentary and Shorts. Other virtual rooms served for Q&A areas and a hub for filmmakers.

The occasion embraced films from animation to comedy and short to full-length feature films, and the content was procured from all around the world, making it a truly international occasion.

Personally, I encountered some issues regarding navigation of the technology, despite familiarity with now-ubiquitous apps like Zoom and Teams. For example, if you selected a theatre when there was no film timetabled, all you were presented with was a blank screen, which didn't tell you when the next series of shows would be available - and returning to the homepage proved fiddly. But once you’ve solved a few of the little quirks, such as “sitting at a table” in the filmmaker hub, then things go a lot smoother.

One exemplary feature is the response of the Filmocracy staff. There is a “live chat” feature, which can bring dread into one's heart when a patron of consumer websites, thinking you're going to be there for half an hour before anybody will respond. This team will respond within 30 seconds and, if needed, will use screen sharing tech to resolve the issue. When there was an issue with one film having no sound, within five minutes of being flagged up they’d rescheduled the film for an hour later.

The worst mistake to make is to fail to realise that it is not Video on Demand (VOD). So if you see the pause button underneath the screen and decide you need a brew, you may come back to find you’ve missed the end of a film that you’ve been sitting through for over an hour. The reason for the live feed is the filmmakers’ concern about piracy of their works. So when you press ‘play’, it merely takes you to the live stream, rather than resuming from where you thought it was paused. It pays to check if the pause button is being used.

So there were some technical issues with going online, but it was that or nothing, and Filmocracy works very hard to provide the necessary support to try and ensure any issues, which inevitably arise, can be addressed and managed.

We Like Short Shorts

The event itself covered a multitude of different types of films. In some cases, it was nice just to drop in onto the shorts to get a quick flavour. At five to 20 minutes in length, the shorts gave enough time for a quick sample of a filmmaker’s style, and there were vastly differing but effective approaches. Some producers have a ‘less is more’ approach to dialogue (Going Country, Dir. Philip Stevens), whilst Doughnuts (Dirs. Liam White and Larry Ketang) is full of sparking dialogue.

Doughnuts is based around a competition whereby a group of people sit around and each one has to make three statements: two truths and one lie. The others then try and guess the lie. The knack is not about the ‘big lie’, but rather twisting truths slightly so that the boundaries between the truths and lies are slightly blurred. Which would you choose between: “I've just pushed somebody under a bus,” “I've got nine toes,” and “I had toast for breakfast this morning”?

The simple premise allows much fun and black humour to shine through. Shot in one day in a scout hut, it illustrated some of the constraints of working with limited budgets and resources. When the film crew turned up the heating in the hut, all the pipes and radiators began to rattle, ruining the sound. Consequently, they had to turn the heating off and, as this was filmed on a cold winter's day, some of the actors went home and brought back some plug-in radiators and blankets.

Although the actors were mainly sourced from local amateur dramatics groups, there were some excellent performances; the director of another MANIFF film asked for an actors’ contact details during the Q&A sessions that followed each selection of films. The Q&As were always informative and illuminating, frequently revealing how everyone mucks in on all the tasks to keep costs down.

2025 Long Hot Winter

2025: Long Hot Winter film still, as screened at MANIFF 2021

MANIFF

Big Characters and Bigger Names

We all seem to know some ‘characters’ or ‘life and soul of the party’ types, but rarely do they get to show their talent. Another short is 2025: The Long Hot Winter (Dir. Jake Lancaster), which is based on climate change to the extent London experiences one of the hottest days of the year. The actors were recruited from various generations and demographics; OAPs, teenagers, middle-aged, and yuppies. The OAPs lived in a local care home and the director asked if, with no acting experience at all, they wanted to appear in the film. They were rewarded with one of the funniest lines about being able to go topless sunbathing in the back garden at Christmas. Brian Eno is credited with the voiceover.

It’s not always about unearthing new talent though, as actors will always follow a decent script. John Simm, famous for high-profile shows like Life on Mars and Doctor Who, but still appeared in Joey (Dirs. Andrew Knott and William Ash), alongside Andrea Lowe.

For only a 15-minute short, Joey touches on many difficult modern-day experiences. When we’re all more connected, we expect happiness as standard, but where’s the isolation, loneliness, and outcast feeling supposed to reside? Joey provides one view on how we’re not always alone.

Mixed in with all the features were Covid-19 influenced selections (Grandma, Dir. Noah Chebouli), snapping watchers back into the current situation.

Joey film still

A still from Joey, which was screened at MANIFF 2021

MANIFF

Dial D for…

It’s not all serious stuff though, as shown in 1-800-D-Direct (Dir. Clare Macdonald). The official description for this film is, “Joyce and Frances work at 1-800-D-Direct, the latest and greatest dishwasher sales company in 1960s Manhattan. But when a customer is given the wrong data, the women must navigate her out of a life or death situation.”

That may be what the owner of the sales company thinks his almost-all-female staff are doing with all the phone enquires, but the women operators are referencing another “d” – an item of male appendage. All sorts of “models” in various sizes are recommended to the callers. Instead of machine brochures, telephone directories have been annotated with various “sizes” of the name of the domestic appliance. A misspelled name and a mishap with sizing later, and the drama is set for the smutty fun to unfold.

More abstract musings are on display in Souls on Hold (Dir. and starring Rachael Baskerville). Imagine a soul who wakes up in a human body, in a clinical environment, unsure how they got there. They pick up a phone in the room only to be put on hold by a strange, cosmic operator, who eventually has to hard sell the concept of life on earth. Any fans of the comedy sketch by Bob Newhart in which Walter Raleigh tries to sell tobacco as the next big thing to a sceptical audience – “What? You set fire to it?” – will enjoy chuckling away to this.

Souls on Hold

Souls on Hold film still, as screened at MANIFF 2021

MANIFF

Drama Set Near and Far

With Misha (Dir. Brian Song; Writers: Thomas Hill, Peter Demas and Brian Song) we are given a tale of perseverance and determination to uncover how two planes collided over what was the USSR and all 178 people on board both planes died.

In those days of the Iron Curtain, and the associated news blackouts, with the absence of the modern day camera in a pocket via a mobile phone, getting any details on what would now be considered a major incident was unlikely. However, the quest of those affected for knowing what happened, and why loved ones died, proved to be too great for even the Soviet authorities ignore.

Director Brian Song, who also contributed to the writing, strips back the many layers to show the impact of the disaster on the community - especially the anguish, love and warmth that’s freely on show.

With Material Bodies, director Dorothy Allen-Pickard provides, “A visceral and empathetic exploration of people’s relationship with their prosthetic limbs.” It’s elegant and at times balletic in execution.

Apart from getting to grips with some of the navigation around the website, the extensive library of films available over the duration of the festival could, perhaps, have been staggered across the day, rather than tending to have the same starting times. Looking back across the listings, it’s hard not to regret missing films such as 3 Minutes of Silence, which shows how a boxing gym in Moss Side, Manchester, can provide an environment for friendships to develop.

And finally...

One positive benefit of going online was that at the end of each session there was a general Q&A. That facilitated all the directors and representatives from the films, including some writers, to form one virtual Zoom call. The group format enabled an understanding of how they've approached the various projects, how to recruit actors, and how they've come up with any dialogue.

For those starved of their dose of immersion into another person’s mind and without multiple subscriptions to streaming platforms, the MANIFF was a welcome rescue.

Learn more

A full list of the winners is viewable online:

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